Mixed Feelings: The Recovery of Spoiled Identities in the New South Africa

Mixed Feelings: The Recovery of
Spoiled Identities in the New South Africa

by Nancy Scheper-Hughes
April/May 2001

This is work-in-progress, part of a larger, exploratory anthropological (fieldwork based) study of the “democratic transition” in Franschhoek, a small, politically conservative (verkrumpte) wine-producing farm community in the Western Cape of South Africa. The population of Franschhoek is like many villages in the Boland region: dominated by a conservative farm-owning class of Dutch Reform Church Afrikaners (the AVB move comfortably among them), a large, fairly stable population of “coloured” farm workers, and a new squatter settlement of recently arrived Blacks from the “homelands” (1,200 whites, 3,000 coloureds, 650 Blacks).

But I chose Franschhoek for another reason. The community had been studied by another North American anthropologist, Vincent Crapanzano, in the early 1980s who wrote the controversial book, Waiting: the Whites of South Africa (1985). The book portrayed the whites of Franschhoek [“Wyndahl”] as comfortable, socially isolated, and self-absorbed “racists” who were trapped in a passive state of suspended animation, “waiting” (as it were) for the future to go away and leave them alone. The portrait, though heatedly contested by white South African anthropologists, gave me a certain background to the community, though I was determined, despite my lack of preparedness, to learn something about the “other” residents of Franschhoek: the “coloured” workers and the recently arrived black squatters.

There was, as there always is, more to the story that what met the eye in one anthropologist’s account (and I hope I do not have to go into a discussion of the inevitable “partiality” of ethnographic “truths”). And I was surprised to read an article in The New York Times in 1992 (while still preparing to leave for Africa) that told of a certain Frank Arendse becoming the first “coloured” mayor to preside over a white jurisdiction in modern South Africa. The article was vague on the particulars, of how this had come about in a place as white Afrikaner tradition bound as Franschhoek.

So my field work began with the ex-mayor (for Mr. Arendse had resigned due to death threats) and with the current mayor (a white progressive ANC member who took Arendse’s place) and with the town council members, white and coloured (the Black community was not yet represented) trying to understand what the “democratic transition” means in this one small and tense community. Inevitably my work got me involved in the main political debates of the day in little Franschhoek: over land, schooling, and housing and the competition between Black and new coloured squatters for basic amenities. As Black squatters began to “jump the line” for self-help housing sites that were seen as “belonging” to coloureds, the coloured community, lead by a young activist woman named Minnie Peterson, retaliated by moving some 500 coloured farm workers and other elderly, sick and unemployed people onto a strip of land bordering the main street into the main village. They formed “Vietnam Bos” squatter camp in a guerilla war against the Black squatters of Chris Hani camp.

The various facets of my project concern the recasting of identities–personal, cultural, and national–in the context of the “new” South Africa. I argue that one of the deepest “hidden injuries” of the old apartheid state is the legacy of “spoiled identities.” For the purposes of this talk I will focus on the vexed social history and the current dilemma of the Cape “coloured” (or racially “mixed”) population in terms of their marginalized “inbetweenity” in the South African system of race apartheid. The liminal status of the Cape coloured is briefly compared to the firm status and identity of the “mulatto” in Brazil and the complete absorption of that status into Black identity in the US race-caste system.

Despite this history and the reluctance of most progressive South Africans to identify with the hated “apartheid classification” of “coloured,” there has been a strong and somewhat surprising reassertion of “coloured” identity. This was expressed most forcefully, perhaps, in the recent democratic elections in April 1994 when a strong “coloured” vote for the National Party (NP) was, in part, an “opposition” vote against “Black” dominance through the ANC. Ironically, the same political party (the NP) that was responsible for the humiliation, forced removals, and the considerable suffering of the “coloured” population has been transformed into the party of Cape “coloured” people. Consequently, the National Party must be accountable to them. Nonetheless, a pervasive existential doubt about the legitimacy of their history, their social identities, and their uncertain “ethnicity” is a continuing and painful theme among the “coloured” people of the Western Cape.

Prologue: Spoiled Identity

As a small child growing up in the Willamsburgh Eastern European Catholic and Hasidic Jewish immigrant section of Brooklyn in the years immediately following WWII it was common practice among schoolchildren to check out new friends with the rather bold question: “What are you?” It was a loaded question and I found it was always safest to say quickly and casually (and thoroughly unnecessarily given the array of medals, crucifixes, and scapula wound about the neck and coming out from under frayed collars), “Me? Us? Oh, we’re Catholics” [but it was pronounced ‘Catlicks’]. “No,” the new friend would insist, “I mean what are you really ?” Then I would say, “Bohunk,” or when feeling less cheeky, “Bohemian,” referring to my beloved mother’s mother living just down the block from us on South Third Street, a kindly old babushked peasant woman with the brown and wrinkled face of an Eskimo who had spent too many years squinting in the snow-reflected blinding sun. She also had a devilish sense of humor. “Come on, you’re Polish!”, the young person might laugh, as if I were putting on airs. “No,” I would insist, “Bohemians are . . . well, they’re Czechs from Check-o-Slovakia” (I would string it out), though my Grandma had never recognized the legitimacy of this fiction passing for a nation state. But all of this was really diversionary, meant to lead the questioner down a tangled path and away from the question I was really avoiding, the one about my “other side,” the one about: “Yeah sure, but are you 100% Czech” to which I might reply, invoking a bad family joke, “Yeah, but you can never be too careful with all the ‘bad checks’ bouncing around the neighborhood.” But the more persistent childhood interrogator–an agent for their parents, for sure — would finally go for the kill saying, “But your last name isn’t Czech. It’s German and we don’t like Germans here. You know what they did to my grandma’s people?”

A little commented-on fact of American life, both rural and urban, is the decline of German-American social self identity following the ravages of two world wars culminating, finally, in the role of German Christians as the master enemies of humanity. However, at least one family practice psychiatrist (Pearce 1983 ) has written about the psychological effects of German-American “spoiled identity” on generations of Americans who (like me) have tried to conceal their German backgrounds and to “pass” as Euro-Americans of another kind. Pearce notes that one unconscious strategy is for German-Americans to erase the subtle but persistent stigma of German ethnicity by marriage to Italian-Americans or Irish-Americans whose own ethnic identity is strongly marked and vibrant and which lends children their ethnic identity in a “mixed marriage.”

Once one left Brooklyn and working-class culture and certainly once one left New York City and the east coast for secular California, the fine points of Euro-American identity became totally meaningless and “ethnic” identity simpler, though none the less problematic. In the larger world of west coast American society I am now just another “white” person living in a multi-textured, multi-ethnic world of Blacks, and Browns (especially Chicanos), Native Americans, Polynesians, and Asians where “white” functions as the unmarked category, another sort of spoiled identity, another generalized and “master” enemy of humanity.

But I never thought about being “white” at all until when as a civil rights worker in Selma, Alabama in the late 1960s, several Black SNCC workers “kidnaped” me and another white field worker for a night of interrogation and “clarification of thought.” I was asked repeatedly by my “captors” to look at my “white” face in a hand mirror and to repeat: “white is ugly, white is deadly.” The black SNCC workers taunted: “Girl, you are so white you are whiter than the underbelly of a dead fish. . . .You are so white we can’t take you to the swimming hole in Gees Bend because your white flesh makes our black skin crawl. . . .”, and so on. Although I tried to politicize the trauma, I will probably, like many other white Euro-Americans, die a premature death from skin cancer due to the quest for an acceptable degree of brown-ness.

However, “white” is a large and amorphous identity peg in the US and allows for multiple escape hatches and exceptions: white, but lesbian, white but Marxist, white but feminist, white but Spanish speaking, white but . . . um, dyslexic. The way to soften and to de-stigmatize “whiteness” in America today is by disqualification and the addition of a mediating (and previously stigmatized) counter-identity. This allows one to join the more socially acceptable ranks of the formerly nearly despised, victimized, and oppressed “communities of suffering” (Williams 1994) that is broadly defined to include women, gays, and the disabled as well as racial/ethnic categories.

But just as I was becoming marginally comfortable with my white-but-deviant status in contemporary California, I found myself suddenly thrust into the past and into another set of “spoiled identities” as a visiting professor in South Africa. In Cape Town, as in Brooklyn, “everyone knows my name” and I often encounter an uninvited familiarity when white strangers in restaurants, shops, the airport, or in the university administration read (or announce) my name as Nancy “Skipper” (the correct Dutch pronunciation of Scheper) and assume that I am Afrikaans-speaking. “My God,” I shudder, “they think I’m one of them! They think I am a Boer.” “It’s pronounced Scheper, like Shepard,” I say curtly in as flat an American accent as I can muster. “Oh, excuse me,” my interlocutors say, sensing my wish to distance myself from “them” and their wretched past.

So far so good . . . until I walk down a sun-splashed main street in Mowbray, one of Cape Town’s few truly “mixed” neighborhoods, on an upbeat Saturday morning and I smile into the pleasant face of a tall young Black student who stares back, smiles, and says as he passes by: “Die, settler!” Crushed, I suddenly see myself as the young student must have: a modem day Madam Von Trapp in a bloused, flowered pink dress with a big “settler” lace collar, of which I was (until then) rather proud. In my mind’s eye, I add coiled braids around my ears, reminiscent of Woody Allen’s image of himself transformed into an orthodox Jew complete with ear locks at the dinner table of his WASP girlfriend [in the film . . . ?].

Michael Lapsley, a naturalized South African from New Zealand and wounded chaplain to the ANC, similarly thought about his “whiteness” for the first time when he arrived as a young Anglican priest to South Africa and experienced his white skin (in the context of white oppression of African Blacks) as a mark of Cain, a stigma. “Whiteness,” he said, “became like leprosy, something that would not wash off. Although I knew a lot about apartheid beforehand, I never really understood what it would mean structurally to be an oppressor. . . . So my decision to join the struggle for liberation was also a struggle for the recovery of my own humanity” (1994:26).

Indeed, there is no easy way to be “white” in South Africa, even in the “new” non-racial South Africa. Nor is there is any easy way to be “brown” or “black” when this is tied to a specific ethnic identity, whether ” Hottentot” (Khoi), Zulu, Xhosa, or “Cape Coloured.” Even the simple questions, “Where are you from, or where were you born?” can be seen in some South African circles as an attempt to “peg” a person to a particular ethnic group and is therefore a lapse in social etiquette.

It was Erving Goffman (1963) who identified the social dynamics of “spoiled identity” resulting from the stigmas of physical difference, of ethnicity and “tribe,” and the stigmas of behavior and morality, to which I would now add the stigmas of history and of place. One continuing dilemma of the new, non-racial South Africa is the legacy of apartheid which has “spoiled” all cultural and ethnic identities, although some are more spoiled than others. Zulu (because of its identification with the right-wing Inkatha Freedom Party), Afrikaner (because of its political history of institutionalized racism), and “Coloured” (because it is seen as a fictive category, as the “pure invention” of apartheid) are perhaps the most “spoiled” today. However, Zulus and Afrikaners have developed a strong, oppositional identity (and accompanying political organizations) to fly in the face of such prejudice, so that Zulus can march proudly and defiantly in their leopard skins carrying “tribal” weapons (sticks and, lacking these, golf clubs will do) while Boer civil servants can flaunt their language, their “backkies” and their backyard braiis, their semi-literacy, and their white tribal dreams. Like Black township youth (another spoiled identity), Zulus and Boers are seen as “dangerous” and so are respected as well as ridiculed. Moreover, they have ingeniously invented and reinvented their ethnic “histories” (Sharp 1994).

So-called “cape coloureds,” the largest population group in the Province of the Western Cape, are without either the cultural panache or symbolic capital of South African Zulus and Boers. South African intellectuals and progressives discredit coloured identity as a legal fiction, a bureaucratic invention, one of the many nightmares of apartheid. Meanwhile, the mother tongue of the “coloureds,” Afrikaans, is perceived by them as the language of their oppressor, the white Dutch settler, the hated Boer, the sly and absent “fathers” who spawned but never claimed them. And so, South African “coloureds” are generally viewed by others and sometimes by themselves (in the way Robert Redfield once described peasants) as “part-people with part-cultures.” Here is the way Mrs. DeKlerk (the wife of the recently deposed State President) put it a few years ago in a much quoted speech she gave at a white nursing home in the Transvaal:

“You know, they [coloured people] are a negative group. The definition of a coloured person in the population register is someone that is not white and not black, and is also not an Indian, in other words a non-person. . . .They are left overs. They are the people that were left after the nations were sorted out. They are the rest. . . . The coloureds were always under the wing of the whites. They have never been on their own. They have no history of governing themselves. . . . They must be supervised.” (Vrye Weebland newspaper, 1993; cited and distributed in an ANC political leaflet, March 1994, Cape Town). The DeKlerks had prevented their son from marrying the young “coloured” woman to whom he was engaged.

In this same vein, Black South Africans sometimes describe “coloureds” as “part settlers,” as “half-whites,” or (most damning of all) as “brown Afrikaners” (that is, as brown Boers). The “coloureds” refer to themselves as gekleurdes, that is coloureds, but they sometimes endow the term with a positive sense of being a “colorful” people. Sometimes they simply refer to themselves is “bruinnwnse,” brown people.

Neither Black nor White: the Status of the “Mulatto”

The Cape Coloureds are the largest social group of the Western Cape, the population formed by the historical “mixing” of the indigenous people of the Cape (the Khoi-Khoi or Hottentots), the San Bushmen, the European settlers — in the first instance, the Dutch, but also the English, Portuguese, and Germans–and Malay slaves.

Brazil, South Africa, and the US share certain similarities in that the population of each nation is to a large extent the product of racial and ethnic mixing in a context of European colonialism and African slavery. However, the race-caste or race-class system that arose in each case (a topic far too complex to deal with here) gave very different social positions and value to the mixed person.

In Brazil an ideology of “racial democracy” invented the “mulatto” as an ideal social type so that to be Brazilian meant to celebrate and to lay claim to a universal sense of “brownness.” However, in practice, Brazil was and still is a deeply racist country, although one in which the existence of a multitude of socially ranked racial distinctions which refer both to appearance and to class-linked behavior means that racial identity is in part ascribed and in part achieved. Brazilians are not concerned with the genetic background of a person, but they do pay close attention to physical features–hair, cheekbones, lips, and color of eyes and shade of skin–and to social comportment and family name. Brazil could be described as a kind of racial free market in which people actively trade in racial identities. The rules of the game are to try to disidentify with the lower and darker designations such as “preto,” “moreno,” or “pardo” and seek to be recognized and included in one of the “whiter” and higher status groups (“galego,” “loiro,” or “branco de terra”). Education, professional achievement, and money “lighten” the skin.

“Passing” is not viewed negatively but is recognized as a fairly universal social strategy. Within this system the “mulatto” is valued not only as a national prototype but also as an available “escape hatch” for the black person (o negro) who can, with hard work, eventually attain that status. There are only class barriers to restrict the racial mobility of Blacks (os negros) in Brazil. Some scholars, both Brazilian and North American, have gone so far as to claim (wrongly I believe) that there is no race prejudice, only class prejudice in Brazil.

In contrast to Brazil where there is a spectrum or a continuum of race-linked ethnicities from white to black, in the United States a rigid race-caste system emerged which allowed for only two “absolute” qualities: black and white. North Americans never developed an intermediate category in which to locate biracial people. In the US an abundance of poor whites who contributed to a concern with racial purity and a desire to distinguish slaves physically so as to link civil status to “race,” gave rise to a social system founded on the sociological law “of the excluded middle” (Klor de Alva 1993:2). The principle maintained that each group could remain “pure” because any biological degree of blackness (i.e., “black blood”) made the person completely black, while whites remained those without any trace of black ancestry. Marvin Harris (1974:37) referred to the principle that kept “blacks” and “whites” contained to absolute categories that of “hypo-descent.” This race-caste system allowed no place in the American social imaginary for ambiguity or for mixed people.

In South Africa the social construction of the mixed person passed through various phases, at times containing some of the elements of the Brazilian racial continuum and at times approaching the dichotomous American version of racial purity. One experiences considerable cognitive dissonance as one moves (as I have) among the three systems. The South African classification of “coloured” is somewhat analogous to the US notion of “black,” while the South African classification of “black” is closer to the North American concept of the “Indian” or “Native American.” Conversely, thinking like a Brazilian, the South African classification of “coloured” is like the Brazilian notion of . . . well, Brazilian! A visiting journalist from Brazil described his shock when he was taken to a “coloured” township in the Cape Flats: “It was as if the government took all of Brazil and gave it a single ‘racial’ classification and then banished it to a segregated ghetto. We thought that ‘Brazil in a Township’ might be a good title for a piece explaining the South African classification of ‘coloureds’ to Brazilians.”

Apartheid and the Political Construction of Coloureds

The existence of ambiguously “raced” people ( i.e.,”coloureds” ) was a “wild card” (the Joker) in the system and ideology of strict race segregation on which modern South African apartheid was built. The origins of the popular view of “coloureds” as a residual or “left over” category is inscribed in the apartheid laws which defined South African citizenship in terms of a system of racist population classifications (see Ridd 1981 and West 1988 from which the following is summarized). Apartheid was implemented through the hated Population Registration Act of 1950 (which was amended no less than 15 times between 1956 and 1986).

The Population and Registration Act (in Section 1) identified three basic classifications of South Africans: black, coloured, and white. A black (previously a Native or a Bantu) was defined as “a person who is, or is generally accepted as, a member of any aboriginal race or tribe of Africa.” A white person was defined (in extremely hedged language) as: “a person who (a) in appearance obviously is a White person, and who is not generally accepted as a Colored person; or (b) is generally accepted as a White person and is not in appearance obviously not a White person. Finally, “white person” excludes those who voluntarily confess that they are “by descent a Black or a Colored person, unless it is proved that the admission is not based on fact.” The definition of a “coloured” is what remains: “a Colored is a person who is not a White person or a Black.”

Over time the Registration Act added further bureaucratic clarifications (often to the point of absurdity) in order to assist civil servants in the time consuming task of classifying people who did not fit neatly into the ordained categories. Eventually, cultural “traits,” language, and “habits,” were added as markers of racial and ethnic identity in addition to “appearance” and “general acceptance as such.” Finally, section 5(5) was added which stressed the importance of “descent” over “appearance” or popular consensus. Under this section a person was classified as white if both natural parents were so classified. Similarly, a person was classified as coloured if both natural parents were so classified, or if one parents was classified white and the other classified as coloured. Where a person was the child of one black and one coloured parent, classification followed that of the father.

Section 5(l) of the Act later subdivided coloureds into 7 “ethnic” groups: Cape Coloured (the largest and most definitive of the category), Malay, Griqua, Chinese, Indian, Other Asiatic and “Other Coloured.” Classification in these subgroups followed from the fathers classification or by “general acceptance” as a member of the group. Despite these subgroups the South African government continued to use the term “non-white” to describe all those who were either African blacks or “coloureds.”

The apartheid system of race classification was a hodgepodge of contentious and problematic indicators, further complicated by the possibility of formal reclassification through appeal to the government bureaucracy, the despised Race Classification Board. Each year the Board sat and reviewed the cases of all those who believed they had been wrongly classified. Martin West (op.cit.) Martin West (op.cit.) reports that in 1986 no less than 1,624 South Africans sought reclassification, and of these 1,102 were successful. About half of the petitioners were Cape Coloureds seeking reclassification as whites, and half were Blacks seeking reclassification as Coloureds. Those requesting reclassification were subject to humiliating physical “tests” such as whether a pencil inserted into the hair would stay in place (black and coloured) or fall to the ground (white) .

The Dilemma of Colored Identity

Because they stand in-between what was arguably an essentially a bi-polar race model (black/ white), South African “coloureds” are social “liminals,” the half-way mark between “whites” and “blacks.” They are a marginal and therefore a dangerous category: in Mary Douglas’s (1970) terms, they are anomalous, “out of place” or “out of set.” The in-betweenity of South African coloureds and other marginals (such as South African blacks who speak only Afrikaans; and interracial couples of all kinds ) is as pernicious as the sub-alterity of other oppressed groups.

Because of their in-betweenity, South African coloureds are viewed with suspicion, mistrust, and even hate by other social groups. And coloured self-image and self-esteem suffer accordingly. To white South Africans coloureds are still a reminder of the imperfections and failures of white purity and white separateness under colonialism, slavery, and apartheid. To black South Africans coloureds are a “remnant” and a reminder of the flat vanquished black tribes of the Cape Colony: the Khoi (Hottentots) and the native San (the Bushman). Racist whites (and some Blacks) in the rural Western Cape stir refer to “coloureds” by the hated terms “Hot-nots,” “Bushmen,” and “Basters” (bastards).

A professor of physics at the University of Cape Town reminisced about his boyhood school days in liberal Cape Town:

“I always felt sorry for the coloureds. We said the worst things about them; we said that coloureds had no backbone, that they were lazy, they had no loyalty, and that their mothers were loose. The worst insult you could throw at a school chum was to say: ‘Your mother didn’t love you, and your father was a coloured!’ I had a coloured friend once who told me, ‘David, you don’t know how lucky you are. You’re English and you’re white. Even the kaffir boy (i.e., the ‘nigger’) knows that he’s black. But we coloured people, we’re just a mess.”

The sense of inbetweenity, of having no clear identity, was articulated in many different ways by my “coloured” informants and friends in Franschhoek. The following statements taken from the life histories of coloured farm workers illustrate the dilemma:

Nellie Prince (60+ years): “I don’t see myself attracted to Blacks. The coloured people are more conservative. And I don’t see myself cozying up with the whites either. I am coloured. I was born coloured and coloured I will die.”

“What does it mean to be coloured?”

“I (hesitantly) don’t know really.”

Minnie Peterson (37 years): “As a coloured person in South Africa I don’t really know where I stand. I don’t know whether to trust the whites or the Blacks. I don’t even know what it means to be coloured. We don’t really have a culture. We don’t have our own language. We speak Afrikaans, the language of the Boer. Whatever languages we had in the beginning–Malay and Khoi–a few words got mixed up with Afrikaans . . . but that’s all that’s left.”

Myra Braderman (35 years): “What does it mean to be a Xhosa (a Black African)? That’s easy. They dress differently. Some wear large earrings. When the boys are 15 or 16 they are taken up to a mountain for initiation so they can become men. They are cut. Colored boys are not circumcised except for some Moslems.”

“And what does it mean to be coloured?”

“To be coloured? . . . Wait . . . wait . . . wait (her hand is on her head). Oh, this is difficult. Just give me some time to collect my thoughts.”

“Dress?” I ask, trying to be helpful.

“No, it’s nothing of ours in particular.”


“No, that’s not ours?”


“Yes! We like our bredei. It’s a kind of Irish stew made with carrots, beans, and mutton. We like pasta, potatoes, and meal. Colored people don’t fancy vegetables unless they’re flavored with meal. We like carrots cooked with sugar and a little custard.”


“No, no different, unless you are a Moslem. But when I say coloured I mean us, the ‘Afrikaner-coloured,’ ‘the half- settlers,’ ‘half-Hottentots’ that we are, for better or worse.”

Jana October echoed the same in saying: “We can call ourselves ‘Black,’ but to the Blacks we will always be yellow-skinned Hot-Nots.”

Although few “coloured” farm workers could identify any salient social or cultural features distinguishing them as a social group, the one festival clearly identified with “Cape Coloureds,” the Coon carnival celebrated in Cape Town on New Years day, filled them with embarrassment. Considered the poor coloured man’s holiday, the Coon Carnival reveals all the contradictions of colored identity and status. Imitating the Black minstrel tradition of the American South, the “coons” lamp-black their faces and parade under such self-deprecatory names as “The Mississippi Nigger Minstrels.” Strumming their banjos and singing inane ditties like “Playing with my Ding-a-ling,” the coons act out white stereotypes of “coloureds” as “happy-go-lucky,” shiftless, witless, ne’er do wells. As is true of carnival play the world over, the implied mockery, ridicule, and defiance–in this case of racial stereotypes–backfires and merely reinforces them. Politically aware “coloured” people reject the Coon Carnival as a ritual of self-loathing. An anthropologist captured a poignant scene when a coon minstrel, his face painted and ready to perform, jumped to his feet and protested: “I’m coloured, I’m coloured, I have no identity!” (Stone cited by Ridd 1981: 51). In a long entry on the Coon Carnival, the Standard Encyclopedia of South Africa (vol.3, 19:336) referred to coloured peoples’ “zest for life” and their “animated dancing and prancing” on the main parade of Cape Town. It concluded: “The Cape would be much the poorer without its Yankee Doodle Dandy Darkies” (vol. 3,19:336). In all, the Coon Carnival reproduces the essential mimetic quality that haunts South African coloured identity, labeling it as childish, imitative, a farce.

More astute but none the less biased observers, such as Arthur Mac-William Smith, the “progressive” ANC-aligned white mayor of Franschhoek interprets the local coloured “culture” of his farm region in terms of Oscar Lewis’s culture of poverty.

” ‘Our’ coloured is very much like your Negro population. He is of a lower economic group. He tends toward a matriarchal society. You get more drunkenness, more drugs, not because he’s coloured but as a consequence of the slum culture in which he lives. Despite his slum culture, the coloured shares the same church (Dutch Reform), the same language (Afrikaans) and the same western values as the Afrikaner. The coloured is not an African in the true sense of the word. He is African the way whites here are African . . . as an outsider. Our coloured man is like your American Negro. He is an American (or South African) in all respects except for his color and his lower social class. Your red Indian is more like our Black African, except that our indigenous cultures are very strong and populous here.” Old discourses of apartheid (culture substituting for race) and colonialism (“our coloured” and “your Negroes”) are not so carefully repackaged in a new, supposedly, democratic, and non-racialist guise.

“How do you know the difference between coloured and black ?” I asked the mayor in one of our early interviews. His answer reveals some of the tensions and contradictions still surrounding the idea of race and ethnicity as simultaneously existentialist and manipulated categories in South Africa.

MW-S: “Black is . . . Well, Coloureds are always mixed bloods . . . and you know them by their language and by their looks.”

NS-H: “Umm . . . but some Blacks are ‘mixed’ too.”

MW-S: “Er, yes but . . . not really. They may be mixed with other Black ‘tribes,’ but they are not mixed with whites, because if they were mixed with white they would be classified as ‘coloured.'”

NS-H: “That would have been taken care of in years past through the Population Registration Act?”

AM-S: “Yes, just so, and up until now a person with any mixed blood would certainly ‘go’ for the coloured classification. It would be impossible for him to pass as white, and there would be no reason to try and pass as Black because being colored naturally gave a person more opportunities–better schooling, better housing, social mobility . . . all those material benefits . . . But there are also real differences in culture between the two groups.”

Official Discourses and Popular Resistance

The apartheid state constructed and enforced, often with violence, a set of group identities. It reinvented arguments over the years to support its policies. The state had a major influence over the ideological content of education, television, and radio. It used censorship to control the press.. Over the years these institutions have produced official discourses about race, nation, violence, citizenship, and public security that played a role in defining South African reality and group subjectivity.

At the same time, a strong counter-culture of resistance sought to free people from racist and merely racialist thinking and to construct alternative identities in terms of political commitment and “the struggle.” Its effects were considerable in terms of problematizing “race,” “colour,” “tribe,” “ethnicity,” and “culture” as these were defined and used to implement apartheid. Progressive South Africans have their hands raised and fingers curled ready to supply quotations that question and destabilize the social fictions that the apartheid state wanted South Africans to accept as fact and as reality. However, the necessary attack on apartheid’s racist biological essentialism seemed to erase the space for any comfortable assertion of cultural or ethnic identity even when viewed merely as a shared collective history. This was especially true for the “coloured” population.

Even with the dismantling of formal apartheid, psychological apartheid remains strongly entrenched in South Africa and “coloured” identity remains ambiguous and problematic. A recent pamphlet written by a respected “coloured” scholar (Van der Ross 1993) entitled “100 Questions about Colored South Africans” leaves the reader more confused than enlightened. The question of coloured “identity” is given considerable attention:

Q.4 “What is our identity?”

“Because we are the result of so much mixing, it is difficult, indeed impossible, to define our limits. . . . This is why, of all South Africans today, we have the least sense of identity. But a person’s identity is largely what a person considers it to be!” (p. 5). And later in Question 32:

“Do the Coloured people have an identity?”

“The fact that people refer to the ‘colour-ed people’ means that there is a certain identity as a population group. But as we have said it is hard to define the Coloured people in exact terms. When people refer to themselves as ‘we, the coloured people’ or as ‘Bruirunense,’ they are using a term of identity just as when people refer to themselves as ‘we Xhosa’s’ . . . Yes, we have an identity; if we don’t wish to accept or admit or agree to it, we must find some other way of identifying ourselves” (p.14).

Other questions treated the issue of whether to keep the apartheid term “coloured” or to create a new term. Van der Ross stresses the historical fluidity of ethnic terms which can pass from stigmatized to valued in a short period of time, pointing to the shift in the US from “Black” as a derogatory term to “Black” as a valued term of self-identity. And he notes that the largest Black American organization in the US is still called the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

During the struggle years (late 1970s and 1980s ) progressive Coloureds identified themselves socially and politically as “Blacks.” It was part of a grand and ultimately successful strategy for building a broad base of unity among all South Africa’s disenfranchised. However, beginning in 1990 with the first phase in the transition to democracy, coloured peoples’ identification with blacks again became problematic. Black identity is no longer seen as the best strategy for advancing the political and material interests of South African coloureds. A new discourse on difference between Black and Coloured has reasserted itself. It emphasizes the considerable competition between the interests of the two groups. In its vulgar form the new discourse has feed old racist stereotypes that try to advance coloured status by denigrating Black status in a neo-social evolutionary model that plays to fears of Black violence and primitivity.

“With Mixed Feelings”: The Coloured Vote in the April 1994 Elections

In the months and weeks prior to South Africa’s first democratic elections I tried to engage coloured farm workers in political conversations. What one heard throughout the Cape was that the “coloureds” would be responsible for “selling out” to the racist National Party, and that in the end, the coloureds would forget their oppression at the hands of the Boers who gave them “preferential” employment over the Blacks, who paid them in brandy and in wine (through the “dop system”) , and bribed them with food baskets and second hand, cast-away clothes.

What the coloureds of the Western Cape said themselves in the weeks preceding the elections and in the midst of campaign fever was that they felt squeezed out, superfluous, “in the way,” because the real contest in South African politics was being played out in shades of “Black and White.” Either one joined the ANC and toi-tyoied with the Blacks, or one joined the “Nats” and waltzed with the Boer–but in each case one was dancing with the enemy, maybe even dancing with the devil, and as Minnie Peterson of Vietnam Bos (coloured) squatter camp summed up the situation:

“As a coloured voter you are caught in the middle. You don’t have anything that is your own. You don’t have a language and you don’t have a political party. The ANC is the party of the Blacks (no matter what they say or would like us to believe). The National Party is for the Boer. So as a coloured person, where do I stand? The toi-toi is not our dance, and though we sometimes toi-toi with the Blacks we do it with mixed feelings. I can’t vote for the ANC because I do not believe–with all the problems the Black people have in this country–that the ANC will be able to take care of us too. So, in the end I will have to side with the NATS [the National Party], but I’ll vote for them with mixed feelings. For generations we were used by the Boer, but now I want to believe that things are changing and at the end of the day the Boer will recognize us as his [sic] kin.”

If the search for paternity, legitimacy, and kinship with the primordial Boer father-ancestor–and hence the search for personal identity–underlies part of the farm laborer coloured vote for the local white National Party ( as I believe it did) , fears of retaliatory Black violence was the most commonly articulated reason for casting their lots with the NP given by coloured voters as they arrived by bus loads to attend the final NP rally at the Good Hope Center in Cape Town and to catch a glimpse of “Papa DeKlerk” himself.

As I stood in my academic robes along with a few dozen religiously affiliated “coloured” Christian and Muslim faculty from the universities of Cape Town and the Western Cape in a silent protest against the blatantly racist NP campaign against Mandela and the ANC in front of the Good Hope Center where DeKlerk and Hemus Kriel were about to address thousands of coloured voters bussed in from the Cape Flats and from the surrounding rural farm country, we were verbally assaulted by poor “coloured” workers (some of them already quite drunk before mid-day) as “kaffir-lovers” and “coloured traitors.” The South African Police (SAP) threatened to arrest us because (they said) they feared a mob scene following the NP rally and they could not assure our “protection” from the “angry mobs” as they poured out of the Good Hope Center. As we waited outside loud speakers broadcast the messages of DeKlerk and Kriel to the coloured voters. Kriel, in particular, traded in racist imagery in Afrikaans, with many references to the Black so called “Station Strangler,” the serial killer who preyed on young coloured boys in the Cape Flats and praising the NP Afrikaner police chief who had apprehended a major suspect and thereby allowed coloured parents to sleep more easily. But even DeKlerk was not above making pointed references to the “necklace” [the burning of suspected police and other “collaborators” by putting a burning tyre around their necks] as a key ANC political strategy. The message obviously reached home, for on that and on subsequent days, leading up to April 27th and 28th , similar sentiments were cast by coloured voters, even as they waited on the long, snaking cues in front and around polling stations on April 27th and 28th in the Western Cape. The following comments were tape-recorded on the election days in Franschhoek, Mowbray, and Mitchell’s Plein:

“Look at how the Blacks kill their own people. They are a race of killers. When the ANC comes into power we all had better go out and buy ourselves a coffin. Some of the coloured are so stupid. They go to ANC rallies and before you know it they are jumping up and down saying, ‘Viva Mandela! Viva Mandela!’ And I think, ‘Yeah, long live Mandela and death to the rest of us! Toi-Toi for Jesus, not for Mandela!'”

“We [coloured people] can’t vote for Mandela. He was in prison, man. Ah, he is a criminal! Who wants a criminal for President?”

“We can’t have a kaffir-man [a nigger] for President!”

“Natives can’t lead us. What do they know about anything? Shame, they will send us all back to the stone age.”

“Wherever the Blacks [the swarts] go there is violence, bloodshed, and burning tyres. Look at the rest of Africa: Brundi and Somalia. When the ANC had its rally in Athlone [a coloured community in the Cape Flats] three children were trampled to death. When the National Party held their rally in the Good Hope Center no one died. Everything was peaceful. The coloured people are tired of violence.”

“But wasn’t it the NP that took away coloured peoples’ homes and forced them to live in the Cape Flats?”, I asked.

“Not here in Mitchell’s Plein (denied the woman). That was over in Mannenberg where the people from District Six were forced to move. We ourselves ‘chose’ to come here. And we always had our food under the Nats. We kept our jobs, even if the pay wasn’t so good. There was no equal pension, but . . . we didn’t really suffer.”

After elections the coloured mood was more subdued. The “Kaffir Man” (Mandela) was now their President, while the local Prime-Minister of the Western Cape, following the strong coloured regional vote, was the ex-Chief of Police, Hemus Kriel. Now they would have to live with him and his first attempts to create a separatist “state” with local citizenship and passports designed to keep Black migrants from leaving the “homelands” for jobs and houses in the Western Cape. But even more curious, the Afrikaner Hemus Kriel and the local “white old boys” of the regional NP will have to live with coloured voters who are now, ironically, their main constituency.

White and Brown Afrikaners Together

In a way, political events have come full circle. Originally, in the western Cape the social identity Afrikaners was applied to the “the half-bred, half-caste offspring of slaves” (Cape Times, 5 May 1877, editorial). The colonial administration used the term to refer to the new population of “mixed descent” born in the Cape colony (Gilomee 1994:8). Then, the term was used by Dutch speakers to refer to all colonists with some Dutch European ancestry, to both white and brown “Afrikaners.” Soon after, the term Afrikaners took on its ideological and political connotations and was adopted as a term of self-reference by Dutch-speaking colonists who held white supremacist convictions. An early history published in 1898 defined the Afrikaner as “a person of Dutch extraction, who believed in the advancement of the brandy market, protection to the com farmer, and the repression of the Black native” (Wilmot 1898:182, cited by Gilomee op cit.).

Throughout this historical process, the intermediate population of brown Afrikaners in the western Cape was at times included in Afrikaner identity and politics and at times excluded. The Cape Coloured–like Blacks in the American South–had the voting franchise for a period and then lost it and had to fight to regain it. Hermann Gilomee, a progressive white Afrikaners political scientist , has stressed the “purely” political dimensions of the contraction and expansion of National Party and Afrikaners identity in the history of modern South Africa. He notes that in the elections of 1920 the National Party, as the main vehicle of Afrikaner nationalism, competed with some success for the Coloured vote. But when in the elections of 1929 the National Party got only 10% of the coloured vote, the NP dropped the “coloureds” and adopted the ideology and strategy of apartheid. In the early 1990s with the goals of the anti-apartheid struggle finally in sight and in light of an expanded franchise, the National Party was once again forced to redefine Afrikaners to include the interests (and thereby pursue the votes) of the “coloured” population (once again seen as “Brown Afrikaners”) and with considerable success.

Of course, nothing is stable or predictable in politics nor in personal or cultural identity. If the “coloured” have been “manipulated” by the “new” National Party, given the demographics of the Western Cape, the NP party there now “belongs” to the coloured majority. It remains to be seen what the coloured workers will ultimately make of it and consequently of themselves.

References Cited

Boonzaier, Emile and John Sharp, eds.

1989 South African Keywords. Cape Town: David Philip.

Crapanzano, Vincent


Waiting: the Whites of South Africa. New York: Vintage.

Dawes, Andrew and Gillian Finchilescu


Images of group identity among South African adolescents. Paper presented at the “Democracy and Difference Conference.” University of Cape Town, 5-7 May.

Degler, Carl


Neither Black nor White.

Giliomee, Hermann


Afrikaner identity and franchise contraction and expansion in South Africa. Paper presented at the “Democracy and Difference Conference.” University of Cape Town, 5-7 May.

Sharp, John


Should we condemn all primordial discourses? A comparative perspective on a South African dilemma. From the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cape Town, 3 December.

Nancy Scheper-Hughes, is a professor in the Department of Anthropology at UC Berkeley, where she also directs the doctoral program in Medical Anthropology, “Critical Studies in Medicine, Science and the Body.”

Copyright © 2001 Nancy Scheper-Hughes and The Multiracial Activist. All rights reserved.

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