The COVID-19 Diaries: Dear White People

Okay, I get it, I do. I have two dogs and Husband and I often go for a run on the road to blow off steam or to remind ourselves of how unfit we are, so I get that not being able to leave your home to do those things is frustrating. It’s frustrating to be told what you can and cannot do. It is frustrating to have your freedom of movement revoked by the government. I’m definitely not saying that this is a ‘walk in the park’-okay sorry, stupid analogy. It’s hard, yes. But come on, get a hold of yourself. I mean seriously now, get a grip. And if you want to complain, put things into perspective first, not only because this is a small sacrifice to make for all South Africans, but also it would be wise to remember the very crappy things your forefathers did to people of colour in this country. Trust me, those restrictions were far more heinous than you having to deal with your dog digging up your garden. Hand to heart, the black government is not out to get you. Also, I think that if you took a moment to channel that energy spent complaining into something more fruitful, say reading up on our country’s history, you’d come out the other side of this a better South African.

In case you don’t remember, life was cruel and unjust for people of colour during the dark days of apartheid. It may be day two of the lockdown, but it’s also a week after we celebrated an important day in our history, Human Rights Day. Just the fact that we have a public holiday to celebrate our human rights should be telling in itself, we weren’t always a country that respected human rights. In fact, scratch that, the gross violation of human rights and the right to dignity can’t be labelled under the gentle tones of disrespect. The system of apartheid was far more purposeful and merciless than disrespect. I wondered on the 21st of March whether others saw the irony in facing the day by trying to restrict their movement. Was it not in Sharpeville that protesters fought, shed blood and died, to fight against the Pass Laws set in place to restrict their movement as black people?  But it is callous of me to compare the restrictions we faced both prior to, and during the lockdown, to that faced by people of colour during the apartheid. These restrictions are far too gentle and just, the severity of them pale in comparison.

Of course the apartheid regime did more than restrict movement, this was a regime that constructed clever and cunning ways to dehumanise people of colour- forced removals, making it illegal for families to live together or own land, the raids, the insanity of Bantu education, torture and perhaps the kind release of death if you were unlucky to be imprisoned. I wonder if luck had a face then, and if it was white. There are volumes written about those atrocities, so I won’t belabour the point. Let’s just focus on one particular element of the apartheid’s cruelty, the Pass Laws. Not only did people of colour have to carry around these passbooks, the Dompas (a name fit for people who are ignorant, no better than an animal and less predictable at best), they’d also have to keep it up to date, and were always at the mercy of their Baas who could at any point refuse to update the pass. Imagine that, just on a whim, maybe because you didn’t like the look of one of your workers, you could simply deny him the right to live, basically. Could the black man take you to the police or go to court? Of course not, there was another noose around his neck in the form of a law that prevented him from doing so. On the off chance that he could get an audience with the police, his Baas would probably be commended for setting a good example. Hundreds of thousands of black people were imprisoned yearly when caught without a pass or when their pass was not up to date, many of whom where never seen again. Families were destroyed, men lost their ability to provide for their families- without a pass, it was impossible to work. Children would go hungry, many would starve, their bodies weakened and primed for death when an illness set in. Life in a one room shack was hard, but you could still live through hard. Life without a pass was impossible. A piece of paper worth so many lives, a piece of paper with the power to destroy.

Maybe you’re reading this and wondering what difference it makes now, so many years later. Maybe you don’t like the guilt I’m laying at your feet. Maybe you know people of colour who never experienced these horrors. I would say to you then that those you know are the lucky few, you know the ones who are like you, like me. We are the haves. What of those who fall into the majority of our country, what of those for whom liberation has not brought real freedom? What of those who cannot get work, not because of a law but because of the unconscious bias that propagates the white competence myth? What of those who due to the structural legacies of our passed are still confined, are still restricted?  I can tell you this much, they’re not complaining about not being able to walk their dogs. And maybe, just maybe you should get to know some of them before you do.

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Denira Varma

I am, if nothing else, a perfect example of the dichotomy that exists in every one of us. I seek adventure, yet I long the grace of long days spent reading in a quiet treed spot. I am hedonistic but pragmatic. I long to create yet I burden myself with thoughts that I am not worthy. I started this blog to share part of me, my thoughts and experiences.

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