What was everyday life like for Bloemfontein’s black people under apartheid? For young people, especially those born after 1994, it will be hard to imagine life under apartheid laws and regulations. Many elderly black residents of Bloemfontein’s old townships, especially Batho and Bochabela, still have vivid but unpleasant and often traumatic memories of a time in their lives when they were subjected to apartheid discrimination. Some of them have shared their “apartheid memories”, so to speak, with staff of the National Museum’s History Department. This and future Facebook “glimpses” will briefly focus on life under apartheid and the hardships Bloemfontein’s black people had to endure during that tragic period (1948-1994) in South Africa’s history.
Life under apartheid had its distinctive sights, smells, and sounds. If there ever was a sound that was emblematic of apartheid-era Bloemfontein, it must have been the night curfew bell that announced the start of the curfew. Bloemfontein’s night curfew and so-called “Curfew bell” date back to the 1860s when it rang a couple of minutes before 21h00 warning black people to leave the whites-only areas at once. Those who worked as full-time “servants” (term used for domestic workers) for whites could sleep over at their employers’ premises. However, part-time “servants” who had to work late needed a special permit or “night pass” signed by their employers.
Municipal “constables” patrolled Bloemfontein’s streets until midnight and if a black person was “found under suspicious circumstances or not”, to quote a local newspaper, they were arrested and had to spend the night in jail. In the 1870s the curfew was moved to 20h00 but this new “eight o’clock bell” rule drew the ire of inconvenienced white employers. The “masters” and “mistresses” (terms used for white employers) of the unfortunate black employees who were arrested and jailed had to wait until 10h00 the following morning before they could bail them out.
The curfew was subsequently moved back to 21h00 and, seemingly, it had remained at that time for the duration of the apartheid period. Between 21h00 and 5h00 in the morning no black person was allowed in “the town or on the town lands”. Elderly black residents can still remember the loud wailing of the dreaded curfew siren that went off near Harvey Road at 20h45 every night. Residents jokingly called the siren the “steam train whistle” because it sounded like a locomotive’s whistle. Black people who happened to be outside the township boundaries when the siren went off had to run home with all their might or risk arrest.
View of Bloemfontein’s old power station and cooling towers where the night curfew siren went off every night. (Photo: Derek du Bruyn)
Long-time Batho resident Tsametse Leeuw vividly remembered the curfew siren: “In town there was this steam train whistle that would go off at 8h45 pm, and as a black person you had to clear yourself out of town. If 9h00 pm hit while you were in town, you would get arrested”. Tsoeu Khoarela remembered that the siren went off exactly at “fifteen minutes before nine in the evening” without fail. Shuping Dibe, now deceased, testified that once the siren started wailing there was no time for anything else but running towards the townships: “You had to leave, they [police] ask you [for] a night pass; if you haven’t got it, they arrest you”. For those who had the necessary permit or “night pass”, it was not a matter of saved by the bell but rather saved by a night pass!
Text: Dr Derek du Bruyn, Historian, National Museum.
Free State Provincial Archives: MBL 1/2/4/1/6, Location Regulations framed by the Town Council of Bloemfontein under section 23(3) of the Natives (Urban Areas) Act no. 21 of 1923, p. 7.
National Museum Oral History Collection: S.C. Dibe, 26 May 2008, T.J. Khoarela, 23 October 2008; T. Leeuw, 29 January 2016.
The Friend of the Free State and Bloemfontein Gazette, 5 February 1864, p. 3; 30 May 1878, p. 3.