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Private: Whites Only

A public outcry followed after a coloured family were turned away from a whites-only church, but this incident is only but one example of wider trend in South Africa: institutions that adopt ‘members-only’ policies to protect an all-white clientele.

Original publication: Tiscali World Online, 2001.

members only mate

A public outcry followed after a coloured family were turned away from a whites-only church, but this incident is only but one example of wider trend in South Africa: institutions that adopt ‘members-only’ policies to protect an all-white clientele. News editor and heathen scum Andre Wiesner looks at tensions between the Constitution's equality provisions and the right to freedom of association.

‘I wanted to laugh,’ said Nigel Manuel after a much-publicised incident in which he and his mother and grandmum were turfed out of a whites-only church in Cape Town. And who could blame him? It's laughable, ludicrous, jarringly incongruous with the values of modern South Africa. That the flashback to old-style racism should happen in a church simply compounds the irony.

So let the elders at the holy sanctum in question take it from one who's paid his dues at Sunday School: buggering about like this is just not the Lord's way, chaps.

According to the Cape Argus, the Manuel family were attending a service at the Afrikaans Protestant Church Tygerberg when the church secretary allegedly told them, ‘You must get out! You don't belong here. Do you hear me? You must get out.’ Nigel's mother, Charmaine Manuel, said that although they were not told they were unwelcome owing to their skin colour, she interpreted the incident as a racial insult.

The church secretary disputed this version of events. ‘My words were that I was extremely sorry but our church is for members only,’ he said, adding that there was no other reason for asking the Manuels to leave. ‘If you want to come into our church,’ he said, ‘you have to apply and we will study the application and make a decision.’

No soul can be saved, it seems, unless the paperwork's done. Whether one seeks salvation for one's immortal soul, a dog-licence renewal or a week off work for an alcoholic bender, no human need can achieve satisfaction without it first needing to be authorised by a mysterious, and usually unaccountable, bureaucracy of one kind or another. The Afrikaans Protestant Church (APK) does, however, appear to offer a shortcut through its no doubt rigorous procedures. A pamphlet at the service attended by the Manuels read: ‘All visitors are heartily welcomed and are asked to please sign the visitors' book in the front portal.’

Headline-grabbing pistol-whipping

An Argus reporter, himself a coloured dude, visited the church, possibly in the hopes of taking a headline-grabbing pistol-whipping in mid-sermon, but alas sat through the service unmolested and lived to tell the tale. He found the dominee preaching the same hearty message of openness as was espoused in the pamphlet. ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind,’ the dominee  is quoted as saying. ‘This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it. Love your neighbour as yourself.’

Although the Manuels live two streets from the church's premises and qualify as neighbours in a quite literal sense, the commandment seems not to apply to them. As it turns out, the APK is a breakaway sect of the Dutch Reformed Church once led by Dr Andries Treurnicht and it caters for white Afrikaners only. ‘We are not racist,’ the chairman of the church council Samuel Botha assured the Argus, and went on to underline the point by saying, ‘One of the aspects of our culture is that we are white and we work to remain that way ... It is not so much about colour but about identity while we are here on earth.’

To any South African older than Nigel Manuel, 13, justificatory language of this kind is probably old hat and redolent of the good old days (minority rule is not a question of racism but cultural self-preservation, etc.). Indeed, the incident is shocking partly because it shows that, in the day and age of newfangled stuff like ‘subliminal racism’, vestiges of old-style racism are still at large, much like dinosaurs loping up and down Adderley Street. But where the APK chairman struck a novel note – that is, one relating to South Africa's history since 1994 – was in the way he defended a reactionary agenda: by invoking the discourse of constitutional democracy.

Religious freedom, freedom of association

Lamenting that the Manuel incident had become a ‘political’ issue (which must surely be just another way of saying that public attention has been unwelcome, for what else could the expulsion of a coloured family from a whites-only church be but deeply, intensely political?), Botha is reported by Sapa as arguing that the APK church council has the right to choose its followers, who should be both Afrikaans-speaking and white.

This, as I've said, is where the affair acquires a novel spin: where it presents us with the historical irony of a conservative social formation stating its case in the terms of the jolly old New South Africa. Botha is evidently referring to two related rights enshrined in the Constitution: the right to religious freedom and the right to freedom of association.

I'm no world authority on constitutional jurisprudence, but even a palooka like me can tell from a glance at the relevant provisions in the Constitution that the APK is on dodgy ground with their implied argument that all they are doing is exercising their right to religious freedom.

‘Persons belonging to a cultural, religious or linguistic community,’ the Bill of Rights states, ‘may not be denied the right, with other members of that community – (a.) to enjoy their culture, practise their religion and use their language; (b.) to form, join and maintain cultural, religious and linguistic associations and other organs of civil society.’

The crucial stipulation is that these rights ‘may not be exercised in a manner inconsistent with any provision of the Bill of Rights’, which – lo’ and behold – includes the equality provision, ‘No person may unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone [in terms of race, gender, ethnic or social origin ... the list of no-no's trails on and on]’.

If, for the hell of it, the Manuels went to the Constitutional Court to contest their admission to the APK and put the church's defence of religious freedom to the test, my money would be on the Manuels. Somewhat less easily addressed, as far as I can see, is the APK's second implied defence for maintaining a whites-only institution, namely the appeal to the right of freedom of association.

The Bill of Rights says, ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of association’, and on the face of it this means one can mix with whomever one chooses to do so. But since the exercise of this right necessarily involves an act of selection – one associates with this group of people but not with that – the path seems to have been cleared for a group of people who happen to white Afrikaners to legitimate their dissociation from other people who happen to be non-white. After all, as Botha of the APK implied when he denied that the church is racist, they are not against anyone, merely for themselves. So what's the big deal?

The White Bantustan Archipelago

Added to that is the complication that arises when broadly cultural associations set up themselves up as being reserved for members only, which you'll recall was the explanation apparently given to the Manuels when they were told to leave the church. I have argued that the Manuel-APK affair has a novel aspect, to wit the irony of the old guard stating their case, in part, in the rights-based language of the new order. Let me be even more specific. What makes the case of the APK relevant to understanding South Africa's emerging (rather than archaic) social forms is that it illustrates a wider trend: the use of ‘members-only’ status by certain institutions as a pretext for racial exclusion.

From pubs and restaurants to camping parks and even churches, the ‘members-only’ stratagem is being widely deployed to create nostalgic miniature replicas of old apartheid society, tiny islands of racial exclusivity in an archipelago of white homelands that are more scattered and microscopic than the hodgepodge Bantustans of yesteryear. The assumption is that these members-only spaces are more or less analogous to the privacy of the home, and are thus exempt from provisions in the Constitution relating to equality and non-discrimination, while at the same time being protected by the very same document's guarantee of the right to freedom of association.

After all, in one's own home one can do pretty much as one damn pleases, within limits set by criminal law; one can scratch where it itches, park off at the TV and rant and rave about the blacks, hoist the old South African flag up around the braai, and admit or turn away from one's sanctum whomever one wishes. It's one's frigging right, not so? Obviously not all members-only institutions are in place for purposes of racial exclusion, but in many cases one would have to be a fool not to realise what's going down. Such clubs are modelled on the home – indeed, they are often privately owned in various ways – and come with their own front-of-house bureaucracy for adjudicating who meets the ‘admission requirements’ and who not.

Debora Patta goes a’camping

The issue – the conflict between the Constitution's equality provisions and the right to freedom of association – was nicely summarised for me recently when a reader wrote in to comment on an interview I'd conducted with Debora Patta of's 3rd Degree. I'd asked Patta what her most distressing experience had been on the show and she answered:

‘The most distressing was doing a show on racism in which my husband and I attempted to enter a whites-only resort (my husband's black). We captured the whole process of us getting kicked out on hidden camera. It was good television. But amazingly afterwards I received the most vitriolic, racist hate-mail I have ever seen, including somebody saying, “You deserve to be raped.” It was very sad to see that despite six years of democracy some people are still stuck in the dark ages.’

Quoting from this extract, my reader attacked Patta. ‘Debora is still stuck in medieval times – ignoring the difference between what is public and what private. Can I just walk into her house whenever I wish? Democracy is about freedom – the right to association AND disassociation is guaranteed in the Constitution. But that doesn't suit her, of course.’

Private-sector public power

Buddy, I'm afraid to say it doesn't suit me, either. The argument here appeals to freedom of association and the correlative issue of dissociation, but we've already seen that the Constitution allows people to form cultural and religious associations and the like on condition that its equality and non-discriminatory clauses are not violated, i.e. the business of dissociation isn't as blithely conducted as the argument suggests.

But the reader's argument goes further, likening freedom of association to the act of admitting or refusing others thoroughfare in one's home. The implication is, of course, that the resort Patta visited is like a private domicile, and in a sense it presumably is: an organisation located in and identical with property that is privately owned in some manner. And who would be so deranged as to argue that refusing to let somebody one doesn't like into one's home is a human rights violation?

Except that, metaphors aside, a whites-only camping Utopia – or a golf club that doesn't dig Jews, or a church that is revolted by blacks, or whatever – is not a private home, privately owned though it may be. The reader's implied distinction between the private and public spheres is not as rigid as he suggests. Camping sites, sports clubs, restaurants, churches – these have a foot in both spheres. The Bill of Rights applies vertically within the institutions of the state, but it also applies horizontally to organisations that are deemed to exercise public power. ‘Members-only’ clubs operate in the public domain; they exercise a public power; they are not beyond the Constitution's equality provisions; they are not absolved from democracy.


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