Thursday, 9 August 2012

The Discarded People by Cosmas Desmond (1971)

The Discarded People
by Cosmas Desmond 
Apartheid era South Africa was also one of the great
innovators in the ultimate form of marginalisation –
discarding. It discovered that it could discard “surplus” people. One of the classic books that exposed the horror of apartheid practice was Cosmas Desmond’s The Discarded People that described how several million Africans were removed from their homes in land that had been declared “white” They were categorised as ‘superfluous and ‘unproductive’. They were not needed in white cities, towns and farming areas. Declared aliens in the land of their birth
they were dumped in remote rural slums, areas for which the government took no responsibility.

Whoever was not seen as useful to the ‘European labour market’ – the aged, the unfit, widows, women with dependent children and families, and even professionals such as doctors, attorneys, agents, traders, industrialists, and so on who were “not essential for serving their compatriots in the European areas” – or who were in areas seen as “badly situated” were discarded. A circular from this time is summarised by Desmond (p. 39):

The circular deals also with the procedures for removing people. The ‘superfluous Africans from White urban areas will be sent normally to townships referred to under (b) or the ‘denser residential areas* under (c). They will continue to draw any pension which they may be eligible for. Supplementary rations may be provided. In the case of widows and women with dependent children who are still ‘fit for employment but have no income, opportunities of employment must either be created or they must be provided with rations. The latter is an undesirable principle and must be avoided as far as possible. Consequently work must be provided for these persons, no matter of how inferior a nature, such as cleaning streets, laying out and weeding sidewalks, planting and watering trees alongside the streets and cleaning cemeteries.... The cash wages of the breadwinner must preferably be the same throughout and it should not exceed R5 per month (about £3).

Little did we know that 35 years later the global economy that we had rejoined with such alacrity would be discarding surplus people on a universal scale that rendered our own attempts at inhumanity pitifully amateurish by comparison.

- an excerpt from a longer essay by John Aitchison. There is also an obituary for Cosmas Desmond by David Hemson here.