Dugmore Boetie was a one-legged con-man who wrote Familiarity is the Kingdom of the Lost, a book about his life experiences as someone on the outskirts of society, in and out of jail, never missing a chance to make a quick buck or trick the authorities. It just so happened that Boetie was doing all this while the foundations of Apartheid were being laid. While it is a book full of comic scenes in which Boetie becomes a serious ‘headache’ to the institutions of a racist state, it also draws attention to the way prejudice infected every aspect of daily life.
This extract describes the struggles he encountered as a black man trying to get a pass to work in the city, and how the experience of having to carry and apply for a pass stripped black people of their dignity. The story shows that, while getting work in the city allowed people to survive, work was not itself a sign of economic freedom but rather a form of control. It helped prop up a racist social order in which black people would remain poor, and only those black people with jobs would be allowed in the city. It shows the impossible situation the black working class faced: people had to take low-paying jobs in order for them and their families to survive.
Author: Dugmore Boetie
In 1948 the Nationalist Government came into power.
There was a big new building at 80 Albert Street. It was simply known as Influx Control. A beehive of black misery. They should have named it Liberty Control. This is where you had to report without the slightest delay after losing or resigning from a job. Failing which, you risked being charged under the Section 29 law, a law carrying a two-year jail sentence.
humiliation To shame or embarrass someone; to take away their dignity. indispensable So valuable that you cannot be replaced. orbit Moving around in a circle around something. forfeit Give up.
The trouble with this house of lawful humiliation is that here you are made to take any job they offer, whether it suits you or not. Here, a black man must take work, not choose work. Remember, never talk back to your employer; you are not indispensable. You’re in orbit around town. Don’t accept employment twelve miles out of town, even if there’s no work to be found where you live; you can lose, or forfeit, all right to live where you’ve always lived. Do not marry a girl who comes from a similar distance because she is regarded as a foreigner; they won’t allow you to live together. If you want to visit relatives, see that your pass is properly stamped. Also, if you want to make some sort of celebration at your home, do not buy livestock to slaughter without getting a special permit from the superintendent. Most important of all, before going to bed at night, make sure that your passbook is either in the pocket of the trousers or the jacket you’re going to wear the following morning.
Influx Control was my destination. I was going there with the hope of getting new employment. As I approached the place, I nearly turned back. Queues a half-mile long were snaking around the four-block building. The Africans were moving in pairs at a snail’s pace. Misery was written on every face, as if they were walking the last mile. Maybe we were, who knew. Most of us were either going to be given twenty four hours to leave the urban area of Johannesburg, or sold to potato farmers for failing to renew work-seeking permits in time. In time? Look at that queue! By the time I reached the small gate so as to get the necessary rubber stamp in my passbook, it would be four-thirty, time for them to close, making me twelve hours behind schedule and liable for arrest by any street policeman who demanded to see my pass.
There’s a tall tale tall tale An untrue or exaggerated story. about the trees of Canada. They say the trees are so high that if you look straight up, it will take you three weeks to see the top. Right here in Johannesburg is a queue like that. Every time you came to that gate, it would be four-thirty. Then they closed it in your face. If you tried to get back by five in the morning, you’d find that hundreds had had the same idea. If you spent the night there so as to be first in the morning, you risked arrest for Night Special.
beeline A direct route travelled very quickly.
Instead of joining the queue at the tail end, I made a beeline for the side entrance. Imagine having to stand in a queue the whole day with only one leg to support you. Clearly this was no place for cripples, respectable or otherwise. The side entrance was guarded by two municipal police, commonly known as Black Jacks because of their black uniforms. You were not allowed to stand on the pavements. The pavement was for Europeans only. Europeans who were looking for servants, or those who were trying to get their servants’ passes in order.
‘What do you want? Why don’t you join the queue?’ asked the Black Jack glaring at me.
‘I’m not here to put my pass in order. I’m here to see the social workers.’
‘What is social worker?’ he asked aggressively.
‘They are on the third floor. They are the people who help cripples.’
‘You mean the doctor?’
‘No! The social workers.’ Not knowing what social workers were caused him to let me go through. I was seven years old when they called me a headache, I suppose I just had to go on being one.
Inside was a hall with a giant horseshoe-shaped counter. Behind the counter were divided cubicles. In each cubicle sat a white clerk. interpreters People who translate speech from one language into another. grille Row of bars. On the hall side, opposite each cubicle, were barroom stools where black interpreters sat. An iron grille divided the interpreters from the white clerks. Nowhere in this vast arena was there a place where the job-seekers could sit. This is where the queue ended.
irregularity Something out of the ordinary; something wrong.
The interpreter would hand your pass through the grille to the white clerk who would take his time studying it. If there was an irregularity, he’d give it back to the interpreter with instructions.
The interpreter would hang on to your pass which you didn’t dare leave without. He’d then shout, ‘Escort!’ Two police would appear and escort you upstairs to the interrogation room. If you fail to give satisfactory answers about why your work-seeking permits are not in order, they conclude that you don’t want to work. You are then given twenty-four hours to get out of Johannesburg. Failing which, they charge you under Section 29. Two years’ imprisonment. And after serving your sentence you still have to get out of Johannesburg.
If you tell them you were sick and couldn’t come into town, they demand a doctor’s certificate. Africans who have money go to private doctors and buy certificates. The best excuse is out. It doesn’t work anymore because too many Africans have used it. It was to tell the authorities that you were mad in the township and that you were treated by a witch doctor. Witch doctors don’t issue certificates.
The procedure is to give you a first job. If you find you don’t agree with your employer because of the wage, or because the work is too strenuous strenuous Hard. vagrant A person without a work or home who moves around from place to place, begging for food and money. or because your baas is just plain mean, as is often the case, they’ll give you a second and third job. If you don’t accept them, they declare you a vagrant by refusing to give you a fourth work-seeking permit.
The best thing to do is to take any work they give you and stick to it no matter what the circumstances are, while you keep your eyes open for a better job. You are bound to get it. The black man is not indispensable. We are a rotating rotating Moving around in a circular way; in this case it means losing a job and being replaced by someone else, who will also lose the job later. labour force. Here, there are no middle-class Africans. Whether you’re educated or not, you are looked upon as an illiterate illiterate A person who cannot read. and treated as such. In this building the worst sufferer is the educated African. If you’ve been a teacher you’ll be offered a job as a gravedigger, or coal-heaver, or a domestic servant.
They hate the sight of an educated African.
parrot Repeat government rules and teachings without thinking about them.
I know an African teacher who was married to a senior nurse. The nurse worked at Coronation Hospital. The teacher resigned from his teaching post because he flatly refused to parrot for the Government. He didn’t believe in channelled ‘Bantu’ education. His beliefs lay in Western education, not in ‘Bush’ education, as he put it. This teacher, or ex-teacher, found himself a clerical job with some private enterprise until he heard of a better-paying job in Germiston, some eleven miles out of Johannesburg. He used to travel in and out by train to his new place of employment. He had only worked there for about a month when he had an argument with the foreman, who fired him on the spot. Back to Influx he went with the view of finding another job, only to be told that he was no longer permitted to seek work in the urban district area of Johannesburg. He was told to go back to Germiston.
When he pointed out to the authorities that his house was in Johannesburg, and that his wife was nursing in a local hospital, and also that he was born in Johannesburg, he was told that it was none of their business. They pointed out that he had violated violated Broken. the rules of Influx by having gone and worked outside Johannesburg, and that if he was found in the city, he was liable to be arrested.
Which he was. He was sold to a potato farmer. When he came back, he found that his wife had misbehaved. This was apparently too much for the ex-teacher. He cracked up.
JC Junior Certificate – a Grade 10 school qualification.
I was limping up the stairs to the social worker’s offices, when I heard the voice of an angry African shouting, ‘Why do you tear up my JC certificate, baas?’
Then the voice of the black interpreter yelling, ‘Escort!’
A social worker escorted me personally to numerous numerous Many. counters. After that, I was shown the way to the doctor. Before getting your first work-seeking permit, you are required to see the doctor. Not your own, but theirs, so as to be declared fit.
As I walked into the consulting room, I mean, hall, a degrading degrading Humiliating; lowering dignity. sight greeted me. Grandfathers, middle-aged men, teenage boys were made to stand naked in rows while a doctor gave their parts a sweeping sweeping Wide, all across. glance. If he doesn’t see a septic pimple on your penis you get a clean bill of health.
I could see old men hurriedly picking up their clothes from the floor and trying unsuccessfully to hide their nakedness by tying the sleeves of their shirts around their waists before putting on their trousers. They would then hurry out to get their work-seeking permits. Father was made to stand naked in the presence of son. The last layer of human dignity was being peeled off.
In this extract from his book, Dugmore Boetie puts his powers of observation to good use. In great detail he shows his readers how the pass system and the Group Areas Act were enforced, how they limited where people could live and who they could associate with. Ask a parent, grandparent or elder about their experiences with pass laws. Were they ever involved in an anti-pass protest? What was it like getting a permit? Were they ever denied one? What was it like getting stopped for their pass? Write down their story.
If you do not know a relative or elder who has experience related to the pass system, write a story in which you imagine what it must have been like to have to carry a pass and to have your movement restricted by it.
Try to include as much detail in the story as Dugmore Boetie has in his.