SA adopting colonial categories of people drives racial divide
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,...