‘Still no Room at the Inn?’ The Infectious Business of Oppression

The Prize-Giving that Shook the World (1963.)
The Prize-Giving that Shook the World (1963.)

“Dehumanization, which marks not only those whose humanity has been stolen, but also (though in a different way) those who have stolen it, is a distortion of the vocation of becoming more fully human.” (Paulo Freire, 1968)

The first time I came across the story of Papwa’s shameful prize-giving at the 1963 Natal Open (In the Basil D’Oliveira text, p115), my instant reaction was to chuckle. A colleague asked what had amused me so, and I explained to her the context. Unimpressed, she retorted ‘That’s not funny!’  It wasn’t, I agreed. The sheer absurdity of it all is what had triggered my apparent amusement. How do we make sense of that level of hate and prejudice? How does humanity reconcile itself with the whimsical picture of someone who has proved themselves a worthy competitor in the game so cherished not being able to walk into a room for a few seconds to receive his dues?

My colleague then made the astute observation, reminiscent of my opening quote, that “Well, racism doesn’t just hurt the group discriminated against; it hurts the mind of the oppressor too.”

This post discusses how, in addition to the surface oppression of non-whites, Apartheid-era laws and norms had infectious oppressive effects. First, they plagued the mind of the oppressor. Secondly, they cultivated discriminatory practices among the oppressed themselves.

The Oppressor

Nothing is more telling of the troubled mind of an apartheid proponent than the overwhelming arbitrariness and whimsicalness of decision-making. Consider Papwa’s career. The back and forth surrounding which tournaments he could participate in and what resources would be available to him almost seemed to be on a case-by-case basis. How is it that a (supposedly) lowly man whose only claim to prominence is his ability with the golf club can bring the legal culture and system of an entire nation at crossroads? A classic example of this is the debate between members of the United Party and Minister of Information Frank Waring regarding the prize-giving incident, in which they literally argued which brand of Apartheid was ‘better’ and which had been responsible for Papwa’s fate (Nicholson, P96.)

One almost wonders if an Apartheid/prejudiced mindset is akin to delusion. This attitude towards Blacks was reflected in sports too and, as recently as 1994, Rugby legend Uli Schmidt was arguing that ‘it was not natural for them (Blacks) to play rugby, rather they should play soccer’ (Black and Nauright, P.39.) The detachment of the sentiment from reality is overwhelmingly apparent, being that non-whites has been playing rugby for decades before then.Another example of this conflicted mindset that grows in the mind of the oppressive class is exhibited by ‘the pretty twin’s flip-flopping on his stances about Papwa and Apartheid in general. On p 149, Player describes how ‘The African was still tribal’ and practiced ‘witchcraft and primitive magic’ before proceeding to give an all-round endorsement of the Group Areas Act and Apartheid that very much sounded like a page from the Apartheid manifesto (P.150.) A little while later, he especially advocated for Papwa, Arthur Ashe, and ‘realized only too well that petty and unnecessary things were being done in the name of separate development’ (P.175) In Player, we see a consummate sportsperson who, by lottery of birth, ended up on oppressive side of Apartheid and, due to no real apparent convictions of his own (as defined by his reticence and vacillation between opinions) was thrust into the undesirable limelight as the face of Apartheid South Africa. All things considered, he would have just wanted to play golf with the best of them all, Papwa included.

The Best of Both Worlds: Papwa and Gary Player comparing notes
The Best of Both Worlds: Papwa and Gary Player comparing notes

Nothing is more emblematic of a humanity stolen from the oppressor than the cost they are willing to endure to protect a constructed social order. What would have been the legacy of South African golf had Player and Papwa been granted similar amenities and competed unto old age, as well as taken on the rest of the world under the banner of South Africa? What did decades of annexation from FIFA and the Olympics do to the psyche of a nation well capable to compete? Was the English Cricket tour worth canceling over one man? How much did it cost to deliberate on Papwa and D’Oliveira, as well as seek secret agents and the police to watch their every move as if they were high-threat terrorists?

A friend once used the incredible metaphor of someone “burying themselves alive just to prove they can use a shovel…” The image of Apartheid policies in general, and regarding sport in particular evoke this image. Sentiment aside, it is hard to comprehend just what the Apartheid regimes ultimately gained therefrom on the sports field.

The Oppressed

One of the most dangerous aspects of a discriminatory culture is how effectively infectious it is. At a very superficial level, it may appear to be a binary relationship between the malicious oppressors and the powerless oppressed. In reality, society on every level is part and parcel of such a culture as Apartheid. While many argue that the inclination to belong to groups of individuals similar to you and see those groups excel is innate, the manner in which this is achieved is undoubtedly parochial. When you live in a community governed by Apartheid, for example, it is no surprise then that even groups of oppressed people begin to employ Apartheid-style tactics and mentality in their own lives.

For example, when Papwa was in direst need of financial support, he initially received very little support from wealthy South African Indians, who instead spend lots of money towards ‘the Hertzog Monument, a symbol of Afrikaner nationalism’ and to buy ‘a whites-only soccer club’ (Nicholson, P.173.) The culture of Apartheid had, consciously or otherwise, placed intrinsic value in ‘whiteness’ that even non-whites began to cherish at the expense of things within their immediate communities.

Still in Business, albeit not exclusively for Muslims now
Still in Business, albeit not exclusively for Muslims now

Another instance of how Apartheid had infected the non-white community is reflected in Basil D’Oliveira, when he was turned away from joining the Ottoman’s team on account of religious affiliation, despite his talent and proximity to where the team played (Oborne, P.32.) Similarly, a Cape Town Rugby Union, CSRU ‘excluded Muslims until the 1960s’, making a particularly big deal once when a team was found to have a Muslim player. (Black and Nauright, P.49.) The ethos of Apartheid had created a virtual reality in which racial and/or cultural separation was the status quo even for the oppressed classes.

How does all this relate to contemporary South Africa and other societies, the US included? In light of the first section, it is crucial for society to  look deep into its own prejudices and discrimination to see how, more than just the oppressed group, these practices hurt the oppressors too and thus society as a whole. The best people don’t get the opportunities they deserve, billions of dollars are invested in maintaining an oppressive legal and social system, etc. In the second section, it is equally important to realize hateful practices inherited from oppressive regimes- even when that regime is gone. Several African governments right now perpetuate colonial era oppression of minority groups by following the mental blueprint left behind by the colonizers. Across the diaspora, matters of ‘colorism’ (in which being a lighter skinned Black person is valued more than being darker skinned) are all the rage, with people going as far as bleaching their skin in 2015! In certain US communities, there is an uncomfortable yet undeniable disregard of life within and between marginalized racial groups. Perhaps a concerted effort at placing these social ills within the larger context of the oppressive culture within which they were birthed can facilitate candid conversation and help move communities forward.

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2 thoughts on “‘Still no Room at the Inn?’ The Infectious Business of Oppression

  1. Shingi,
    You brought up such an interesting point in your post! I never would have thought to consider the ways in which racism and Apartheid also affects the minds of the oppressors – clearly that much bitterness and hatred would consume a person from the inside out. I also appreciate how you pointed out the delusional mindset that an oppressor has; when you think about it, it is absolutely absurd that somebody would be considered less of a human simply for having a different shade to their appearance. You are completely correct that this delusion can be seen in the way they were inconsistent in their agendas – especially Player. As I was reading the biography, Player became such a frustrating character! Even in the beginning, Player would support Papwa one minute and change his mind the next. This type of inconsistently illustrates a very confused, illegitimate mode of thought.

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  2. The analogy of someone burying him/herself alive to prove that he/she can use a shovel seems to epitomize those who enforced apartheid. I would argue, however, that there were actually significant gains that those regimes yielded because of apartheid. Economic gains like cheap labor that increases final profits; personal benefits from segregated housing that offered whites nicer, better neighborhoods, housing, recreational facilities; and other ‘gains’ were made for those on the oppressing side of apartheid. I do not in any way condone what was being done, but I also do not think that it is hard to see where the gains were. It does seem, however, that the oppressors had no interest in the losses they caused in pursuing their gains.

    I agree with your analysis of the intrusion of apartheid ethos into the lives of even those who are oppressed. When looking from the outside, and with the present advantage of looking into the past, it is hard to imagine how members of like-groups, such as Indians, would have been unaware that they were acting similar to the ways that the non-Indians were oppressing them. It is similar, in my opinion, to the idea that some, even after an “outsider” is put on their team, refuse to see them as a part of the group/team, and unnecessarily make their time with the team difficult. It is disheartening that, even when presented with the most opportune situation, most people still choose to respond negatively and in defense of separateness, rather than inclusion.

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