Familiar Cruelties: A Nightmare Journey Through South Africa

In the following memoir, Mira Hamermesh, a Polish-born Jewish painter-turned-filmmaker now living in England, describes what led to the making of Maids and Madams, her one-hour prize-winning film about the relationship between Black and white women in South Africa.


Hamermesh, born in Lodz, survived World War II by escaping early in the war to Palestine. From Palestine, Hamermesh migrated to England, where she became a citizen. In 1960, however, she returned to Lodz as a scholarship student at its prestigious Polish Film School—the first Westerner to be admitted. Her first student film, called “Black Pompeii,” was about the Lodz ghetto cemetery, in which she found her mother’s grave.

Hamermesh went on to make a number of films that reflected her Holocaust background. Involved as the only woman in a group of about 30 experts brought in to help set up Israeli television, she made “Lochamei Ha-Geiaot” (Fighters of the Ghetto).

The feminist consciousness that Hamermesh developed while working on a film for Thames TV called “Two Women,” her self-declared “obsessions” with “war, women, and Jews,” and her sense of herself as an uprooted person “at home in the world at large and not really at home in any specific place” all coalesced into the making of Maids and Madams.

The one-hour documentary is a quietly moving, intimate portrait of the lives of Black “Maids” and their white mistresses, or “Madams,” who collude in the system of South African apartheid.

Maids and Madams premiered on British television’s Channel Four on June 22, 1985, to great critical acclaim. It has since been shown at film festivals throughout Western Europe, in all the English-speaking countries, and on P.B.S. stations in the United States.                                                                                             —Shirley Frank

In the beginning it was an idea in search of a country. Images from newspaper clippings, books, events and people spanning the distance of time and geography tumbled through my mind, magnified by memories of my childhood in Poland.

South Africa became the magnet pulling towards itself shrapnel-like fragments lodged in the heart of my war trauma.

I was born in the Polish industrial city of Lodz to a middle-class family, a mother claiming yichus (status deriving from descent) from a rabbinical family, a father belonging to a family who had made good economically.

We children were already very secularized and going to Polish schools. My brother, the oldest of us children, was a champion skier and a tennis player; my older sister, the middle child, was a Zionist from very young age. I, being the youngest, was a dream child, lost in books; my passions were literature and medicine.

My consciousness was born at the age of 14 with the dropping of the first German bombs on our city. As each day brought new restrictions, I watched my bewildered family cope with the rapid succession of racial laws, which stripped Jews of their civil rights. Aroused to a spirit of resistance and stubbornness, there was no way that I would submit to all the restrictions which were already being enforced within the first months of the German occupation.

Dreamer that I was, and out of touch with reality—but perhaps in touch with another kind of reality—I engineered a crazy plot to be reunited with my sister, who was by then in Palestine, sent to an agriculture school called Ben Shemen. The remarkable thing was that my parents wouldn’t let me go alone, and sent my brother as my chaperone and that’s how he, too, survived, though we were separated in the course of that year-long adventure.

Having gotten myself from Lodz to Vilna, I was among a handful of exceptionally fortunate children to whom the Russians gave a transit permit; we traveled luxuriously from Vilna to Moscow to Odessa. From there to Istanbul, and from Beirut by taxi to Haifa.

If I could call myself a child of the war, I must emphasize that my war experience was easy in comparison to others’. Although a child of parents who did not survive the war (my father sadly and tragically was deported from the Lodz ghetto in the last transport to Auschwitz— had the war ended two days earlier, he might have been alive; my mother died in the ghetto, of hunger, but possibly also of hunger-generated illness), I myself have not been in a ghetto or camp. And while I experienced encounters with the enemy, I was not hunted down.

Though I personally never set foot in a ghetto and was spared the experience of the deportations which led to the death camps, my rage against racism has stayed with me for life, taking on the rigor of obsession.

The wound of racism reopens in contact with words and images belonging to apartheid. Armed police with dogs and military trucks conjure up the German invasion of Poland in September of 1939 which resulted in the immediate segregation of the Jews. “Township” is interchangeable with “Jewish Ghetto,” resettlement with deportation.

A chance meeting with a South African Jewish academic on sabbatical in London injects direction and form into my hesitant thoughts. M. is a writer and academic; she has published a book about poverty and legislation and the beginnings of anti-labor laws in South African legislation.

M. tries to convert me to Marxism— and I try to convert her to feminism. My obsession with sexism, unlike racism, came to me later in life… through the discovery of how striking the parallels were between the assumptions made about the inferiority of women and the inferiority of some races. To a student of the language of prejudice, racist and sexist syntax are interchangeable.

M. reads my notes about what I imagine is likely to be the exploration of racism and sexism in South Africa. She gives me a book written by Jacklyn Cock, a friend of hers, entitled Maids and Madams: A Study in the Politics of Exploitation, published by Ravan Press, Johannesburg, in 1980.

The book is a sociological analysis of the particular role that women play in the labor market, from a Marxist and a feminist point of view, the first of its kind.

The book sets the seal of approval for my ideas and validates my thesis about racism and sexism as twin forces—both potentially lethal elements in social organization—which set the patterns of prejudice.

The oppression of Blacks in South Africa has been explored from many angles: Marxist class struggle, colonial racism and, of course, human rights. But at the time I worked on the film idea, the wider issues of racism had not been linked to sexism.

An in-depth analysis of apartheid’s policies and its economic base reveals the existence of a vital link between racism and sexism. Both have been harnessed in the service of the repressive system, though the sexist element has until now been largely undetected.

Domestic service is a microcosm of the existing patterns of inequality of South Africa. African women are at the bottom of the heap of apartheid’s discrimination. Over a million Black women live in a state of domestic bondage, under-paid, working long hours, and at the mercy of Draconian laws which separate them from their families. Every white household relies on the unlimited pool of Black, cheap, unskilled female labor, reserved for the domestic sector.

The political conflicts and the personal day-to-day confrontations between the Blacks and whites have been mainly perceived through the interactions of males. On both sides of the fence, the female identity has been submerged in the collective identity of the oppressed or the oppressor.

However, apartheid, like charity, begins at home. And Madam’s bedroom, kitchen and nursery are the battle zones where the struggle for racial and sexist domination takes place. Home is the territory where Black and white women (and children) confront each other in a state of racial enmity through encounters of a most intimate though impersonal kind.

The white women’s glib protestations about her personal concern for her Black servants runs counter to the politics of apartheid and her voluntary or involuntary collusion with it. The moral dilemma facing the helpmates of the master race is indeed a tragic one with no easy solutions.

It’s yet another variant on the theme which fascinates me: women trapped in situations of conflict and confrontation—be they of a military, racial, religious or ideological nature. Without changing the central idea, which initially had the title “Reluctant Enemies”—with or without a question mark—the title for the film crystallizes into “Maids and Madams.”

Now it has become a film idea in search of a network. A friendly producer consents to meet me and discuss the project. “You are trying to say too much,” he pronounces. “Stick to racism and definitely leave sexism out!”

Another producer, from a rival network, begins the interview with a question which indirectly casts doubts on my credibility: “Why should a Polish-born Jewish woman, settled in England, with no personal ties to South Africa, never having visited the country, choose to make a film there?”

“Because of my mother, I want to dramatize my obsession!”

I have been writing about my mother in the context of the Holocaust, in analyzing the role of women in relation to men who live by the command of what I call the warrior’s ethos, whether in uniform or not. Around this subject, I once posed the question: What endangered my mother’s life more, her being a woman or a Jew? How lethal it was in her case that she was a female and a Jew!

The iconography of Black martyrdom has names like Sharpville, Soweto, and lamenting mothers picking dead children up from dust-covered roads. The lament is familiar to me and brings back to life my dead mother, who only 40 years ago in the heart of Europe was part of a racial massacre.

During the ensuing months of meetings in the long and winding corridors of “media power,” I reflect on the situation of women like myself, put on the defensive when they trespass on what is accepted to be the “male” realm of politics.

In the end “Maids and Madams” is accepted with enthusiasm by Britain’s innovative Channel Four. For a variety of reasons the film went into production after a gap of three years. The protracted period it took to get it made proved to be a testing time not only for my stamina but also for my sense of identity as a filmmaker, a woman, and a Jew.

On a first-time visit to a country where the perversities of the racial divide are the norm, somebody like me is doomed to offend or be offended. I order myself: “Mira, keep your mouth shut,” which is easier said than done, and, “let other people do the talking!”

I am staying with M., who since her return home has become a passionate feminist while remaining faithful to Marx.

Her house in a suburb of Johannesburg could be described as a colonial-style bungalow situated in a well-kept garden. “No swimming pool”—she proudly draws attention to the absence of the usual trappings of middle class wealth.

The introduction to Martha, her domestic, is accompanied by apologetic explanations: By providing employment to women like Martha, she is instrumental in assisting her extended family who desperately depend on Martha’s earnings. M. disapproves of the new trend among younger, liberated women who, in order to satisfy their uneasy conscience and white liberal guilt, refuse to employ live-in domestics.

Martha brings me breakfast in bed without being asked. She anticipates my needs. She washes my underwear and irons my crumpled shirts and dresses. To Martha I am another white Madam, and the color of my skin is a passport to countless privileges which I am still vague about, but which are to her a key to survival drilled into her consciousness from the day she was born.

The racial hazards to Martha’s life have to do with the “magic” power of my race. Martha’s vision of life’s hardships is set to a carefully devised color chart which segregates three categories of people: Blacks, Coloureds and whites.

My color penetrates to the very core of her existence, and mutilates her, as surely as if I took a knife and cut into her vital organs. Her Blackness and her full humanity are stigmatized by it. The tension between the powerful, whom I represent to her, and the powerless makes Martha into a cultural outsider on two counts; both her race and her gender offer her up as a victim to the forces of annihilation.

It matters little what grand statements I make about my revulsion against apartheid. The grotesque inequality between us is fixed by law and custom, and there is no way I can convey to Martha that I myself, as a woman, am marked by the experience of a cultural outsider.

Apartheid plays havoc with my notion of sisterhood. To women like Martha I am a white Madam in collusion with the white race, which has a vested interest in the oppression and exploitation of her race.

The historical paradox I am caught in is meaningless to Martha, for she is ignorant about the history of women like my mother, whose Jewish race condemned her to death. Today in Martha’s kitchen, my race bestows on me the rank of a “mythic” superiority, with all the advantages this entails.

Martha moves slowly, at a pace of someone either bored or intentionally trying to make each chore last longer. She sweeps the carpet with a straw broom. “No vacuum cleaner?” I ask my hostess. “It’s broken,” M. explains. “Martha prefers to use a broom.” I will repeatedly hear from white women how Black women have an aversion towards domestic technology.

With time I’ll meet domestics who give me their version of the story. Many Madams, incredible as it sounds, forbid the use of washing machines and other expensive gadgets, anticipating breakage, so convinced are they of the stupidity and clumsiness of Black minds and hands.

The catalogue of racist assumptions which I overhear grows daily. My outsider’s ears pick up the unintentional slights, which many white liberals let drop, the kind of slips we all catch in ourselves when we make comments about women in unguarded moments: “Oh, you know the Blacks, they have no idea about technology” or “Well, you know how the Blacks are, they have no feeling for time.”

Little does one then understand that those Blacks, who “have so little idea of time,” usually have to get up at four o’clock in the morning, make their way to the place of work and return. They are possibly the most deprived-of-sleep nation walking on its feet.

Martha’s age is indefinable. At times I think she is in her thirties or even older. I am shocked to discover she is only 23 years old, and already a mother of three.

M. takes me on a tour of the rich suburbs of Johannesburg. Imagine South Africa to be like Hollywood or Beverly Hills. That’s what white South Africa is, a chain of exceedingly beautiful, well-kept, prosperous suburbs, and rural countryside.

We drive through well-planned, wide, tree-lined avenues, mostly free of traffic. The houses are in the colonial ground-level style. The air of tranquility and prosperity is at odds with the high walls, locked gates, and electronically-controlled security measures reinforced with pictorial representations of guard dogs with warnings in English and Afrikaans about their vicious presence.

On the road a white supervisor directs a Black electricity repair crew. No white person does any manual labor, ever. As you look around the landscape, you tell yourself, this country was built with Black hands. There isn’t one aspect which is man-made which hasn’t been carried out with the sweat of Black labor.

What dominates in the human landscape is not whether you’re Jewish or Christian but white. Being white is the most important factor in one’s identity; being Jewish becomes secondary.

For me, being identified as white was a shock, as was my slow self-identification making a shift into this new classification. Foremost, I was white. White to myself. White in relation to other whites. White in relation to Blacks. It doesn’t matter at all what my feelings, conflicts, heritage are. The aspect of being white in a sea of Blackness suddenly dominates — the system makes it dominant.

We pass an elderly Black woman who carried a cardboard box on her head. “Where are you going, sis?” M. offers her a lift. “In tribal languages, women address each other as ‘sister,'” M. explains. The woman is on her way to the bus station to visit her children living in Alexandria township.

“What’s in the box?” M. inquires. “Crusts of dried bread.” On impulse M. pulls up her car in front of a continental patisserie. Left alone with the woman, I try to engage her in conversation but all I get is “Yes, Ma’am, no Ma’am.” She is visibly embarrassed by me, the white stranger, chatting to her like to an equal.

She finds escape from the discomfort of my company by joyously greeting a friend, a Black woman who, like her, is burdened with a heavy load. She gets out of the car to chat with her friend and from the gestures she makes I understand that she implies the possibility of getting a ride.

Without warning, the peaceful scene turns into pandemonium. A gray police van driven at full speed brakes with equal disregard for safety. Four policemen with truncheons—two Black and two white—swing into action.

The purpose of the raid is to catch unsuspecting Blacks whose residential permits are not in order or who work “illegally” in white areas. (Until recently, every Black African had to have a pass which gave all information about him. If he’s caught by chance in a white city without a valid residential permit from his employer, the raiding cars pick him up. And whatever else they do with him, they will return him to his homeland.)

The unlucky individuals are led towards the van. Some protest, some resist, most go quietly, familiar with the futility of arguing or resisting. Speed and surprise are an integral part of the raid strategy.

M. emerges from the shop with a large box of cakes. Realizing what has taken place, she runs towards the van just as the door is being bolted. She gets into an argument with the white policeman, trying to persuade him that the woman he has picked up is in fact her newly acquired domestic. “Her pass book is not endorsed,” he says.

M. pleads with him, invoking an imaginary bedridden mother who depends on the service of this new domestic, as she suffers from a slipped disc. The appeal of the helplessness of white women makes him relent. The van door swings open and the woman steps down and follows “her Madam” back to the car.

“If more Madams would protest, they couldn’t do to us what they are doing.” The Black woman wipes her tears, overflowing with gratitude.

Witnessing the raid reopens the nagging question about one’s full humanity and responsibility. I am thinking of a Jewish ghetto. Is that what the Polish women felt during the German occupation, watching raids against Jews? How long does it take before one gets used to such raids and learns to carry on living as if such things didn’t happen?

M. deposits the Black woman at a downtown bus stop. She joins a mile-long queue reserved “for Blacks only.”

M. vents her rage, but I feel like a penitent of whom is demanded an instant answer to the question: “Am I my Black sister’s keeper?”

Bernadette Mosala is the first Black woman I meet who puts me in my place. Her official title is Director in Charge of Family Life at the South African Council of Churches. I recognize her indignation and impatience with whites, a kindred spirit of rebelliousness.

Bernadette is driving me to a resettlement community. We stop at a roadside cafe for refreshments. “We have no license for Blacks,” the woman behind the counter informs me. I buy refreshments and we eat and drink sitting by the curb.

We watch a Black woman with a white baby strapped to her back. I discuss it with Bernadette. “Every time you see a Maid with a white child, be sure her own is neglected and hungry,” she says.

Western psychological text-books stress the importance of the early bonding between an infant and a loving mother or her surrogate as the key to the understanding of the development of the individual’s emotional life. But life in South Africa discredits this theory. Here, the first bonding takes place between white infants and Black mother substitutes. And contrary to all expectations, instead of the loving relationships which should follow, what happens is that as adults, the very children who are loved and nursed by those Black hands and Black voices, demean this nurturing and loving person as the “shit” woman, born to serve and clean up after them.

Generations of whites raised by affectionate and indulgent Black women turn out to be keen racists with no trace of gratitude or affection towards the women who loved and nurtured them. She is no black Madonna to be worshipped as a symbol of maternal care.

The green, lush, well-cultivated land gives way without warning to an arid, dust bowl landscape. When you travel in South Africa, the eye is shocked by this sudden dividing line, where the green fields, the green orchards, the green countryside with the beautiful white mansions end suddenly —as if some wicked draftsman has drawn a line—and the parched, dust bowl countryside begins. The dramatic changes in the landscape are evidence of the ravages of apartheid as telling as the people themselves.

The change in the road surface signals that we are entering a rural ghetto, a “Homeland” with the long name of Bophuthatswana. The settlement itself resembles a draught-stricken, fly-infested camping site with fossilized agricultural implements left rusting. They are relics from a previous pastoral life, from which this community had been forcibly removed 15 years ago.

Bernadette introduces me to the three village chiefs, elderly, humbled men wearing Western-style outfits in tatters. After exchanges of pleasantries, Bernadette shares with me her painful insight. “When men are oppressed, it’s a tragedy. When women are oppressed, it’s tradition.”

In this adroitly phrased truth, Bernadette reveals to me the extent of her feminist concerns, which she upholds as passionately as her political stand against apartheid. In Bernadette I find a champion in the fight against the oppression of racism and sexism.

“You must talk to Sophie,” I was told by a few women who began to scout for introductions to suitable Maids.

Asked to describe the routine of her working life, she recites it in the voice of a preacher: “Today is Monday as usual, first day of the week, starting from the kitchen tidying up and then come back to washing and hanging. Tuesday is the ironing day. Wednesday you sort of tot up the house because it hasn’t been looked after the first two days of the week. Then Thursday is the day off and then come Friday which is spring cleaning and Saturday you work in the morning and take a sort-of break in the afternoon. Then Sunday you sort of cook a big dinner because it’s more like feasting day for Europeans. This has been my routine for 34 years, 52 weeks in a year.”

Bernadette arranges a meeting with a group of domestics, some already retired, others still working. This meeting offers the first opportunity to have access to Black domestics away from the constraints of their white Madams’ homes, where “yes, Madam” and “no, Madam” is the customary mode of Maid and Madam exchange.

The women give me a cheerful and witty account of their experiences. They are shrewd observers of character, and come across as experts on the psychology of family life dynamics — decoding bedroom secrets and opening up cupboards where the family skeletons are hidden away.

It soon transpires that of the eight women present, six worked most of their lives for Jewish families. They don’t know that I am Jewish and that I anticipate with dread the revelations about Jewish employers.

The general consensus among the women is that with few exceptions, the Jewish Madams are as exploitative as the non-Jewish ones. The Jewish Masters are voted more generous with money.

One of the Maids protests. Her experience has been wonderful. She compares her Jewish Madam to “the Lady in Heaven,” for she cared, and helped her and her extended family. The marriage of her three children took place in her Madam’s home and they footed the bill.

I think of a white woman at a recent dinner party who explained the particular satisfaction she gained from having a chance, every day, to do something good in life. And I thought, “My God, you don’t need to be a Mother Teresa here. All you need to do in South Africa is just be a proper human being with normal responses of compassion or concern. And when you give a schmateh to your Maid or when you send medicine for her sick child or when you inquire about her dying father, you are in fact infusing almost angelic qualities into her life and your own.”

Johannesburg, I am told, is a Jewish city where the Jewish presence is strongly felt. Expecting an African New York, I find, instead, Jews hidden away by the suburban gentility. The Jewish impact is manifest more visibly on the economic, cultural and political life of the country.

On the eve of the Jewish New Year I express a desire to go to the synagogue. My friend M. is not a synagogue-goer but she consents to make an exception for my sake. “It’s a good place to make a study of the Jewish Madams and their Jewish Masters.” M’s self-mockery is laced with bitterness.

Whenever I travel I like to visit synagogues. They are like an oasis where I seek to find solace for my Jewish sorrow. But the visit to the main synagogue in Johannesburg gives me a jolt. In the country of apartheid the segregation of women from men has an unpleasant resonance.

The synagogue arrangement of Upstairs and Downstairs confirms the terms of the bargain struck between my Jewish brothers and God, which excludes me from the public rituals taking place in the synagogue. Those strictures, a living legacy of a more barbaric past, accentuate my painful reflections about the practice of this form of segregation..

I am the living symbol of the obstacle put in the Jewish man’s path to his union with God. I represent the polluted or polluting matter to be put at a distance from his spiritual strivings.

Downstairs, soberly dressed men, wearing the talit (prayer shawl) conduct themselves with decorous solemnity. Upstairs, a show of sloth and frivolity is in stark contrast with the Downstairs display of spirituality and reverence for the Torah.

The segregation encourages and confirms the worst view of Jewish womankind. It proves an ideal arrangement: the Upstairs offers a home for the undesirable qualities, which the men of Downstairs project onto women.

I am celebrating the end of the New Year festivities at the home of E. The tastefully arranged apartment is filled with books, modern paintings, and a collection of African artifacts. My hosts are enlightened and cultured people whose gracious living does not exclude their commitment to the anti-apartheid whites.

Sitting across the coffee table from me is a well-known doctor, an urbane and well-informed man. He lights a cigarette and casually says: “Of course you must realize that the reason the Black Sash is tolerated at all is because it’s a white women’s organization, an extension of women’s tradition of charity. If men would participate, the authorities would clamp down immediately.”

Black Sash is a white all-women’s human rights organization, so-called because members put on a black sash in all their public demonstrations. The office is primitive; it usually hasn’t got money; the only piece of equipment that I would give the rank of modern was a photocopying machine. It’s staffed by volunteers.

People who are disoriented about a particular legal position or particular events that affect their family life— being arrested, being dismissed—come to Black Sash for advice on what to do. In many ways, voluntarism of white women does relieve the plight of Black women to a small degree. It is not to be minimized.

Being white women, they may have counted, consciously or unconsciously, on freedom from being harassed. So far, very few white women have been harassed on account of their sympathies or activities, since this belongs within the tradition of women doing good.

The doctor continues, “So we men keep busy earning money and our wives have the leisure to protest.” The amused expression in his eyes hints that there is more to be said on the subject of women’s “good works.” “Believe me,” the doctor looks at me shrewdly, “it’s a fair division of concerns.” He is careful not to drop his ashes onto the Persian carpet.

I look at the women gathered in the living room, most of whom are distinguished activists, and at their prosperous, successful husbands. Have the Jewish women become the “conscience keepers,” traditionally a male preserve? Has a reversal of roles taken place?

Before taking my leave, I glance at the display of family photographs of absent children and grandchildren. The cherished photographs are evidence of the casualties of the apartheid system, which repels the younger generation. Children brought up by liberal Jewish parents choose to leave the country as a protest.

Apartheid is tearing Jewish family life apart.

The dispersion of young South African Jews is a fact of life. They are scattered over all the English-speaking world and Israel.

Soweto is a mere 20-minute drive from Johannesburg; the distance from Manhattan to Brooklyn. In spite of the preparation of what to expect, I am in a state of shock.

There is something about the place which neither photographs nor verbal description can convey. It’s hard not to surrender to the impression that one is in the middle of a nightmare created by a white dreamer who has wished for a world filled with Black robots housed in concrete boxes, only allowed to emerge from them before day-break, so that they will be on time in the suburbs or factories to perform the necessary service for whites—to be returned at the sunset hour to their boxes built of concrete which the white visionary calls houses and for which the robots have to pay rent.

The landscape created for the Blacks by the white dreamer is devoid of order, space, aesthetics and living green things. Two or three million people live on streets that have no names and which are identified only by numbers.

The very earth trembles, throwing up clouds of dust, when the robots transform themselves daily into human beings, kept alive by their own dreams. In Soweto, one feels the violent urge to live and be human.

In Soweto, violence, like Blackness, is pushed to the edge of endurance. In Soweto it’s easy to imagine every kind of catastrophe.

Whites have no right even to visit Black townships like Soweto. Few of those Madams who have live-in Maids in their homes, or who employ women who come in daily to work, know the landscape from which the Maids come. It is forbidden for a white person to stay overnight in Soweto, but in defiance B., an actress, invites me to stay the night.

B. lives in a modern, well-designed, four-bedroom bungalow, tastefully decorated, fitted out with all modern conveniences. This is a middle class household, belonging to the “intelligentsia class.” On the shelves I find many of the same books I keep close at hand.

I wake up at four in the morning to watch how Soweto begins its working day. Streams of people are already making their way to bus-stops and the railway station. B. drives me to both places, where, under cover of darkness, I can observe the scene without being detected.

With daybreak, the sky above the township is blackened with pollution. A permanent heavy cloud hangs over it, like a lid placed over a frying pan. The smog has a rancid smell of wood and rubbish mixed with paraffin fumes.

When the tourist buses pass through Black townships, B. tells me, the guides explain that the primitive way of life is responsible for the pollution. They don’t mention the fact that most townships have no electricity, and that burning wood or paraffin provides the only source of cooking and heating energy.

I tell B. about the propaganda films shot by the Germans during the war about life in the Jewish ghettos, to serve as “living proof” of the degeneracy of the Jewish race. Telling this to a Black woman, in Soweto, I feel like I am exposing the madness inherent in the white race, of which I am now part.

“Soweto is a time bomb,” B. says, “a time bomb planted by the whites, in their madness. But the tragedy is that when it explodes it will touch off our madness as well.”