You can’t call yourself a close friend of mine if you don’t know that I have a passion for law. Not criminal matters but civil matters. A family member would often joke and say all that is needed to stop me in my tracks of doing anything is a gavel and I am immediately distracted. I confess there is some truth to this.
I know however why I became interested in the subject because having grown up during apartheid, I wanted to know what my rights were in the event that I was arrested.
Years later I would come to realize that as a poc (person of colour), I had no rights and instead of that being a deterrent I decided to learn about my rights.
When I was in my teens I recall people could get jailed for bad debt and this often put the fear of God into everyone who lived in the townships.
There were 3 types of white people you saw in the township; 1 was a teacher (generally a woman), who had a love of teaching and wanted to “do right” by those receiving Bantu Education which was inferior to what white children had or she was not very good so she could not get a position in a “whites only”school, 2 was the policeman who would always be armed and could often be seen beating or kicking children or throwing teargas if they felt there would be trouble and 3 was the debt collector, who was a white man who sold goods on credit and would collect the monies weekly or monthly based on when people got paid.
Most of the debt collectors would be friendly and kind when first peddling their wares but not as kind when you were unable to pay an instalment. Often the money for debt would be set aside before money for food. People knew the knock because it was loud and it would be accompanied by him belting out his name.
My dad lost his job and wasn’t working when they came knocking one day and he was simply arrested that weekend and thrown in jail for failure to pay. This is one of those memories that’s so vivid in my mind and I do recall my aunt, his sister, going to the local police station on the Monday to get him out. She paid the arrears on his account. When recounting this to a white person years later, I was told it never happened and it couldn’t have been legal. Now I never said his incarceration was legal merely that it happened.
Fast forward years later and I, after having been retrenched and failing to pay my debts, was summoned to the local Magistrates Court under Section 65. There I encountered a few white people who came with their attorneys or files of evidence, I assume to serve as their defense. There were around 80% more poc’s who were there and most of the reasons they were there was for failure to pay school fees, clothing accounts or some loan they made to buy food and for utilities. Most of the people there were older than me and most of them looked intimidated and fearful. The attorney’s working for the Plaintiffs were mostly young and white and extremely rude when dealing with the poc’s. Not all of them but in this instance, most of them.
I then got chatting to an older woman who owed school fees for her two grandchildren. I discovered her daughter had passed away a few years back and the biological father was nowhere to be found. She received a state pension of R980.00 at the time and R270.00 for each child. Not a lot of money when you have to live on that as well. (This was before the no fee schools).
This attorney then called her, gave her the paper to list her income and expenses and said she would be back in 10 minutes but before she left, she told the woman that she would not accept anything less than R500.00 a month to pay what she owes.
R500.00? from the bits of money this woman receives? She explained to the attorney that it was too much and she barely has food and the attorney’s attitude was very disinterested.
The attorney left and the woman turned to me asking for a pen. I explained while giving her the pen that she shouldn’t offer R500.00 as she couldn’t afford it but rather to offer R100 or R50. She was nervous and said that they would throw her in jail and I sat there explaining why it would not happen. The attorney returned and said; “No talking in the court.” She asked the woman what she was going to offer and the woman said R50.00. She then turned to me and warned me not to speak to others in court.
I showed her the sign that read; “No eating or Drinking and No cellphones!” Nothing to do with not talking and anyway court was not in session and the Magistrate wasn’t in our presence.
The woman was allowed to pay the R50.00 she could afford but this same attorney did much the same to most of the elderly poc’s that were present and every time she would insist on an outrageous amount, I would sidle up to the person to discourage them as most of them were on state pensions or disability.
I spent about 4 hours there that day but I left feeling disheartened because it felt as if a different law applied if you weren’t white. I call it the race law because often poc’s particularly the older folk don’t know or understand that they are allowed to speak up and contest or disagree with these young white attorneys. Even more concerning was the worry about who would sit there daily explaining what rights they have?
Laws and citizen’s rights very often isn’t fully understood and the way people were treated depended on what race they were.
How many poc’s are struggling even more once their offer has been made an order of the court?
The numbers are too staggering if I extrapolate it based on my experience and the glimpses I have had.