The tragedy of how race classification law tore a family apart
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THE Population Registration Act was one of the cruellest pieces of apartheid legislation.
Promulgated in 1950, it was created to provide definitions of “race” based on physical appearance, as well as general acceptance and “repute”.
Once all these factors had been taken into account and established, the act made provision for the carrying of identity cards in which the race of a person would be clearly marked.
Its implementation ushered in the era of the “play-white”, in which some fair-skinned members of families deserted their darker-skinned kin to gain what was seen as a precious white identity document.
In Cape Town, some well-known members of the coloured communities especially were torn apart by the act.
One of them was top cricketer Owen Williams.
Interviewed by Mogamad Ali for his book More Than a Game: History of the Western Province Cricket Board 1959-1991, Williams spoke about how apartheid and the Population Registration Act in particular had torn at him every minute of every day of his life, and how it had affected him in the most basic way possible.
It split his family, elevating one section to a life of privilege while dooming the other to a second-class existence.
Williams said his nightmare had started shortly after his 12th birthday when the functionaries of South Africa’s system of social engineering classified his mother, a brother and sister white; Williams and another brother and sister were declared coloured.
“I don’t know if you understand what this means,” he told the UK-based Sun newspaper in 1971.
“It means that I can only visit my mother after dark.
“She lives in a white area and so, if I’m seen calling on her, it starts the neighbours talking, saying she must be coloured. To save her, I stay away.
"It also means that I can’t, for instance, meet my (white) brother in the city for a drink.”
And yet, in the midst of this personal anguish, he still found time to shine at cricket.
Williams is considered by many who had the privilege of seeing him play to have been one of the best left-arm spinners ever to come out of South Africa.
His superb record as a provincial cricketer in South Africa and in the Lancashire League bears testimony to that.
Sadly, when he was at the peak of his career in the 1960s, at a time when there was a dearth of top-class spinners in white South African competitions, apartheid ruled him out of Test cricket.
The immediate beneficiary of his superb bowling performances was not the South African Test side but tiny Radcliffe in the Lancashire League in England.
Clearly impressed by the left-hander and after the spadework had been done by journalist Damoo Bansda and former Nottinghamshire professional Tom Reddick, Radcliffe signed Williams as their professional in 1966.
After a slow start with Radcliffe, Williams came into his own, finishing with 143 wickets at a miserly cost of 7.94 per wicket.
In 1971, Williams and Dik Abed were nominated by South African Cricket Union president, Jack Cheetham to accompany the Springbok side on their tour to Australia that year.
Both refused the offer.
“I refused to go as a glorified baggage master,” Williams said.
“I wanted to be chosen on merit after having proved myself at club and provincial level against the best in the country. Unfortunately, the laws of the country did not allow that."
A staunch opponent of the tour, Williams told the London-based Sun newspaper: “If this tour goes on, it will put back the cause many years.
“For God’s sake, ban them. Make them feel as we are made to feel all the days of our lives – unwanted.
"Perhaps then, we will get some change in our country.”