Having spent most of Thursday discovering Stellenbosch and Franschhoek, we conclude the conference week on Friday morning, breaking shortly before lunch. It has been a good week, with Cape Town and South Africa showing their best sides. It has also been a good conference; everybody seems to have enjoyed it. Many of the participants have come up to me and said that the things I have been talking about actually made perfect sense – although I spoke mostly about key ratios and financial statement analysis…
Then, there is only one excursion remaining: an visit to the townships of Langa and Khayelitsha. Most of us have been looking forward to this trip, a sort of chance to see the real South Africa. On the bus we are greeted by Owen Jinka, our special guide for this trip. Owen runs a small business organizing among other things tours to the townships of Cape Town. As it turns out, this is just not visit – as in sitting in a coach passing through, protected by air condition and a shaded window. It is foremost a history lesson, a history lesson about the apartheid system and the cruelty that was embedded in it.
Owen starts by telling us that “I am black, I am not black, I am black.” This may require some explaining: The apartheid system classified people into three categories: whites, coloured, and black people. As in all systems based on inequality in whereas certain people are deemed better than others, the apartheid system was of course toxically flawed when it came to people with mixed ancestry. In the twisted minds of the apartheid engineers, one of the most disturbing question when valuing people was not so much of determining who was white and who was black, but who was enough white not to be black. These people were called coloured. There were many tests the classifiers could use, but one of the more notorious ones was the pencil test. Basically, stick a pencil in your hair and bend forward. If the pencil sticks, you’re black. If it doesn’t, well then you are coloured.
I am not going to dive into the whole history and cruelty of the apartheid system, but let me share with you a few things that must be said regarding apartheid. Firstly, the valuation of people as 10-5-2. If a white person did some sort of work, let us say cleaning a car, he or she would be paid 10 units of money. If a coloured person did the same job – he or she would get paid 5 units of money. And if a black person would do the job, he or she would get just 2 units of money. This valuation of people saturated the whole of South Africa and could be applied to other aspects of society, such as distribution of wealth, education, poverty, life expectancy etc. Whites: 10. Coloured: 5. Blacks: 2.
Secondly, those defined as blacks were not allowed to own land. They were also under strict movement restrictions. Many black men worked in the cities or in factories close to cities, and their families lived in towns in non-rural areas. The men were allowed to visit their families twice a year, usually during Christmas and Easter.
Owen explains how these townships have emerged. After the fall of the apartheid system, many families, if not most, wanted to be re-united. Many families therefore moved from these non-rural areas into the cities, where the men worked. As a result, the townships came about since there were not enough houses.
Life in the townships may be severe, for all kinds of reasons, but for many people the townships with all their flaws and shortcomings and slum-like appearance stand for something good: families re-united and the end of apartheid.
Thirdly, the forgiveness of Nelson Mandela. The apartheid system had de-valuated people for more than forty years. Millions of black and coloured people had systematically been deprived of youth, happiness, wealth, freedom, self-ruling. What revenge could be unleashed? Nelson Mandela said, forgive. We shall forgive the white people for all their wrongdoings. We shall all forgive and put that behind us. We shall overcome this and turn all of our endless possibilities into a great country.
Nelson Mandela was able to do this. Using his personality he conveyed this message to the people and most joined in. There was no civil war, no civil war ten times the size of the Rwanda genocide. Nelson Mandela managed to keep South Africa sane and united as one nation.
Fourthly, Olof Palme. When most western leaders chose not to challenge the apartheid system, Olof Palme did. Olof Palme took on as his mission to tell the world what was going on in South Africa and how this ugly system fogged the happiness of the South African people.
Anyway, we hop on the bus and the first stop is the township of Langa. Among the sheds, we see brick houses. These are government funded, Owen tells us. There is a national programme aimed at providing a house for all South Africans.
We do not stop in Langa but move on to Khayelitsha. But that’s another post.