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In his novel, The Go-Between (1953), Leslie P. Hartley wrote “the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there”. Although Hartley referred to British society at the end of the Victorian era, his famous quote is also relevant to South Africa and other countries that have experienced drastic socio-political changes. The fact that the past is described as “a foreign country” means it can never be fully understood by us who live in the present age because we do not belong there. Post-1994 democratic South Africa and pre-1994 apartheid South Africa are indeed two very different countries. For those who grew up in the former, the latter is “a foreign country”.

Today, the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa (1996) is the cornerstone of our democracy and the foundation on which the present dispensation rests. The Bill of Rights (Chapter 2) “enshrines the rights of all people in our country and affirms the democratic values of human dignity, equality and freedom”. It is hard to believe that before 1994 black[1] people did not enjoy the basic human rights and freedoms South Africans take for granted such as the right to vote; freedom of movement; the right to have one’s dignity respected; the right to privacy; and the right to reside anywhere in the Republic, to name a few.

The National Party, which came to power in 1948, used its racist apartheid policies and practices to suppress the majority of South Africans and deny them the basic human rights that are annually celebrated on Human Rights Day. Apartheid laws and regulations were used as instruments to control and monitor black people. The Natives (Urban Areas) Act (1923) mandated all towns and cities in the Union of South Africa (est. 1910) to establish “native locations”[2] where only the employed was housed and from which the unemployed was banned. Those who were not welcome in “whites-only” towns and cities had to eke out a living in the impoverished “native reserves” and later in the black “homelands”.

Location residents were subjected to a host of discriminatory apartheid regulations that affected every aspect of their lives. Batho or Batho Location (est. 1918), as Mangaung’s (Bloemfontein) oldest surviving township is known, was no exception. Oral historians of the National Museum’s Department of History have conducted interviews with elderly Batho residents for whom apartheid was a daily lived reality. Therefore, this article endorses oral history as “lived practice”, to quote oral historian Sean Field. The interviews – conducted over a period of ten years – have yielded detailed accounts of the interviewees’ personal experiences. Direct quotes from interviews paint a vivid picture of what it was like to be on the receiving end of apartheid oppression and discrimination.

Although racial segregation and discrimination were enforced by Dutch and British colonial authorities long before the National Party came to power, the post-1948 apartheid regulations were vigorously implemented. These measures were enforced with an iron fist by apartheid bureaucrats, notably the police, right through the fifties, sixties, seventies, and eighties. Most interviewees have experienced oppression and discrimination during all four decades. One of them is long-time Batho resident Moitheri L. Machogo (b. 1949). She explained how apartheid laws and regulations were tightened after 1961 when South Africa became a republic: “Apartheid was there but not as ‘open’ as it became after the republic [came into being] because even during that time when the British was [sic] in power, it was there but ‘mild’. After that; that was when the Boers told themselves that we were kaffirs[3], you understand?”

Pass laws, passbooks and platkeps

Although Bloemfontein’s black residents have been compelled by municipal regulation to carry some form of reference document as early as 1872, it was only after 1948 that the hated “passes” or “passbooks” were introduced. The Natives (Abolition of Passes and Co-ordination of Documents) Act (1952), commonly known as the Pass Laws Act, made it compulsory for all black people between the ages of 16 and 65 to carry a “reference book” at all times when they resided in apartheid South Africa. Juliet M. Bokala (b. 1928) recalled the time when she and her family were first issued with passes: “We didn’t want to take these passes but we were forced to take the passes. Everyone got a book like this, a pass”.

Another Batho resident, Alinah S. Motleleng (b. 1938), recalled that all black people were “expected to carry that identity document called dompas”. The dompas, a colloquial term for a passbook, was a rectangular black booklet (Image 1) that permitted the carrier’s presence in a location and specified the conditions under which the person could stay there. A passbook contained several pages with information on the carrier’s “group” (ethnic group) and “tribe” to which he or she belonged (Image 2); marital status; name of husband, wife, parent or guardian; residential address; and name and address of employer(s). Rabokanana J. Ketela (b. 1938) recalled that in his passbook was also “written the [house] number where you stay”, among others. “You see, this number, if they catch you [sleeping] at the next door, next, next house … its trouble!” Rabokanana recalled that offenders had to pay a hefty fine: “[If] they catch you, you are going to pay two rand, two times”. He understood only later why “sleeping next door” was considered an offence!         

Image 1: The cover of a reference book or passbook that belonged to a Batho resident, 1958. (Source: National Museum) 

Image 2: The first page of a typical passbook contained the carrier’s personal information. (Source: National Museum)

The “they” which Rabokanana referred to are the notorious municipal policemen who were responsible for enforcing the pass laws. In Batho these policemen were called platkeps because of the shape of their caps. The Pass Laws Act gave the platkeps extensive power over the movement and lodgings of black people. They could demand at any time and at any place to see a person’s passbook and checked if it was up to date and whether or not the person was “legal” or “illegal”. Juliet Bokala described the horror of an unexpected stop-and-search: “I remember one morning, when I got to work … there were many people standing there, policemen. They wanted our passes. When you don’t have a pass you must stand there [and wait] the whole day. Someone was arrested because she didn’t have a passbook. Oh, that law, it was terrible!”

All passes and permits, such as a permit to seek work, had to be obtained, renewed, and paid for at the local pass office which, in Batho’s case, was located on Lovedale Road (Image 3). Tsoeu J. Khoarela (b. 1919), who lived in Batho “for a long time”, remembered Batho’s pass office well: “I also had my reference book from the same place [pass office]. Most of my documentation indicates that it was done in Batho”. Tsametse Leeuw (b. 1940) recalled that Batho residents jokingly called the pass office “Ten Hall”: “Yes, we called it ‘Ten Hall’ because its original name was ‘Town Hall’”. Tsametse explained that Batho’s first pass office “was situated next door to Mapikela House [Thomas M. Mapikela’s double-storey house in Community Road]. Then it was transferred to Lovedale Road when they built a new building”. For Tsametse and the other interviewees Batho’s pass office triggered painful memories of humiliation and hardship: “When you did not pay [house rent or permit fees] then you were taken there; then you will be charged and sometimes when you had money you would be able to pay for the release of your loved one by paying that charge and rent”.

Image 3: An unknown couple in front of the pass office on Lovedale Road, Batho, c. 1970s. (Photo: National Museum)

Image 4: Batho’s old pass office building repurposed as a crèche and day care centre, 2013. (Photo: National Museum)

Lodger’s permits and house raids

Tsametse Leeuw’s mention of “release” is significant in this context because people who were caught breaking apartheid laws were arrested by the platkeps and locked up. Most arrests related to people who were not in possession of a “lodger’s permit”, also known among Batho residents as lodges or lojas. For Rabokanana Ketela it was the “sleeping next door” permit! Nomvula R. Ntuli (b. 1938) explained the purpose of the lodger’s permit: “Even if you were my visitor, I was not supposed to let you stay overnight before I go to the office [pass office] to ask for ‘days’. If you arrived late at night, I had to take you to the blockman to get a permission letter”.

Permanent Batho residents had to be in possession of a “residential permit” and if they wanted to host visitors, a lodger’s permit had to be obtained and paid for. This permit allowed guests to stay for seven days. During office hours such a permit could be obtained at the pass office but after hours the local ward councillor, also known as a blockman, had to issue the permit. Moitheri Machogo recalled that lodger’s permits were meticulously checked and both the host and the visitor could be arrested for wrongdoing: “… when the platkeps came that they found your visitor having that letter [lodger’s permit]; and if that visitor does not have the letter, the host will get arrested. The letter would become lodges and if your visitor does not have it, that person will get arrested”.

It was not uncommon for neighbours to spy on each other and report unauthorised visitors to the local blockman who, in turn, alerted the platkeps. This could lead to the dreaded house raids that typically happened in the early hours of the morning. Nomathamsanqa S. Thebe (b. 1961) recalled such a frightening visit: “… one Saturday morning we heard a knock and they [police] just opened. I tried to hide under [the] bed but they had seen me. They dragged me out by the leg and put me in the bakkie [police van]”. Offenders were taken to the Batho police station where they had to pay a fine of R1,00. Mateboho D. Modiroa (b. 1941) testified that one of her worst childhood memories involved seeing “municipal police drive around the location [Batho] arresting others while you [offender] are sitting at the back of the van”.

Loitering and loaferskap

Another offense that could lead to arrest was the issue of loitering and idleness, commonly referred to by apartheid bureaucrats as loaferskap. It referred to a position of being unemployed, i.e. being an “idle native”, to quote apartheid language. Long-time Batho resident Florie M. Makhabe (b. 1958) recalled that in the apartheid years “it was illegal to hang around without a job. You could hardly see individuals hanging around the location [Batho] doing nothing”. People who arrived in Batho looking for employment had to obtain a special permit allowing them to be in the location for only 72 hours to actively look for a job. Hilda K. Motsamai (b. unknown) recalled that work seekers were not allowed to loiter because they “would be arrested for that”. She testified that “after they [police] arrested you they will find work for you somewhere”. According to Florie, whose brother was arrested a number of times for loaferskap, “somewhere” often meant manual labour on a potato farm.

The evening curfew and “steam train siren”

Finally, it was deemed an offense for a black person to be in the “whites-only” town after 21h00 at night. As early as 1894 municipal regulations protected white Bloemfontein residents from location residents by enforcing an evening curfew. This curfew was kept in place until the 1980s. Tsametse Leeuw recalled the loud siren that went off to warn black people to rush back to the location: “In town there was this ‘steam train whistle’ [siren] 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”. Batho residents were also not allowed out in the location’s streets after 22h00 at night. Needless to say, the platkeps patrolled the streets and arrested those found outside.


While some apartheid laws, such as the Pass Laws Act, were repealed during the late 1980s, the bulk of it was only removed from the law books during the mid-1990s. Personal experiences of these laws as a lived reality are not only permanently ingrained in the Batho interviewees’ memories of the apartheid past but such experiences have also left permanent emotional scars. Being degraded and dehumanised caused a sense of injustice which, some interviewees argue, has not been adequately addressed yet. The last word belongs to Moses B. Kgoroge (b. unknown) who felt that they were “arrested for nothing really, having done nothing [wrong]”. For this reason he argued that “we must get compensated, the ones that were arrested for loaferskap”.


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

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

The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996. Department of Justice and Constitutional Development. Pretoria, 2004.

[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 fringes of “whites-only” towns and cities.

[3] A derogatory and offensive term used by some whites to refer to people of African origin.

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