It is July 1961, I am one the delegates from the University of Natal (Durban) travelling by train to my first NUSAS Congress, at Rhodes University in the Eastern Cape. Apartheid is in its heyday. Efforts to keep black and white apart seemed to have intensified
The train stops at a station, many people get out – the whites from the front of the train and the blacks from the back. A few of us wander towards the back of the train to hook-up with black students from the all-black University of Natal (Medical School).
Argument about an imaginary line
We greet each other but are soon interrupted by a railway official who tells us – the white students – to return to the front of the platform, vinnig (fast). We dawdle. The official follows us trying to hurry us along. Meanwhile, the black students are dawdling along behind him! He then tries to chase them back to ‘their’ end of the platform.
Inevitably, we end up in a debate about the dividing line between the front and back of the station. Could he please draw it for us, so that we can talk to each other across the line. During the debate, the train whistle blows and we are on our way again, to Rhodes. En route we get together to share drinks and cigarettes but are soon separated by a very red-faced official.
Never on a Sunday (OFS version)
On the return journey, the train stops in Bloemfontein. It is Sunday morning. By late afternoon we still have not departed. We enquired as to why? “It’s Sunday, man,” is the reply. Turns out trains are allowed to arrive in but not depart from the Orange Free State on Sundays. Go figure. At midnight the train resumes its journey.
One of the black students is a big burly man by name of Asher Ntanga. He is studying law – a self-styled “cheeky kaff*r” and trouble-maker. He had led the debate on where to draw the line between the front end and the back end of the station. He is as African-looking as any African.
Asher is in the news a few months later. The government, for trade reasons, had declared the few Japanese in South Africa to be “honorary whites”. This entitled them, inter alia, to sit at the front of Durban buses (blacks at the back). Asher had decided to show up the weirdness of apartheid laws by declaring himself to be Japanese (and hence an “honorary white”).
Somewhat inebriated, he got on to a Durban bus late one evening and sat down in the front row. The driver asked him what he was doing. “Sitting on the seat”, Replied Asher. When reminded that blacks must sit at the back of the bus, Asher replied that he was Japanese and that the government had declared Japanese persons to be honorary whites.
An argument ensued. The police were called. A policeman asked Asher to produce his Japanese passport. Asher told him to voetsek (bugger-off). Arrest and a night in jail followed.