Apartheid South Africa: An Interview with Colin Wes

By Shinnosuke Shigenaga and Shiori Nemeto, special guest writers.

Colin Wes. Photograph courtesy of Colleen Dishy.

Colin Wes. Photograph courtesy of Colleen Dishy.

Tell us about yourself and your life here in America.

I work for Costco, and I have been with them for 28 years. I am a buyer and work for corporate headquarters. When we first came to America, we didn’t have jobs, and we had 4 children. Our youngest was 9 months old. I was very lucky that I found a job with Costco. I grew and developed with Costco. Colleen, my wife, was fortunate to get on board with Cornish College’s Junior Preparatory Dance as a ballet teacher. She loved teaching and loved Cornish. A lot of doors and windows have opened for us and we are grateful to be American.

Colleen Dishy

Colin Wes and his family, newly immigrated to the United States. He references his wife Colleen Dishy (in light blue blouse) throughout this interview. Dishy’s father, Les Dishy, a contemporary of Nelson Mandela, was a former mayor of Johannesburg who was sympathetic to the anti-apartheid cause. Photograph courtesy of Colleen Dishy.

What was it like growing up in apartheid for friendships?

Well, first of all, our schools were segregated. I went to a whites only school. Not only did I go to a whites only school, I went to a boys only school. There was no interaction with black children my own age. There were stories of kids developing life lasting friendships. But for the most part, the South African government did not want black and white children to integrate. It was also illegal for whites and blacks to intermingle [interracial sex]. And of course, there was no question of interracial marriages.

What were the things that troubled you the most about apartheid? How did you try to change them?

This is a very complex question because it was not only the part that apartheid was a very unfair system, you developed an acute paranoia about being a South African. You would say that you were from England because you were too embarrassed to say that you were South African. The perception of the rest of the world was that all white South Africans were racist. But in reality, there were a lot of us who were against the system. There were a couple of main factions of white South Africans. The first were Afrikaans speaking (Dutch). The next were British English speaking, immigrants who came to South Africa (i.e. Eastern Europe): they adopted the English/British culture. Almost exclusively the first language throughout South Africa was English, even though Afrikaans was official language. However, we all had to learn Afrikaans in school. In 1976, there were huge riots over the mere use of the Afrikaans language. Anti-apartheid activists were angry that kids were forced to learn classes in Afrikaans (considered the language of oppressor). English was considered the language of the rest of the integrated world. Lots of people in South Africa did nothing to change the system. There was a sense of overwhelming helplessness. You could be nice to black people you came in contact with and be branded as a troublemaker. Those people labeled as anti-apartheid activists got into trouble with police, went into exile, and got murdered on a regular basis.

Japan was one of the only countries that traded with South  Africa during apartheid. How did this affect the goods available in South Africa during this time?

This was something that I was very much aware of because I was in the retail trade. Most countries were not doing business with South Africa at the time. This was because of pressure from the United Nations and from President Reagan. Many organizations disinvested, for example, the University of Washington cut off ties with South Africa. Lots of European countries, as well as America, had previously invested in gold mines. Johannesburg was built on the basis of gold. That’s how Johannesburg became big city. I was aware because I had a relative who was doing business with  Japan at the time. There were a lot of Japanese goods. Sony, Nikon. They were all there. In those days there were very little Chinese goods available. When something was Japanese it was made in Japan. We were actually making Japanese cars that were being exported to Japan. In South Africa, they drive on the left side of the road. South Africa would make Toyotas and export these vehicles to Japan and other countries where they drive on the other side of the road. There was a real big industry between Japan and other countries. There still is today, though there is a lot of Chinese infiltration. The Chinese are taking advantage of opportunities in South Africa, and they are buying huge amounts of property. It’s common knowledge that South Africa is currently owned by the Chinese.

What was the purpose of apartheid?

I think there were a few reasons for apartheid. First, there was the air of superiority. This originated from missionaries that originally came to Africa. They regarded blacks as “uncivilized” and themselves as “better”. Another reason for apartheid was that the white government that came into power in 1948 realized that blacks would soon overrun them in terms of numbers. By creating apartheid, which they called separate development, the white government thought they could secure their own future as the dominant group.  If you have 4 million people versus 40 million people, it’s simply not very realistic to think that you could be the dominant group long term. Another reason for apartheid was fear. The apartheid architects thought if they could control, they would be able to prevent the “other” from overwhelming them. But they were wrong. However, I would like to caution you that to ask what was the purpose of apartheid is similar to asking what was the purpose of World War II. These are big questions. There is no easy answer.

Tell us about apartheid on a daily basis.

We saw discrimination every single day. Black people needed paperwork to give them permission to simply walk in the street. We saw on a regular basis police vans pulling up to random black people. We saw them  (the police) haul South African black citizens without the proper paperwork to the back of these police vans. The vans – they were called the Black Mariahs. They were arresting people en masse. Growing up, I had experiences in our own house where we had employees who were black, and the police broke down the gate and wanted to know who was on premises. They would barge in with their demanding questions: “Who are you? Where is your paperwork?” Only the blacks got harassed like this, never the whites. On a daily basis the whites in South Africa would work alongside black people. However, blacks were getting paid 20 percent of what the whites were getting paid. There were also fewer privileges for blacks at work in other ways. For example, we had a cafeteria in our workplace. There was a separate place for whites to eat (and the whites’ cafeteria had more amenities, from the menu to the furniture). This comprehensive and systematic discrimination was about separate development. Whites were considered the privileged race and had a better deal in every way. For example, if there was a bus service the government would take the old, falling apart busses, transfer them to the segregated black circuits, and buy new ones for whites. Because whites were considered superior, they got the best of everything.

If you broke the law regarding apartheid or helped others break the law under apartheid, what kind of punishment would happen?

This is a broad question. One of many examples was how the government would respond when someone who was outspoken was branded a troublemaker by the government. Police would arrest this person and would interrogate them in a terrifying fashion. Very often these people would disappear. They would be arrested under very suspicious circumstances, and then there would be no trace of them. We all knew that they were killed. One of the activists who was branded as a troublemaker who was the famous Steve Biko. It was  approximately 1978 when Steve Biko had a very large following: he was very outspoken and he organized protest marches. He had become representative to the international community as the leader to end apartheid. The government arrested him numerous times. One day, he was arrested and taken to police headquarters, where he was tortured to death. Biko’s death was a terror tactic. The police were immune to prosecution because South Africa became a police state and the police controlled everything that happened.

Tell us how your family were connected with the anti-apartheid movement.

Colleen’s youngest sister  attended the university in Johannesburg. While she was a student, there was a mass protest about someone having been arrested/disappeared. All the students protesting were arrested and thrown into jail. My brother in law was involved in a team of lawyers sympathetic towards anti-apartheid activists, and helped the students out of jail. Mass arrests of students happened a lot. This struck hold because of Colleen’s sister. Colleen’s father [Les Dishy] was an active politician. He represented the Progressive Party. The Progressive Party was anti-government, but operated within the realms of legality to have some semblance of democracy. They had a small role in Parliament because they were always squashed by the government majority. Whenever he [Les Dishy] saw black man or woman abused for any reason, he at his own risk intervene, often ordering police to “let them be.” Dishy never got arrested, but we know that the secret police were watching him. If you look at the records from this time, it reminds us of Nazi Germany, where S.S. were watching everybody. They were, particularly people who were outspoken against the apartheid government.

Colleen’s father eventually became mayor of the South African city of Johannesburg. During the last of the apartheid years, Dishy was the mayor of Johannesburg and did whatever he could do to alleviate the unfairness of apartheid in the city of Johannesburg and anywhere else where he could be effective. When [Les] was sick in the hospital, Nelson Mandela heard about this in his entourage and came to the hospital to visit him on his deathbed and thank him for his work. Colleen did meet Mandela, and there are all kinds of indirect ties to Mandela to our family. Colleen’s cousin was engaged to Mandela’s daughter at one point. My brother in law, an attorney, was involved in the trial where Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment. My brother in law was on the defense team. It was a very serious trial, because Mandela was a black man who was being accused of treason. The defense knew that he would be convicted; therefore the defense’s chief goal was to prevent the death sentence, because in South Africa that was the penalty for treason. They were positive Mandela would get a conviction for treason, so their main goal was to mitigate the sentence, which turned out to be life imprisonment instead.

What were segregated neighborhoods like, and how did it affect the population?

Imagine Downtown Seattle as a whites only area. During the day, blacks would come and work but at night they had to leave to their homes in townships.  In our case, it was Soweto. These townships were areas where black people lived without housing, electricity, and running water. They had to get up early in the morning while whites slept in their fancy suburbs. The blacks were there to serve the whites. The whole horrible concept of apartheid was that black man was there to serve him [the whites]. We all lived double lives. We worked side by side during the day, joked around, and interacted like normal people and at night they went the blacks went away. This was a strange situation because of forced apartheid. It was gratifying to us when we came to America and didn’t experience that. It was a huge sense of freedom we had not experienced before.

The Wes children as adults.

The Wes children as adults. Photograph courtesy of Colleen Dishy

What kind of long term effects of apartheid remains today in South Africa?

When Mandela was finally freed and they negotiated, the prime minister negotiated for free elections. 1994 was the first year where there were free elections in South Africa. Lots of people thought there would be a bloodbath. I thought it would happen. I was amazed and grateful that there was a relatively nonviolent transition to a new majority government.

However, the transition was not without challenges. Mandela had spoken of equal housing, job opportunities, and the reality was that after apartheid ended, the social inequities did not end. The rich got richer, poor got poorer, and there remains still lots of unemployment. The stark reality of recovering from apartheid was that at the time apartheid ended, South Africa had a population of 40 million, 4 million of whom were whites. To provide work, housing, and general infrastructure for 40 million people recovering from a system that was designed for only for 4 million people was impossible to achieve in the short term. A lot of promises were made and not yet delivered.

However, if you look at the big scheme of things, if a country is only 20 years old, it’s only the beginning. In time the country will catch up. In time, equality will emerge. People will have more opportunities. Mandela was a fantastic leader, and he not only inspired black people to embrace this new South Africa but whites as well. He was only in power for 5 years and I think he did a wonderful job. But given the fact that he was aging and needed to make room for a younger man, unfortunately the two presidents who followed him were not as successful in bringing the country together.

The current South African president is named Jacob Zuma. He has been accused of corruption. He used public money to build lavish mansions. He has 11 wives. He is very much an inadequate leader and a very corrupt leader. This is unfortunate because what South Africa needs right now is a strong leader like Mandela who can guide the country and can keep the things on a positive road.

After the independence, South Africa had a reconciliation program where people spoke about what had happened. This was a great program. Truth and reconciliation occurred through this process. White police that had been responsible for atrocities came forward and spoke about what they did and begged for forgiveness. South Africa could be a great model for the rest of the world, but it will take more time.

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