South African Conversations: Studs Terkel on Racism and Apartheid

“The white is hit harder by apartheid than we are. It narrows his life. In not regarding us as human, he becomes less than human. I do pity him,” said African National Congress president and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Albert Luthuli when Studs Terkel met with him in South Africa in 1963. It was almost twenty years before Studs published his book, Race: How Blacks & Whites Think & Feel About the American Obsession, but Terkels’ meetings with South Africans had a tone that was similar to his 1992 book. His journey preceded the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against South Africa in the 1980s. While he did choose to visit South Africa at the time, Studs questioned the morality of traveling to an apartheid state. Lufthansa Airlines asked him if he would join four other journalists on their inaugural flight from Frankfurt to Johannesburg. Ten years after the junket, writing in his first memoir-type book, Talking to Myself, Studs recalled: “I was about to say, danke schon, aber nein, auf Weidersehen (thank you, no, good-bye). I am not especially delighted by our de facto apartheid, let alone Sou’frica’s de jure species.”

Terkel addressed racism in the United States on his radio shows beginning in the 1940s and continuing during his 45-year tenure that began in 1952 on WFMT in Chicago. Studs became a blues and jazz aficionado and played both African and African American musicians on his 1945 radio show, The Wax Museum. Initially, the radio station collection included neither jazz nor blues – Studs bought the records at the Concord Record Shop – a local kiosk. At the time, Studs Terkel befriended Mahalia Jackson, who hired Studs as a writer and stood up for him when he was blacklisted during the McCarthy era. He was the Master of Ceremonies in 1948 at the Chicago Civic Opera House celebration of Paul Robeson’s 50th birthday. Robeson sang, as did Lena Horne. Then in 1963, the same year that Studs visited South Africa, he and his wife Ida rode on the Freedom Train from Chicago to the nations’ capital for the March on Washington. Later in the year, he was publicly critical when Chicago’s mayor, Richard J. Daley, proclaimed in a July 4th speech: “There are no ghettos in Chicago.” Studs Terkel’s long-time friend, journalist Vernon Jarrett, capsulized Terkel’s understanding of American racism.

As much or more than anyone else I know, he’s been for equality of treatment for blacks. In fact, I cant think of any other white person I’ve ever met in my life who knows so much about black history – by which I mean black feeling and black life. I was aware of that quality in him from almost the very beginning of what’s now been almost a forty-year friendship. It’s true what I once heard somebody say, that being black in a predominantly white populated area in any city in America you care to name, is like wearing an ill-fitting pair of shoes – you look all right in them to everyone else, and you know yourself you do – but its only you who knows the discomfort you’re in when you start to move around.

Studs Terkel’s anti-racist perspective, coupled with his propensity to explore in his interviews; called both “investigative conversations” and “moral history” by Victor Navasky, were magnified during his stay in South Africa. Unlike other journalists on the trip, Studs carried his Uher ((Uher was the tape recorder that Studs Terkel used in his work until later moving to a SONY.)) everywhere he went. He had conversations with black and white South Africans, the uncelebrated, authors Nadine Gordimer and Alan Paton, and most importantly, Chief Albert Luthuli, 1960 Nobel Peace Prize winner and the President of the African National Congress at the time. People who Studs has interviewed often comment that they describe themselves in ways that they didn’t know existed. When interviewees spoke with Studs they went well beneath the surface. He referred to his conversations as prospecting for gold. In South Africa, in spite of 1963 being one of the most intense and contested historical junctures of the struggle against the apartheid state, Studs Terkel, in a very short time, touched the heart(s) of the people and their lives within the country.

When Studs Terkel travelled to South Africa, Nelson Mandela was in prison and key leaders of the struggle against the apartheid state had been forced into exile. In 1962, with the backing of Luthuli, Mandela announced a move from peaceful resistance to armed struggle. “If the government reaction is to crush by naked force our non-violent demonstrations we will have to seriously reconsider our tactics. In my mind, we are closing a chapter on this question of non-violent policy.” The government actually increased oppression culminating in the 1964 Rivonia Trial where eight struggle leaders, including Mandela, were convicted of treason and sentenced to life in prison. For all practical purposes, as Studs Terkel travelled South Africa, the struggle against apartheid was made moribund for at least a decade.

Blacks in Apartheid South Africa

In Talking to Myself, Terkel describes meeting people in what Bishop Desmond Tutu refers to as South Africa’s “Pigmentocracy.” Like his work in the United States, Studs begins with the uncelebrated. Lufthansa organized various tours for the American journalists and one those trips was to the famous Kruger Game Park. The group stayed at a lodge called Pretoriakop where Studs met Magwiana Hlachayo who was assigned as the attendant for Studs’ room. Moments after Studs entered his room, Magwiana appeared, wearing black, servants’ shorts, one of many symbols of the oppressive and demeaning nature of apartheid. Magwiana introduces himself as John and explains to Studs that he will take care of him at the lodge. He calls Studs “Mastah” to which Studs recoils and responds, “I’m not your master.” Then, after a brief uncomfortable exchange, Studs asks Magwiana to talk about his life. Studs Terkel learns about Hlachayo’s family and his aspirations for his children to become doctors. He learns that Magwiana works seven days a week and travels home, a good distance, everyday, to be with his family. And he learns that his name is not John.

‘What is your name?’ I ask. ‘John,’ he says, as though speaking to a retarded child. ‘I told you.’ ‘No, no,’ I say. ‘What is the name your father gave you?’ He looks at me intently. Who is this guy, anyway? He smiles. ‘Magwiana.’ He whispers it. I take out a piece of paper. Slowly, he spells it out for me. Slowly, I write it down. I show it to him. He laughs. There is a touch of surprise to his laugh. ‘Is that your first name or your family name?’ I ask. ‘My name is Magwiana Hlachayo.’ He pronounces it deliberately. I repeat it and get it wrong. Patiently, he enunciates it again. He spells it. Slowly, I write it down. He laughs. ‘John is not my real name. The white people gave it to me because they can’t say Magwiana Hlachayo.’ We both laugh.

The following day Studs and the other American journalists go on an excursion to view zebras and wildebeests and elephants and lions, an experience that awes almost anyone who has such an opportunity, including Studs Terkel. Before they leave on their outing, he observes, with an ethnographic eye, a scene that corresponds to Magwiana Hlachayo being renamed John. A black man is sweeping the floor and two white men stand near him conversing on the childish nature of black South Africans.

He had come from Swaziland, he told me. As a small boy, he took care of his fathers’ cow. Of course he understood the conversation across the room. God knows it was loud enough… One of the men let me know there was no point in talking to the boy: ‘He doesn’t understand a word you say… Might as well talk to yourself.’

Later in the day Studs spoke with Magwiana about what he had seen. “Softly, Magwiana Hlachayo says, ‘I’m feeling bad on it. My heart is sore. I am also very cross because it is not very nice.’” Studs writes of his new friend’s dignity, in spite of the fact that he lives in a country where culture and law work constantly to demean black people. Because he had been asked his name the day before, and had told the story to his 12-year-old daughter, he comes to Studs with a gift – a plant of multi-colored paper and wire stems that his daughter has made for his fathers’ new friend. ((At the time Studs Terkel was writing Talking to Myself the gift still sat in his Chicago office.))

‘I told her about the white man who asked for my real name,’ he says. I hold the plant in my hand like a hockey champion cradling the Stanley Cup… ‘It is the first time a white man asks me these questions,’ he continues. ‘As long as I have been in this park, I have never seen a European sitting together with a native.’

Magwiana Hlachayo then asks Studs if there is anything else that he can do for him, before Studs leaves. Terkel “surreptitiously” hands over some money but notes that Magwiana needs something else. And what he wants is a letter – he wants to see in writing not only his name, but also the name of the white man who sat at his side.

Whites in Apartheid South Africa

While Studs Terkel spoke with white people throughout his South African journey, his primary conversations were with his Durban driver, George Jones. Corresponding to Studs Terkel interviews in general, his dialogues with white South Africans revealed their humanity, but also their privilege and the conflicting reality that within apartheid all people are dehumanized – blacks, whites, Indians, and coloured – all people. Besides Jones and the man at Pretoriakop Lodge, Studs met people at parties and other public places. Shortly after arriving in Johannesburg he and his fellow travelers were invited to a reception hosted by one of the Lufthansa Airlines directors and his wife. Someone informed the woman that Studs had spoken disparagingly of apartheid and she approached him and said, “Nobody likes apartheid… When people first come here, they’re against it. But when you live here a while, you see that it is right.” The same message came via an advertising man who had emigrated from Amsterdam five years earlier. “You’d feel the same way if you lived here for awhile.” And the English immigrant piano player at a hotel in Durban expanded on the laurels of the country.

South Africa has been very kind to me indeed… There are so many million black people here all looking for jobs, brought in from the jungle. They work for absolutely nothing. You can get a very good servant for nine pounds a month. They’re not really downtrodden, these chaps, don’t get that idea. The average house provides them with civilized amenities they’ve never really had. Really, life out here couldn’t be better. It’s a wonderful, wonderful, life.

Internationally acclaimed artist, Cecil Skotness, a resident of Johannesburg in 1963, also spoke with Studs and explained that South Africa was “a happy society for whites.” He added, however, “one mustn’t think too deeply, of course.” Sometimes George Jones, Studs’ Durban driver, made that mistake, he thought too deeply. Almost as soon as Studs and George meet, the latter is talking about his life and his family. He tells Studs of an experience that conflicts with apartheid commonplaces. Centered around George and his family’s car running out of gas on a road trip, Jones explains that the only person willing to stop and help was a black man.

The European is so full of himself. He’ll drive past and see a stranded motor car… He’ll drive past, smoking his pipe, cigar, or cigarette and not care a blow about anybody else… It makes one so really against your own. You’re really sorry to be a European at times.

Yet, George Jones enjoys the benefits of apartheid for white South Africans. White only privileges like movie theaters and beaches for example.

Sir, you can’t let him marry your daughter… That is the trouble with apartheid. You are friendly with the native but you can’t hobnob with him. You can’t bring him into your home as a neighbor. And – how shall I say it? – you can’t allow sexual relations. If you allow that, you will in time create a bastard race.

George Jones chauffeurs Studs for a couple of days and in spite of Terkel’s certainty that his driver was well aware of the fact that the visit with Albert Luthuli was clandestine and against the law, Jones felt enough closeness to invite Studs to his home to meet his wife Zelda. That meeting, too, brought the horrible cultural divide of apartheid into the open. In what Studs refers to as a “long half-hour,” including chitchat, George convincing Zelda to sing and the couple showing affection as they dance. At the mention of the word apartheid, Zelda speaks about being kind to black people and having admiration for her domestic helper before moving to a reproachful rant.

I’ve seen them, their children running around minus their little pants. It wouldn’t be right, living next door to us. It wouldn’t look nice. They’re used to being like that, so they don’t think it’s wrong. Now, with all these robberies. When I was a little girl, we never had these things. Ooohh, it’s shocking.

Studs asks about George’s story of only blacks helping stranded motorists, Zelda feels compelled to add a story: “Remember the native woman who poked into our car and put your hat on her head and ate my biscuit. She wouldn’t be able to fix a car.” George tries unsuccessfully to ameliorate the situation, but adds: “That is true. But through the courtesy of those people, the natives, we got to get on our way. They will never see a person stuck on the road without trying to help them. Never has a European, my girl, ever done that for us.” In response, Zelda’s anger grows, yet, Studs Terkel has recorded the depths of the impact apartheid has had on white people in South Africa.

Alan Paton and Nadine Gordimer

Alan Paton was one of the leaders of the Liberal Party during apartheid and his most famous book, Cry, Beloved Country, was published in 1948. Studs visited him at his suburban, Durban home. At the time Paton was working on the biography of Jan Hofmeyer, a liberal South African whom Paton described to Studs as someone who supported Christian principles regarding racial issues but was not able to practice them as a government minister. Paton’s apartheid dilemma was different.

This book would normally have taken only a few years of solid work. One is inclined to resent being called away from the writing desk for this or that emergency, having to go to prison or hold, say, a protest meeting. I don’t know whether the true writer doesn’t so much isolate himself as go into a retreat when he writes. I have never been able to do it.

Paton was political but not radical, and oddly, as he was leaving Durban to return to Johannesburg, Terkel met a bus driver who knew of Alan Paton. He spoke with Studs about white people socializing with black people in the apartheid state. “You are suspect immediately. You’re thought of as pink or communist or liberal.” He also described attending some of Paton’s interracial meetings. “Everybody who visits his house is under surveillance… They take down the names and addresses of all the visitors and the numbers of the cars.” But yet, in what was the norm for many whites during apartheid, he departs saying to Studs: “The African people will govern themselves some day. They must. There will be panic and confusion. And we’ll all say, ‘I told you so. They can’t govern themselves.’” Once again, Studs learned that apartheid dehumanizes everyone – blacks, coloureds, Indians, and yes, whites.

Nobel prize winning author, Nadine Gordimer, was more progressive than Alan Paton during the apartheid era. Studs visited her at her Johannesburg house on the first leg of the trip and she trusted him enough to suggest that he meet with struggle leader, Albert Luthuli, when he went to Durban. Knowing the reality of apartheid well, Nadine provided instruction on arranging a meeting with Luthuli.

When you reach an Indian marketplace in Durban, find a public telephone and call this number. Ask for B.W. Medawar. He is a close friend and colleague of the Chief. His phone is undoubtedly tapped by the SB – Special Branch… Simply say you’re a journalist from America and a friend of Nadine Gordimer. Say nothing else. He’ll know what you want.

Albert Luthuli

Studs followed the plan and that led to an interview with this great South African leader. Luthuli had been banned by the apartheid government, the equivalent in the United States to house arrest except that in South Africa there did not have to be formal criminal charges. He had won the Nobel Peace Prize three years earlier and had authorized armed struggle in 1962. It is important to note, however, armed struggle was defined as attacks on electrical pylons and government facilities – not attacks on people. Luthuli was forced to live in the small town of Stanger, about 30 miles outside of Durban. His conversation with Studs defined so much of the apartheid state reality from the ground, from the struggle. When the two men met, Studs relayed the story of his visit with Magwiana Hlachayo as well as that of the white men in the lodge lobby who spoke of blacks as children in the presence of the black worker. Studs recalled that Luthuli laughed and Studs related it to the experiences of his friend, blues musician Bill Broonzy and the blues line “laughin’ on the outside, cryin’ on the inside.” Studs added that it might be more like, “raging on the inside.” “One of the sore points is that we are not regarded as human beings. But if occasionally we are, it is as ignorant children,” added Chief Luthuli.

Albert Luthuli spoke with Studs about Zulu history and culture as well as his own personal story. Including his education at Adams College. He shared his hope of a South African society where cultures come together to live but also his anger at government oppression. He referred to himself as a militant but then quickly spoke of his hope for democracy – one person, one vote. He concluded saying: “The white is hit harder by apartheid than we are. It narrows his life. In not regarding us as human, he becomes less than human. I do pity him.”


Although his tenure in South Africa was brief, Studs Terkel explored the heart of the apartheid state through individual/collective South African stories – the uncelebrated as well as three more famous South Africans. He learned the contradictions of individuals as well as the system, and he portrayed the complexities without ever denying the evils of apartheid. In each of his future oral histories that address disparity, racism, and oppression; Division Street America, Hard Times, and Race: How Blacks & Whites Think & Feel About the American Obsession; he portrays similar complexities while at the same time never equivocating on the oppression that exists in American society.

Alan Wieder is an oral historian and the author of Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid (Monthly Review Press, 2013) and the forthcoming Studs Terkel: Politics, Culture, But Mostly Conversation. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Alan.