Mistaken Identities : A Black Man With White Skin, Jerry Dlamini Lives Uneasily Astride South Africa’s Color Line

Times Staff Writer

Jerry Dlamini was whizzing along on his motorbike in this volatile black township three years ago when the machine conked out. Within minutes, a dozen angry black youngsters, knives and stones in their hands, surrounded him.

“What’s the matter?” Dlamini asked, using Xhosa, a black tribal language, and removing the helmet from his halo of short, kinky golden hair.

“He’s OK. He’s a Xhosa,” an elderly bystander shouted to quiet the mob.

Thought He Was a Boer

Surprised, the youths apologized.

“We thought you were a Boer (white Afrikaner),” one of them said.

Dlamini, the son of black parents and the father of black children, is an albino. His white skin brought him insults as a child, but as a 37-year-old man it gives him a rare opportunity to see across apartheid’s deep divide.


Often accepted as an equal by South Africa’s privileged white minority, Dlamini belongs, legally and culturally, to its black majority. He knows what it’s like to be treated like a white man in South Africa, where he finds skin color is more important than the size of one’s wallet or the size of one’s heart.

Shortly after the close call with the township mob, Dlamini was pulled over by a white policeman with a friendly warning: “It isn’t safe for whites like us to be driving around here.”

‘Thicker Than Water’

“People say that blood is thicker than water,” Dlamini said the other day. “But in South Africa, color is thicker than blood. It means everything. If you wake up tomorrow with a dark complexion, you will be classified African or Colored (mixed-race), no matter what you are.”

Dlamini, a Salvation Army commanding officer, lives with his family in a four-room matchbox of a house next to his army church in New Brighton, a township near the “white” city of Port Elizabeth. His wife and their three children, ages 3 to 11, are black-skinned.

“Most whites can see I’m not of European descent, but they don’t care,” Dlamini, sitting in front of a glowing space heater in his living room, said. “They accept me as a human being. They invite me into their houses. They never say so, but it’s because I look like they do.”

It is an axiom in South Africa that the fairer the skin, the greater the privilege. Whites control the government while Coloreds and Indians occupy separate and less powerful chambers in Parliament. Blacks have no vote in national affairs.

Few Leap Race Walls

For about 40 years, the Population Registration Act, a pillar of apartheid, has blocked unauthorized leaps over the racial walls.

Of the 1,142 people who applied for race changes last year, 90% were black Africans asking to become Colored or Coloreds wanting to become white. Only 13 whites applied to become Colored and 15 Coloreds applied to become Africans.

Slightly more than half the applications, after a careful study of the applicant’s skin color, facial features and family tree, were granted.

Dlamini is registered as black, but no one has yet asked for his identification card. They just see a short, white-skinned man with black-rimmed glasses, and they hear a precise English molded by private schools and an American benefactor.

Every day, Dlamini feels the subtle deference that whites enjoy from policemen, store clerks and even bank tellers.

“ ‘Hello, how are you? Can I help you?’ ” Dlamini says, imitating the friendly lilt of the white bank tellers who greet him. “But when my black friend Joe comes up to the counter, the teller is impatient. She wants Joe to come and go quickly.”

Felt Blacks’ Anger

As a child in the sprawling black township of Soweto near Johannesburg, Dlamini also felt the heat of black anger toward whites. Children called him names, such as mlungu (European) and Boer.

Later, he became a teacher in Soweto and then trained as a Salvation Army officer. When he was transferred here in 1985, at the height of the country’s political unrest, his motorbike was frequently pelted with stones by black radicals who thought he was a Caucasian. He began taking his son along to protect himself against dangerous misunderstandings.

“I hoped they would think twice before throwing a rock at a little boy,” he said.

But Dlamini, who speaks the languages of Xhosa, Zulu and Sotho as well as English and Afrikaans, eventually became known in the township through his church work and was accepted as a fellow black African.

No white person has ever asked Dlamini about his race, but some, knowing that his Salvation Army command is in a black area, ask if he’s afraid to go into the township.

‘White People Don’t Know’

“Most white people don’t know about black people,” Dlamini said. “They have been taught from childhood that blacks are inferior and evil.”

Dlamini was distributing Salvation Army literature one evening in the conservative white town of Springs when he knocked at a white woman’s house after dark.

“Weren’t you afraid to open the door for me?” he asked.

“Why should I be?” she responded. “I could see that it was a white man. I wouldn’t open for a black because most of them are dangerous.”

White ignorance and fear of blacks has been preserved by 40 years of state-enforced racial segregation and government pronouncements that it is doing all it can for blacks.

‘Just Like Children’

“Some whites think blacks are unthankful for what whites have done,” Dlamini said. “I feel pity for them. They are just like children, accepting whatever the government tells them.”

He tries to explain that to other blacks.

“I’m aware, as most blacks are, that whites have more privileges and rights than we do,” Dlamini said. “And it’s not fair. It’s un-Christian. But I tell my fellow Africans that there are good and bad elements among whites.”

Over the years, being a white-skinned African has created some embarrassing situations. A white restaurant owner, spotting Dlamini eating outside with other blacks, insisted that he take a table inside, with the “other whites.”

Dlamini and a black Salvation Army officer were going door to door a few years ago when a white man invited them to lunch. The host instructed his black maid to set one extra place at the table, telling Dlamini that his colleague would have to eat in the maid’s quarters.

Dlamini protested, pointing out that it would be awkward because Dlamini’s colleague, a captain, outranked him. But the man refused to budge.

“He was only happy to sit down with me, because I looked like him,” Dlamini said.

Being mistaken for a white man is not enough to make a man white in the eyes of the law, though.

“I may be accepted by whites,” Dlamini said, “but the laws of this country prevent me from ever living in their neighborhood.”