One of the things that destroyed apartheid was that more and more people stopped obeying its regulations and prohibitions. The same seems to be happening with some of the present government’s lockdown regulations.
Reporting last week on his township network, G G Alcock wrote on BizNews that “this sector doesn’t just want the lockdown to end, they have ended it”. Suburbs and cities were at level 4, but “townships and informal businesses are at level 1”.
Until 1961 it was illegal for black Africans to obtain liquor (other than sorghum beer). Neither the prohibition nor police raids and seizure of liquor stopped the growth of thousands of shebeens, and in 1982 the National Party (NP) government started issuing them with licences.
When the minibus taxi industry got going in the 1970s the government tried to curb its growth to protect the subsidised bus companies, inter alia by roadblocks, arrests, and fines. Legislation was even drafted to “phase” the taxis out. Eventually the government recognized the futility of such policies and declared that competition in public transport was a good thing.
Spaza shops, illegal until January 1989, likewise established themselves despite police harassment, as did pavement hawkers.
Shebeens, minibus taxis, and spaza shops are all examples of entrepreneurship that the NP tried, unsuccessfully, to curtail, control, or even destroy. Some of the restrictions that the minister of trade and industry, Ebrahim Patel, has recently imposed, for example on clothing and footwear, are reminiscent of those gazetted by the practitioners of apartheid. Thus in 1968 it was decreed that black African shopowners in townships in the urban areas would be allowed to open only one shop, and that they could not conduct business “for any purpose other than that of providing for the daily essential domestic requirements of the Bantu residents”.
Mr Patel’s detailed restrictions on clothing and footwear are further reminiscent of some of the previous government’s job reservation laws, including the ones stipulating that black Africans working as bricklayers must not use trowels. There were also restrictions on what type of paving they could lay.
Two of the most restrictive aspects of apartheid were the pass laws and the Group Areas Act. To enforce the former, thousands of people were arrested daily. Down the years huge numbers were incarcerated, and/or deported to the “homelands”. But vast numbers returned, illegally, to the cities. Eventually, in 1986, PW Botha’s government repealed the pass laws on the grounds that they had utterly failed to stop black urbanisation. Dawie de Villiers, Cape leader of the NP, said the laws had been applied “with an iron will under Dr Verwoerd and others, but with no effect”.
The Group Areas Act of 1950 was designed to impose residential and business segregation. Thousands upon thousands of people were forcibly removed from their homes in this process of ethnic cleansing, while black businesses in white areas were forced to close. But by the mid-1980s members of the growing black middle class were moving into white suburbia despite the provisions of the act.
In 1987 the attorney general of the Witwatersrand, Klaus von Lieres und Wilkau, gave instructions for investigations and prosecutions. Two years later he threw in the towel. It was “a logistical impossibility” to prosecute everybody living in a “seriously infiltrated” Johannesburg.
The government had in the meantime started talking of amending the act to allow “free settlement areas…to comply with the realities and practicalities of the times”. Just as with the pass laws, the law was changed to adapt to the fact that apartheid restrictions had become more and more difficult to enforce because people simply stopped obeying them. One Johannesburg estate agent, threatened by a city councillor with prosecution for selling a house in a white group area to Indians, retorted that the councillor would have to hire the Ellis Park stadium for all the prosecutions he would have to conduct.
Several Ellis Parks will be needed to accommodate the 230 000 people charged so far for contravening lockdown regulations – an average of nearly 4 000 a day.
The African National Congress (ANC) and its communist and trade union allies of course believe that their liberation struggle was responsible for the demise of apartheid. But study of the actual course of events shows that economic apartheid simply crumbled thanks to large-scale on-the-ground determined but quiet disobedience by ordinary people.
If Mr Patel and other members of the sinister “national coronavirus command council” paid more attention to this history, they might realise that illegitimate policies become more and more difficult to enforce against economic imperatives, the entrepreneurial instinct, and the will to survive. This is not a theoretical argument about entrepreneurship or market forces or human nature: it is merely a logical inference based upon historical facts.
Economic apartheid was eroded first in practice and the legislation was then amended and even repealed to give de jure recognition to de facto reality. Notwithstanding the command council’s iron fist, we are likely to see a similar process with many of the lockdown regulations, especially those without rational, logical, or morally defensible purpose.
* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. Readers are invited to take a stand with the IRR by clicking here or sending an SMS with your name to 32823. Each SMS costs R1. Ts and Cs apply.