The unsettling meanings of coloured identity and why it should be challenged


I was born with the sand of the Namib Desert between my toes and grew up in Upington, where the mighty Orange River flows a stone's throw away from the town centre.

I remember as a teenager how excited my cousins and I would get when our neighbours across the street had family visiting. The reason for our enthusiasm would often be because the visitors were from Cape Town. They spoke a dialect we found cool and they used different words to describe things. Like stoffies for when it rains lightly, or kapalangs, referring to flip-flops and then the different meaning of the word koeksister and koesiste depending which province you’re in.

The family that I married into is from the Eastern Cape – Cradock, Ugie and East London and often their sentences and expressions are punctuated with words derived from isiXhosa. Unlike many coloureds living in Cape Town, some of my in-laws are proficient in conversational isiXhosa. I learnt the word umngqusho from my husband.

Despite this richness of experience and practice, coloured people are still portrayed as homogenous and often defined only in terms of what they "lack"; of what they are not.    

Recent racial tensions in the Western Cape – fuelled by dissatisfaction over housing, poor service delivery, and inhumane living conditions – have again thrust coloureds into the national spotlight and elicited enthusiastic debate online and in other media, about the nature and form of this category of South Africans. Centring this issue however, is not a case of coloured exceptionalism but rather an acknowledgement of a group of people who have expressed feelings of being marginalised by dominant groups in South Africa.

Experiences of white racism have shaped coloured identities but so too has anti-black prejudice and racism and if these racialised tensions are not effectively addressed it will have dire consequences for reconciliation and other nation building projects.

Whenever questions around coloured identities emerge, a common response has been to fiercely debate and try to define what coloured identity is. It is significant that 24 years into democracy, these debates often still draw on an understanding of coloured identity as somehow problematic. The argument goes that it is a bureaucratic construct – a racist apartheid hangover – and that in order for it to change, coloured people must undergo a sort of mental emancipation so as to reject the identity; or secondly, that coloureds are nothing more than products of miscegenation and racial "mixing".

This narrative of racial "mixing" is especially harmful as it shrouds coloured identities in shame and renders coloureds cultureless within popular narratives.

These definitions are silencing. Not only is it obtuse, but it is a deeply problematic construction that denies the actual, lived, real experience of coloured identities based on a rich and nuanced history that has been denied even to its own. It also closes off any attempt at talking about coloured identity in a way that recognises that it is located within the larger South African context and its complicated past.

This silencing then, leaves little space to ask the difficult questions like: who do we speak of when we refer to coloureds, how is the identity formed, by whom and what are the social, political and cultural power relations at play? Interrogating these questions allows us to understand coloured identity, not in isolation to, but in relation to others. It also allows for a deeper reflection on, and a recognition of, the ways in which other identities shape coloured expression and how it has informed the expression of many other South African identities.

As with all other ethnic groups, coloured identities too are socially constructed. They are rich in complexity and are diverse, grounded in a violent history of genocide, slavery, rape and perceived miscegenation and a history immersed in the struggle against oppression and for liberation.

Much of this history has been erased and names like Ashley Kriel, Anton Fransch, Robert Waterwitch and Coline Williams remain relegated to the fringes of the story of our national struggle for freedom.

My experience of coloured identities is that coloureds are not a homogenous group, not in terms of personal politics and political thought, or even a primary language. And yet, despite this, there is a definite group ethnic consciousness. 

Complicated history must be retold

As emotionally draining as these conversations can sometimes be, particularly when it is so close to home, we must incessantly interrogate and engage with memories of the past. If we don’t courageously dialogue with sustained remembrance and with care, it will be impossible to co-create a new South African consciousness that draws from the countless strands of our collective story.

It is only through an opening up and re-telling of this complicated history of being coloured in South Africa, that we’ll be able to challenge the disconcerting and disturbing narrative of feelings of non-belonging that has become a marker of this identity group.

We tell stories about who we are and often our stories include perceptions of what it means to come from particular communities. These stories of who we are, are passed on from generation to generation and each generation chooses which parts of the story to tell.

This selection can be influenced by any of the various economic, social or political forces of the time. Stories can therefore change and shift and are regularly contested as is demonstrated by the issue of coloured identities.

Often our stories speak of a past – whether imagined or real; or the stories we tell try to make sense of the complex present and much of the time these stories are aspirational and speak of an imagined future. But these stories aren’t merely empty transcripts that are passed on. We are emotionally invested in them and they reflect our desire for belonging and inform our identities.

Coloured identities located within larger African identity

Isn’t this also what those who had gone before us a fought for? The right to, within a democratic dispensation, grapple with the messy complexities of our human experience and to re-imagine identities. This is something that colonialism and apartheid denied us.

We must allow ourselves the space to sit with the discomfort that comes with confronting the ways in which our brutal, fractured past has come to shape our understanding of ourselves and others. In this way, we’re able to, without denying its specificity, locate coloured identities within the larger African identity – validating it as an important part of the story of black and African experiences.

It is encouraging then that in recent years, there has been a resurgence of a movement to craft new coloured identities in a democratic South Africa and to tell the stories that shape and inform coloured identities in interesting ways.

Through the poetry of poets like Nathan Trantraal and Khadija Heeger, web series like Coloured Mentality, documentaries by filmmakers Nadine Cloete and Kurt Orderson, the art of Laura LadySkollie Windvogel, Khoi revivalists, theatre productions like Afrikaaps, and the general assertion of coloured, black and African identities as occurring at once, the unsettling meanings that have grown around coloured identities are challenged.

We need more spaces for the telling of our stories and for the articulation of memory. More museums telling old and new stories, monuments in interesting spaces, memorials that mourn and celebrate our past and other symbols that speak to our common humanity.

If we do this, we could be on a path where, when we as South Africans are confronted with the memory of the atrocities of our past and as we grapple with its material, social and psychological legacies, don’t shrink in shame or burn down with righteous anger. We will rather be moved with conviction to never allow those atrocities to be repeated and to restore through re-telling of our own stories and listening with care to the stories of others, parts of our identity that had been taken.    

- Eleanor du Plooy runs the Ashley Kriel Youth Desk at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.

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