The Day Apartheid Came Home

Gordon Torr
6 min readJan 23, 2019


The problem with bureaucracy doesn’t lie in its inefficiency; it lies in its efficiency.

As of today, the 21st of January 2019, three and a half million people in the UK will have to apply for permission to stay in their own homes.

These are not illegal immigrants. They are professors, pathologists, pilots, painters, pickle packers and plumbers from the other 27 nations of the European Union who came here legally and voluntarily under the provision of the acquis communautaire, the policy chapter of EU law that guarantees the freedom of all citizens of the member states to work, to live and to love in any of the other member states. Many of them came to the UK in the early 2000s. Some of them have been here for thirty or forty years.

Those rights will be denied them unless they can produce the trail of historical documentation required by the Home Office to support their application for “settled status”. The privilege of applying to avoid deportation included a £65 administration charge until this afternoon when Prime Minister Teresa May, facing a House of Commons jeering at her lack of progress since her last Brexit proposal was voted down last week by the biggest margin in British political history, decided to throw the cry-baby Remain-leaning liberals a bone by waiving the fee. It was a masterpiece of legerdemain, and she was duly rewarded by evening headlines that applauded her largesse, drawing a veil, at least temporarily, over the moral vacuum at the heart of British politics.

The parallels between Brexit and apartheid are too close to warrant more than cursory examination. The idea of apartheid, like the idea of Brexit, was to send people back to where they nominally belonged. So the Zulus were to be sent back to Zululand, the Xhosas to the Transkei, the Vendas to Vendaland, and so on. Brexit would have the Poles sent back to Poland, the Romanians to Romania, the Italians to Italy, and so on. The ideological vision, in both cases, was to end up with a perfectly pure national homogeneity that could celebrate its exceptionalism with a clear conscience.

But as the 20th century demonstrated, the sifting and sorting of large populations into neat boxes of national or racial identity requires more than wishing upon a yellow star — it requires a bureaucracy.

Enter Max Weber, author of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905).

To be clear, it was not Weber’s fault that his work was seized upon by unscrupulous state or corporate actors as a means to implement and enforce the ideologies or their choice. A German sociologist, philosopher, jurist, and political economist of French Huguenot descent, Maximilian Karl Emil Weber became during the course of the first world war one of the most prominent critics of German expansionism, supporting calls for constitutional reform, democratisation and universal suffrage. In his most influential thesis, noted above, he nevertheless laid the foundations for the bureaucratic processes universally accepted as a precondition for the effective functioning of organisations from greengrocers to governments. With the spectre of mass deportations now looming over Brexit Britain, these are indeed worth examining in some detail.

Weber laid out six bureaucratic management principles:

Task Specialisation demands exactly that. Just as the job of the worker bee is distinct from that of the drone, this first principle limits the role of individual bureaucrats or employees to performing a set of clearly delineated tasks and responsibilities, strictly proscribing them from wandering outside the boundaries of their designated remits.

The second demands a rigid Hierarchy of Supervision and Control, those distinct layers of management authority and reporting lines most familiarly represented in the company organogram, the first slide of every company’s credentials presentation. If bureaucracy had a trademark, this would be it.

Formal Selection ensures that all employees are chosen on the basis of specified levels of technical skills and competencies, which in turn determine the employee’s salary and rank in the hierarchy. Predictably enough, Rules and Requirements are laid out in detail to ensure organisational uniformity, while the principle of Career Orientation is designed, in theory at least, to “optimally utilise human capital” by putting square pegs in square holes.

But it’s the last of the six principles that will be sending shivers down the spines of those 3.5 million EU nationals waiting to hear back from the Home Office. Weber believed that Impersonality had the dual benefit of preventing nepotism within the organisation while ring-fencing it from political or commercial pressures without. By eliminating the personal or emotional involvement of the bureaucrat, decisions could be made on rational grounds alone.

The bureaucrats tasked by South Africa’s apartheid government to allocate a racial or tribal identity to every citizen were faced with a thorny problem. In the years between the first Dutch settlement of 1652 and the promulgation of the Population Registration Act in 1950, a not insignificant population of people of mixed race had emerged to blur the crisp official line between black and white. Most of them spoke Afrikaans and lived in the Cape, South Africa’s southernmost province. But there the similarities ended. Far from being the homogenous group designated as “Coloured” by the apartheid government, their skins varied in hues that ranged from a light tan to a deep amber.

The paler your skin colour, the closer you were to being granted the privileges and freedoms that belonged only to so-called Whites or Blankes. The darker your skin colour, the more likely you were to be classified as indigenous, in which case you would be sent to one or other Xhosa, Zulu, Tswana, Sotho, etc, township or “homeland” even if you didn’t speak the language of the Xhosa, Zulu, Tswana, Sotho, etc. If you were somewhere in the middle you would be allowed to stay in your own home in your Coloured township unless that happened to be District Six, which was soon to bulldozed into a pile of rubble for being too close to Cape Town for white comfort.

The problem for the bureaucrats in charge the bureaucrats who had to decide whether the applicant in front of them was White, Coloured or Black, was that judgement by skin colour alone was too subjective to be trusted. Moreover, like the applicants, many of the bureaucrats spoke Afrikaans. They might share a joke or two with their applicant and overlook the evidence of their eyes; they might have twinge of human sympathy and make the catastrophic error of admitting a person of colour into the snow-white community. A more objective measure was needed, one that did not violate Weber’s principle of impersonality.

History does not record the name of the person who came up with the idea of the pencil test. What we do know is that is was used systematically, objectively and infallibly to decide the future lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

It was as simple as it sounds. The pencil test involved sliding a pencil or pen in the hair of a person whose racial group was uncertain. If the pencil fell to the floor, the person “passed” and was considered “white”. If it stuck, the person’s hair was considered too kinky to be white and the person was classified as Coloured.

An alternate version of the pencil test was available for blacks who wished to be reclassified as coloured. In this version, the applicant was asked to put a pencil in their hair and shake their head. If the pencil fell out as a result of the shaking, the person could be reclassified. If it stayed in place, they remained classified as black.

The Home Office is painted in the press and in public discourse as a humane and sympathetic institution, as pleasantly neutral and as neutrally pleasant as the BBC; as minded to cherish those proprietary national values of fair-play and doing the right thing as Joe Root, and just as English. They will stick to their specialised tasks. They will obey the instructions of the hierarchy above them just as they did when their former Home Secretary Teresa May encouraged them to create a “hostile environment” for immigrants, legal and illegal, that ended in Windrush. They will be paid according to their rank; they will follow the rules and requirements; they will be mindful of their career paths.

It is certainly not the kind of bureaucratic machine that would use a measure as crude as the pencil test to decide the destinies of the 3.5 million. But Weber’s six principles legislate that bureaucracy can make only binary decisions. You are black or white, coloured or black, white or coloured, right or wrong, entitled to stay in your own home or deported to a homeland that was never your home.

Only two generations ago their forefathers drew the crisp official lines across the maps of Africa, the Indian sub-continent and the Middle East that decided which populations would live and which would die.

So today they will interpret the data they are provided by the applicants just as dispassionately and just as impersonally as the bureaucrats of apartheid sharpened their pencils.

In short, they will be ruthless, where the etymology of “without pity” speaks louder than the word itself.