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If you like Athol Fugard's story, you might also like:
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Athol Fugard
Athol Fugard
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Athol Fugard Interview

Playwright, Novelist and Actor

September 13, 2014
San Francisco, California

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  Athol Fugard

You were a boy when the system of apartheid was instituted in South Africa. What was that like?

Athol Fugard: It happened shortly, very early in my young years, that the policies of apartheid were implemented, were defined, put onto the law books, and those 40 years of darkness -- because that's the only way to describe them -- as one law after another went onto the statute books about Parliament defining the privileges that went to the white people, and what was left over went to the people of color in my country. Even though the white population at that point was only a few million and that the people of color in my country -- black and, as we name them, colored -- numbered over almost 25 million people. So it was a grossly, grossly unfair period. And it was very dark. Those were cruel draconian laws that really stifled free speech, free assembly, defined who your friends could be, defined who you could marry, who you could have as a partner. It was unbelievable. I mean it was rightly likened in some respects to the worst aspects of Hitler's period in Germany. It was an institutionalized form of race prejudice. That's what it amounted to.

How did they keep people from intermarrying? What happened?

Athol Fugard: There was a law quite simple called -- and I wrote a play about it -- called the Immorality Act. A white person was not allowed to have any sort of physical or sexual relationship with a person of color. It was as simple as that. There was a special branch of the police who implemented that law and arrested people and sent them to jail. It was awful.

As a child, what did you feel about apartheid? How did you become aware of it?

Athol Fugard: That's a very important question because...

At the core of my life is a magnificent woman, my mother, an Afrikaner, almost illiterate. You know, when it was a case of writing letters to our debtors, you know, I used to have to sit down with pencil and paper and she would tell me what she wanted to say to them and how she was going to ask for more time before we had enough money to pay this bill or that bill. And that lady, my mother, as to this day, to this very day -- last night I spent a lot of time thinking about her -- was gifted with a natural sense of justice. She looked -- as ill-equipped as she was by any intellectual standards to recognize what was happening in the country -- -- she knew that something was wrong, that injustice was rampant. And because I was very close to both my mother and my father, she shared probing questions with me, and in this way shaped my awareness of the world in which I was growing up.

So we gather you were not in an integrated school situation.

Athol Fugard: Oh no, no, no. Not at all. "Whites only."

The privileges that came to you by benefit of having a white skin ranged from your education to your health care to everything. All the privileges that were denied to the others came to you simply by virtue of having a white skin. There was a piece of legislation called the Job Reservation Act, which meant that certain categories of work in the country were reserved for whites. There was another act called the Group Areas Act, which meant that the best parts of the country were reserved for white occupancy. You could build houses there, but no colored person or African person could build there. Those townships, as we called them -- or "locations" was also a South African word -- were always on the periphery of the big cities. And although we depended very, very much on them as a labor source to keep our country ticking over, they had to travel miles and miles every day of their lives to get into the city where they could work, where they would work for us.

What did your father do?

Athol Fugard: My father was a jazz musician. He was also a cripple. I know that's not a polite word to use, but he walked with crutches. He was a wonderful pianist, and he had a band of his own called the Melodians. He also had a problem in terms of alcohol. Very early on in my childhood my father just sort of gave up on life and left the breadwinning to my mother. He just sat on the sidelines and waited very patiently for his end.

When did that come?

Athol Fugard: I think he was 71 when finally all sorts of things started to go wrong with him physically and he died in the hospital.

So your mother was forced to work. What kind of work did she do?

Athol Fugard: She had all sorts of jobs to start with, but she ended up with a little boarding house in a side street in Port Elizabeth called the Jubilee Residential Hotel. It wasn't as splendid as its name, believe me! That was the source of the family income for many, many years. Eventually she moved out of boarding houses because we ended up having two, ultimately. Then she got hold of the license to a little tearoom in a park in the center of Port Elizabeth called the St. George's Park. That then became the family's source of income.

Did you have siblings?

Athol Fugard: I had an elder brother, who passed away a good few years ago, and a younger sister, who is still alive and living in South Africa, but is very ill now.

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