Coloreds (South Africa)
Coloreds (South Africa)
Contrary to international usage, in South Africa the term Colored does not refer to black people in general. It instead alludes to a phenotypically varied social group of highly diverse cultural and geographic origins. The Colored people are descended largely from Cape slaves, the indigenous Khoisan population, and other black people who had been assimilated into Cape colonial society by the late nineteenth century. Because they are also partly descended from European settlers, Coloreds are popularly regarded as being of “mixed race” and have held an intermediate status in the South African racial hierarchy, distinct from the historically dominant white minority and the numerically preponderant African population.
There are approximately four million Colored people in South Africa today. Constituting no more than 9 percent of the population throughout the twentieth century and lacking significant political or economic power, Colored people have always formed a marginal group. There has, moreover, been a marked regional concentration of Colored people. Approximately 90 percent live within the western third of the country, more than two-thirds in the Western Cape, and over 40 percent in the greater Cape Town area.
In the decades after the emancipation of the Khoisan in 1828 and of slaves in 1838 the heterogeneous black laboring class in the Cape Colony started developing an incipient shared identity based on a common socioeconomic status and a shared culture derived from their incorporation into the lower ranks of Cape colonial society. The emergence of a full-fledged Colored identity was precipitated in the late nineteenth century by the sweeping social changes that came in the wake of the mineral revolution that altered the social and economic landscape of the subcontinent. Significant numbers of Bantu-speaking Africans started going to the western Cape from the 1870s onward. Also, assimilated colonial blacks and a wide variety of Bantu-speaking African people who had recently been incorporated into the capitalist economy were thrust together in the highly competitive environment of the newly established mining towns. These developments drove acculturated colonial blacks to assert a separate identity as Colored people in order to claim a position of relative privilege in relation to Bantu-speaking Africans, on the basis of their assimilation into Western culture and their being partly descended from European colonists.
The most consistent feature of Colored political history until the latter phases of apartheid was the continual erosion of the civil rights first bestowed nonracially in the Cape Colony by the British administration in the mid-nineteenth century. The attrition started in the late nineteenth century with franchise restrictions aimed at black voters. In the first decade of the twentieth century Colored people were excluded from the franchise in the former Boer republics after the Anglo-Boer War and were denied the right to be elected to parliament with the creation of the South African state in 1910. In the 1920s and 1930s, the economic advancement of the Colored community was undermined by the government’s “civilized labor” policy of hiring white workers at high wages in the public sector, as well as by laws designed to favor whites over blacks in the competition for employment in the private sector. Furthermore, in 1930 the influence of the Colored vote was more than halved when white women were enfranchised, and Colored and black women were not.
It was during the apartheid era, however, that Colored people suffered the most severe discrimination. Their forced classification under the Population Registration Act of 1950, which categorized all South Africans according to race, made the implementation of rigid segregation possible. The Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act of 1949 and the Immorality Amendment Act of 1950 outlawed marriage and sex across the color line, respectively. Under the Group Areas Act of 1950, over half a million Colored people were forcibly relocated to racially exclusive residential areas on the periphery of cities and towns, and in 1953 the Separate Amenities Act segregated all public facilities, creating deep resentment. In 1956, moreover, after a protracted legal and constitutional battle, the National Party succeeded in removing Colored people from the common voter’s roll.
Although the earliest Colored political organizations date back to the 1880s, the first substantive Colored political body, the African Political Organization (APO), was established in Cape Town in 1902. Under the leadership of the charismatic Abdullah Abdurahman, who served as president from 1905 until his death in 1940, the APO dominated Colored protest politics for nearly four decades. Until its demise in the mid-1940s, it was the main vehicle for expressing this community’s assimilationist aspirations as well as its fears at the rising tide of segregationism. The failure of the APO’s moderate approach contributed to the emergence of a radical movement within the better-educated, urbanized sector of the Colored community during the 1930s. Prone to fissure and unable to bridge the racial divisions within South African society, the radical movement failed in its quest to unite blacks in the struggle against segregation. Organized opposition to apartheid from within the Colored community was quelled by state repression following the Sharpeville shooting of March 1960, which initiated a harsh crackdown on the extraparliamentary opposition by the apartheid state. Organized Colored resistance only reemerged in the wake of the Soweto uprising of 1976.
From the latter half of the 1970s, with the popularization of black-consciousness ideology within the Colored community, the nature of Colored identity became contentious as growing numbers of politicized people who had been classified “Colored” rejected the classification. The Soweto revolt of 1976 greatly accelerated this trend because it fomented a climate of open resistance to apartheid and fostered a sense of black solidarity. Coloredness increasingly came to be viewed as an artificial categorization imposed on the society by the ruling minority as part of its divide-and-rule strategies. The burgeoning of the nonracial democratic movement in the 1980s under the leadership of the United Democratic Front fed Colored rejectionism.
In spite of this, the salience of Colored identity has endured. During the four-year transition to democratic rule under President de Klerk, political parties across the ideological spectrum sought support by making ever more strident appeals to Colored identity and postapartheid South Africa has witnessed a resurgence of Colored assertiveness. This has been due partly to a desire to project a positive self-image in the face of the pervasive negative racial stereotyping of Colored people and partly to attempts at ethnic mobilization to take advantage of the newly democratic political environment. It has also been motivated by a fear of African majority rule and the perception that, as in the old order, Coloreds were once again being marginalized. Though far from allayed, these anxieties have, in recent years, been alleviated by the fading influence of “black peril” tactics in South African politics and by the acclimatization of people to the new political order.
SEE ALSO Apartheid; Inequality, Racial; Miscegenation; Mulattos; Sex, Interracial
Adhikari, Mohamed. 2005. Not White Enough, Not Black Enough: Racial Identity in the South African Coloured Community. Athens: Ohio University Press.
Erasmus, Zimitri. 2001. Coloured by History, Shaped by Place: New Perspectives on Colored Identities in Cape Town. Cape Town: Kwela Books.
Goldin, Ian. 1987. Making Race: The Politics and Economics of Coloured Identity in South Africa. Cape Town: Maskew Miller Longman.
Lewis, Gavin. 1987. Between the Wire and the Wall: A History of South African “Coloured” Politics. Cape Town: David Philip.
Van der Ross, Richard E. 1986. The Rise and Decline of Apartheid: A Study of Political Movements among the Coloured People of South Africa, 1880–1985. Cape Town: Tafelberg Publishers.