The Pain of Passbooks

Passbooks were used in apartheid South Africa to classify anyone who wasn’t white. The people of South Africa designated as “black” or “coloured” were forced to carry them at all times or risk being jailed or fined. Police stations would often conduct raids in the middle of the night to enforce the pass laws. They would break down doors, and demand to see passbooks, often taking parents away from children with little to no care about the consequences. Who would put food on the table? Who would make sure they’d go to school?  Who would feed them? Bathe them?  Who would parent them?


photo by Nancy Umana

Every family was affected in some way or another, with at least one family member in jail during apartheid. The passbooks were also to be signed by the individuals’  (white) employer, who reported on employees’ behavior every week. It was also used to segregate the population and manage urbanization – people could not travel from one town to another without showing a passbook. The black and coloured population of South Africa quickly grew to hate and fear the police and protest. While visiting Langa, a township in Cape Town, we were given the chance to visit one of the last standing buildings where the passbooks were dispensed. The building, our guide later told me, was colloquially known as the Dom Pass office – as in “stupid pass”, even though its official name was the Department of Native Affairs.

The Dom Pass Office // photo by Nancy Umana

The Dom Pass Office // photo by Nancy Umana

It was in that building that people were degraded, forced to apply for passbooks that would make their lives a complete nightmare. As we entered I noticed a lot of rooms, rooms used to complete the process. One was for pictures, the other was a medical examiner’s room where they administered shots, in the other they took your fingerprints, the rest were interview rooms or waiting areas.  Outside was a giant holding cell made out of steel metal bars to hold those who were arrested before they were transported to jails.

We made our way all the way to the back of the building, where we entered a room with an old wood desk with many papers on it. It was in the far right side of the room surrounded by a waiting area of  benches. This is where the superintendent handed you your official passbook after a series of intense questions. As our guide Mike spoke I thought of the passages in Kaffir Boy by Mark Marthabane where Mark and his mother had spent hours on the long lines waiting just to be seen.  I thought of the white man they encountered that denied him a passbook because his birth certificate wasn’t in order. I imagined long lines of people outside, I imagined the cells outside filled with women who failed to have their passbooks and paperwork in order. I imagined the anger and tears filling the air of those walls for years. The anger seemed to come alive in Mike. As he spoke, I could sense the frustration and disappointment in his words. He spoke of his people, his ancestors, his blood with a heavy, broken heart. He spoke of the rich white men living in the affluent South African suburb of Camps Bay, while his people struggled in the townships. It was as if he was speaking to the white man who had once oppressed his ancestors.

Afterwards, we got a chance to hold an old passbook. In my hand I held a little leather book barely kept together by tape, that once belonged to Sidakan William Platie. Sidakan was a member of  Xhosa people. He was identified as number #2308330. He showed no emotion in his picture, just held a straight face, a tired face. I thought of Sidakan and of all the people who possessed one of these books, how it must have felt to constantly guard this little leather book with your life, and how much hatred one must have had towards it. I took it all in, held the book in my hands and scanned the room one last time before I left. I did the same as I left the building. I looked at the empty grounds, the empty jail house, and could hear the screams of the masses of people gathered here twenty years ago.
I looked at the street name. What had once been Washington St. now was King Langalibalele. He was a king of the amaHlubi, a Bantu tribe in modern-day province of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. It wasn’t a surprise to me that the street name had been renamed. This was part of the New South Africa. The people no longer wanted to be ruled by painful memories.

FierceAdvocates_NancyNancy Umana-Melendez joined APDS as a Junior Support Associate in September of 2016, after interning for the NYC Department of Correction. She has also interned for U.S Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. Nancy is a student at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and will graduate in May 2017 with Bachelors in Criminology and a minor in Psychology. 

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