2011 "Apartheid is over but the struggle is not": Reflections on South Africa


Kate sits next to me as I follow Peter’s car out of Cape Town to Khayelitsha.  This is the largest African township that visitors travelling from the airport to Cape Town can’t avoid seeing jammed up against the highway, a dense mass of shacks that border the road through on the Cape Flats.

Kate Ncisana

Kate tells me she has two children, seventeen years apart. “I didn’t want more than one child when I would be unable to live with them and when I didn’t have my own place”.

The son, the eldest, lives near her in Khayelitsha, has his contracting business and renovates houses in white Cape Town as she calls it. He is doing well. Her daughter has a good job and is a boxing champion. Katie has grandchildren and great grandchildren. She grins when she tells me how her husband left her many years ago a few days before her birthday. She found the timing particularly hurtful. 

I ask her if he is close to his children. Yes, she answers, he is. She chuckles again. He used to send her birthday presents. “But all that did was remind me that he had left me”.

But this is the past. She is independent now. Her activism took off in the 1980’s. She fought apartheid at its core – the pass laws. And then it was over. She believed that all the horrors were now behind.

Kate outside her house in Khayelitsha

Two years ago she moved into a new brick house replacing the shack that she built on the small plot allocated to her.  In proud place in a new cabinet is a display of her bead work. Her talents have been recognized and she is always busy. Last year she took her intricate colorful necklaces to the Sante Fe International Folk Art Market. Her beading work table is in the cluttered second small bedroom of her house. Next to the table is a low black board on a easel with a child’s drawing in chalk by one of her grandchildren. This keeps her great grandchildren and her grandchildren busy so she can get on with her work when she’s caring for them.

She continues to work as a domestic worker two days a week. But on her own terms. She is in charge of her life now.

Some of Kate's jewelry

And so why does Kate who has made so many strides in her life still feel the need to continue to fight for change; why still part of an ongoing struggle?


We reach Khayelitsha and stop in front of a small community center. In a room that was once a show house and is now used as a meeting room, I sit with seven women and two men on worn plastic chairs in a circle  The house hasn’t fared well. The plaster board ceiling bows at the edges, the built-in kitchen furniture is split in places, the paint was probably once green, the floor is uneven. Despite the clear hot sunny day outside, little light enters.

Kate, Sindiswa, Dorothy, Cynthia, Angelina, Six, Evelyn, Jack and Ethel are members of a group dating back to the early 1980’s, who came to be known as the “Nyanga Squatters”.

The group of Nyanga Squatters who told me their story

It’s a moving story of courage and determination in the face of apartheid.

It’s a story of how a group struggled against apartheid on the personal level, won some victories for the wider community, and longed for the day when apartheid would end; for when the conditions of their lives would improve and they could begin to leave behind them the poverty and oppression and the humiliation they had known for generations.

They are still waiting.

“The TRC could be used to wipe away tears of some people”, one of the women in the group interjects, referring to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The TRC was formed soon after the new government came to power as a means to address the serious human rights violations – the murders, the killings. But not the day to day crimes against the people who lived the brutal realities of apartheid. They were all eager to talk – their words translated by Sindiswa from Xhosa to English - about the apartheid period as a time of acute suffering.

“The TRC did nothing for those who lived and suffered so long under apartheid. We had nothing to wipe our tears with.”

“No one came to say sorry”, said Peter who stayed for the beginning of the session. “No one.”

But don’t get me wrong. While their feelings of abandonment by national and local government was real, this was not a room full of people recalling only their suffering. They were telling me their history with pride, and often with humor, even as they expressed disappointment in how things have turned out. They are in no way defeated.


Their story goes like this:

They were among the hundreds of women who headed for Cape Town from the Transkei and the Ciskei (Xhosa-speaking ‘homelands’) in the early 1980's. How could any woman survive in that dry land with all its physical and political problems, with no way to feed their family, old and young?  How could they survive being split from husbands and partners who as "units of labor" lived as “single” in Cape Town and earned so little that the remittances with a pittance? There was only one thing to do. They packed their few belongings and set off with their children. Illegal or not, they had to eat. They knew, as Africans entering a so-called “Coloured Preferential Area”, they had only 72 hours to seek work before being declared illegal.   Totally impossible. They didn’t care. They were determined to stay. They did not hide in fear.  Feeling that safety was in numbers, they went to the administration and made their demands. They were told that on such-and-such a day they should meet at such-and-such a place and they would get the decision about their case from the authorities. 

At the appointed time they headed for the meeting place. They got their answer: the police were armed and waiting. They were rounded up, put on buses and driven 1170 kilometers (730 miles) to Umtata, the capital of the Transkei. Gone!

Too bad that they had not brought their children with them. Too bad they could not get their belongings. Just too bloody bad.

The authorities were not interested. Their only interest was that these agitators did not set a bad example and get away with it. For three months they pleaded to be allowed to return to get their children who had been taken in by neighbors. Some were only a few months old. Others were a few years.

The authorities finally agreed and they were told that buses would be provided – but just to get your children. OK, baas. They filled more than 20 buses. They arrived back in Nyanga. “Then”, said Sindiswa who was translating, waving her right hand in a snake-like move, “It was duck and dive, hide and seek!”


They collected their kids and disappeared into the dense morass of corrugated iron- wood scraps- plastic sheeting shacks and narrow pathways occupied by the thousands of Africans living both legally and illegally in the Cape Town area. Some took sanctuary in one or two churches in the community. They were safe for a few months while they tried more negotiations from their safe havens. They got nowhere. When this no longer worked, a group of 57 decided it was time to involve a “white” church. On March 10, 1982 they headed for St. George’s Cathedral in the center of Cape Town on a Sunday, acting as if all they wanted to do that day was pray. They informed the Dean that they were not planning to leave. Their plight was greeted with a sympathetic ear.

A squatter camp was set up in the grounds of the Cathedral and after a while began to fast in protest. The media began to cover the story and it was captured in the international press as well. The authorities caved. They squatters got a three month temporary permit. At the end of the three months they got an 18 month permit. The pressure from the world and from inside the country against those dompasses was getting to be too much. Then they got an 18 month permit.

Soon after the pass system was abolished. National resistance and international pressure was too much. Confronted with the need for settlements the government established Khayelitsha, forcing the squatters and hundred like them to leave Nyanga. Minimal services were provided as the population climbed to over 400,000. Their activism focused on the right to decent housing.

Then President F.W. De Klerk announced in early February 1990 that Nelson Mandela would be released on February 11th; that the ANC and other banned organizations would be unbanned.   After a transition period elections were held at the end of April 1994 and apartheid was finally dead (if not totally buried). Then on May 10, Nelson Mandela was inaugurated and the new South Africa was born.

Oh the rejoicing in the townships! In the rural areas.  In the towns and the cities. Throughout South Africa. More TV images. The scenes of joy. I watched with tears. Apartheid was over, and the Nyanga Squatters were as happy as anyone.   They would get back their dignity and self worth. South Africa was now owned by the majority. There would be housing and schools and freedom of movement and health facilities and jobs and no-one arresting them for crimes that were only crimes in apartheid South Africa, nowhere else.

Fast forward seventeen years. They are still waiting for basic services. What are the biggest issues? I ask, already having a sense from the way the conversation was going. Now their voices are serious. Lack of decent housing. Lack of Jobs. Violence among the youth. Education.  And overriding poverty.

The son and daughter of one of the Nyanga Squatters outside their house

Kate in front of the plot where their new house is being built next to the shack

Many of the group of “Nyanga Squatters” from the Cathedral hunger strike continue to wait for livable housing. Some find that after years, many years, their names are not on the waiting list, although they registered. Others find that allocations have been made, but no action was taken to inform them. Three of those sitting with me are still living in shacks. The rest had been allotted small brick houses. The houses were free. But much work was needed to make them livable. “Matchboxes”, they call them.

Angelina's house.

There is an exposed electrical wire at the back of the house that the authorities admit is dangerous but they haven’t come to fix it. Angelina grows corn in the sandy front garden. What exacerbates all these conditions is the impossibly high jobless rate. At the end of 2009, 53.4 percent of all young black Africans between the ages of 15 and 24 unemployed -- three times the unemployment rate (14.5 percent) of young white South Africans. Even those with education can’t find jobs. “You have no experience”, their children are told. But how can they get experience, they ask rhetorically, if they can’t get jobs? 

We have been talking for over three hours. I see their earnestness of, their faces, a mix of hope and sadness, of feeling failed by the government, but refusing to give in. These are not defeated faces, not by a long shot. South Africa is theirs and they made it theirs through their struggle. That spirit does not die. But their message has been clear and explicit:

Apartheid is over but the struggle is not.

I explain to the group that I am moved by their stories, that I respect their struggle, but I can offer nothing concrete. I feel humbled. I am from outside. I am white. I visit. I leave. I stay in the white city.

“Ja, no” they said in the typical yes-no way that South Africans begin their responses, “it doesn’t matter. We are not expecting anything. If you tell our story, that is enough.”

And then they invite me back. The visit was too short, they tell me.Please come again, meet with our leaders and hear the full story.

I had come to South Africa with an open mind, not sure what I would find to add to my book. I know as I say goodbye that this is one of the stories I will include. My book is developing a mind of its own.


Cynthia with one of the children from the crèche at the community center. They get food from the Provincial Administration, but not salaries. They care givers volunteer. They work full time


Cynthia's co-worker, also a volunteer