Classified as a white person

2010-01-21 00:00

THE other day, I was rummaging through my old documents trying to track down my birth certificate. There, in the midst of all my old report cards, I stumbled upon my very first identity document. As I flipped through its pages there it was — my formal classification document in which I, Catherine Bollaert, was legally “classified as a white person” under the Population Registration Act as legislated in 1950.

I was flabbergasted. In all my 33 years of existence it had never once occurred to me that I might have owned a real-McCoy document of such historical significance. I mean I knew that apartheid had done this to people. But there it was, my name on this little piece of paper with a stamp that declared that this person has been “classified as a white person”. Immediately my mind began interrogating the significance of this discovery. Was it intended to be a treasure or a curse that needed to be burnt?

With this discovery, it felt as though I had landed with a thud into the heart of South Africa’s apartheid history. Where did that leave me? Even though I was too young to have really experienced what apartheid was all about, the colour of my skin meant that I was guilty. Nonetheless, I had benefited at the expense of the “other”. For this, justice and restitution had to be made. So, was this the hard evidence proving me guilty as charged? However, because of the very nature of my being white, I am now cast an outsider — an illegitimate child.

So, it was as though this little piece of paper contained the curse of my identity. With that stamp, the rest of my life had been predetermined. Unless I could change the colour of my skin there was nothing I could do about it. Because of these four little words, I would grow up in an all-white neighbourhood and go to an all-white church and be educated in an allwhite school, each of which was overflowing with privilege. Most would consider me lucky: a blessing indeed to have been born white in a context where to have been born black meant being classified as sub-human and treated as such. Nonetheless, it was also because of those four little words that I would be trained in the ways of racism, that I would be taught to privilege privilege itself, and taught to fear a black person coming towards me. Because of those four little words, I was now part of the worldwide web of oppressors. So, the discovery of this little piece of paper was like discovering hidden muthi — the magic charm that contained the power of my curse. For this reason alone it needed to be burnt.

No. This little piece of paper is now becoming my treasure. It is evidence that I too am a product of the society into which I was born and which continues to be defined by the stamp that the authorities on that day felt like putting on your little piece of paper. Can we really be defined by the tone of our skin colour or by the ability of our hair to retain a pencil? Does this not only go skin deep? Can we not see the absolute absurdity of all of it? Should we not be laughing out loud in mockery of those words — to think that I, that we, have allowed them to dictate who we are today? While I am in no way dismissing the magnitude of the injustice of apartheid and the severity of how it destroyed the lives of millions of people — the least of which is mine — can we really let those few little words on that little piece of paper continue to maintain their pervasive power which is still plaguing the stability of our society? In as much as you had no choice in your being classified as a black or coloured or Indian person, the consequence of which you have had to live with, I too had no choice in being classified a white person. I too have to live with the consequence of that. But it is me who now gets to choose how.

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