South Africa

South Africa

The Dompas 2.0: Apartheid’s big comeback attempt gets serious

The Dompas 2.0: Apartheid’s big comeback attempt gets serious

The unloved Apartheid-era Pass Laws act of 1952 insisted that blacks over the age of 16 had to carry a passbook. That policy ended in 1986, and Section 21 of the South African Constitution enshrines freedom of movement. Yet in the Western Cape city of Worcester, the local police recently implemented a green card system that forced informal workers to register with a station. Not only was this illegal, it revived an ancient and hated system of tracking and managing black men who hoped to work inside white neighbourhoods. The dompas has made a comeback. But not just in the Western Cape—it’s in Gauteng, too, and its enforcers aren’t who you’d think they’d be. By RICHARD POPLAK.

The city of Worcester, the early stomping ground of South Africa’s only living Nobel Literature laureate, recently dragged a chunk of history into the maelstrom of the present. J.M. Coetzee’s old hometown—or more specifically, the part of his hometown designated as Sector 4—was outed last week by the Daily Voice for issuing “green cards” to itinerant workers hoping to work in better (AKA wealthier) neighbourhoods. The cards are little more than a strip of green laminate emblazoned with a mug shot, a date of birth, and an expiry date.

And yet they are much, much more than that.

Now, we could waste the rest of the week counting the ways in which this new card is similar to the old dompas, the most obvious element in the Apartheid-era system that forbade black South Africans from moving around the country unless their itinerary was signed off by a baas. We could point out how the green card is a gross violation of Section 21 of the South African Constitution, which guarantees freedom of movement to all citizens regardless of race or economic status. But I’d rather consider the implications of an e-mailed press statement pinged off late last Friday afternoon, one that was bound to get lost in the beer and braaivleis fumes already engulfing this distracted, distractable nation.

Issued by DA Gauteng Shadow MEC for Community Safety Kate Lorimer, and written in perfectly piqued Democratic Alliance-ese, the statement began, “I am horrified at Gauteng Community Safety MEC, Sizakele Nkosi-Malobane’s letter in The Star on Friday which set out an unacceptable recommendation to deal with rural safety issues in Gauteng.”

Sizakele Nkosi-Malobane

Photo: Gauteng Community safety MEC Sizakele Nkosi-Malobane has been accused of violating the Gauteng legislature’s code of conduct and ethics. Photo: eNCA / Lenyaro Sello

The letter that so appalled MEC Lorimer was titled, “Holistic strategy needed to make rural communities safe.” Sent to the paper by MEC Nkosi-Malobane, and published in The Star last Friday afternoon, it detailed the ins-and-outs of a Rural Safety Summit convened the previous weekend by the Gauteng Department of Community Safety, the National Civilian Secretariat for Police, the Gauteng Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, the Transvaal Agricultural Union, Agri S.A, the African Farmers Union of South Africa, Agri Gauteng and the Farmers Workers Union. This is about as Rainbowish an agglomeration of humans as the Earth has ever seen—the very essence of the new New South Africa is contained within this gathering. But don’t get excited just yet: take a look at the summit’s recommendations, and keep in mind where the (bolded by yours truly) dompas bombshell sits in an otherwise anodyne and non-specific list of to-dos and never-will-happens:

  • Establishment of rural safety unit per rural station

  • Plot numbering linked with the cell number of the farm owner, so as to ensure safety on the farms and improve accessibility for policing

  • Allocation of proper rural vehicle for rural policing

  • Constant communication between SAPS Rural Safety Coordinator(s) and Rural Safety Forum Chairperson

  • Safety Forums to incorporate municipality as per the area’s needs


  • Induction of both farmers and workers on labour law by the Department of Labour, to minimise abuse of workers

  • Farmers working together across racial lines

  • Government must build or improve on social services such as schools, clinics and recreational facilities in rural areas

  • Education and awareness drive on the Criminal Justice System in rural areas.

  • Education and awareness drive on AgriBEE, so as to empower workers

So during a weekend of talk-shopping and consensus building, South Africans from across the ideological, social, racial and economic spectrum, on their own and without any obvious prompting from History’s muse, came up with—drum roll!— the dompas. Ideologues and boers and politicians and farm workers and union hacks and coffee stirrers and aides and aides aides—they all agreed that a pass book for informal workers would be a splendid idea.

The French make pastries, the Italians make pasta, the Saudis drill oil, the Brits produce willowy princesses with eating disorders.

South Africans? We make oppression.

* * *

You don’t have to be Director General of the Bob Woodward School for Investigative Journalism to scheme that the timing of the Gauteng MEC’s letter to The Star jibed ever so seamlessly with the Worcester story. Because Lorimer unwisely issued her press statement on a Friday afternoon, no outlet picked it up, and so it was just about lost to the sands of time. But there were questions. Why, I wondered, would the Gauteng community safety minister and a long-time member of the ANC get behind a list like this in the first place?

So I asked her—numerous times, with great insistence—but no one at her office got back to me. Lorimer, however, did. When I spoke with her on Tuesday afternoon, she told me that she raised the issue in the Gauteng legislature during her St. Patrick’s Day address (she went on about “Human Rights Day”, but who was she kidding?)

As is mandatory for all speeches made in all legislatures by all DA lawmakers, Lorimer quoted Helen Suzman. Then she said, “Profile cards are an infringement of a person’s constitutional right to dignity, to freedom of movement and the right to equality. They are also a fundamental contradiction to the ANC’s own founding document. This recommendation must be condemned and withdrawn.”

According to Lorimer, MEC Nkosi-Malobane was not present for most of the session, but popped up like a fairy godmother in a huff to dispute the fact that she’d ever advocated for the profile cards she’d clearly advocated for. (Nkosi-Malobane is not, how shall we say, particularly engaged.) “She was clearly blindsided by the issue,” Lorimer told me. “That workshop held about rural safety happened the week before the whole thing blew up in Worcester. It makes you think that someone has put the profile card issue on the table—the SAPS, the ANC, someone.”

Ah, the mysterious “someone”.

And yet, Lorimer may have a point. Given half a chance Helen Zille would have Robocops shooting laser-guided microchips up the butts of every last human in this country, but in this case she can take no credit for the incremental implementation of the Surveillance State—the Worcester green card “programme” was initiated by the Sector 4 Community Policing Forum and signed off by a sector commander named Sergeant Julian Plaatjies. The ANC tried to score some cheap political points by bleating on Twitter, “Members of SAPS are called upon not to allow racist bigotry of the CPF & DA run Municipality to trample the freedoms our people fought for.” But this careful sophistry did nothing to hide the fact that the blame for the unwelcome resurgence of the dompas might land squarely at the ruling party’s feet.

Which it most certainly has, at least in Gauteng.

I spoke briefly with Zakhele Mbhele, the DA Deputy Shadow Minister for Police and a member of the Police Portfolio Committee, who told me that he was present last Wednesday at a committee meeting presided over by National Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega. In an e-mail, Mabhele wrote that the commishioner claimed to have looked into the Worcester debacle, and found that it had been “initiated by the Sector 4 Community Policing Forum (CPF) in collaboration with the local SAPS. The CPF plan had been agreed to in July 2014 by an acting Sergeant in command at the time.”

This should surprise no-one, given the SAPS’s propensity for shooting taxpayers with taxpayer-bought bullets from taxpayer-bought guns. Mabhele says he isn’t sure if there is a de facto link between the Worcester green card debacle and the Gauteng Rural Safety Committee proposal, but that hardly matters, because the conceptual link requires is so plainly obvious. “The fact is that such extreme measures are gaining currency because the SAPS suffers longstanding under-resourcing, under-staffing and skills deficiencies on the ground to ensure effective crime prevention and crime-solving,” wrote Mabhele. “I imagine that local SAPS management in some areas is only too happy to co-operate with community-based security initiatives that they think can compensate for their being left in the lurch by their senior management.”

* * *

It’s kind of odd that South Africans—of all configurations, from all walks of life and over the course of many centuries—keep finding ways to invent Apartheid. Let’s break this recent episode down into its constituent parts: because they can’t, and therefore won’t do their jobs, a highly dysfunctional police service came up with the brilliant idea of registering itinerant workers seeking employment in the wealthier neighbourhoods of a Western Cape city with a long history of brutal, racial repression.

On the other end of the country, an alphabet soup of government institutions and special interest groups, led by the provincial ANC government—among their number those who claim to be the political descendants of the drafters of the Freedom Charter—decided that a great way to increase safety in rural areas beset by crime was to “create profile cards to be registered at a local station.”

It occurred to very few people, in either Worcester or Gauteng, that freedom of movement is enshrined in the Constitution, which is really another way of saying that the Constitution isn’t enshrined in the governing framework of those who lead this country. And if the old Apartheid was a means of creating an underclass by enforcing racial segregation, this new Apartheid is a means of maintaining that underclass by enforcing economic segregation.

Sometimes people ask me whether South Africa will look like Zimbabwe in twenty years, and I try not to laugh my ass off. No, friendo, South Africa will not look like Zimbabwe in twenty years, but Cape Town now—or Sandton, or any place in the country that functions as a core of impenetrable wealth ring-fenced by poverty. In other words, South Africa already looks like what South Africa will look like in twenty years—we’re just in the process of formalising it.

And these two dompas proposals certainly help the cause.

The future’s here, baby! That it looks very much like the past is because the past was perfect. It was the perfect way to run a surveillance state that maintained racial distinctions in the service of Almighty Capital. That the dompas is currently unconstitutional doesn’t make it illogical. No, it’s the height of logic: it makes no sense to allow poor black saps into clean white neighbourhoods unless there is some means of tracing their movements in case they get all murdery after trimming hedges for R7 an hour. Why did the Gauteng ANC, the local SAPS in two provinces, a community police outfit and a range of special interest groups on two ends of the country reinvent the passbook simultaneously?

Sixty-nine people lost their lives protesting pass laws in Sharpeville in 1960—Apartheid’s early death knell—and yet here we are again. The dompas is written into the DNA of this place. DM

Main photo: Dompas ver 1.0 and 2.o


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