Can SA have a future without coloured people?
So many academic papers and treatises have been written about coloured identity that I am not going to revisit the usual arguments set forth when this topic is addressed. Not least because it was the label that determined my entire life under apartheid, but also because it still follows me wherever I go. 1994 did nothing to save me from this classification and today I feel quite ambivalent talking about colouredness.
Despite my misgivings, it is a notion that is central to a truly multicultural society. Scholarship on coloured identity includes a broad range of perspectives, which I shall mention but not go into:
- Colouredness as a by-product of biological miscegenation and the shame that went with it;
- The effects of legalised racial classifications particularly on brown people versus other South Africans;
- The construction of identity by coloured political actors themselves (Sean Jacobs);
- The construction of coloured identity within the broader understanding of non-racialism;
- Colouredness as a manifestation of false consciousness amongst coloureds (in the sense that they “are unable to see things, especially exploitation, oppression, and social relations, as they really are; the hypothesized inability of the human mind to develop a sophisticated awareness of how it is developed and shaped by circumstances.”)
The various analytical paradigms allude to the fluidity of the concept and the difficulties sociologists and anthropologists have in pinning down what many consider to be an “imagined community.” Regardless of the fluidity of the concept, let me try to give an account of what it means to “be coloured” today? I shall use much of my own experience to weave a tapestry of the complexity of what it means to live in the interstices of race and ethnicity in the new SA.
I want to recount three anecdotes that demonstrate my point rather forcefully:
Story No: 1
After the last national election, Pallo Jordan asked a prominent coloured leader to convene a meeting of coloured leaders to discuss why the ANC is unable to capture the coloured vote. Many of us who went had all been involved in the anti-apartheid struggle in various ways and after 1994 followed different paths. Some got involved with the ANC very closely; others remained on the periphery; some dumped me for my critical voice; and some retained their friendship with me regardless of their loyalty to the party; some felt betrayed by the ruling party.
There was a great reluctance amongst us to initiate the conversation. So I foolishly entered where angels feared to tread. I tried to construct a narrative by stating upfront the following:
- That the ANC has always failed to capture the coloured vote, except once in the WC, because it simply does not know how to connect with the coloured people; it also simply refuses to get to know the coloured people – as this meeting demonstrated so palpably;
- That their understanding of coloured people is stereotypical and punitive based on their notion of the hierarchy of oppressions. Because the coloured people enjoyed relative privilege under apartheid, they therefore deserved to be ignored and treated as “second class citizens” in the new SA;
- Coloured people have always been portrayed as co-optable through the CRC, the Tricameral Parliament, the coloured labour preference policy, as though black Africans were never co-opted through the Bantustan policy and the traditional leaders of SA. Those coloured institutions were and are always used to demonstrate how easily we allow ourselves to be lured into the white camp, whereas similar analogies are rarely articulated about black people, the homeland governments, and ways in which they were co-opted;
- That a profound misunderstanding of the coloured people has to do with the dominant ANC leadership being imprisoned on Robben Island or living in Exile; the ANC leadership mingled more easily with whites in liberation movement than with coloureds. (Madiba in Anthony Sampson); for ANC “whiteness” is easily understood as bipolar opposites, or rather, categorising all whites as oppressors makes life simple. But dealing with people whose origins are indigenous, first nation stuff, a direct threat to the hegemony of the majority (Thabo Mbeki would not participate in the human genome project);
- That the ANC negated the origins of the coloured people, its role in various resistance movements, its leadership roles in various institutions, both conservative and left-wing; and the many different ways coloureds have tried to construct their identity prior to and post-1994.
All hell broke loose, I had hardly completed my faltering attempt to start a conversation when Pallo Jordan interjected with annoyance, as only he can: “You coloureds called Mandela a kaffir when he went to Mitchell’s Plain after he came from prison.” The outburst of the ANC’s leading intellectual portrayed a subliminal anger towards the coloured people that was so deep that he was prepared to blame an entire group for the racist utterance of one.
As much as we got together as a fragmented group with variations of loyalty to the ruling party, Pallo’s outburst united us in ways we never thought possible. Ryland Fisher retaliated and said: “Did you come here to listen or are you here to impose your dominance as is typical of the ANC towards Coloured people?” Henry Jeffreys piled on, followed by Russell Botman, and others. I almost felt sorry for Pallo. There he confronted the full might of our subterranean anger, unleashed by an African nationalist who exemplified the contempt the ANC has shown coloured people for decades.
Those of us who met with Pallo came from wide spectrum of institutions and activities, and the group included Muslim, Christian, urban, rural, and diverse professions, yet we felt united in our retaliation against him. The question is – what was it that united us? Was it Ethnicity? Age? Cultural ties? Or common historical experiences? Perhaps it was not just one thing that united us, but a combination of all of those things.
I realised that coloured people are as diverse as putting all of the following people of the same colour in the same room and asking them what unites them – J Gerwel, N Alexander, F Sonn, P De Lille, W James, Peter Marais, Allan Hendrickse, Allan Boesak, Tom Swarts, Alathea Jansen, Cheryl Carolus, Trevor Manuel, Gerald Morkel and the swathe of Khoisan leaders vying for supremacy. It is not that easy, but you get my point.