You don’t need a map or a road sign to know when you enter a homeland, it’s where the shit land begins. The road to Transkei runs next to the Indian Ocean for the first 100 kilometers south of Durban, then turns inland at Port Shepstone. Landscape along the coast is lush green, with Hawaiian-like grasses and sensual plants. As you turn inland, the highway climbs into an area spotted with arid scrubs, much like northern Nevada. Locals live on barren ridge tops in small, round adobe huts under thatched roofs. Another hour’s travel, climate and topography become more severe, something like central Alaska or west Ireland. The scene is tundra-like. I have entered the homeland — pardon me, the independent nation of Transkei.
Transkei is one of four independent homelands and is the white South African solution to race relations. The white government gave a big 13 percent of the total land in South Africa to blacks, 75 percent of its population, leaving a mere 87 percent of the land for whites, 10 percent of its population.
The homeland system was designed to create a South Africa, where, on paper, whites are in the majority. Give blacks a bogus citizenship in a bogus, tiny, improvised piece of dirt. It’s simple and you don’t necessarily have to move anybody; in fact, you don’t have to do anything, just fill out the paperwork and, boom, magic, South Africa is a white country with a lot of foreigners living in it. Under this system, if these instant foreigners now living around white cities get uppity, or if they can’t find jobs, or if it’s Tuesday and you feel like it, why, round them up and relocate them to their homeland. The fact that they might not have ever been in their homeland, might not be able to find it on a map, may be a problem, but it’s a problem for them, not white South Africans. The homeland policy creates an enormous pool of urban job seekers willing to work for absurd wages because there is zero work in homelands. As policy bonus, there’s no sense worrying about social services, decent housing, education, and the rest, because blacks are, after all, transient foreign workers.
South Africa’s government has recently said there will be no more forced removal of blacks to homelands. They have also said there will be one citizenship for all and have abandoned pass laws. They say a lot of things. The fact is that when the government repealed pass laws, blacks living in homelands weren’t included. They remain foreigners.
Three of the four so called independent states are hacked into noncontiguous fragments. Bophuthatswana lies in seven separate pieces spread over three provinces. Transkei has three unrelated appendages. Venda two. Politically, these Frankenstein states outdo even the South African government in repressing their citizens. In Ciskei, Lennox Sebe has proclaimed himself life president. In Venda, we have life president Patrick Mphephu. In Bophuthatswana it is an offense punishable by up to ten years’ imprisonment to violate the dignity of president Luca Mangope. In Transkei it is punishable by death to advocate that Transkei should be part of South Africa or refuse to recognize Transkei as an independent state.
Homelands enjoy the full range of South African security legislation, which includes authority to ban individuals and organizations and to detain anyone without the messy interference of courts or defense attorneys; also, the authority to impose curfews, wiretapping, mass arrests, and fraudulent elections. Typically, a homeland’s army and police are run by South African white officers who live in separate white compounds. Higher ranks frequently receive more compensation than the black president.
About ten miles short of Umtata, Transkei’s capital, I pick up a middle-aged, black female hitchhiker. She’s a schoolteacher returning from a long weekend visiting relatives. We chat about teaching. After a pause she says, “America must be a lousy place.”
“Well, a lot of people think that.”
“Transkei is nice, no apartheid here.”
“That’s good. Your government treats you okay?”
“Oh, yes. They are our people. The Boer doesn’t tell us what to do here.”
We enter Umtata, which has a small, semi-modern downtown, maybe 20,000 people, something like Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. She points right, “Over here is new housing for blacks. It is nice, huh? There,” she points across the street, “is the colored area.” We proceed into town.
“What’s that?” I’m looking at what seems to be a high-school soccer field.
“That is the stadium for whites. Whites live there.”
South of Umtata is the University of Transkei, which looks like a small, modern, American land-grant college. Opposite is a grand compound encased by a 12-foot security fence. The entrance is guarded by soldiers holding automatic weapons. Within the compound are extravagant new houses, extravagant new automobiles.
I ask, “What’s going on in there?”
“Oh, that is where our government ministers live.”
The schoolteacher proves to be a shrewd hitchhiker. Her house is far off the main road, down a series of progressively deteriorating dirt roads, then over an open field. She keeps assuring, “Not much further, not much further.” Finally, after the Golf’s undercarriage has taken a merciless beating, I pull up next to a mud hut. She climbs out, walks away without a nod or a thank you.
A pro to the end. Go, girl.
Back on the highway, I turn south, pick up speed, determined to get out of Transkei before tonight’s curfew sets in. It’s 230 kilometers from Umtata to East London, which is on the coast and inside the Republic of South Africa. Winds have redlined, gusting hard enough to push the Golf over the center line, and it’s raining banshee hell.
I make a hard turn into a bend and, before me, semi visible through the rain, is a border stop. Motherfucker, they’ve got a border stop. This cretinous little homeland, Transkei, has a border checkpoint. South Africa and its creatures ban all sorts of T-shirts, music, movies, TV shows, news, bumper stickers, and so on, but it’s not a big jail deal. A big jail deal is possession of banned articles which are considered to “further the aims of banned organizations” (read: African National Congress). That’s when they start counting off years. I’ve got an easy five sitting in the backseat. Two cartons of banned ANC literature that in a moment of raving fucking delirium I agreed to take from Durban to East London.
More Holiday in South Africa: Part 1| Part 2 | Part 3