Apartheid-era benches make a comeback for Heritage Project

By Lauren Cohen

Separate benches for separate race groups were merely one "symptom" of the apartheid era.

"They were a petty and visible aspect of the times, but you could just walk past them," said Vince Kolbe, a founding member of Cape Town's District Six Museum, who grew up in Woodstock.

The Sunday Times Heritage Project commissioned artist Roderick Sauls to create two benches, marked "Whites Only" and "Non-Whites Only", which mimic apartheid-era public benches.

Benches labelled for whites and non-whites became a reality in 1953, when the Separate Amenities Act was passed.

The artwork has been installed outside the old Race Classification Appeal Board in Queen Victoria Street; a building which was the scene of humiliating hearings where people came before an appeal panel to argue about what race they were.

Text etched into the wooden rungs quotes extracts from the Population Registration Act which categorised all South Africans into pseudo-scientifically defined "races", and formed a cornerstone of apartheid.

Between 1950 and 1991, the Population Registration Act classified every South African as belonging to one of seven races, and accordingly granted or denied citizenship rights on a sliding scale. Whites had full rights, while Bantus had fewest.

Kolbe said while the benches were an indication of the times, "there were deeper issues that affected non-white sensibilities, such as families being divided over race and having to move out of their homes.

"Even the Cango Caves had a separate entrance for black people, as did Post Offices. Blacks had to sit upstairs in the bus, regardless of how full it was," Kolbe recalled.

Former District Six resident Eric Abrahams recalled how, as a 15-year-old in the early 1970s, two of his uncles moved their families to a new suburb "purely because they had much lighter skin tones".

Sauls said the work drew on his experiences of classification as a young child "when you were told, 'you can't sit there' or 'you can't go in that lift', but never realised that people actually labelled that legislation 'the bench law' or the 'lift law'.

"People would make jokes about the 'bench law' or the 'lift law', even though it was a very serious thing. It was all so small-minded but those things affected people's lives.

"Even today, people are suffering from things like that. It's the little things in life that we need to think about. They make a difference."

Sauls's hope is that people will engage with his artwork; that they will sit on the benches and think about what happened in the past.

Sauls was a personal friend of fellow Sunday Times Heritage artist Madi Phala, who was murdered near his Langa home earlier this month.

Phala's sculpture depicts the broken prow of a ship and replicas of World War I headgear to mark the men of the SS Mendi, lost in the icy waters of the English Channel in February 1917.

As a tribute to his friend, Sauls is remaking the plinth of the sculpture to fit a new plaque.

- Additional reporting by Sue Valentine.

back to the Race Classification Board memorial page

"Even the Cango Caves had a separate entrance for black people."
Vincent Kolbe on Race Classification
Apartheid signs, Mossel Bay
Picture: © Sunday Times


In this lesson plan, learners will have the chance to interact with information from clauses of the Population Registration Act of 1950 as well as from various legal records associated with two cases of people appealing for reclassification.

Lesson plan (1.09MB)
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Archive Photo Gallery
A selection of images of race classification’s victims, enforcers and signs.
Artwork Photo Gallery
Roderick Sauls’s installation is a stark reminder of how brutal human beings can be to one another.
Audio stories of the heartbreak caused
Listen to stories of the heartbreak caused by apartheid’s race classification laws.
A 360° tour of the memorial at the High Court Annex, Queen Victoria Street, Cape Town.
Race Classification Board Memorial
The Sunday Times Heritage Project memorial to the Race Classification Board – one of apartheid’s biggest absurdities – is attracting a lot of attention in Cape Town