Being coloured and Indian in South Africa after apartheid

Where do these debates about the place of coloureds and Indians in South Africa come from?

Markus Vollmer, Flickr CC.

Three recent controversies have brought to the attention of many a politics often submerged by the imperatives of national unity in contemporary South Africa: The events at Siqalo in Mitchell’s Plain, and the debate about renaming Cape Town International Airport reminded us of the intensity of the racialized language that circulates between Coloured and African populations in the Cape. And recent comments by the leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters, about Indian racism, has produced a number of responses—polarized by either their support for or denunciations of the comments he made.

The responses to all three events so far tends to be divided along the lines of one group—among them former activists, well known journalists and bloggers, and educated elites denouncing the politics that might be explicit or lying in wait in references to being Coloured or Indian. For this group, the references to Coloured or the new incarnation of‘ first nations or Khoi conceals a racism toward Africans at best, and at worst are identities being instrumentally mobilized by charlatans, chauvinists  and political entrepreneurs masking opportunistic interest in the language of justice. On the other hand, a more popular view, considers these expressions as the articulations of legitimate political problems, i.e., that Coloured populations are being marginalized in post-apartheid South Africa, or alternatively, that Coloured is an identity that should be replaced by more affirming cultural self-descriptions, such as Khoi or Griqua. And in the case of the Indian question, a popular view that insists that there is more than a large breyani pot of truth to the claim that Indians are racist toward Africans. My aim here is not necessarily to argue for, nor refute any one side of these responses. I wish rather to suggest that we put them in a historical context so that we illuminate where they come from.

The first point I wish to make is that this is not a problem peculiar to the Cape, or specific to South Africa. What we are witnessing are the ambiguities that have faced certain population groups after decolonization, particularly in Africa. One of the truisms of colonial rule, particularly in the British colonies, and particularly after certain experiences of revolt that they faced in India and parts of Africa, was the lesson that a united native population was an extremely threatening proposition. The result was a policy pioneered first in West Africa, then East and then Southern Africa, of firstly dividing the local population in order to better rule them, and secondly to implement a policy of co-opting local political leaders and refashioning 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 tribal identities. Tribes were ascribed to certain territories that would be their homelands, where they would live under customary law administered by chiefs anointed by the colonial administrator. Cultural identity was now turned into political identity.

Europeans on the other hand, were not a tribe, but were defined by their racial identity while black Africans were defined by their ethnic or tribal identities. To be a “native,” classified as “indigenous,” meant that one had to be defined as an ethnic subject of a particular territorial-administrative unit. But some states went even further. As the Zimbabwean historian James Muzondidya has noted, 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.

In Rhodesia this often meant they were descendants of refugees who fled political conflict in 18th century South Africa, or they were migrant workers. As the Government Notice No. 223 of 1898 put it, colonial natives were “all members of the Zulu, Bechuana and Zambesi tribes, all kaffir tribes of the Cape Colony, and any native not being a descendent of an aboriginal of Rhodesia.” Natives belonged in these ethnic reserves, while the city or the town belonged to the racial subject: the Europeans. Hence the Vagrancy Act of 1893 and the Registration of Natives Regulations of 1895 in Rhodesia was to make it compulsory for Africans to carry a pass if they were to be in an urban area. A native in a town who was not there for the purpose of work was loitering without intent, and a vagrant. These pass laws regulating the movement of Africans between town and countryside is a feature of this mode of rule by the colonial state across British Africa not just South Africa.

This experience of the colonial world was therefore made up of two main identities: the settler who was racialized as European or white, and the native who was ethnicized as a tribal subject. But across the continent there were also categories of populations who did not fit neatly into this division of white settler and black native. They were often categories of populations who were not defined as ethnic, but like the Europeans, they were classified as races under colonial law. Like Europeans, colonial thinking said they came from elsewhere, and were also therefore not indigenous.

In Northern Nigeria this ascription was given to those classified as Fulani. In Rwanda, the Tutsi were defined as a non-indigenous race, while the Hutu were defined as the ethnic natives. In East Africa and Southern Africa, the Indians were defined as a race. And in Southern Africa more broadly, the descendants of slaves and mixed populations were defined as coloureds, mestizo, or creoles. These groups have been called “subject races” by the Ugandan scholar Mahmood Mamdani. They were used as intermediaries between the Europeans and those seen as indigenous; they were elevated above the native but kept well below the European. The result was to produce a double contempt: they were held in contempt by those who ruled over them and held in contempt by those over whom they held petty authority.

This was a deliberate policy that drew on racial conceptions of who was said to have some European blood in them and was motivated by a political calculation aimed at dividing an opposition to the colonial state. The decision, for example to co-opt the Coloured population in the Cape evolved along these lines. An Attorney General of the Cape in the early 1900s was to remark: “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 Herzog’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.

This thinking would crystalize most forcefully in the mind of Secretary of Native Affairs, and close ally of Verwoed, the anthropologist Dr. W. M Eiselen, who explained the 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 of course 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 through Influx Control laws: the Coloured Labour Preference Area Policy. The policy was systematically implemented over the next few decades. In the first phase, as Dr Eiselen pointed out, there would be: “the removal of foreign Africans and freezing of the number of African families, coupled with the limited importation of single migrant workers to meet the most urgent needs.”

In December 1965 Black Labour Regulations were introduced, designed to end long term contracts for black African laborers in the Cape so that they would not get passes to work in the city. In 1966 an official freeze on building family housing for Africans was declared, with no state housing built for the next ten years thereafter. The new labour law stipulated:

if an employer wishes to employ an African, he is required to obtain a Coloured labour preference clearance certificate from the Department of Manpower stating that no suitable Coloured person is available to fill the position.

This does not imply that these policies were implemented with the full support of those classified as Coloured, nor without resistance. But as waves of successive laws forcefully implemented by the state, they fundamentally reshaped, and remapped the demographic and spatial present of the Cape into what was inherited in 1994.

The predicament for Coloured and Indian populations today is not dissimilar to the predicament that subject races like the Fulani, the Omani Arabs or the Tutsi faced across the continent after independence: during colonialism they were the beneficiaries of certain policies designed to co-opt them and prevent a united opposition emerging amongst the colonized, but they were also victims of colonial segregation and subjugation. Because the colonial state treated some a little better than others, those who were treated as a little better tended to internalize their relative superiority: Tutsi nationalists thought themselves as naturally superior to Hutu. Indians tended to think of themselves as better than Africans and Coloureds. And Coloureds tended to think themselves better than Africans—but not better than Whites. It is a tragic reality that the designs of the colonial state have become taken as the natural order of things by many today still.

Writing in the midst of the land reforms in Zimbabwe over a decade ago, Muzondidya noted that:

Coloureds and Indians [in Zimbabwe] faced an even more complicated situation. Specifically constructed by the state as an alien, urban people without rural ancestral homes (kumusha), they could neither acquire nor settle on land in Native Reserves and all other designated African areas, including Native Purchase Areas and African townships in urban areas.

When land reform finally came around in Zimbabwe, designed to undo the legacy of white settler monopoly on land, these “subject minorities” found themselves ineligible to make land claims. To access that land, one had to belong to an ethnic or tribal authority.

Coloureds and Indians, had no ethnic identity since they were defined as a race, and now find themselves betwixt and between. Under colonialism, to have a racial identity was an identity of privilege whilst having an ethnic identity condemned one to severe marginalization as a rural subject. After colonialism, in the name of justice, states tended to reverse the order in the name of Africanization and redistributive justice: ethnic subjects are now the most eligible for redress, and racial subjects would be last in the line.

This is called “fair discrimination” in our current law, and it is on a sound footing from the vantage point of justice. But it might also activate certain political demands, such as changing from the racial identity of being Coloured to the ethnic identity of being Khoi or Griqua. This moves one into a different category of eligibility and puts one on a more secure footing if indigeneity is a marker of belonging in the future. No wonder also that some Indians in Kenya and Uganda campaigned recently to be classified as a tribe. After the Asian expulsions of 1972 in Uganda, many realized that races continued to be seen as foreign, but ethnicities were seen to be indigenous; a colonial logic reproduced by the postcolonial state.

The greater social and political challenges lay in reshaping how we come to think about each other and ourselves, the extent to which colonial constructions have come to be embodied and lived in our dispositions towards each other, and our discourses about others. These are amplified by the extent to which market-based inequalities breathe new life into racial and ethnic stereotypes and prejudices.

That many think it natural that there should be a Coloured or Khoi majority in the Cape reflects perhaps badly on a post-apartheid education system that has not made us all more aware of how the Coloured Labour Preference Act worked to expel Africans from the Cape, and what its intentions were. Similarly, many Indians think themselves superior to Africans, reflecting a colonial policy of divide and rule, of creating hierarchies among the colonized, and spatially segregating them so that difference enabled their domination. Undoing these logics must draw strength from a history of continuous resistance by those few who mobilized others against the Herzog Bills for example, and later the Koornhoff Bills, and later still against the co-option strategies of the Tricameral Parliament in 1983.

But there is a key difference that many who come from those activist traditions might have to wrestle with in order to find a politics more appropriate to our moment. Under apartheid, resistance movements eventually emphasized our sameness over our differences. Apartheid left many progressives with a deep anxiety towards acknowledging difference of any kind. The reaction is almost knee-jerk and immediate amongst many of us to denounce those who wish to see themselves in anything but the race-blindness that a certain variant of non-racialism holds onto regardless of changing political context. Or the reaction is to denounce those who bring to our attention histories or current manifestations of Coloured or Indian racism toward black Africans. Whatever the motivations of those political elites are who are naming this problem, these are legacies that we have to contend with, more so because their effects are not just symbolic; they are also material.

Only by opening a public debate on the problem can we deal with legitimate issues as well as the stereotypes and the prejudices. As both victims and beneficiaries of apartheid’s policies of divide and rule, the predicament of those classified as Coloured or Indian subject races needs to be historically located within a colonial practice and seen as a legacy of a past. Manifestations of Coloured or Indian racism are less causes of a problem than they are consequences of a colonial past. And we need to attend to making more popular and public how that past has brought us to where we are at, and how history has been written to produce a past that has shaped how many of us think about ourselves and think of others. Colonial history produced an understanding of the past that suited settler logics, that politicized the question of indigeneity, and also politicized cultural difference by attaching land and resources to it.

Among the lessons of the continental experience has been that we need both a new concept of justice, and a new concept of difference. We need a concept of justice that is not simply about reversing the logic of colonialism. That means breaking with the reactive logic that the last shall be first, and the first shall be last.

We also need a concept of difference that does not use one’s past to decide if one belongs and has a political future. A difference that allows us to embrace the multiple historical routes through which all find ourselves in this particular settler colonial society—as locals, as descendants of slaves, of indentured laborers, of traders, exiles and refugees or those who came here looking to make a better life. It also has to be a pan-African concept of difference that remains open to inviting new migrants to becoming citizens as well. The challenge is to imagine a future with difference, with economic justice, but without racism.

Further Reading