How to get a passport under apartheid By Akin Adesokan

If you want to obtain a passport in South Africa under the apartheid regime, this is what you go through:

“The Native Commissioner collects your application, together with three copies of each testimonial of character from some person of authority, and a letter from your wife or dependants saying they consent to your leaving; then you pay 100 pounds security. He, in his own good time, sends all the papers to the Chief Native Commissioner more than a hundred miles away in Pietersburg. He in turn and in his own good time sends the papers to the Native Affairs Department in Pretoria together with a duplicate of the local Commissioner’s recommendation. The Security Branch of the C.I.D. sends an independent report to the Native Affairs Department, which in turn forwards all the documents to the Secretary for the Interior… 

The process can take a year, or more, and there is no guarantee that you will obtain the passport. For the South African author and political activist, Es’kia Mphahlele, who went through this ordeal and recounted it in Down Second Avenue, the first volume of his autobiography, the wait lasted five months. That was because one of his referees, an African clergyman, intervened and spoke to the Chief of Police in the C.I.D., who invited the applicant for a private interview. Mphahlele was lucky, and managed to leave captive Azania for Nigeria in September 1957. 

This story has always intrigued me for a number of reasons. First, until it was legally demolished in the series of negotiations leading to and following the release of Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners in the early 1990s, the apartheid regime was, politically speaking, a pariah state. Few nations wanted to associate with it, and those few required a combination of legal maneuvers and sheer bravado to keep face. The elaborate ideology of separate development which provided rationale for apartheid was relentless challenged by a combination of force and political sanction. Yet both the pull and the push were possible because the regime operated rationally and in plain sight. The government used wrongs laws to survive, but it followed those laws scrupulously, as the process of obtaining travel documents reveals.

Second, this was also the state that sentenced Mandela and his comrades to life in gaol. In all the 27 years of his imprisonment, Mandela lived under the most physically and mentally enervating circumstances. The French author, Albert Camus, once wrote that a person kept away for that long would emerge mad or a killer. Mandela came out of jail a sane man. Above all, he came out alive. Apartheid, an irrational system, did not kill this man. Why not? Some say it was the fear of the political cost, high enough to bring down the system. Perhaps. But what if it tried, as an act of political gamesmanship?

Third, the ruler of Nigeria during Mandela’s presidency was General Sani Abacha, operator of another irrational system. Under Abacha, the Nigerian state became a terrorist state. Abacha and his henchmen ruled with impunity, carrying out murders, assassinations, and purges with the resources of the state. It didn’t matter if you were in jail, a legal ward of the state itself. Jailed General Shehu Yar’Adua did not live to offer testimony. He was murdered by those whose duty it was to keep him safe.

That military regime had about as much legitimacy as the apartheid state. In every sense, it was a freebooters’ state. It did as it pleased. It was easier to undermine that system than it was to undermine the apartheid system, though for all sorts of legal and moral reasons, comparison between the two cannot be taken very far. This presents the fourth reason for the appeal of Mphahlele’s passport story.

Nigeria now operates as a democratic republic, supposedly light years away from the irrationalities of apartheid and militarist terror. Yet it does what apartheid never dared, making political assassinations part of an everyday culture in ways that show Abacha’s method to be commonplace. In democratic Nigeria, politics is a daily encounter with death, to paraphrase the Cameroonian scholar Achille Mbembe.

The recent assassination of Comrade Olaitan Oyerinde, the Principal Private Secretary of the governor of Edo State, is only a more spectacular example of a routine practice. The problem is not so much that the culprits are forever hidden in plain sight as that such impunity is a defining feature of our predators’ republic. Given such a reality, condemning the evils of apartheid becomes mere academic exercise, undertaken for the bureaucratic hell of it. Why rail against such a system, except to tally up the figures, when a far more heedless reality menaces us?

We can’t defend Abacha, and we can’t defend Nigeria as it is.

Akin Adesokan, a former reporter, is a published writer and professor of comparative literature at the University of Indiana in the United States of America.


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