What was a ‘Bantustan’?

A map of South Africa and Namibia showing the locations of the former Black 'homeland' statelets known as Bantustans.
Map of the ‘Bantustans’ or Black ‘homelands’ in the 1980s. All these areas have been re-incorporated into South Africa and Namibia since the end of Apartheid. Source: Wikipedia.

Last week it was revealed that the Australian politician Alexander Downer, who had been foreign secretary and high commissioner to the UK, had made a speech to an audience in Europe which advocated that refugees not be allowed to settle permanently in Australia (or, presumably, any other host country) and accused those who settled in Australia of living “a kind of Bantustan-style life totally separate from the rest of the mainstream of Australia (sic)” and setting up “separate ghettoes”. The conference was hosted in Hungary and was also addressed by Victor Orban (somewhat euphemistically described as “ultra-conservative”), former Czech leader Vaclav Havel and former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, i.e. a who’s who of European bigots and reactionaries who have achieved power. The use of the term ‘Bantustan’ as if it were a synonym of ‘ghetto’ shows appalling ignorance.

‘Bantustans’ were the statelets set up by the Apartheid regime in South Africa where Black people were expected to live: they were deemed to be citizens of these statelets, not of South Africa itself, and many people were forcibly relocated from their homes in other parts of South Africa to these statelets, much as many other non-whites were forcibly relocated to slums from old districts of cities like Cape Town. They were nominally independent, but were recognised by no country other than South Africa. The ostensible idea was that this was “self-government” for native people, but in fact the regimes were often dictatorships and in some cases allies of the Apartheid regime. The statelets were invariably either tiny (e.g. Ciskei, QwaQwa, KwaNdebele), discontiguous (e.g. Boputhatswana, KwaZulu) or both (e.g. KaNgwane) and very often wholly surrounded by South Africa. The closest modern parallel is the Palestinian territories which, despite having self-government, are surrounded by Israel or Israeli-occupied territory and so their economies are dependent on the whims of Israel and its military.

Even ‘ghettoes’ did not originally mean areas with a large population of one ethnic minority or other: they were enclosed areas of cities in Europe where Jews had to live; they could not live in the rest of the city and usually had to be back in them after dark. These areas were protected and had a certain amount of self-government, but were also overcrowded and could not expand and the chiefs of the ghettoes were expected to serve the kings and tsars with such things as furnishing them with young conscripts for the army. While they did allow Jews to run their own affairs to a certain extent and maintain their own customs, they were also a product of a Europe which was intolerant of difference; Jews could be Jews as long as they remained out of sight and out of mind, behind walls. The term has also acquired a pejorative meaning from association with African-American neighbourhoods in the USA — such neighbourhoods are assumed to be crime-ridden, regardless of the facts, and if not crime-ridden then in some other way inhospitable to ‘normal’ (i.e. white) people.

Neither of these terms should be used to simply mean any area where anyone can enter or leave, and anyone can live or work, but which has a high concentration of members of a particular minority (or, as is often the case in so-called ghettoes in the UK, several) and of shops and restaurants catering to that minority. This is often accompanied by myths of “no-go areas”, circulated by liars and ignoramuses to similarly-minded followers on slanted websites. Just because people feel safe living there, and would not elsewhere because of racism, does not make it a ghetto, let alone a ‘Bantustan’. Just because people maintain their religion, don’t start drinking and will not eat meat unless it is slaughtered a certain way does not mean they expect to “change the culture” or to set up a state within a state; they just expect tolerance.

And as for his expectation that refugees will “peacefully go home” after their persecution has abated, history shows that this rarely happens. People get new lives in their new home, they get married, they have children who never knew their old home and may not even speak the language. Britain took in some Jewish refugees in the lead-up to the Second World War and many of them are still here and their ancestors never considered themselves to be the nationality their parents or grandparents had at birth, though some are now trying to claim it in response to Brexit. Much the same is true of the many Spanish people who came to the UK to escape from Franco’s repression, and the Polish who settled in the UK in the early to mid 20th century. When people move, they tend to stay moved unless whatever caused their movement is dealt with quickly.

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