Reservation of Separate Amenities Act 1953

Reservation of Separate Amenities Act 1953: whites only

Please reference as: Liz Stanley (2022) ‘Reservation of Separate Amenities Act 1953: whites only’, and provide the paragraph number as appropriate if quoting.


  1. Apartheid was announced and enforced in a variety of ways, including in what is often referred to as ‘petty apartheid’, regarding buildings, transport, and much of public space. This included measures under the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act 1953 (repealed in 1990) which divided presence and use according to race (aka skin colour, mainly) and was deployed in the regulation of everyday life, along with a large number of accompanying legal measures.
  2. Aspects might have been called petty, but it was omnipresent and enforced by people shaping their own behaviour accordingly, backed by uniformed officials (particularly the police force, ironically often involving black officers) tasked with ensuring observance.
  3. There were many visible announcements about this, warning signs that signalled 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. as condensed and instructional signs – eg. ‘whites only’.
  4. Sometimes their instructional qualities had greater length in setting out the legalities. An example is shown in the photograph above, which raises interesting questions about what in an ontological sense it ‘is’, what kind of material entity it is, a sign, a notice, or something else, and what kind of relationship it has with letters.
  5. 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. This gives it more rather than less authority, because it lifts it out of being specifically authorised by one person and turns it into something more timeless by being authorised by an organisational position.
  6. Its heading and content are in two languages, neither of them an indigenous African language of the majority African populations. It implies whiteness because of this. 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 this particular ‘exclusive’ white segment of it.
  7. So in this sense it does have specific address, as intended for those who are white persons. It tells them they can be legitimately and lawfully present and use both the premises and also the associated amenities. 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. The two languages it appears in, as well as its specific content, shout this,
  8. On the surface, this is all about prioritising whiteness and whites, but at a deeper level it is about regulating blackness and black presence/absence.
  9. There is also more information in the specific content of the message of this sign, notice or whatever it ‘is’. It conveys that this space, place, building or facility is ‘reserved for the specific use of white persons’; and this is not just a bare instruction, which is what the signs that much public space are littered with are; 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’.
  10. Also, what the premises and amenities consist of is not specified, for this is a general sign that can be used in a variety of contexts, but all intending the same outcome, the regulation of space and place. It is materially and tangibly a part of the organisational relations of ruling that characterised apartheid and its regulation of space, place, persons.
  11. What this photograph shows, then, is not just a bare sign, whites only, it has more substance than that. But it is not a letter as such either, although it has some attributes of this. It has addressees, it has a signature, it has a message intended for these addressees, it regulates a response in the shape of observance: it is best seen as a notice with some of the characteristics of letters.

Last updated: 28 July 2022


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