Old ways of being coloured, new ways of being black

2012-04-21 09:34

In March, a protest by a black community in solidarity against inadequate schooling facilities in Grabouw, Western Cape, erupted into a racially divided orgy of invective and violence.

Africans and coloureds were at each others’ throats; old ways of ­being had come to the fore.Although by no means universal, old ways of being coloured during apartheid signified preferential treatment relative to Africans.

This meant coloureds made it through the influx control net into the Western Cape and Africans had to remain in the Bantustan reserves and labour compounds.

Although coloureds were in reality not much better off, the differential treatment had the effect of ­creating a sense of privilege.

Those coloureds who were ­employed as artisans and in various trades were relatively secure, while some poor coloureds felt threatened by poor Africans and tried to preserve what little differentiation there was between them.Apartheid provided a language for difference and stifled any ­notions of unity.

Racial epitaphs such as black or kaffir, coloured or boesman, gained currency as markers of difference.

In pre-apartheid communities where the boundaries between ­African and coloured categories were not pronounced because of interracial relationships, mixed communities and common ­languages, unity and equality were emphasised over difference.

In some communities, coloureds were the children of an African ­parent, but most communities were homogenous, with little interracial contact.

With the advent of apartheid’s Group Areas Act, communities were divided along artificial racial lines that were meant to further amplify difference and stratify races according to skin colour.

This had the effect of dividing communities, destroying family networks and shared indigenous languages.If the violence between African and coloured residents of Grabouw reveals anything, it is that the advent of democracy has not bridged the divide between community members who have more in common than is generally believed.

Of course, there are pockets of thriving integrated communities, particularly in the villages and townships of the Eastern Cape where it is silly to try to differentiate coloured from African.

Here, isiXhosa and Afrikaans are spoken by all members of the community. Shared identities and common culture prevail and are transmitted in language. Language is often the bridge that allows people to tap into their common humanity.Unfortunately, in larger swathes of the country indigenous languages are not shared and are often considered inferior to English.

This frequently means Africans have to cross an “English (or Afrikaans) bridge”, while no effort is made to meet them halfway.But being coloured is not a biological fact – it is a choice.

This choice can lead to denial of self, creating an inferior other and segregationist behaviour to maintain the “purity” of a nebulous identity. But identity is fluid and open to positive re-creation that defies stereotypes, prejudices and internalised dominance or inferiority.

As black people, we need to establish new ways of being black.

Those who identify as African should demonstrate goodwill and not act as gatekeepers to essentialised notions of Africanness.The impetus to re-envision themselves should also come from coloured people so that, like the North Americans did, we can finally put the term “coloured” to pasture.

The onus is on coloured people to reconnect with their blackness – in all senses of the word, including their ancestry and languages, dismantling privileges accrued owing to race, opening themselves to relationships outside the narrow scope of the coloured community, and dropping oppressive practices.

A new way of being black will mean that the next time that I speak isiXhosa in Johannesburg, I will not be seen as a transgressor or surprise people because they “thought you were coloured”.

This new way of being black will mean that the next time there is a protest in Grabouw, all affected communities will fight the delinquent government of the Western Cape in one voice without being sidetracked by old ways of being.

» Canham is Carnegie project manager in Wits University’s transformation and employment equity office 

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