Colored People of South Africa

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Colored People of South Africa

ALTERNATE NAMES: Coloureds, Coloreds, Brown People
LOCATION: South Africa (especially Western Cape and Northern Cape Provinces, urban areas)
POPULATION: 4.2 million
LANGUAGE: Afrikaans, English
RELIGION: Christianity, Islam


The word colored in a racial context is considered by many to be pejorative or disparaging, but it is widely used to this day in serious discussions of South Africa's social and economic issues because it describes an important population entity and because nobody has been able to come up with a better or more accurate term for this purpose. It is fairly common for the term colored to be preceded by the phrase “so-called” as a demonstration of the speaker's ambiguous feelings. They were categorized as such by means of the Population Registration Act, No 30 of 1950. They number approximately 4.2 million and are the descendants of European settlers from the Netherlands, Germany, France, indigenous people of South Africa, especially the San and Khoekhoen, and slaves from the Dutch East Indies who were brought to the country during the 18th and 19th centuries.

The “Colored” population suffered many indignities under apartheid in terms of education, health care, and basic exclusion of other privileges, like marrying a person of another race. When apartheid laws were introduced after 1948, many communities were forcibly removed from their original residential areas. District Six in Cape Town is an example of such an area where forced eviction of “Colored” families took place because it was earmarked for urban restoration. Many of these families were moved to the Cape Flats areas with its associated problems of gangsterism, vigilante groups, etc. Since democracy in 1994, however, all the people of South Africa have the right to live wherever their economic position and preference permit.

Most coloreds tended to work as domestic servants, farm laborers, and fisher folk, but large numbers were also involved in the skilled trades like masons, tailors, and seamstresses with which craftsmanship they are associated to this day.

Culturally and economically, coloreds were always more closely associated with the dominant white population than were Africans. They spoke the same languages (English and Afrikaans), worshiped in the same churches (mostly Christian Protestant, but also some Catholic), enjoyed the same foods, wore the same kind of clothes and—especially in later years—enjoyed the same sports and pastimes. In spite of this common heritage, they were never fully integrated into white society. Today there is still a fairly widespread sense among coloreds that they continue to be victims of discrimination in South Africa, but this time at the hands of the black majority government. In a recent news report, a colored South African was quoted as protesting: “We weren't white enough in the old regime and now we're not black enough.” This perception is based on allegations that, in narrowing the economic gap between whites and blacks, the government is willing to remove many of the gains achieved by coloreds through their own hard work and sacrifice. It is but one delicate problem among the many difficulties facing the young democracy.

Subgroups were and, often still today, are recognized among the coloreds. The dominant subgroup is the so-called Cape Coloreds who are, as was indicated, descended from various indigenous people and European settlers and are mainly to be found in the Western Cape region and in the Northern Cape. The 1950 Population Registration Act in fact made allowance for six sub-categories of coloreds, and some of these still self-identify as distinct communities. Examples of such communities are the Griquas, Malays, Rehoboth Basters (of Namibia), and the Nama.

The Griqua and Nama, together with people like the Korana, more properly can be identified as Khoekhoen (previously Khoikhoin), who were conventionally grouped with the San (Bushmen) under the term Khoesan (Khoisan) due to the similarity in their click languages. Contemporary identity for communities such as these is a complex matter. The Griqua for example, are still regarded as “Colored”—even the identity documents of many still carry this designation. However, they have a strong sense of identity and number approximately 300,000. As descendants of mostly Khoekhoen and Afrikaner communities, they formed a distinct group as early as the 17th century.

For some Griqua people it has been possible to register as Griqua while others who legitimately trace Griqua descent prefer not to be identified as such. It is also possible to “become” Griqua by, for example, marrying into the Griqua community or by joining the Griqua movement through membership in the Griqua Independent Church. As a group however, they have obtained international recognition and in 1998 already, the United Nations awarded them, one of South Africa's oldest peoples, First Nation status.

The Cape Malay is also a large subgroup, primarily centered in particular neighborhoods of the Western Cape Province and number about 180,000. They are descended from the indigenous Khoekhoen, slaves brought to South Africa by the Dutch East India Company and European settlers. They have retained many cultural elements from their diverse origin but they are recognized as a distinct and close-knit community, mostly because of their Islam religion and location.

The same Act in fact also made allowance for a category “Other Colored” for those who did not obviously qualify for the sub-categories mentioned above. An example of such a group is the Buys community at Buysdorp near Louis Trichardt (Makhado) in Limpopo Province. The settlement has approximately 400 permanent residents, all of whom are related to one another, but many more live and work elsewhere in South Africa. They are the descendants of the well-known Coenraad de Buys (grandson of French Hugenot Jean du Bois) who had married several indigenous women and settled in the area even before the Voortrekkers (Boer pioneers) had established the first settlement of white people in the Limpopo Province at the town of Schoemansdal. They, too, have a fierce sense of identity and prefer not to be categorized as belonging to the general “Brown”/“Colored” grouping.

Those first few of the Karretjie People (see elsewhere in this volume) who eventually obtained identity documents were also classified “Colored,” but as itinerant people of the Great Karoo region of South Africa, they also regarded themselves as distinct, as descendants of a First People of South Africa, the Xam Bushmen.


Most of South Africa's colored people live in both the urban and rural areas of the Western Cape (main city: Cape Town) and Northern Cape Provinces, where they have numerical superiority and constitute influential political and cultural groups. However, they have also migrated to other major centers and significant concentrations can be found around the cities of Johannesburg, Pretoria, Port Elizabeth, East London, and Durban. There are also important groups in the neighboring nations of Namibia (see elsewhere in this volume) and Zimbabwe.

In the Western Cape Province—regarded as their traditional homeland—colored people play a vital role in the economically important agriculture industry (fruit, wine, wheat and dairy products), not only as farm laborers but also as managers, skilled artisans, and increasingly as property-owning entrepreneurs. They are also a dominant group in the fishing industry that has grown up in the rich cold waters of the country's west coast, where the Benguella Current has helped to create excellent trawling and line-fishing conditions. In the cities, many members of the colored community are engaged in trades such as carpentry, plumbing, auto repair, and construction, but they are also prominent in professions such as health care, accounting, law, and education.


Colored South Africans speak two languages, mainly Afrikaans, but also English. Afrikaans is a language found only in South Africa that evolved from the Dutch spoken by the early white settlers with influences from other groups who settled in the country. In an informal setting, such as day-to-day life at home, it is not unusual for coloreds—and to a lesser extent other groups—to combine the two languages in a distinctive local dialect that is very colorful and expressive. This local dialect has little formal written literature, but it is widely popular and accepted as a phenomenon that has given Cape Town its special character. It is particularly effective when used in a humorous context and in the light-hearted songs known as “moppies.” In formal settings, however, colored speakers use either formal English or Afrikaans.

Among the Griqua for example, who were also formally classified colored and are still generally regarded as such, there is a concerted effort to revive their original Khoekhoen/click language. Khoekhoen is a surviving dialect and is taught in a school in the Richtersveld area. Researchers in the Great Karoo region have also found individual Karretjie People who could still speak a “southern” Griqua/Korana dialect.


Because of their historical association with whites, coloreds share the general folklore heritage common to the Western world. However, there are also some (dwindling) legacies that apparently came from the early mingling with slaves from the Dutch East Indies–notably the telling of goël (literally, to practice magic) or ghost stories, which are frequently as amusing as they are alarming. One of the features of Cape Town in summer is the strong southeast wind known as the “Cape Doctor.” Sometimes it blows so hard that people can hardly walk in the city and the harbor closes to shipping. Southeaster time, when windows are rattling and doors are creaking, is ideal for the telling of goël stories.


The colored people of Cape Town observe two main religions—Christianity (mostly Protestant, but also some Catholicism) and Islam, which plays an influential role in a large sector of the population. In urban areas where colored people live in large numbers, it is common to hear the faithful being summoned to prayer from mosques. Local leaders of both major religions were prominent during the struggle against apartheid. Some, such as the Reverend Allan Boesak, became familiar figures on the international stage as pressure built up against apartheid. Boesak is still active as a public commentator. Because of the powerful influence of Islam, many colored people take an intense interest in events in the Middle East and other parts of the world where the interests of their fellow Muslims are at stake. Both Christianity and Islam are seen as factors in the emergence of a strong conservative element in the colored community.

Amongst the Griqua, their “Independent Church” has been an important mechanism for mobilization and cultural revival.


For more than 100 years, Cape Town's colored community was associated with an annual New Year's Day “minstrel” parade through the streets of the city and along the main roads leading into town. Neighborhoods formed troops that dressed in colorful satin costumes and marched or danced behind guitar and banjo bands. Each troop had its own combination of colors. When they all arrived at central sports fields, they competed for trophies to the delight of large crowds of spectators. According to historians, the tradition began in the 19th century, when a local baker dressed up a group of people to advertise his breads and cakes. But, it was largely abandoned during the latter days of apartheid because many members of the community felt the name “Coon Carnival,” by which it became known, was derogatory. Since democracy the tradition was revived and the citizens of Cape Town are again enjoying the minstrel bands and their humorous songs.

A traditional song is “January, February.” Its words consist only of the 12 months of the year, sung to a catchy tune and rhythm. Everyone knows this song, and spectators often join in when the band marches by. There are many other songs—some funny, some sad—but all are unique to the spirit of the Cape and its people. Another well-known traditional song describes the arrival off the Cape of the Confederate raider Alabama during the American Civil War. Thousands of people climbed to the top of Signal Hill overlooking Cape Town to see the warship and witness any battles that might take place with Yankee enemies. The event is remembered in a universally known song called Daar Kom Die Alabama (“There Comes The Alabama”).

More serious is the annual competition between Malay choirs—choirs made up of the descendants of workers who were brought to the Cape during the days of the Dutch East India Company, which established a replenishment station and vegetable garden at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652. Their songs range from localized versions of modern tunes to traditional ballads and joke songs called “moppies.” An especially delightful moppie tells the story of a baboon trying to learn how to swim. He learns very quickly when he sees a crocodile in front of him and a shark behind.

The official public holidays of South Africa of course apply to the coloreds as well and these are: New Year's Day, January 1; Human Rights Day, March 21; Good Friday and Family Day, which vary; Freedom Day, April 27; Worker's Day, May 1; Youth Day, June 16; National Women's Day, August 9; Heritage Day, September 24; Day of Reconciliation, December 16; Christmas Day, December 25; Day of Goodwill, December 26.


Birthdays are celebrated by parties where the guests bring gifts. Baptism of infants, confirmation, and first communion are celebrated among Christian colored people. On their 21st birthday, many young adults in South Africa receive a symbolic key to adulthood.

However, as part of the revival of Khoekhoen/Griqua culture and a renewed awareness of an own identity, a number of “Kaptyns” or Chiefs are again recognized. The nâu inauguration ceremony for such chiefs has been resurrected in some quarters. It involves slaughtering a sheep, the use of its blood for purification, the slow circular movement of the participants whose feet are bathed in the blood, the tasting of bitter boegoe and sweet honey—symbolic of both bad and good times—and finally, an oath of loyalty is taken.

A few other traditions and rituals that still persist include (in Griquastad, an important Griqua town): the hokmeisie or girls' initiation ceremony; the mokwele or betrothal ceremony; and the marriage ceremony involving a special dance, stapdans.


Even though there was legal separation of races in South Africa for most of the 20th century, there was always contact between whites and coloreds. Culturally, the two groups shared similar interests and background. They listened to the same music and saw the same movies (even though theaters were segregated), used the same school textbooks and lived in close proximity (although residential areas were largely separate). They met in the workplace, stores, and the street. As a result, close friendships were formed and feelings of mutual respect developed, even though the previous regime did everything possible to keep racial and ethnic groups separate. Until 1986 it was illegal for members of different race groups to have sexual relations, for example, and people were actually prosecuted for breaking this law. Thus, the removal of all race laws has been easy for whites and colored to adjust to in terms of their relations with each other. Relations between coloreds and members of the black majority are tenuous in the new system. There have been some tensions based on the perception by coloreds that the majority regime may not always have colored interests in mind.


Under apartheid, whites enjoyed most of the advantages and privileges in terms of education, health care, land allocation, and so forth. Next in the pecking order were coloreds, followed by blacks. For example, when the transition to non-racial democracy took place in 1994, the student-to-teacher ratio in white schools was 18 to 1; in colored schools, it was 22 to 1 and in black schools it was 50 to 1. Coloreds lived in close proximity to their white neighbors even though there was a large income gap between the two groups. When most of the apart-heid laws were introduced after 1948, many colored people were forcibly moved from their traditional residential areas to segregated suburbs and townships. This development was bitterly resented and resisted, and it resulted in the destruction not only of well-established communities but of families themselves. Forced removals remain one of the worst memories of the old South Africa. It created problems that are still beyond solution in many cases. One of the most resented examples occurred in the center of Cape Town, where an area known as District Six was earmarked for urban renewal. District Six was the traditional home of many colored families, and it certainly needed renewal. But, it was renewed for whites and the original inhabitants were moved to bleak townships on the sandy Cape Flats, where crime, alcoholism, and other social ills soon became rampant. These townships and suburbs still exist (as do many of the problems they created) but colored people can now live wherever their economic status allows and they have increasingly moved into formerly exclusive white suburbs. Some communities of coloreds like the Buyses and the Dunns have preferred to stay in and hang on to their own exclusive pockets of the land—in the far northern Soutpansberg of the Limpopo Province and the Province of KwaZulu-Natal, respectively.


Colored families tend to be extended, conservative, and mutually supportive. In fact, it was largely these qualities that enabled the community to survive the difficult earlier years. The sense of interdependence is inclined to translate to neighborhood and community as well.


Colored South Africans wear clothing, both formal and casual, similar to that worn by people in major industrial nations anywhere in the world. Young people wear jeans, sneakers, and T-shirts just like their counterparts in the United States and Canada, and baseball caps have become popular too. Jackets and ties are becoming less common in more formal venues, such as the workplace, largely following the trends elsewhere in the world.


Colored people are renowned for their culinary skills and have contributed more to South Africa's heritage in this area than any other group. They are especially famous for wonderful stews—known as bredie s—which are traditionally made with mutton and lamb and prepared with a base of tomatoes, cabbage, or local plants known as waterblommetjies. Also popular are small, triangular pies known as samoesas, which contain a curried mince mixture. Samoesas are ideal for snacks or lunch and are often served as appetizers or at cocktail parties. The influence of the Dutch East Indies is strong, especially in the lasting popularity of curries that can be served warm or cold, strong or mild. A special favorite is curried fish, which is prepared with local hake (known as stock fish) or a local deep-sea fish called kingklip, or snoek, which looks rather like the familiar barracuda. Among working men, it is common for the midday meal to consist of a loaf of bread with the inside hollowed out and the hole filled up with a bredie. This substantial meal gives a worker plenty of energy for the rest of the day's labor.


Education has long been seized upon as the road to self-improvement among the members of South Africa's colored community. As a result, families will save and sacrifice to send their children to the best available schools and colleges. In the past, colored people were allowed to attend only those institutions designated for their use. While these schools were better equipped than those allocated to black Africans, they were nevertheless inferior to the schools for whites. In the present open society with free access to facilities and institutions, colored students increasingly feature prominently in the best schools and foremost universities.


In spite of disadvantages in educational opportunities, the so-called “colored schools” and the University of the Western Cape (originally exclusively for coloreds) have produced notable figures in the fields of medicine, law, government, diplomacy, the arts, engineering, commerce and industry and education itself. Some of South Africa's finest writers and poets, such as the internationally acclaimed Adam Small, come from the colored community. The cultural revival amongst particularly the Griqua people has been instrumental in both a renewed emphasis on a nearly forgotten heritage and a revitalized awareness of identity. An important focus of this cultural revival and identity is personified by two women. Krotoa (“mother” of the Khoekhoen) had special musical and linguistic skills but was adopted by Jan and Maria van Riebeeck (who established the first Dutch settlement at the Cape). They changed Krotoa's name to Eva and “polluted” her lifestyle. The other is Saartjie Baardman, who was taken to Europe in 1810 and paraded in front of the British and French public. Her remains were repatriated to South Africa in 2002 and ceremonially buried in the Eastern Cape where she grew up.

In keeping with the above, the Griqua recognize their own Volksimbole (National symbols). In addition to their Independent Church, they have a Volksvlag (National Flag) with the colors, bottle green (fruitful life), red (Blood of Christ), white (peace), blue (the color of heaven, pure love) and sea green (derived from the Karoo kanniedood vetplant—succulent), a sinnebeeld (symbol), which is the kanniedood (ad finem) because it is so hardy and durable; and finally a Volkslied (National Anthem) God Eewig, Groot en Goed (God Eternal, Great and Good), which is sung in Dutch.


During apartheid coloreds were kept by law out of the best jobs and the best schools and forced to travel long distances each day to low-paying jobs. The result has been a high incidence of crime, alcoholism, and other social ills. Remarkable leaders, however, have emerged from the community to address these problems and turn them around. A focus on education has produced doctors, scientists, lawyers, industrialists, and artists in record numbers for such a small community. Many members of the colored community are now anxious about current government trends, which they fear will lead to their becoming victims of affirmative action for Africans. They do not want to lose what they have gained over the years at such great cost. The community's leaders do recognize, however, the unfairness of the old system, a system in which, as recently as 1990, a colored child was 24 times more likely to be helped by a welfare grant than a black child.


The most popular sports are soccer, cricket, rugby, and track and field. Now that the community has the opportunity to develop socially and economically, there is increasing interest in the sports of tennis, swimming, golf, yachting, wind- and wave-surfing, and individuals are excelling and gaining national colors in these sports. South Africa has an ideal climate for all outdoor sports and the colored community is as active as any other in the country. Hiking and mountaineering are also extremely popular, especially in the Western Cape, where there are interesting climbs that are easily accessible and the weather is mild for much of the year. On weekends, it is common for families and friends to get together for picnics and barbecues at the beach, alongside a river, or in a backyard.


For the most part, the colored community's entertainment is the same as that of people in any other industrialized society—pop and classical music, the movies, dances and nightclubs, and radio and television. Some members of the community have gone on to become entertainers with international reputations as singers and musicians.


Colored people enjoy varied hobby activities typical of citizens of an industrialized society.


Many of the community's problems can be directly attributed to the treatment it received when South Africa was governed by a system that separated people according to race. The result was a relatively poor education because schools were not given the same facilities afforded to “white” schools and because many people had to abandon schooling at an early age to help support the family. Compounding this situation were the breakups of communities and even families as people were moved into townships and suburbs defined by the race of their inhabitants. In addition, many coloreds were kept in low-paying jobs because of job-discrimination laws.

It was inevitable that social ills, such as alcoholism, poor health care and a rising crime rate, would result. Not all of these negative factors have been eradicated yet, but under the new democratic system all South Africans—regardless of race—have an equal opportunity to live a better life. The colored community has shown the resilience and character through the years to take full advantage of their new hard-won rights. Some of the community's leaders are anxious to ensure that its people will not be abandoned by the black majority in the effort to provide a completely level playing field; this concern is a hotly debated political issue in South Africa today.

South Africa no longer conventionally issues birth rate, health, mortality rate, and other statistics by community or race, but the HIV/AIDS figures for the country as a whole are much worse for certain sections of the nation, including for example, the colored townships. For South Africa, the HIV/AIDS adult prevalence rate was 21.5% in 2003. That year there were 5.3 million people living with HIV/AIDS. In 2003, HIV/AIDS deaths totaled more than 370,000.


The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa (Act 108 of 1996) entrenches individual rights and protection. Chapter 2 [9(3)] specifically indicates that “The State may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more grounds, including race, gender [and other categories].” But the reality is, particularly in the erstwhile exclusively colored townships and mainly due to social and domestic problems still experienced there, women still bear the brunt of discrimination, particularly alcohol-induced verbal and physical abuse.

For those coloreds who have “graduated” out of such depressed and repressing circumstances gender roles are increasingly changing, as is the case for other South African communities. The leader of one of the prominent opposition political parties, Patricia De Lille, is a case in point. Similar trends are apparent in the academic, arts, and economic spheres of life.


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Waldman, L. The Griqua Conundrum: Political and Sociocultural Identity in the Northern Cape, South Africa. Ph.D. Johannesburg: University of the Witwatersrand, 2001.

Wilson, Monica and Leonard Th ompson, ed. The Oxford History of South Africa II (1870–1966). Oxford: Clarendon, 1971.

—revised by M. de Jongh

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Colored People of South Africa

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