When Quakers encounter apartheid

"We have orders to take you off this train!" a South African policeman announced to three white Quakers, traveling in the third- class, nonwhite car. An American Friends Service Committee delegation had been traveling in South Africa for three weeks, exploring how apartheid affects the lives of people. Apartheid is the intricate system of laws in South Africa which defines, exclusively on the basis of race, where people may live, work, travel, attend school and, above all, whether they can vote. Blacks, who make up about 70 percent of the population, have no vote. Racism is the law of the land.

Why were we ordered off the train? Our group included three whites and five blacks; it is illegal for black and white to travel together in South Africa. In a society where human contact across racial lines is rare, we treasured the opportunity to be with each other. We felt it was important to refuse to acquiesce to the damaging and immoral separation of people. We believed that we should witness, in a small way, to our belief in the dignity and unity of all humans.

Conductors on the train from Pretoria to Johannesburg requested that the whites move to the "European" car. We declined, stating that we had to be obedient to a "higher authority" rather than to the government. Our reception by blacks in the car was enthusiastic and appreciative. However, at Kaalfontein , we were ordered off the train by the police. Despite our conviction that we were morally right, we felt very apprehensive when we faced the local Commandant of the South African Railway Police. After our explanation we were told: "But of course, you may travel with your friends; I just wish you had told someone in authority first."

We had seen two faces of apartheid: one is the law, resulting in intimidation and risk in overcoming racial isolation; the other is the arbitrary exercise of authority. One man could decide, with no explanation, to waive the law. Many laws in South Africa specifically include a discretionary, arbitrary factor. Trade union rights have been extended to all races; but legal status can be withdrawn from any union with no reasons given. A man can be arrested and detained in prison with no reason given. Restaurants may apply for a permit to serve blacks as well as whites; no reason is given for granting or refusing such permits.

The end of our journey illustrated another aspect of apartheid. We caught another train, close to rush hour. We passed trains with black cars bursting at the seams, people hanging on to the outside of the train. We were aware that accidents have occurred; some people have lost their precarious hold and perished on the tracks. We were shocked to see white cars on the same train with four or five people per car. Apartheid is a set of laws to divide people, enforced in an arbitrary, unpredictable manner; above all, it is a system which causes violence, suffering, and loss of lives.

In our visits with black and white South Africans, we saw and heard of such suffering. The Bantu Education System, which controls education for blacks, is considered so damaging and inferior that one black family drove 80 miles a day so their child could attend a private school which illegally accepted a few blacks with the whites. Massive school boycotts are taking place to object to the system.

We visited in black and white homes and again saw the results of apartheid: white homes had all modern conveniences and comforts; most black homes in Soweto had neither electricity nor inside plumbing. Few roads were paved; soft coal smoke and red dust irritated the eyes and burned the nose. The reality of overcrowding was made vivid when we saw one home in which four people slept in one bed.

Our personal experience with the laws of apartheid, with their discretionary application and above all, with the suffering caused by this system, leads us to renewed efforts to persuade the United States government, corporations, and citizens to exert moral, diplomatic, and economic pressure on the South African government, to end apartheid and accept fundamental change.

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