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For many black[1] people who have lived through apartheid (1948–1994), the hated passbooks they had to carry every day is emblematic of their traumatic experiences of that time. Although the passbook is synonymous with apartheid, the ideology behind it is much older. The system by which black people were compelled to carry some form of identification when they either lived in, or visited, whites-only South Africa, dates back to Bloemfontein’s republican period (1854–1899). Ordinance No. 5 of 1866 required that all male subjects of Moshoeshoe I (Image 1), Paramount Chief of the Basotho and first king of Lesotho, were required to carry a pass (called “pas” in Dutch) when they travelled through the Orange Free State republic or visited any town within its boundaries, including Bloemfontein. Not long after this ordinance was implemented, the pass requirement was extended to residents of Bloemfontein’s so-called “locations”.[2] In 1872, a municipal regulation declared that “… every colored [sic] or native servant in the town must be provided with a printed ticket, signed by his master, setting forth that he is employed as a daily, monthly, or yearly servant”. The regulation warned that all found without a ticket “… will hereafter be treated by the landdrost [magistrate] as squatters, and be punished or removed accordingly”. After that, the practice of regulating and controlling the lives of black people by means of something tangible such as a ticket, became an effective tool in the hands of white authorities to monitor race relations in Bloemfontein.

Image 1: Moshoeshoe I, Paramount Chief of the Basotho, undated. (Photo: National Museum)

The ticket in question was a printed card that had to be obtained at “… the Town-clerk at the Town-house”, to quote The Friend of the Free State and Bloemfontein Gazette. Residents of Waaihoek (Image 2), Bloemfontein’s oldest location at that time, who thought they could get away with not carrying a ticket or so-called “card”, had a rude awakening when members of the local police conducted unexpected stop-and-searches. In 1876, The Express and Orange Free State Advertiser, which was published in English and Dutch, reported that local constables arrested two people of colour “… omdat zij zonder passen waren” (“because they were without passes”). The guilty parties were arrested and taken to the local prison where they had to spend one night in “… de slechte atmospheer van het donker gat” (“the bad atmosphere of the dark dungeon”). Noteworthy is the use of the Dutch word “passen” (“passes”); subsequently, the English word “pass” was used interchangeably with the term “ticket” to describe the identity card.

Image 2: View of Waaihoek from Queen’s Fort, 1905. (Photo: National Museum)

While the lives of Bloemfontein’s black workforce were severely affected by the pass regime, it also inconvenienced white employers. Needless to say, Bloemfontein’s white “masters” and “mistresses”, as white employees were known then, were upset when their workers did not pitch for work because they were arrested and jailed for not having a ticket. Carl Borckenhagen (Image 3), editor of De Express en Oranjevrijstaatsch/e Advertentieblad (commonly known as De Express), complained about the “… so one-sided and objectionable law as our ‘Ticket Law’”. According to Borckenhagen it took him two hours to release his worker “… from the filth of our tronk [prison]”, only to hear that the arrest was a mistake. Borckenhagen’s employee was not the last person who was arrested for not having a ticket. In fact, during the 1880s unannounced police raids became commonplace in Waaihoek and in Kaffirfontein, Bloemfontein’s other old location. In 1882, De Express reported of a police raid in Kaffirfontein in which 500 people were found without tickets. Reportedly, the first three were fined £1 each, after which the remaining 497 applied for tickets at once. In 1884, the same newspaper reported of another raid in Kaffirfontein in which the police “… arrested a large number of boys who were without – or in possession of improper – passes”. The “pass-less”, as they were described, were fined “… 5s. [shillings] each or three days rice water”.             

Image 3: Carl Borckenhagen, undated. (Photo: National Museum)

During the 1880s it had become clear that the pass system was not only used to control the movement and lodgings of Bloemfontein’s black people but also to ensure the availability of a permanent supply of cheap labour for whites. Article 15 of the Regulations for the Natives within the Bloemfontein Municipality (1882), which dealt with the pass issue, was strictly enforced. These regulations referred to the compulsory carrying of a so-called “certificate” which had to be obtained from the Town Clerk and cost the bearer 6 pennies. In a leading article The Friend of the Free State and Bloemfontein Gazette of 3 May 1883 echoed the sentiments of most white residents when it stated that those location residents who were residing in Waaihoek or Kaffirfontein “… without either ticket or master, should be unearthed and punished with a fine if they did not at once get a baas”. It boiled down to the following: without a baas [white employer] a black person had no right to reside in the locations because such living areas were exclusively for those who were in the full-time employ of whites. To deter black people from outside Bloemfontein to stay on and eventually reside in the locations, Municipal Notice No. 9 of 1884 (Image 4) informed “farmers and others” that no black person will be able to enter Bloemfontein “… unless provided with a Pass from his Master”. Not only was such a pass valid for one visit only but a special police force was formed to enforce this new regulation.

Image 4: The Bloemfontein Municipality’s Notice No. 9 of 1884. (Source:  The Friend of the Free State and Bloemfontein Gazette)

In order to enforce the pass system effectively, Bloemfontein’s Town Council increasingly resorted to police action in the form of raids and stop-and-searches. In 1883, The Friend of the Free State and Bloemfontein Gazette reported of a police raid in Waaihoek which saw “native servants” being marched to “… the Landdrost’s [Magistrate’s] office, because they had either lost their Municipal ticket, or because they had none”. The newspaper wryly referred to the inferior “card-board” ticket as a “badge of servitude”. Any employee who failed to comply with the ticket regulations was liable to a fine of “… from 6d. [pennies] to £2 sterling”. Because of the rapid increase of Bloemfontein’s black population, especially after the opening of the Cape Town-Johannesburg railway in 1890, the carrying of passes became a challenge to police because of the sheer numbers of those who had to be policed every day. Since 1895, Bloemfontein’s black population exceeded the white population. The challenges notwithstanding, the pass regime became the Town Council’s most effective tool to enforce influx control. Law No. 8 of 1893 confirmed this because Article 2 required every male and female location resident above the age of 16 to carry a “verblijf brief” (“residential pass”) at all times.

 During the 1890s, police raids in Waaihoek and Kaffirfontein had become a disturbingly regular phenomenon. In 1893, members of the municipal police made an “… inval op Waaihoek” (“raid on Waaihoek”) which saw 50 people arrested for not having an “Inboorling Ticket” (“Native Ticket”) on them. Because these raids and the concomitant arrestation of pass-less domestic servants greatly inconvenienced their white employers, Bloemfontein’s law enforcement officers were confronted with the latter’s “slechte humeuren” (“bad tempers”). While the police raids certainly angered Bloemfontein’s white employers who had to bail out their employees, the pass laws and police raids greatly disrupted the lives of location residents. In addition, they were subjected to police harassment and to the most brutal and inhumane treatment at the hands of law enforcement officers. Black people being marched off to Bloemfontein’s “Landdrost Hof” (“Magistrate’s Court”) like “driven cattle” was not an uncommon sight, to quote The Friend of the Free State and Bloemfontein Gazette.

Needless to say, the treatment Bloemfontein’s black residents received from the local police caused much indignation. Such was their outrage and discontent that a deputation from Waaihoek visited Bloemfontein’s Mayor, Mr S.P.J. Sowden[3] (Image 5) in 1897. Members of the deputation complained, among others, about “… children being stopped by the police and asked for their tickets”. The Mayor was surprised to learn that black children as young as 14 years required a ticket. Despite the deputation’s plea, the Mayor dismissed their grievances as “… more of sentiment” but, nevertheless, he promised to investigate the issue. Waaihoek residents who were familiar with the white political sentiment of that time did not expect much to come from this deputation. Therefore, some of them voiced their outrage by writing letters to the newspapers. One Waaihoek resident, who wrote under the pseudonym “Your Eye-witness”, did not mince his/her words when he/she complained about the police “… going into houses, dragging old women out”, among other things. This letter, titled “Native Cry”, echoed the emotions and sentiments of most location residents: “Is it a law to go inside the houses and catch people?”, they asked.

Image 5: Mayor S.P.J. Sowden, 1898. (Photo: National Museum)

Towards the end of the 19th century it appeared as if the question posed by “Your Eye-witness” remained unanswered, at least for Bloemfontein’s location residents. In fact, police raids in the locations and arrests of pass-less residents continued unabated while the authorities looked the other way. In June 1899 – mere months before the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War (1899–1902) – De Express reported of yet another police raid in Waaihoek where “…  forty natives, male and female” were arrested. The War brought more suffering and hardship for Bloemfontein’s black people who still had to carry passes. At the same time, however, the War also brought a glimmer of hope for them when it became evident that the British, and not the Boers, would be the conquerors and rulers in the Orange Free State capital.


De Express en Oranjevrijstaatsch/e Advertentieblad, 26.1.1882; 8.6.1882; 6.7.1897 & 13.6.1899.

Free State Provincial Archives: OR 38; OR 39 & OR 45, OVS Wetboeke en Ordonnansies, 1854–1899.

Schoeman, K. Bloemfontein: Die ontstaan van ’n stad, 1846–1946. Cape Town, 1980.

Schoeman, K. Imperiale somer: Suid-Afrika tussen Oorlog en Unie, 1902–1910. Pretoria, 2015.

Sekete, A.H. The history of the Mangaung (black) township. M.A. mini-dissertation, University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, 2004.

Simpson, T. History of South Africa: From 1902 to the present. Cape Town, 2021.

The Express and Orange Free State Advertiser, 26.10.1876.

The Friend of the Free State and Bloemfontein Gazette, 25.7.1872; 1.8.1872; 3.5.1883; 28.2.1884; 21.4.1893 & 9.3.1897.

 Van der Bank, D.A. Polisiemagte van die Vrystaatse Republiek, 1854–1900, Navorsinge van die Nasionale Museum, Bloemfontein 20(2), April 2004, pp. 21-42.

[1] In this article, the terms “black(s)” or “black people” refer to all people of colour who were legally and socially discriminated against on the basis of race.

[2] In the historical South African context, the term “location” referred to a segregated living area for people of colour. Locations – today known as “townships” – were usually situated on the margins of “whites-only” towns and cities.

[3] Sowden was Mayor of Bloemfontein from April 1896 to March 1898.

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