Traveller cheques

Apartheid days

The Oxford dictionary defines Apartheid as ” … (in South Africa) a policy or system of segregation or discrimination on grounds of race [1].

At the time of our arrival in Kenya Apartheid was in full swing in South Africa. As this Afrikaans name suggests, segregation (or literally “separateness”) between races had been official policy from 1948. The system promoted White supremacy over Blacks, Coloured and Asian South Africans the four main racial groups it recognised. Marriages (or sex) between races were forbidden and housing and employment opportunities were for Whites only.

At the time that our experience took place, there was a bitter struggle going on in order to obtain equal rights for black people but the news about this were not widely known and there was no social media in those days.

Before I traveled to Kenya my knowledge of Africa was negligible. As most people I pictured it as a jungle largely influenced by the Tarzan movies! I was aware of Patrick Lumumba’s assassination in the Belgian Congo and we did study the ideology of Jomo Kenyatta and the Mau Mau movement but little else.

My concept of Apartheid was also very limited but I knew that it was the segregation of Black Africans by a White minority in South Africa and that there was some kind of sanctions imposed to South Africa because of this.

Once in the UK in 1979 while studying for my MSc in Wales I followed the negotiations between the UK and Zimbabwe that culminated with the signing of the Lancaster House Agreement that granted independence to Zimbabwe on 18 April 1980. Following the latter I learnt more about Apartheid, particularly that it included an arms and trade embargo as well as serious on-going conflicts of South Africa with neighbouring countries as well as a number of other sanctions that had various degrees of success.

In 1981, when we arrived, Kenya had obtained its independence in 1964 and Jomo Kenyatta had, by then, been succeeded by Daniel arap Moi after his death in 1978. All people were equal in Kenya but it had strong policies against what was then known as “the racist regime” of South Africa.

Very soon we had to deal with the Apartheid complications when Mabel traveled to Kenya as I already described [2] but this was a kind of remote perception of the issue that only became real when we returned to Uruguay after completing my FAO “Andre Mayer” fellowship.

At the time, to get from Nairobi to Montevideo you could not avoid a stopover in Johannesburg, where you needed to spend a night or two, depending of the flight connection. I believe that there were two flights per week between Johannesburg and Rio de Janeiro, operated by Varig [3].

When the time to travel home arrived, we got our tickets from the Varig office in Nairobi. Those were the times of hand-written tickets! Varig informed us that we required a Visa for South Africa, even if we were to spend the night at the airport. This meant a similar procedure to the one undergone at the time of Mabel’s arrival for both of us.

As we were returning to Kenya after our holiday to work at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE), they also reminded us that the Kenya Government would refuse entry to visitors with South African stamps in their passports. Again we solved this by getting Visas on a separate sheet of paper through the South Africa Trade Mission[4] in Nairobi after going through a lengthy questionnaire.

Now we only needed to get our money and pack our cases. As we did not have credit cards then, we went to our bank to get travellers cheques (TCs), an instrument rarely used today with the advent of the ATM machines! We preferred to carry TCs as these were safer than cash. Almost immediately regretted our decision when we immediately noted the stamp at the back saying “Valid worldwide except in the Republic of South Africa”!

Although our overnight stay in Johannesburg to connect with the flight to Rio de Janeiro would be paid for by Varig we realised that duty-free shopping would be out of the question!

On arrival at Johannesburg all our attention was focused on avoiding the infamous stamp in our passports as, although we had the paper visa, we needed to hand them over as well. We were relieved to get them back “clean” we tried to memorise the process for our return in a month time.

So, soon afterwards we were back traveling to South Africa on our return trip to Kenya. This time we decided to spend an extra day at Johannesburg to have a look at the city and buy a few essentials that we could not get in Kenya.

We managed to “survive” immigration managing to keep our passports “visa free” and we were taken to our hotel by its courtesy bus. During the whole time at the airport we dealt with whites and, believe me, that the driver of the bus was the first black man we saw!

The following morning we decided to catch a public bus to get to the centre of Johannesburg and the hotel receptionist advised us of the location of the bus stop. So we walked a short distance and found it. After a few minutes we saw a bus approaching and we tried -fruitlessly- to stop it. After a few more buses drove past, one finally stopped only for us to be informed by a kind driver that we needed to wait further for the correct bus. The one for whites!

A few minutes later the bus came and we got in. The drive was through among the cleanest streets we had seen (including those in the UK) and the city centre was no exception! Soon we were walking and being amazed by the number and quality of the shops we saw. We were coming from Uruguay going through bad spell and going to Kenya that did not allow many imports to get into the country and certainly none from South Africa!

It was time for us to change our TCs and we entered in the first bank we found to get some Rand. After some consideration we had decided to ignore the ban stamp at the back and handed them over to the cashier. Without showing any concern he counted them and gave us the equivalent in Rand. Unable to restrain my curiosity I asked if he did not mind the stamp at the back. He shrugged his shoulders and said something in Afrikaans that did not sound nice! “So much for the stamp and the sanctions”, I thought!

There were so many tempting stores that we had difficulties choosing one to enter and, frankly, I do not recall their names. By the end of the our shopping we had managed to get a lot of items that we needed in Kenya [5] and I still have a strong rubberised torch (my “Black Apartheid torch” as I call it) that still survives today! Amazingly, all shop attendants were white and the blacks were nowhere to be seen!

Once in the street, we walked about through streets -again- vastly dominated by white pedestrians with very few Africans on sight, most of them involved in service tasks. Tired and to avoid being left behind by buses, we decided that a taxi would take us to our hotel to get ready to leave the following day after our Apartheid first hand experience!

Many years later, on 10 May 1994, the day Nelson Mandela became President I was in South Africa on a work trip related to my FAO work. While watching the vast African crowds celebrating the event, the memories of our first visit to the “racist regime” in the 80s came vividly to my mind and I really felt joyful at seeing that finally there was equality for all. But more of that later, when I deal with stories from Southern Africa.

 

[1] See: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/apartheid

[2] See: https://bushsnob.com/2015/03/26/kenya-friends-and-foes1/

[3] Varig (Viação Aérea Rio-Grandense), formerly the largest airline of Latin America and Brazil’s first airline, stopped flying in 2006. Varig was known and recognized worldwide for its quality. From: http://www.varig-airlines.com/en/

[4] I am not sure of the exact kind of representation that South Africa had in Kenya at the time.

[5] In the 80s imports into Kenya were somehow controlled and most of the stuff in the shops were local or from neighbouring countries.

 

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Apartheid attracted lots of opposition not only in Africa but worldwide. Arms and trade embargo. During 1970-80s internal resistance to A became strong and several brutal crackdowns followed by the Nat Party government. From 1987 to 1993 the NP entered in negotiations with the ANC. In 1990 prominent ANC figures including Mandela were released from prison and all Apartheid legislation was repealed on 17 June 1991 and multiracial elections held in April 1994.

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I needed to return to Uruguay for a vacation and later return to Kenya to take up my new appointment as a Research Scientist at the

 

started to notice that all employees at the airport were white, except those dealing with cleaning and other services, although we knew that the majority of the population were not!