Towards the end of last year we wrote about the community mural that’s painted on the walls of the courtyard at the KwaMuhle Museum. The mural describes the role that the Municipal Native Affairs Department, which was once housed in the museum, played during apartheid. It also depicts one of the lesser known, and more informal cogs in the apartheid system, the ‘blackjacks’.
Blackjacks (or Black Jacks) were black men employed in place of regular policeman to enforce pass laws. While they weren’t armed, they did carry handcuffs and were often accompanied by vicious Alsatians, so their authority was not to be questioned. Blackjacks would often carry out raids in the townships, where they lived, making them hard people to hide from.
Things were especially difficult for illegal, mixed race families, who were trying to fly under the radar. In a 2007 interview, apartheid activist and attorney, Yunus Shaik, describes the problems that his family encountered with the blackjacks when they moved to Durban. His mother had died, and he and his brother were largely being raised by their black domestic worker, who stayed with the family illegally:
The difficulties we would have were many, but one of them that stuck out in my mind was that there used to be a thing called the Black Jacks. The Black Jacks used to run around neighbourhoods, whether they were Indian or white neighbourhoods, or the town. And their job was to see that African people were not in the city after a certain hour in the day. It was a kind of curfew. So by 6 o’clock all African people would have to be out of the city and they had to be in their townships, and if they were caught in the city they were arrested if they did not have a permit. It was quite a problem because sometimes Anna would be carrying my brother on her back, he was about one year’s old. And the Black Jacks would come and attack. We were all scattering all over the show, trying either to hide Anna or grab my brother.”
Comedian Trevor Noah, whose mother is Xhosa, and whose father is Swiss, spoke of similar difficulties, being a fair skinned child visiting his black grandmother in Soweto:
There were also the blackjacks, black people who worked for the police. My grandmother’s neighbor was a blackjack. She had to make sure he wasn’t watching when she smuggled me in and out of the house.
And such was the insidiousness of the apartheid system, where there was really nowhere to hide.