So you thought apartheid was dead? Take a look closer to home

WHEN apartheid was introduced in South Africa in 1948, racial discrimination became official government policy. Apartheid was often referred to in government pronouncements as ‘separate development’.

In fact, as we all know, it was a policy designed exclusively to ensure the permanent inferiority of a race of people, and its management was based entirely on skin colour.

Under the apartheid system, all black people were forced to carry ‘pass books’. These contained their fingerprints and photos, together with information on what areas they were allowed into. Failure to carry the pass book was a crime, just as it was also a crime to be found in any area not specified in the book. Under apartheid, black people were forbidden, under very harsh penalties, from marrying non-blacks.

Black people were forbidden from even applying for a wide range of jobs which were all classified as ‘white only’. There were huge disparities also in the way people were treated by the social security systems of the state.

A white person who was sick or unemployed, for instance, would be five times better off than a black person in the same situation. The education system for black people was immeasurably inferior to that available to white people.

Apartheid was administered by a single, all-powerful agency called the Department of Home Affairs. If there was ever any doubt, for instance about whether a person was black, white or coloured, a civil servant in that department would make a ruling — usually on the basis of the person’s appearance or accent. Once a person was classified, there was no right of appeal.

As time went on, the system was further developed by a series of laws which designated homelands. Every black was made a citizen of a homeland. This meant, in effect, that they could never be a citizen of South Africa, and never be able to vote against the system that oppressed them.

As the apartheid regime developed, it came to rely more and more on brutality and oppression. As it did, internal and international opposition, originally muted enough, began to grow. After the Sharpeville massacre in 1960 — a long time after the introduction of apartheid — the regime in South Africa became more and more isolated from the rest of the world. South Africa was expelled from the British Commonwealth in the early 1960s, and gradually found itself more and more isolated, especially in sporting terms. But it was 35 years into the lifetime of the regime before Britain and the US agreed to comprehensive economic sanctions against apartheid, and it was those sanctions which spelled the beginning of the end.

An official government policy of discrimination on the grounds of race and colour — apartheid — is now a fading memory. The obscenity of apartheid, against which thousands of people in Ireland campaigned for years — remember the Dunnes Stores strikers? — can never happen again in a civilised country, right? Last Friday, we read in the national newspapers that our Government intends to introduce the following measures (among others): all non-EU nationals in Ireland will be required to carry identity cards with details of residence permits and other personal information on a biometric strip.

The authorities will be given the power to bypass existing procedures and summarily detain and deport illegal immigrants. The normal rights of every citizen to have access to the courts will not apply.

Suspected illegal immigrants or asylum seekers will be forbidden from getting married in Ireland to Irish people as a basis for their residence.

The automatic right to welfare payments will be removed, and they will be much less readily available to asylum seekers.

Applicants seeking asylum will also be required to reside in designated reception centres (not known as homelands, of course) until their status is decided.

A single process will be developed to deal with all asylum and humanitarian issues. A new permanent body, known as the Protection Review Tribunal, will replace all existing appeals procedures.

SURELY I’m not the only one who thinks the resemblance is uncanny. We are about to pass a series of draconian laws designed to deal with people exclusively on the basis of their race. The ID card we will be demanding they carry won’t be known as a pass book, of course. But what else is it? Immigrants to Ireland will not have access to the law in the same way as the rest of us, even though our constitution makes us all equal before the law. How can that constitute anything but institutionalised discrimination?

Immigrants in future will have no automatic entitlement to welfare support. How long before someone suggests they shouldn’t be let into our schools either?

And especially if they are to be confined to these ‘designated reception centres’ (which it would be impolite to call homelands, I suppose), won’t it begin to make more sense to offer some form of rudimentary health and education services ‘on site’? And all rights of appeal are going to be vested in the nicely named Protection Review Tribunal. Just like the South African Department of Home Affairs, it will have full and ultimately arbitrary rights over the future of every immigrant. Black or foreign-looking people, or people who speak with a funny accent, who have failed to produce their pass book (sorry, identity card) — or who try to marry an Irish person — will find themselves in front of this body, with no right of appeal.

It may be that they have committed the crime of being out of the reception centre when they shouldn’t have been. It may be that the only crime they have committed is that they look different.

In the South African system, no great science was applied to the task of determining white from black. The definition of a white was “in appearance obviously a white person or generally accepted as a white person”. One of the rules was that no-one could ever be regarded as white if either of their parents didn’t look white, and the decision to classify someone as white could also take into account “habits, education, and speech and deportment and demeanour”.

Supporters of our new regime will no doubt rush to reassure us that it will be much more scientific than that. But let’s be honest. We’re about to introduce a requirement to carry an identity card for some people in Ireland. And they will only be people whose accent is different, and whose skin colour is different.

Who do you think will be stopped on the street and ordered to produce their cards? We mustn’t go down this road.

We mustn’t allow ourselves to be seduced by the fear of being overrun by foreigners — a totally and demonstrably irrational fear — into enacting measures that are genuinely shameful. These proposals are a throwback to an era that Irish people fought honourably against. We cannot allow apartheid to be reborn in Ireland.

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