SA adopt­ing colo­nial cat­e­gories of peo­ple drives racial di­vide

Mail & Guardian - - Comment & Analysis - Suren Pillay

Three con­tro­ver­sies with racial over­tones took place re­cently: ten­sions be­tween coloured and black peo­ple in Siqalo in Mitchells Plain; the de­bate about re­nam­ing Cape Town In­ter­na­tional Air­port, which re­minded us of the racialised lan­guage be­tween coloured and African pop­u­la­tions in the prov­ince; and com­ments made by the leader of the Eco­nomic Free­dom Fight­ers about In­dian racism.

One group con­demned the pol­i­tics that might be ex­plicit or ly­ing in wait in the ref­er­ences to be­ing coloured or In­dian. For this group, re­fer­ring to coloureds as the new in­car­na­tion of first na­tions or Khoi con­ceals a racism to­ward Africans at best and, at worst, are iden­ti­ties be­ing mo­bilised by char­la­tans, chau­vin­ists and po­lit­i­cal en­trepreneurs masking op­por­tunis­tic in­ter­est in the lan­guage of jus­tice.

Then there is a more pop­u­lar view, which con­sid­ers these ex­pres­sions le­git­i­mate — that the coloured pop­u­la­tion was marginalised in postapartheid South Africa, and that coloured is an iden­tity that should be re­placed by more af­fir­ma­tive cul­tural self-de­scrip­tions, such as Khoi or Gri­qua. Re­gard­ing In­di­ans, some in­sist that there is a large breyani pot of truth be­hind the claim that they are racist to­ward Africans.

But these views re­quire a his­tor­i­cal con­text so that we can see where they come from.

As both vic­tims and ben­e­fi­cia­ries of apartheid’s poli­cies of di­vide and rule, the predica­ment of those clas­si­fied as coloured or In­dian needs to be his­tor­i­cally lo­cated in colo­nial prac­tice and seen as a legacy of the past. Man­i­fes­ta­tions of coloured or In­dian racism are less causes of a prob­lem than they are con­se­quences of that colo­nial past.

Rather than think of this pol­i­tics as ex­cep­tional to South Africa, these are predica­ments that have faced cer­tain pop­u­la­tion groups af­ter oc­cur­rences of de­coloni­sa­tion across the world, par­tic­u­larly in Africa.

By the late 19th cen­tury colo­nials had learnt the hard les­son that a united na­tive pop­u­la­tion was a threat­en­ing spec­tre.

The re­sult was a pol­icy pi­o­neered first in East Africa, then in West and South­ern Africa, of first di­vid­ing the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion to bet­ter rule them and, sec­ond, to co-opt lo­cal po­lit­i­cal lead­ers and re­fash­ion lo­cal cus­toms, so that these lead­ers be­come the in­di­rect rulers of the colo­nial state.

If lo­cal pop­u­la­tions had dif­fer­ent cul­tural iden­ti­ties, these were now trans­formed into ei­ther racial or tribal iden­ti­ties. Tribes were “given” cer­tain ter­ri­to­ries that be­came their home­lands, where they lived un­der cus­tom­ary law ad­min­is­tered by chiefs anointed by the colo­nial ad­min­is­tra­tors. Cul­tural iden­tity was turned into po­lit­i­cal iden­tity, ac­cord­ing to Ugan­dan scholar Mah­mood Mam­dani in his book De­fine and Rule.

To be a “na­tive”, clas­si­fied as “indige­nous”, was to be de­fined as an eth­nic sub­ject of a par­tic­u­lar ter­ri­to­rial-ad­min­is­tra­tive unit. But some states went even fur­ther. Zim­bab­wean his­to­rian James Mu­zon­didya has noted that colo­nial Rhode­sia fur­ther dis­tin­guished be­tween an “abo­rig­i­nal na­tive”, and a “colo­nial na­tive”. An abo­rig­i­nal na­tive was an eth­nic sub­ject de­fined as be­long­ing to that par­tic­u­lar ter­ri­tory and there­fore hav­ing cer­tain rights of ac­cess to land and so on. But “colo­nial na­tives” were dif­fer­ent: they lived on the land but did not be­long there. They were “eth­nic strangers”, mainly mi­grants from places such as South Africa.

But across the con­ti­nent there were also cat­e­gories of pop­u­la­tions who did not fit neatly into this clas­si­fi­ca­tion of set­tler and na­tive. They were cat­e­gories of peo­ple not de­fined as eth­nic; like the Euro­peans, they were clas­si­fied as “races” in colo­nial law. Colo­nial think­ing said some races came from else­where, there­fore they were not indige­nous.

In north­ern Nige­ria this clas­si­fi­ca­tion was given to those named as Fu­lani. In Rwanda, the Tutsi were de­fined as a non­indige­nous race, whereas the Hutu were de­fined as the eth­nic na­tives. In East and South­ern Africa, the In­di­ans were de­fined as a race. And in South­ern Africa, the de­scen­dants of slaves and mixed pop­u­la­tions were de­fined as “coloureds”, mes­tizo or cre­oles.

These groups have been called “sub­ject races” by Mam­dani. They were used as in­ter­me­di­aries be­tween the Euro­peans and those seen as “indige­nous” tribes; they were el­e­vated above the “na­tive” but kept well below the Euro­pean. The re­sult was to pro­duce a dou­ble re­sent­ment to­wards them: they were held in con­tempt by those who ruled over them and by those over whom they held petty author­ity.

The de­ci­sion to co-opt the coloured pop­u­la­tion in the Cape was a tac­ti­cal de­ci­sion of the colo­nial pow­ers. An at­tor­ney gen­eral of the Cape in the early 1900s re­marked: “I would rather meet the Hot­ten­tot at the hus­tings, vot­ing for his rep­re­sen­ta­tive, than meet the Hot­ten­tot in the wilds with a gun on his shoul­der.”

Prime min­is­ter Barry Hert­zog’s pol­icy on vot­ing for the coloured pop­u­la­tion in the Cape in the Pact gov­ern­ment of 1924 was mo­ti­vated by his ob­ser­va­tion that: “It would be very fool­ish to drive the coloured peo­ple to the en­e­mies of the Euro­peans — and that will hap­pen if we ex­pel him — to al­low him even­tu­ally to come to rest in the arms of the na­tive.”

An­thro­pol­o­gist WM Eise­len, a close ally of apartheid prime min­is­ter Hen­drik Ver­wo­erd, summed up this vi­sion in 1955: “Briefly and con­cisely put, our na­tive pol­icy re­gard­ing the Western Prov­ince aims at the ul­ti­mate elim­i­na­tion of the na­tives from this re­gion.” By na­tives, he meant black Africans, who would be de­fined as be­long­ing to a tribe and there­fore be­long­ing in a home­land else­where.

In the Cape a de­lib­er­ate pol­icy of so­cial en­gi­neer­ing de­signed to co-opt the coloured pop­u­la­tion was put in mo­tion by the Influx Con­trol laws: the Coloured Labour Pref­er­ence Area Pol­icy. The pol­icy was sys­tem­at­i­cally im­ple­mented over a few decades. In

De­nied: Un­der apartheid, peo­ple pre­sumed to be only of Euro­pean de­scent were priv­i­leged above all other South Africans. Other peo­ple, such as the Khoi, San, Nama, Gri­qua, Da­mara, de­scen­dants of slaves (African and Asian) and var­i­ous mi­grants were,...

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