Mis­guided no­tions about ‘coloureds’ and ‘coloured­ness’

We con­tinue to live in a so­ci­ety frag­mented by racial dis­course

Pretoria News - - OPINION - NA­DIA KAMIES Kamies is a post-doc­toral fel­low in the Univer­sity of Pre­to­ria’s Depart­ment of His­tor­i­cal and Her­itage stud­ies.

IN SPITE of dramatic con­sti­tu­tional changes, South Africans re­main stuck in the apartheid ways of think­ing and re­lat­ing to each other, liv­ing in a so­ci­ety frag­mented by racial dis­course, and con­tin­u­ing to talk about four dis­tinct “races”.

Per­haps this is pre­dictable given a past when ar­ti­fi­cial con­cepts of race gov­erned where peo­ple lived, went to school, who they loved, what ca­reers they chose, and where they would be buried.

Eman­ci­pa­tion Day, com­mem­o­rat­ing the abo­li­tion of slav­ery in the Bri­tish Em­pire in 1834, was ob­served on De­cem­ber 1 in South Africa, although many South Africans are ig­no­rant of the im­pact of slav­ery on our his­tory.

Al­most from the start, the Cape was a slave so­ci­ety, and as else­where, mix­ing be­tween Euro­peans, in­dige­nous, and the en­slaved oc­curred, giv­ing rise to a group of cre­olised peo­ple, who would later be­come known as “coloured” un­der the apartheid govern­ment’s Pop­u­la­tion Reg­is­tra­tion Act.

This het­ero­ge­neous group of peo­ple re­sisted clas­si­fi­ca­tion into “white’/ Euro­pean or “black”/Bantu, and the cat­e­gory “coloured” be­came a resid­ual one, a hold-all for the “left­overs”.

Af­ter their de­feat in the An­gloBoer War, the Afrikan­ers’ de­sire for a dis­tinct na­tional iden­tity de­manded that they dis­tance them­selves from the “coloured” peo­ple with whom they shared blood, lan­guage and re­li­gion. Leg­is­la­tion, justified by so­ci­o­log­i­cal, ec­cle­sial and po­lit­i­cal views, was adopted in or­der to main­tain racial dis­tinc­tions and pre­vent fur­ther mix­ing.

“Coloured” peo­ple were, thus, stripped of a shared his­tory in or­der to ban­ish all ev­i­dence of past “in­dis­cre­tions”.

In 1973, An­dré P Brink’s novel, Ken­nis van die Aand, the first Afrikaans book to be banned by the apartheid govern­ment, was crit­i­cised for its vil­i­fi­ca­tion of the Afrikaner, in­hu­man por­trayal of the po­lice, and for mock­ing re­li­gion.

More im­por­tantly, says Ver­non

Fe­bru­ary, Brink sup­plies his pro­tag­o­nist, the “coloured” Josef Malan, with “a neatly con­structed ge­nealog­i­cal tree... that forcibly ac­counted for… the no-past, no-myth, her­itage of the Cape coloured”.

In 1985, Hans Heese’s book draw­ing at­ten­tion to the mixed her­itage of ma­jor Afrikaner fam­i­lies and list­ing mar­riages be­tween Euro­peans and slaves was sim­i­larly banned.

Like Brink, Heese was an Afrikaner writ­ing in Afrikaans, and I be­lieve that their work com­ing from within the kraal car­ried more weight.

In Afrikaner mythol­ogy, says Fe­bru­ary, coloureds would only per­form a func­tional role within cer­tain “syn­dromes”, such as the drunken clown. I found that the theme of al­co­hol is a re­cur­ring one from the first time Jan van Riebeeck gave the en­slaved a glass of brandy to help them learn the Chris­tian prayers, to the tot sys­tem that en­sured the labour­ers’ de­pen­dency on the farm­ers post-eman­ci­pa­tion.

Mo­hamed Ad­hikari sim­i­larly refers to the so-called in­her­ent char­ac­ter­is­tics of “coloured” peo­ple – such as dis­hon­esty and reck­less­ness, and sup­posed ten­den­cies to­wards gang­ster­ism, drug and al­co­hol abuse that have of­ten been blamed on the idea that “coloured­ness”

was the prod­uct of mis­ce­gena­tion. The preva­lence of th­ese stereo­types and their en­trench­ment in the psy­che of the ma­jor­ity of South Africans is il­lus­trated by Trevor Noah’s de­scrip­tions of “coloureds” in his 2016 me­moir, a New York Times best-seller soon to be made into a movie.

Noah is the son of a Xhosa mother and a Swiss (“white”) fa­ther.

He dis­tances him­self from the apartheid clas­si­fi­ca­tion (de­scrib­ing him­self as “mixed but not coloured – coloured by com­plex­ion but not by cul­ture”) and shares his ex­pe­ri­ences of not fit­ting into his “coloured” neigh­bour­hood be­cause of the “two types of coloured peo­ple” he en­coun­tered – those who hated him for be­ing “black” and hav­ing curly hair, and those who re­sented his “white­ness” and “per­fect English” and for not speak­ing “Afrikaans, the lan­guage that coloured peo­ple were sup­posed to speak”.

Iron­i­cally, Noah de­scribes very ac­cu­rately the space of am­bi­gu­ity which mirrors the “coloured” ex­pe­ri­ence of oc­cu­py­ing the in­ter­sti­tial zone of be­ing nei­ther “white” nor “black”, and which was of­ten de­scribed to me in my re­search.

While his story res­onates on many lev­els with or­di­nary peo­ple in

South Africa, and of­fers a lens into what it was like for his fam­ily to live and nav­i­gate apartheid leg­is­la­tion, his de­scrip­tion of the ori­gin of “coloureds” is pep­pered with stereo­types and in­ac­cu­ra­cies, start­ing with the pre­sump­tion that “coloured” peo­ple speak Afrikaans.

He dis­sem­i­nates a pop­u­lar myth that “coloured” peo­ple orig­i­nated largely from “black-white” sex­ual unions out­side of wed­lock; as a re­sult of pros­ti­tu­tion and ca­sual sex be­tween colonists, the en­slaved and Khoisan.

The apartheid con­structs are deeply em­bed­ded in our psy­che, and we con­tinue to live in a so­ci­ety frag­mented by racial dis­course.

The ev­i­dence of how suc­cess­fully this was ac­com­plished by the aparthei­dists is il­lus­trated by the way Noah de­scribes “coloured” peo­ple as “an en­tirely new race”.

I find this alarm­ing com­ing from such a high-pro­file South African. I be­lieve that the con­cept of “coloured­ness” is nei­ther a bi­o­log­i­cal nor an eth­nic iden­tity, but a di­rect re­sult of slav­ery and cre­oli­sa­tion and, later, apartheid so­cial en­gi­neer­ing.

In spite of at­tempts by the apartheid govern­ment to “fix coloured­ness”, it re­mained an am­bigu­ous and fluid iden­tity, het­ero­ge­neous in skin colour, lan­guage, re­li­gion, and cul­ture, as il­lus­trated by the two pho­to­graphs of my grand­moth­ers, one clas­si­fied Cape coloured and the other Cape Malay, two of the seven sub­groups of coloured. There is no ho­mo­ge­neous coloured iden­tity, and there­fore, no essence of coloured iden­tity, neg­a­tive or pos­i­tive.

More needs to be done than sim­ply re­move the laws that en­trenched apartheid racial hi­er­ar­chy – we need to find a new lan­guage to talk about the past so that we may ad­dress the sense of in­fe­ri­or­ity and shame as­so­ci­ated with racial su­pe­ri­or­ity and the neg­a­tive stereo­typ­ing of colonists and slave masters.

US-BASED South African co­me­dian and TV per­son­al­ity Trevor Noah de­scribes him­self as ‘coloured by com­plex­ion but not by cul­ture’.

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