Mind Your Language

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 when they died.

Emancipation Day, commemorating the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1834, was observed on 1 December 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 heterogenous 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 Anglo-Boer 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, the presumption being that mixing had been minimal in the past. ‘Coloured’ people were thus stripped of a shared history in order to banish all evidence of past ‘indiscretions’.

In 1973 Andre 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 order to maintain the myth of racial purity, it became necessary to perpetuate stereotypes about groups of people that continue to inform the present. 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 Riebeek 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. Mohammed 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 bestseller 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 who recently received two awards from the NAACP. 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 homogenous ‘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.

Versions of this article were published in the Cape Argus Thursday 19 December 2019 under the title, Defined by racist labels, and in the Pretoria News on Wednesday 15 January 2020 under the title Misguided notions about ‘coloureds’ and ‘colouredness’, as well as online


History and Heritage Uncategorized

Memories of my Grandfather

I hear the key in the door first, then the jangle of coins in his pocket. I race down the passage, trying to get there before my two brothers so that I can lay claim to one of his feet. We scramble to hop on, wrapping our arms around his trunk-like legs. Slowly he hobbles into the house weighed down by two children, with the unlucky third dancing around in front of him.

Ma yells at us, “Stop bothering your grandfather! He is tired!” We know that he leaves home in the dark to deliver bread for the bakery. By the time his shift ends we are back from school. We jump off his giant feet and allow him to enter his bedroom but follow closely on his heels, eager for the treat that he usually has in one of his pockets.

He sits down on the bed and then he opens his dark cupboard door, releasing smells of another era. Carefully pressed suits thick with the scent of mothballs hang, ready for service, alongside stiffly starched white shirts. Two pairs of shoes, one black, one brown, gleaming with polish, sit side by side at the bottom of the cupboard. Underwear and handkerchiefs are stacked in piles on the shelves. Black and white pictures which recall happier days are tucked into the mirror at angles. 

In the second drawer from the top is a yellow money box. “UBS” it says in blue letters. From the pockets of his khaki coat he takes out the coins which announced his arrival earlier. He allows me to put them into the money box. “For your education,” he reminds me.

In the photograph of me in my paternal grandfather’s arms in the mid-1960s, I imagine that he is envisioning the different life that I would have because of the education he was determined to provide for me. As far back as I can remember, my grandfather had been telling me that my brothers would be able to take care of themselves but that I would have to study further so that I could be independent. In retrospect this was quite revolutionary on his part, considering not only that no one in the family had completed matric or attended university, but also that I was a girl. He had passed standard six (grade 8) and worked as a driver of a delivery van for Duens Bakery, leaving for work while we were still asleep and coming home soon after we returned from school in the afternoon. From the pockets of the khaki coat he wore, he would take out any loose change and hand them to me to deposit into the yellow money box which said “UBS”(United Building Society)  in blue letters that he kept in his cupboard. Every deposit was accompanied by the reminder that this was for my education. By the time I had finished school he had saved enough to pay for my first year of university.

My pride at being the first person in my family to complete matric and make it to university was tempered by the humiliation of having to apply to the Department of Coloured Affairs for permission to attend the University of Cape Town which was for ‘whites-only’. I was granted permission on the basis that the ‘coloured’ University of the Western Cape did not offer the Occupational Therapy degree I wished to pursue.

Entering university was such a cultural onslaught that I might as well have gone to study in a different country. There were social, academic and financial challenges. My grandfather had managed to save enough to cover the fees for the first year and I had to find a bursary or take out a bank loan if I was to continue. As ‘black’ students we were constantly reminded of our inferior status on campus. In our anatomy practical sessions, even the cadavers we worked on had to be ‘black’. During clinical practice in our third and fourth years of study, we were not allowed to treat ‘white’ patients, which limited the placements and experience we could be exposed to. Restricting access to education was one of the ways in which those in power could control the lives of ‘black’ people. By placing limitations on the kind of education and the level of education ‘blacks’ could attain, the government ensured that they would remain less educated than ‘whites’, therefore less qualified and unable to rise above the station in life which the government deemed fit.

My grandfather died of cancer soon after I completed my first year of study and so was not alive to see me graduate, but the learning path he set me on changed the course of my life.