There’s no such thing as a coloured identity

The Slave lodge is on the corner of Wale and Adderley streets. Picture Andrew Ingram

The Slave lodge is on the corner of Wale and Adderley streets. Picture Andrew Ingram

Published Nov 21, 2023


Editor’s Note: This opinion piece was originally published by the Cape Argus in August 2016. We have republished this article with the permission of the author, in light of the debate around Tyla’s identification as “coloured”.

Cape Town - There has never been a race called “coloured”. There is no coloured culture, no coloured traditions and no coloured customs. And therefore, no coloured people.

These are the hard truths those who consider themselves “coloured” need to accept. Denying this or fighting this unfortunate reality would only strengthen apartheid’s hold on them as this will mean they accept the dominance and legitimacy of apartheid over their identity, their plight and their destiny.

Subscribing to the “coloured” tag also celebrates as victorious the attempts of the architects of apartheid to make people feel inferior, to determine their cultural destiny and to, in a programmed way, question themselves and accept what is enforced upon them.

Those who consider themselves “coloured” have obviously not yet been liberated from the apartheid yoke and this attachment to the most visible and hurtful defect of apartheid must be viewed within the current political and socio-economic context.

More than that, it dishonours the struggles of those who fought against apartheid, died in their struggle against the evil system that denied people their identity, rights and land.

Fact is, when the Population Registration Act was enacted in 1950, it simply defined a “coloured person” as “a person who is not a white person or a native”.

Accordingly, as the late first lady, Marike de Klerk, said in 1983: “They are the people that were left after the nations were sorted out. They are the rest.”

“Coloured” therefore became the collective name for all those who were “not a white person or a native” and it included various sub-groups such as Cape Coloured (those who were born out of relationships between the slave owners and the local Khoi and San and the descendants of the slaves), Cape Malay (descendants of the slaves or the political dissidents and Muslims religious leaders who were banished here from the East), Griqua, Nama and “other Coloured” (the Khoi and the San tribes).

Also read: Why Wayde's gold is a win for coloured identity

Tweede Nuwejaar, like pickled fish over Easter, is not part of “coloured culture” - it finds its origins in the Cape slave culture.

Faith in boegoe-bossie and other traditional herbs, leaves and roots as “coloureds” in rural areas still trust, is not part of “coloured culture”, it finds its origins in Khoisan traditions.

The attachment to the sea and marine resources are not part of “coloured culture”, it is part of the “Strandloper” culture.

Speaking Afrikaans is not part of “being coloured” because the language was created by the slaves, perfected by the Muslim scholars and hijacked by the Afrikaners in 1875.

It is a notorious apartheid statute that created the “coloured” and denied the descendants of slaves, the Griqua, the Nama, the descendants of the Khoi and the San their existence, stripped them of their heritage and reduced their cultures and traditions to nothing.

Second, society accepted “coloured” as the legitimate name and false identity for different and diverse groups of people who had little in common and today, sadly, many people who have been stripped of all that defined them, reject who they really are and accept what apartheid wanted them to be.

This newfound, yet wrong, “coloured self-identification” is dangerous because it is premised on irresponsible and short-sighted apartheid dogma. It is also restricting many from self-exploration about who and what they really are. But then again, perhaps it is the emotionally safe thing to do.

“Coloured people” need a second liberation because being “coloured” is the veil over one’s Malay heritage or Khoisan ancestry.

This liberation is not from restrictions placed on them by others, but by those imposed on them by themselves or from what they kept in their hearts and minds about themselves from apartheid.

This new epoch probably provides the best opportunity for these different communities, packaged into one, to reassert themselves and to investigate their own heritage and ancestry, to explore themselves and identify themselves according to what and who they really were before 1950 instead of what apartheid and the Population Registration Act classified them as.

This re-identification probably holds the best promise for future generations who would then have a better idea of who they really are and where their forefathers really came from and what to celebrate when, how and where.

There are many who have been too consumed by their “colouredness” that they had little time to discover and celebrate their Khoisan-ness or their Malay-ness or even their Angolan-ness.

This new liberation struggle must defeat the last remnants of apartheid and its cruel hold on those considered to be “coloured”, and nationally “coloured people” should be able to identify themselves according to how they came here or as what they were found here.

Part of it is a national consensus that must force the government to do away with the term “coloured” and provide all with broader options that would adequately represent themselves and not to confine them to apartheid definitions.

When the Population Registration Act was repealed 25 years ago, we were fooled by then-president FW de Klerk, as recent events showed, when he declared to a joint sitting of the House of Assembly (for whites), the House of Representatives (for Coloureds) and the House of Delegates (for Indians) “now everybody is free from the discouragement and denial ...and from the moral dilemma caused by this legislation”.

Twenty-five years later, “coloured people” continue to suffer the severe consequences of this legislation, the denial of the true self, suppressed since colonisation and denied by apartheid.

These different communities deserve identities that truly reflect their heritage, but this identity must be based on what they really are. This discovery will be painful and unsettling, but it is a necessary journey that all descendants of the slaves and the Khoisan must undertake if they were to locate themselves in a world that is evolving even in racial terms.

Individuals who consider themselves as “coloured” would never do so once they know their heritage. The time for discovery is now. The freedom from apartheid is within sight!

* Lionel Adendorf is a former journalist and a member of the Western Cape executive of the ANC. He writes in his personal capacity.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

Cape Argus