‘Whites only’

‘Whites only’

Apartheid was announced and enforced in a variety of ways, including in what is often referred to as ‘petty apartheid’, regarding areas, buildings, transport, and much of public space. This included measures under the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act 1953 (repealed in 1990) which divided usage according to race aka skin colour and was used in the regulation of everyday life, along with a large number of accompanying legal measures. There were many announcements about this, warning signs about who could legitimately be there, in the particular building, toilet, park bench, stairway, and who could not. Often these were very simple and to the point messages – ‘whites only‘. Sometimes their instructional qualities had greater length in setting out the legalities. An example is shown in the photograph here, which raises interesting questions about what in an ontological sense it is.

It has a signature, one of the characteristics of a letter, although this is a general signature by an office-holder rather than an individual. It does not have a specific address, there is no named intended recipient. But clearly, it is not addressed to the whole of the population, but rather to a particular exclusive segment of it. So in this sense it does have specific address, to those who are white persons. It tells them they can be legitimately and lawfully present. And although not named, there is by implication another set of addressees, the part of the population who are not white, and by implication they are not legitimately or lawfully supposed to be present. There is also information in the specific content of the message that appears on this sign. This space, place, building or facility is ‘reserved for the specific use of white persons’, and this is not just a bare instruction, it requires reading and evaluation of its claimed ‘by order’ legitimacy in regulating space in this way. ‘Public premises’ and their amenities are actually reserved.

What this photograph shows is not just a bare sign, it has more substance than that. But then it is not a letter as such either, although it has some attributes of this.

Last updated: 28 July 2022


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