Cape Coloreds

views updated May 17 2018

Cape Coloreds

ALTERNATE NAMES: Coloureds, Coloreds

LOCATION: South Africa

POPULATION: 3.6 million

LANGUAGE: Afrikaans; English

RELIGION: Christianity; Islam


South Africa's 3.6 million mixed-race people are referred to as Cape Coloreds or Coloreds. In other places in the world, the word colored used to describe race is considered disparaging (negative or critical). In South Africa, it is used to describe an important segment of the population.

South Africa's Coloreds are descended from the intermarriage of white settlers, African natives, and Asian slaves who were brought to South Africa from the Dutch colonies of Asia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Most Coloreds worked as domestic servants, farm laborers, and fisher-folk, but large numbers were also involved in the skilled trades. Colored masons and engineers are responsible for nearly all of the beautiful buildings in Cape Town, and colored seamstresses and tailors are well-known for their craftsmanship.

Coloreds were always closely associated with whites. 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, andespecially in latter yearsenjoyed the same sports and pastimes. In spite of this common heritage, Coloreds were never fully integrated into white society.

There is still a 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.


Most of South Africa's 3.6 million Coloreds live in both the urban and rural areas around Cape Town, where they make up 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 and Zimbabwe.

The region around Cape Town is known as the western Cape. It is regarded as the traditional homeland of the Coloreds. Coloreds play a vital role in the 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 also dominate the fishing industry that has grown up in the rich cold waters of the country's west coast. In the cities, many Coloreds work in trades such as carpentry, plumbing, auto repair, and construction, and in professions like health care, accounting, law, and education.


Coloreds speak two languages, English and Afrikaans. At one stage during the struggle against apartheid, many Coloreds chose to avoid speaking Afrikaans because of its association with white domination. It is not unusual for Coloreds to combine the two languages in a distinctive, informal local dialect. It is especially heard in humor and in light-hearted songs known as moppies. In formal settings, however, Coloreds use either formal English or Afrikaans.


Most folklore is shared by Afrikaners and Coloreds. There are goel or ghost stories, which are frequently as amusing as they are alarming, that can be traced to the stories of slaves from India and Malaysia. A popular time to tell goel stories is in Cape Town in summer when the strong southeast wind, known as the "Cape Doctor," blows. Sometimes it blows so hard that people can hardly walk in the city and the harbor is closed to shipping. Cape Doctor time, when windows are rattling and doors are creaking, is ideal for the telling of goel stories.

Folk music features traditional ballads and moppies (joke songs). 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 Coloreds of Cape Town observe two main religionsChristianity (mostly Protestantism, but also some Catholicism) and Islam, which plays an influential role in a large sector of the population. In urban areas where Coloreds live in large numbers, it is common to hear the faithful Muslims (observers of Islam) being summoned to prayer from mosques. Muslim Coloreds take an intense interest in events in the Middle East and other parts of the Muslim world. Religious beliefs are seen as a factor in the emergence of a strong conservative element among Coloreds.


For more than one hundred years, Cape Town's Coloreds were associated with a New Year's Day parade. 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 in front of large crowds of spectators. This tradition was largely abandoned during the latter days of apartheid because many members of the community felt the name it had been given by the white population was racist. When apartheid was eliminated in the 1990s, the citizens of Cape Town revived the parade.

A traditional song performed in the parade is "January, February." The words consist simply of the months of the year sung to a catchy tune and rhythm. Everybody knows this song, and spectators often join in when the band marches by.


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


Although separation of the races was the norm in South Africa for most of the twentieth century, there were always close contacts between whites and Coloreds. They met in the workplace, stores, and the street. Until 1986, it was illegal for members of different race groups to have sexual relations, and people were prosecuted for breaking this law.

Whites and colored adjusted easily to the elimination of apartheid laws. Relations between Coloreds and members of the majority black groups are still evolving, and there has been tension because many Coloreds feel that the government does not always consider the interests of Coloreds.


When most of the apartheid laws were introduced after 1948, many Coloreds were forcibly moved from their traditional residential areas to segregated suburbs and townships. This relocation was bitterly resented and resisted, and it remains one of the worst memories of South African history.

District Six, an area in Cape Town, was the traditional home of many Colored families. Under apartheid laws, it was renewed, but for whites. The Colored residents were forced to move to the sandy Cape Flats, where crime, alcoholism, and other social problems soon developed. As of the late 1990s, Coloreds can live wherever their economic status allows. Some have moved into gracious homes, but the problems of forced removal created a legacy which will take a long time to eradicate.


Colored families tend to be conservative and mutually supportive. It was largely these qualities that enabled the community to survive the treatment it received during the apartheid years.


Colored South Africans wear both formal and casual clothing, similar to that worn by people in major industrial nations anywhere in the world. Young people wear jeans, sneakers, and T-shirts, and baseball caps have become popular. Jackets and ties are becoming less common everywhere, even in the workplace. This is a result of the example set by President Nelson Mandela and other leaders, who wear comfortable casual clothes rather than Western-style business attire.


Coloreds are famous for bredies (stews) made with mutton (lamb), tomatoes, cabbage, or local plants known as water-blommetjies. Also popular are small, triangular pies known as samoesas that contain a ground meat mixture seasoned with curry. Samoesas are ideal for snacks or lunch and are often served as appetizers or at cocktail parties. Working men often carry a lunch consisting of a hollowed-out loaf of bread filled with a bredie.


Education is viewed as the road to self-improvement among Coloreds. As a result, families save and sacrifice to send their children to the best available schools and colleges. In the past, Coloreds were allowed to attend only those institutions designated for them. While these schools were better equipped than those allocated to black Africans, they were nevertheless inferior to the schools for whites. When the transition from apartheid to non-racial democracy took place in 1994, the student-to-teacher ratio in white schools was eighteen to one; in Colored schools, it was twenty-two to one; and in black schools, it was fifty to one.


The Colored schools 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 poetssuch as the internationally acclaimed Adam Smallare Colored.


During apartheid, Coloreds were kept by law out of the best jobs and the best schools. Because they were restricted in where they could live, Coloreds had to travel long distances each day to low-paying jobs. The result was a high incidence of crime, alcoholism, and other social ills. When apart-heid ended in 1991 and the black majority assumed power in government, many Coloreds feared that the government would create programs that gave strong education, economic, and employment advantages to blacks. This would leave the Coloreds on the sidelines. They did not want to lose what they have gained in economic and educational opportunities.


The most popular sports are soccer, cricket, rugby, and track and field. After 1991, there was increasing interest in tennis, swimming, golf, yachting, and wind-and wave-surfing, sports not open to Coloreds under apartheid. Hiking and mountaineering are popular, especially in the western part of the country.


Coloreds enjoy the same entertainment as most people in industrialized societypop and classical music, the movies, dances and nightclubs, and radio and television.


Coloreds enjoy varied hobbies typical of citizens of an industrialized society.


Until the mid-1990s, South Africa was governed by apartheid. The result was a relatively poor education for Coloreds because their schools had poor facilities, and many Coloreds abandoned schooling early to help support their families. When people were forced to move into townships and suburbs defined by the race, social problems such as alcoholism, poor health care, and a rising crime rate resulted. Not all of these negative factors have been eliminated under the new democratic system. Colored leaders want to ensure that their people will not be abandoned by the black majority.


Green, Lawrence G. Tavern of the Seas. Cape Town: Timmins, 1953.

Picard, Hymen W. J. Grand Parade, the Birth of Greater Cape Town, 18501913. Cape Town: Struik, 1969.

Reader's Digest Illustrated History of South Africa. Cape Town: Reader's Digest Association, 1994.

Suzman, Helen. In No Uncertain Terms, A South African Memoir. New York: Knopf, 1993

Wilson, Monica, and Leonard Thompson, eds. The Oxford History of South Africa II (18701966). Oxford: Clarendon, 1971.


Embassy of South Africa, Washington, D.C. [Online] Available, 1998.

Government of South Africa. [Online], 1998.

Interknowledge Corp. South Africa. [Online] Available, 1998.

Southern African Development Community. South Africa. [Online] Available, 1998.

Cape Coloureds

views updated May 21 2018

Cape Coloureds

ETHNONYMS: Basters (mixed), Bruinmense (brown people), Cape Coloured People, Coloureds


Identification. The term "Cape Coloureds" generally refers to those South Africans of mixed cultural and racial stock whose ancestors include Europeans, Khoi and other indigenous African people, and Asians. The Coloureds were complexly and artificially defined for political convenience by the South African state in the Population Registration Act No. 30 of 1950 (as amended) on the premise that they occupied a middle political estate between Whites and indigenous Blacks, a designation that entrenched still further that structural position and the varying attendant feelings of marginality among individuals. The legal definition distinguished seven subcategories, only one of which was designated the "Cape Coloured group." The remaining six were listed as "Malay," "Griqua," "Chinese" (sic), "Indian," "other Asiatic," and "other Coloured."

Location. Historically, the ethnonym "Cape Coloureds" alluded specifically to their origin in and around what is now the city of Cape Town and, more generally, in the Cape Colony (Province). Today their descendants are found throughout South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, and Zimbabwe, and the term "Coloured" is often used indiscriminately for all people of mixed racial origin.

Demography. In 1988 the total Coloured population in South Africa, excluding Asians, was 3,127,000, representing about 8.7 percent of the total population of that country. Roughly 75 percent of the Coloured population live in urban areas. In neighboring Namibia, 42,241 people were classified as Coloureds in 1981. The 25,181 Rehoboth Basters, who physically resemble the Namibian Coloured people, regard themselves as a separate "nation" because of their historical and political position in that country. The various Baster groups in South Africa tend to maintain a similar ethnic aloofness.

Linguistic Affiliation. By and large, Coloured people speak either or both of the official state languages, Afrikaans and English. In 1980, 83.3 percent claimed Afrikaans as their home language, as opposed to the 10.3 percent who spoke English. Only 4.5 percent of all Coloured families reported that they were bilingual. Various dialects of both English and Afrikaans are also spoken, especially in Cape Town. Some families in rural areas speak Khoe or a Bantu language (nearly 2 percent in 1980).

History and Cultural Relations

The history of the Coloured people is coemergent with the first permanent European settlement on the Cape Peninsula, which was established in 1652. Intermarriage and cohabitation between settlers and Khoi was common and, at that time, often encouraged by all parties. When slaves were introduced from East Africa, India, Ceylon, and Malaysia, the process was repeated. The heterogeneity of the Coloured people intensified with the continuing arrival of diverse immigrant populations throughout the history of South Africa. In 1950 Parliament enacted two laws designed to prevent both intermarriage and miscegenation; this legislation was repealed thirty-five years later, having proved unenforceable. The history of the Coloureds has thus always been inextricably bound up with both Whites and people of color. Many Whites resemble Coloureds and vice versa, a reality that inspired the South African state to enforce a rigid color bar through the Population Registration Act.

The culture of the Coloured frontiersmen of the northwestern Cape and Namibia, known as the Basters, is similar to that of their White counterparts in other parts of southern Africa. It is often impossible to distinguish between the institutions of the White and Brown Voortrekkers. The special place of the Cape Malays (who are Muslims) in the culture of the urban Cape Coloureds must also be noted.


In both rural and urban areas, few differences between Coloured and White settlements exist, other than those imposed by the government policies of racial segregation. Thus, the large number of Coloureds living in shantytowns and low-cost housing schemes in South African cities and small towns is essentially a reflection of the wider stratified society, not one of choice or the product of culture. Similarly, Coloured people living on reserves and on European farms must be seen against the background of their sociopolitical and economic referents. The architecture of many attractive rural cottages built by Cape Coloureds exhibits Dutch and Malaysian influence. It is only in the district of Namaqualand that traditional Khoi mat houses are found; many White people in the area chose to build in similar architectural designs.


One could speculate that had it not been for the growth of race prejudice, the Coloured population would scarcely differ from South African Whites in terms of their occupational profiles. In practice, although there are Coloured physicians, professors, teachers, entrepreneurs, civil servants, and skilled artisans, the majority are semiskilled and unskilled workers and laborers. Coloureds living on reserves and mission stations rarely make ends meet as farmers, and most domestic families are involved in the migratory labor force in one way or another. The success of the White farmers in Western Cape Province has, over the years, largely been made possible by the employment of poorly paid Coloured labor. Many members of the Cape Malay population enjoy a high economic status, related in part to their historical position as skilled artisans, professional fishers, and petty commodity producers.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

The generally heterogeneous nature of Coloured culture is also reflected in patterns of family life, kinship, and marriage. Thus, on the Namaqualand reserves, a number of families follow practices regarding descent, generation, age, and sex that are recognizably Nama Khoi, whereas most middle-class families in the major urban areas hardly differ from Western middle-class families generally. Meaningful analysis of kinship and marriage can therefore be carried out only within a particular community or a specific regional context. It is quite erroneous to suggest that where matricentric families are found, evidence of pre-Emancipation slave culture is still evident.

An important aspect of Coloured kinship and marriage lies in people's preoccupation with class, status, and color, reflecting the extent to which Coloured people are enmeshed in the structure of South African society and their preoccupation with White values in particular. In the reserve communities of the district of Namaqualand, people distinguish four lineage categories. Marriages within and between these categories are guided by various preferential rules of status endogamy based on such criteria as skin color, hair form, ethnic origin, and so forth. Similar patterns are found in urban areas, where the emphasis on biological characteristics and ethnicity is complicated by indexes of association, educational achievement, political and religious affiliation, occupation, and the like. Some light-skinned Coloured individuals were able to change their official race classification to White. The process was a complex one and could only be undertaken successfully by higher-status people with established social networks among people in the White estate.

Sociopolitical Organization

Like other non-White people in South Africa prior to 1994, the Coloured population has never enjoyed equal political rights with those regarded as White. With the advent of the Union of South Africa in 1909, for example, the franchise was given to Coloured males in the Cape Province only, subject to specified property and income qualifications. In 1951 those rights were removed, and voters were placed on a separate Coloured roll. In 1984 the government introduced a tricameral parliamentary system that made provision for the election of representatives to be responsible for the administration of so-called Coloured affairs. In the pre-1951 system, White political parties hoped to lure Coloured voters, and in certain urban areas the more liberal parties considered the Coloured vote crucial to their success. One of the reasons for removing the Coloureds from the voter roll was to reduce their political power as the number of qualified voters increased.

Coloured involvement in political protest in White-dominated South Africa changed radically after 1951, and, by the mid-1970s, many Coloureds began to identify themselves with national struggles against apartheid, reflecting their disillusionment with White liberalism.

Various segments of those people who came to be known as the Basters formed, with the assistance of missionaries, largely autonomous political communities and cultivated their marginal ethnic identity. These included the Grigua, the various Baster groups of Little Namaqualand, and the Rehoboth Basters, who established a republic in what is now Namibia in 1870. All these Baster nations developed formal written constitutions after they had lived for a period under customary law during their seminomadic pastoral stage, as did the White Voortrekkers. The constitutions of the Basters resembled very closely those of their White counterparts (cf. the thirty-three articles of the constitution of the South African Republic of 1844 with the sixty-four articles of that of the Rehoboth Baster nation of 1874).

The Coloured reserves of Little Namaqualand have similar histories to that of the Rehoboth nation of Namibia, although the former never enjoyed full political autonomy.


Apart from the Muslim Cape Malays (6.7 percent), the Coloured people are by and large nominal Christians (26 percent Dutch Reformed, 10.7 percent Anglican, 5.7 percent Methodist, 7 percent Congregationalist, 10 percent Catholic), a pattern very similar to that of Whites. Compared with the Bantu-speaking peoples, the Coloureds have engaged in relatively few minor schismatic movements in reaction to White domination in religion.

On the Coloured reserves and mission stations, the churches and the Christian religion stand at the core of communal and political life. Some residents have retained aspects of traditional Khoi religion, magic, and sorcery, and they hold these beliefs together with their articulation of Christianity. In urban areas, varieties of magico-medical traditions persist. Many of these, notably divination and the prescription of "home remedies" for illness, are often associated with people of Cape Malay background.


Carstens, Peter (1966). The Social Structure of Cape Coloured Reserve. Cape Town and New York: Oxford University Press.

Carstens, Peter (1983-1984). Opting Out of Colonial Rule: The Brown Voortrekkers of South Africa and Their Constitutions." African Studies 42(2): 135-152; 43(1): 19-30.

Goldin, Ian (1987). Making Race: The Politics and Economics of Coloured Identity in South Africa. London and New York: Longman.

Marais, J. S. (1939). The Cape Coloured People, 1652-1937. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press.

Patterson, Sheila (1953). Colour and Culture in South Africa. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Van der Ross, R. E. (1979). Myths and Attitudes: An Inside Look at the Coloured People. Cape Town: Tafelberg Publishers.

Venter, Al J. (1974). Coloured: A Profile of Two Million South Africans. Cape Town: Human & Rousseau.


About this article

Colored people (South Africa)

All Sources -
Updated Aug 08 2016 About content Print Topic