Synopsis:  In this special feature Scott visits the home of a black South African family living under apartheid. He describes the poverty,  hardship, and total suppression that he saw.  10 million Black, Indian and "coloured" (mixed race) people living under apartheid were disallowed the vote in the 1953 South African Elections. 


Scott Visits a Black Man who Hopes 'Only Death'

This is the second of a series of four special analytical articles by Jack Scott on the South African election next Wednesday and its background of racial strife

Vancouver Sun, April 13, 1953

JABAVU,  South Africa –One of the 10 million South Africans who will not go to the polls this Wednesday–but about whom this election is all about – is Leonard Mahlaba, a black-skinned native so humble that he hesitates in the presence of a white man to use the name of Jesus Christ, his one and only hope in this world or the next. 

Late in the afternoon of the day I spent with Mahlaba and his family here on the segregated outskirts of Johannesburg I asked him if he had any heroes. Did he know of Abraham Lincoln? 

"No," he said. 

"Have you no one in whom you put your trust?"

Mahlaba thought a moment and then spoke in his native Zulu tongue for two or three minutes. When he had finished the young African interpreter I had hired for the day turned to me. 

"He believes only in the promises of Jesus Christ," the interpreter said, "but he hesitates to tell you that for fear you will think him disrespectful. You see, he thinks of Christ as a European, a white." 

Long Day's Work For $9 a Week

Leonard Mahlaba is a man of perhaps 40. He, himself, does not know his age or where he was born. He is a short, wiry man whose black, curly hair is close shaved like a tight wooden skull-cap. He affects long sideburns half-way down his cheeks and a tuft of a moustache. He smiles easily, revealing strong, wide-spaced teeth, but usually his face warts a look of solemn concentration. 

Like tens of thousands of others, Mahlaba came to Johannesburg from the barren British protectorate of Swaziland in 1939 to find a wartime job in the city. He has worked for the past nine years as a handyman in a Johannesburg furniture store called the Sun Furnishings Company. 

Six mornings a week he arises at 5:30 a.m. and rides into the city in an ancient electric train in which hundreds of natives are crushed together like cattle. He is home, after standing in a queue for an hour or more, at 7. 

Naked Children Beg for Handouts

He receives three-pounds-ten, or about nine dollars, a week and is envied by his neighbours whose average weekly wage is below seven dollars. 

Mahlaba thinks of himself as a fortunate man and in a comparative way he is. 

Not more tha a mile from his "location" (as the "apartheid" segregated native sections are called) are the worst of the Johannesburg slums where thousands live in wood and corrugated iron hutches facing into narrow mud alleys. 

Before visiting Mahlaba I had wandered through one such "location." Naked, dirty children surrounding me begging for handouts. "Boss man got money, got smoke?" they pleaded. 

I saw a typical one-room shanty where 20 adults and children sleep on the dirt floor, so crowded that their limbs over-lap. 

No Birth Control Known to Natives

These are the breeding grounds of what the English-language newspapers call "the native crime wave." "Flying squads" of husky white police in natty khaki and blue uniforms patrol their outskirts. No white man dares enter there at night. 

Having seen this and with the stench still in my nostrils I could understand Mahlaba's unreasonable pride in his own home when he showed me about on my arrival. 

There are seven in the Mahlaba family (he knows nothing of birth control and was embarrassed when I asked him about this' the only effective birth control is the pelvis weakness of the native wives who, through a combination of malnutrition and backbreaking work often lose their babies during pregnancy).

Leonard's wife, Anne, is a thin and sickly little woman. When I arrived she was in the kitchen, barefoot and in a faded cotton dress, holding her two-year-old son in the croook of one arm as she prepared the evening meal over a low coal stove. 

The kitchen, like the rest of the rooms, was immaculately clean. On one shelf I noticed six heavy white cups, turned face down in their saucers, lined up precisely as if by a ruler. There were yellow flowers arranged in a tin on the table. 

I had brought along a box of Holland chocolates for Mahlaba's children. His wife could not understand that this was a gift. The box was in the middle of the kitchen table, still wrapped, when I left. 

Through the interpreter I asked Ann what she was preparing. She lifted the lids from two pots on the stove. The evening meal was to be spinach and porridge. I asked if the children had milk or orange juice. She said that when they could afford it they bought milk for the smallest child, but this was very rare. Mostly the children drank tea. 

Housing Project – 3 Concrete Rooms

The Mahlaba home is numbered 1122B in the Jabavu "location," named for the first African professor at London University. Here are row upon row of small concrete duplex houses of three rooms apiece. The concrete partitions on the inside are built up just above head-level so that families in the adjoining compartments are on intimate terms. 

Such quarters are rented under a municipal housing scheme for one point 12 shillings and six pence (about $4.50) a month. 

The "living room" of  Mahlaba's house is perhaps 12 feet square. There is a table in the middle and along one wall–the envy of every native visitor–a battered and sagging chesterfield which his employers had given him as a gift. 

On the walls are sepia-tinted pictures of some of Mahlaba's relatives and two calendars, one showing Lena Horne in a moving picture scene, the other of "Miss South Africa of 1952," a white girl. 

The kitchen is at the rear and off it is a small bedroom largely taken up by an iron double bed. Leonard and his wife sleep there with the baby between them. The other children sleep on the floors throughout the house. 

This is no electric light (candles are used and figure prominently in Mahlaba's "budget"), but there is a waster tap outside at the rear of the house. Here, too, are outside toilets, one for each dwelling, and Mahlaba and his neighbour had pooled their resources so that instead of each family using its own facilities one toilet was used by the women and the girls and the other by the men and boys. 

Compensation Unknown to Native

The names of the children reflect Mahlaba's intense religious feeling. The eldest boy is Elijah, aged 18, who works in a bakery in Johannesburg and earns two pounds, 12 shillings (about $7) a week. 

Leonard explained sorrowfully that his oldest son would probably never earn a higher wage because his right arm had been mangled in a salt-grinding machine and had been amputated at the elbow. When I asked if the boy had received compensation, Mahlaba did not understand and the interpreter explained that this was unknown. 

The other children are Jacob, 11; Abel, eight; Josephine, five; and Petrus (or Peter), who is two. They are shy, appealing children. There is a strong family feeling and throughout most of the afternoon one or  more of the children sat in Mahlaba's lap. 

Unlike non-European children, schooling is not compulsory for native children and while the sons and daughters of white families receive free primary education and texts the non-European pays for both. 

They'll Begin Work at 12

Mahlaba explained that Jacob and Abel were attending a semi-religious missionary school. He hoped he would be able  to keep them there, but with the growing strain on his income they would probably have to look for work before they are 12. 

Leonard, conscious of his unaccustomed role as host, had sent Jacob to a nearby native store for a bottle of a carbonated orange drink called Krush. As we sat at the living room table sipping the sweet, syrupy drink I asked him questions directly and through the interpreter. Occasionally when he wished to emphasize something to me Mahlaba would use the small vocabulary of English he has picked up working with whites. 

'That's What We Have to Bear'

When I asked him if he had any views on Wednesday's election he shrugged and, through the interpreter, replied: "That's nothing to do with me." 

"Don't you think there will be less chance of the African joining the human race if Dr. Malan is re-elected?" 

"There is no equality between white and black. The white man is superior. God brought the whites to the country. They defeated the blacks. That is what we have to bear." 

"Do you think the African will ever have equality with the whites?" 

Mahlaba thought about this at length before replying. 

"In health I am equal of any man," was the reply. "But the whites make the laws and the laws make the whites superior. We cannot share with the whites because we Africans are backward." 

In an attempt to find his philosophy I said, "I have a daughter just about the age of Josephine. Suppose we were to trade daughters and I were to bring up Josephine in my home. Would she still be inferior?" 

"No, no, no," Leonard protested, shaking his head vigorously. "Everything is education. That is what we most want. For our children to be educated like white children. But I know that we will never have it."

His Chief Worry Is Losing Work

I ask the interpreter to question him as to how he felt about a feeling of security. 

"This worries him most of all," the interpreter said after Mahlaba had given his answer. 

"He says, 'I will suffer much if I lose my job. If I am found to be without work I am liable to be sent away to the country as farm labor without my wife and children.' He says, 'I always fear that something will get lost of stolen in the furniture store for the African is always the one to be accused and punished.'" 

Mahlaba had been listening intently to the interpreter's words and turned to me at this point to speak in English. 

"We thank God we still have our job," he said earnestly. 

"But how would the authorities know you were unemployed?" I asked. 

Mahlaba answered by producing the frayed piece of white cardboard which is his pass and which he has carried since 1947. "If I am out of work I must go to them to have my pass renewed," he said through the interpreter. "If I do not go they will come for me." 

Employers Issue Travelling Passes

He then produced another, smaller piece of paper which was my first knowledge that it is not merely the authorities, but the individual white man, who is the native's master. This was a pass that Mahlaba applies for at the end of each week from his employers so that he may travel across Johannesburg, if he so desires, to visit a friend on the other side of the city. 

It was headed "Special Pass," Under the heading were the words: "Please pass native  Leonard who has permission to proceed wherever he wishes on Sunday. Signed, Sun Furnishings Company." 

Mahlaba neither drinks nor smokes. He would be entitled, he explained, to go in for a drink in one of the native "beer halls" in Johannesburg (a special beer is brewed for the native trade with an alcoholic content two percent lower than that of the white man's beer), but he preferred to go directly to his home from work. In theory a native may apply for a permit to buy one bottle of brandy per month, but both Mahlaba and the interpreter explained this privilege is usually limited to those natives who have "good white connections." 

Mahalaba's main interest in life is his Sunday at home when he digs in a small flower garden and attends the services in the nearby African Gospel Church. When I asked the church's denomination, Leonard shrugged and grinned. 

"Very patriotic," he said. 

No Money Now to Buy Clothing

In 1940, When Mahlaba's weekly wage was 30 shillings (or about $4.20) he and his wife, who was then also finding occasional work, saved enough to buy Leonard a black suit and Ann a "going out" dress. 

These they still wear on Sundays. Now, with the increase in their family they see no hope of buying more of the clothes they need. 

When I asked if he could get by on his wages now Mahlaba replied, "We get by with my son's help. If we have any left over we buy milk for the little one or meat. The meat is more expensive here out of the city. 

Often it is bad. It is she"– and he gestured to the kitchen when his wife worked–"who has the hard life." He shook his head sadly. "Very hard life for her." 

What would he think was a livable wage? 

Mahlaba spoke this time in English. Would be not bad if four pounds ($11.50)," he said, and returned to finish in Zulu. 

"I could then buy the blankets we need for winter. But I am paid now a high wage compared with others and I cannot expect more." 

I had heard that there are "advisory boards" elected in such locations by the natives. While these boards are not able to go directly to the City Hall (it is out of bounds to non-Europeans) they are able, in theory, to make recommendations to the city's Department of Non-European Affairs. 

When I asked Mahlaba if he was active in these elections he shook his head. "They can do little," he said. "Besides, what is true of white is true of black. The trouble with people in power is that they always want to run other people down." 

It was now growing late and the living room, which had been flooded in sunlight through the open door most of the afternoon was now in the shadows. It suddenly seemed cold and desolate. 

The interpreter and I, having said goodbye to Mrs. Mahlaba, arose to leave and as we stood in the door I asked one final question. 

"Would you ask him if he has any hope for the future." 
Mahlaba listened to the question and both the interpreter and I were dismayed when his eyes filled with tears. He spoke quietly in his native language a moment and then turned again to me. 
"He says his hope is in death. Then, as he puts it, he will lie finished in the ground where all men are the same." 

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