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 https://www.iol.co.za/news/opinion/misguided-notions-about-coloureds-and-colouredness-40619261


In my genes

My two grandmothers

A while back I met an Englishman who lives in South Africa and, detecting a trace of another accent, I asked him where he was originally from. He said that he liked to think of himself as a fine European blend of British, French and Italian roots. I wondered about that – what made him different to someone who might be a “fine blend” of African, Dutch, British and Indonesian roots? Why should the former be claimed with pride and the latter spoken about in whispers, viewed as sinful and criminal?

Of course, it all comes down to politics – the politics of slavery, colonialism and apartheid – and the pursuit of gold, god and glory, which I won’t go into now. In spite of scientific evidence that proves that all humans are 99% identical, the myths of polygenesis and racial superiority persist and everyday people use terms such as “mixed race” and “bi-racial”, or talk about different “races”. Issues of race and prejudice continue to shape our relations with each other and leave indelible scars on our psyche.

Yesterday I attended a talk by journalist, Sara-Jayne King, whose memoir, Killing Karoline, explores her life as the result of an affair between a ‘white’ British woman and her ‘black’ South African colleague. Born in the 1980s, at the height of apartheid, she is taken out of the country and put up for adoption in Britain, her mother returning to SA with the news that her baby had died (hence the title). In her book, King plots her path of self-destruction through addiction and eating disorders, and explores the feelings of insecurity and poor self-worth related to her identity.  Adoption on its own must come with attendant issues of rejection and belonging, but in King’s case it is underscored with the apartheid crime and sin of immorality. I believe that her attempts to destroy herself were in part a sub-conscious drive to punish herself for an inherent sense of shame related to not belonging. It’s this feeling of having done something wrong that is part and parcel of the legacy of slavery, colonialism and apartheid. Confronting it  needs to start with rejecting the concept of race which is based on the superficial distinction of skin colour,  hair, bone and facial features, in order to perpetuate power and control by one group over another. 

A few months ago, while on a visit to the USA, I did what I have been wanting to do for ages – ordered a DNA testing kit.  My friend, Mary, and I bonded over collecting samples of sputum and posted them off. I was not sure what to expect since my ancestors have variously been classified as ‘coloured’, ‘white’ or Cape Malay. In the context of South Africa this takes on layers of meaning and is imbued with a gamut of emotions, many of which are negative, like shame and worthlessness. Since I was immersed in my doctoral thesis about representation and identity related to growing up in South Africa during apartheid, I thought that knowing more about my ancestral make up might add some value to my research.

Consistent with what I know of my grandparents, my DNA results confirmed that I was a fine blend of South East Asian and European populations with a liberal sprinkling of sub-Saharan African. I found it quite affirming to have a written record – scientific proof – of a history that the apartheidists sought to erase in their attempts to subjugate and dehumanise us through fixing cosmetic differences and forcing us into prescribed boxes. The time for transcending race and regarding each other as human is long overdue.

King, S. 2018. Killing Karoline: A Memoir. Published by MF Books Joburg.

Ms Markle, The Prince and the Question of Race


So Ms Markle has found her prince and all of the modern world has seen photographs of the happy couple and the ring and shared her unconventional background on social media – she’s an American, an actress, a divorcee, older than the prince, her mother is a social worker and yoga teacher – all pretty quirky for the Royal family. But there’s more – her mother is ‘black’, descended from slaves and wears dreadlocks and a nose ring, and her father is ‘white’ of Dutch and Irish stock and works in the film industry.

Of course, the Mother Grundies have not missed the opportunity to pass judgement which is not only racist but also classist, so much so that the Prince had to step in to appeal to the media to refrain from abuse and harassment.

I love unconventional, I love quirky, I love things that don’t fit neatly into the box … but why, oh why, Ms Markle do you, and so many others, persist in “identifying as bi-racial” and “mixed-race”, as if your parents are from two different species and you are the creation of some intergalactic union? When are we going to stop referring to bio-geographical differences as races? There’s no note of Papa Markle being of mixed “race” even though his ancestry is a mixture of different cultures, languages, and backgrounds.

It’s almost 160 years since Charles Darwin arrived at the radical conclusion that we were all one species in his book, Origin of the Species (1859). Radical, that is, for his time (1809-1882) when the prevailing views were of the innate inferiority of the Negro, and people in the New World associated slavery with dark skin colour. Once black and slave became synonymous, anti-black racism increased in intensity and later became institutionalised in the American South as segregation and in South Africa as apartheid.

Historian, Niall Ferguson, says that Europe’s monarchies were prepared to cross oceans and conquer continents in pursuit of ‘God, Gold and Glory’, but without the African slaves who worked the land, Western Europe would have remained underdeveloped and dependent on the East for input regarding technology, culture and wealth. Both science and religion[1] were being used to justify the enslavement and exploitation of millions of Africans and Asians. A common belief was that black people were not far from apes in origin, so Darwin’s proposal that all people shared a common origin (monogenesis) was indeed a dangerous one.

Although the idea that God had created two men, one white and one black, went against the Christian teachings of the unity of mankind, it led to the anatomical and scientific examination of black bodies and skin, and the Royal Society went so far as to suppress research which found skin colour to be a superficial distinction among humans. The theory of polygenesis was used by British colonialists to justify the perpetual slavery of Africans as well as the subjugation of Native Americans.

Darwin was an abolitionist (both his grandfathers were active in the English anti-slavery movement) and he was reportedly deeply affected by his experiences of slavery during his voyage on the scientific research ship, the Beagle. However, while he believed in the monogenic origin of humanity, he still divided humans into different races based on superficial differences in skin, eyes and hair and believed that Europeans (or ‘whites’) were evolutionary more advanced than darker skinned people, according to Steven Rose, professor of biology and neurobiology at the Open University. Likewise, Darwin’s views concerning differences between males and females reflected the bias of his time, that males were biologically stronger.

When Nobel Prize winners, Watson and Crick, discovered the molecular structure of DNA in 1953, the idea that “the blood” (or the genes) is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities was disproved once and for all. All humans are 99% genetically identical; there is only one human race. To use terminology such as “bi-racial” or “mixed-race” is to imply that there is more than one human race and perpetuates the myth of racial superiority. Yes, different populations of people may display differences in biological make-up, but these are due to what Professor Rose calls bio-geographical ancestry. So people living in the northern or southern hemisphere, hot or cold climates or in isolated areas versus densely populated ones, may appear differently to others.

The reactions to Ms Markle’s rise from slavery to royalty, as it has been called by one publication, is evidence of the pervasive racism that infects our society and it is unfair to place the burden of these perceptions on one person’s shoulders and expect change. But, maybe, if all this issue does is raise awareness and gets people talking, it will be worth the media hype … but let’s get the terminology correct. Words are powerful.

[1] The so-called ‘Curse of Ham’ was the most important biblical justification for slavery; in the Book of Genesis, Noah curses Ham, the son of Canaan, to be the ‘servant of servants’.

This article was published in The Cape Times on 14 December 2017 under the heading: Why, Meghan, do you, persist in identifying as ‘bi-racial’ and ‘mixed-race’?