Structural racism languishes in the sun and sands of time
Beaches, unlike physical configurations which are mutable, are the ultimate litmus test for racists cleaving to the past
It is no small coincidence that both Penny Sparrow and Adam Catzavelos unleashed the dogs of their heinous racism on that site of public space we call the beach.
Their understanding of to whom the beach “belongs” taps into the deepest wells of apartheid SA’s influence over the mindset of entitlement because, for the longest time, the beach has been so much more than just a sand-and-sunshine hem sewn along the edges of our country.
It is a natural environment that should belong to all, but has always symbolised the ultimate fantasy of those who claim it as quasi-private space.
This makes it an obvious site of contention for racists like Sparrow and Catzavelos who find themselves incredulous in the post-apartheid state that public space is just that – public space to be shared and enjoyed by all.It is along this fantastical fringe of nature where their palm-tree “paradise” – and thus their full idea of what is theirs – is “disrupted” by the presence of people of colour.
And not people of colour who are “allowed” into their private world as agents of cleaning up, safeguarding cars, or providing an endless supply of granadilla ice creams.
They’re outraged that other people are there to use the beach in the same way as them, for recreation, and at the heart of this is structural racism.
For some adults in SA, the beach always represented “the forbidden”.
Or even the mysterious.
In apartheid Johannesburg, for example, “December” was more a place than a time of the year.For middle- and upper-class families, it was a place representing a long drive out of the landlocked routine of daily life to the coastline, a sand-and-sun punctuation mark at the end of each year where waves and towels and beach balls came together in one big fantastical “escape”.
For many others, it was “that place” where white people went with a roof rack, returning with sunburnt noses and a plastic Coke bottle filled with seawater for their domestic workers who had spent the December holidays visiting their children they had left behind to raise those self-same kids in the burbs to earn a living.
For those unwilling to let go of the privilege that lay behind such different notions of “the beach”, the present day marks just one point on their timeline that has seen the space of the beach pushed and pulled by those with more social capital.
Even before 1948, segregation on beaches existed through the convention of what was socially accepted in a society with inequality and spatial divisions based on race.As far back as the Native Urban Areas of Act of 1923, which laid the foundation for segregated living areas, the use of beaches fell along those same fault lines.
Then, the National Party came to power in 1948 and passed a raft of laws to entrench apartheid, and in 1953, the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act was passed.
This act was the cornerstone of “petty apartheid” which focused on minimising social contact between people from different races.
The beach would be one such obvious place – but now there was a loophole. The authorities did not define exactly what “swimming” constituted, and it was thus unclear whether this act had done the trick of keeping the best beaches for whites only.
Another problem was the word “land” which did not include the sea.
And so, in 1960, that loophole was patched up too, when the legislation came to include “the sea and the bed of the sea within the three miles limit”.Likewise, the seashore was now defined as “the land situated between the low-water mark and the high-water mark”.
And that was how the apartheid government managed to impose its absurd and unjust laws even on the rolling waves of the sea, and the grains of sand on the beach – giving birth to generations who would come to believe that the beach belonged to them and them only.
In our post-apartheid society, such contentions are far more cut-and-dried in the built environment of a country that unofficially replicates the structural racism that was put in place.
As Steven Robins describes it in Senses of Culture: “Apartheid spatial planning created the racialised grids upon which the template of the ‘postmodern’, post-apartheid city could seamlessly settle.”
But even so, physical structures and the ways in which we use them can rise up and be torn down, or repurposed, or revitalised, or repopulated, in the image of those in power or more frequently, from the sheer force of everyday life and how people use spaces.They are mutable sites of everyday culture, and the disgruntled who don’t want to share can move along, seeking out new developments where their racially homogenous fantasy can play out.
But not so the beach.
Because of its place in nature – both geographically and at the top of the pyramid of paradise – it is the end game.
It is the ultimate litmus test for the Pennies and Adams who, almost a quarter century later, are clinging to recreational spaces that exist at the exclusion of others.
And those recreational spaces are proxies for just about everything else.