South Africa Without Apartheid: Dismantling Racial Domination
It is extremely difficult to comprehend the reality of apartheid. Despite the South African government’s efforts to shield us from its cruelties, we see evidence of them on television, we hear about them on the radio, we read about them in the daily press. But the realities are so weird, the nuances so complex, that they are utterly remote from American experience, even for those with memories of legally enforced segregation.
Crossing the Line gives a knowledgeable picture of those realities. William Finnegan, a young white American who in his student days had been peripherally involved in the civil rights movement, describes his experiences in 1980 and 1981, when he was employed as a teacher in a high school for Coloured (mixedrace) children in the Cape Peninsula. Here are the perceptions of an outsider temporarily inside a community of victims of apartheid—people whom the government had recently uprooted from their homes in Cape Town’s District Six and relocated on the arid Cape Flats. He becomes close to his colleagues on the school staff, to his pupils, and to some of their families. Because he is an American, he is able to interpret this segment of South Africa and make it intelligible for American readers.
An articulate and sensitive writer, Finnegan conveys the texture of life under apartheid more effectively than even the ablest newspaper reporters, who are obliged to move from incident to incident, theme to theme. He gives a scathing description of the educational system. The racial—as well as sexual—differences were pervasive. As a white male, he earned “nearly 40 percent more than a ‘Coloured’ female colleague, and 30 percent more than a ‘Coloured’ male colleague, with the same qualifications.” The textbooks are full of racist stereotypes and other forms of “racial mischief.” The geography books describe the Group Areas Act (which divides the land into residential and business zones for the separate races) as if it was “as common as industrialization or glacial scraping.” An English grammar had a sentence that read: “All Bantu who had been drinking beer began to fight one another.” Finnegan also deplores the insistence on rote learning; the lack of class discussions; the obsession with examinations; and the frequent resort to corporal punishment. Citing the views of Hendrik F. Verwoerd, the principal architect of the black educational system, he concludes, “We teachers were hired to prepare these children for lives of subservience, pure and simple.”
Initially, Finnegan was impressed by the extent to which the burden of apart-heid institutions and practices seemed to create a sense of normalcy among its victims. There seemed no choice except to acquiesce. Life was a struggle for survival on terms set by the regime. Suddenly, all that changed.
One cool sunny morning in the middle of April everything at Grassy Park Senior Secondary School was summarily turned upside down. The spectators became the actors, the authorities stepped…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.