Jan Smuts with the British Royal Family in South Africa, 1947
I burst into the living room sobbing for my mother. I’d grazed my knee and I figured there was enough blood for sympathy and maybe a treat. But my parents were both huddled in front of the big radio listening intently and they were looking very worried. The man on the radio was talking about election results, listing strings of names and numbers that didn’t mean a thing to me. I was only six after all. My father held up his hand to quiet me down.
I stopped in my tracks, my bloody knee forgotten. Instead a nasty scared feeling crept into my tummy. I remembered now that my parents and their friends had been talking a lot about how important this election was, and how bad things could happen without General Smuts as leader, but I really hadn’t paid much attention. Now I could see by the look on my mom’s face that General Smuts was going to lose!
My mother was a big supporter of General Smuts. She said that even though he was an Afrikaner through and through, he had led the South African troops into battle on Britain’s side in the Second World War, and he was a fine man for doing it. Only the extremist Afrikaners in the Broederbond wanted Germany to win the war! There was nothing wrong with an Afrikaner supporting Britain. After all, the Boer War was long over!
Even though my mother spoke Afrikaans to my Ouma and Oupa, she really loved England and especially the Royal family. My mom had the same round face and plump build as Queen Elizabeth and I think she secretly felt they looked a lot alike! When the Royal family came to South Africa on a State Visit, my aunt’s house was right on their route, and we waited for hours on her upstairs balcony, clutching our Union Jacks, to see the King and Queen and the two princesses being driven by in their big open car. When the car finally flashed past, we all cheered and waved our flags and afterwards my mother swore that Queen Elizabeth had looked right at her and smiled.
Anyhow, watching my mom and dad in front of the radio, I could see I wasn’t going to get any sympathy and I quietly slunk out of the room. Maybe George, our houseboy, would clean up my knee and make me an apricot jam saamie – that’s South African for a sandwich. But I still had that queasy feeling in my tummy. What sort of bad things would happen with General Smuts defeated?
To tell the truth, at first I didn’t notice much of a difference after the election. George still stayed in his quarters at the bottom of the garden and cleaned the house and helped with the cooking and laundry. And if I went to chat with him after lunch, when he sat in the sun in his little courtyard and had a smoke, he still shouted at me in Zulu, “Suka wena, humba!” which pretty much means get lost!
But my dad explained to me that things really were changing, not so much for us, but for all the black people who lived and worked in the cities. General Smuts had wanted to do away with segregation and encourage Africans to come to the cities. He said it would create a bigger work force and that would improve the economy and the living standards for everyone.
But the Afrikaner government wanted all the black people to go back to their huts far away in the country and be completely separated from the white people. I was only six but even I thought that didn’t make any sense! I couldn’t understand how the Afrikaners had won. My dad said neither could he!
And the bad things did start to happen. George had to prove he worked for us and get a special pass to allow him to stay. The Africans who couldn’t prove they had a job in the city, were sent away to different tribal homelands, depending on whether they were Zulu or Xhosa or Sotho or Ndebele. And there was no work for them there and no place to live. And now there were even separate beaches for Whites, Colored, Indians and Blacks. And it seemed that the white beaches were the widest and sandiest and the black beaches were small and rocky. Same with buses and schools and hospitals and universities. Apartheid had arrived.