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SA’s coloured people crushed between ethnonationalism and African nationalism

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Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

In an era of competing nationalisms, South Africa’s coloured people don’t readily fit into easily identifiable cultures of Europe and Africa, which places them outside immediate concerns of poverty, inequality, crime, violence and unemployment.

There is a certain inevitability about the increase in minority politics based on race in post-apartheid South Africa. Most of the people who held political and economic control and privilege, a minority who fought tooth and nail over decades to shore up all of that, were never going to be pleased about giving up power and privilege.

One minority group, people classified as coloured by the apartheid regime, a classification retained by the post-apartheid regime, feels especially aggrieved. Whatever we may think about race, it means very little when people identified as a particular race feel aggrieved or “left behind”. This is where the coloured people find themselves.

In general, coloured people, people of Indian descent and a minority within the minority of white people were active in various permutations of “collaboration and democracy” during the apartheid era. To the extent that they constituted a bloc, most sit, today, within the ANC and Democratic Alliance.

Some have held on to their religious or cultural traditions, with more conservative elements finding a home in the Minority Front, the Freedom Front Plus or the Patriotic Front. There was always a strong Indian presence across the broad liberation movement represented by the ANC, the Pan Africanist Congress, the Azanian People’s Organisation and the United Democratic Front. These are simplified observations, but they are no less accurate. 

Return to race-based minority politics

All of this notwithstanding, the coloured people have almost always found themselves in a liminal space. (Here is a good introduction to pre-democracy coloured politics.) Of course, some joined the ANC after 1912, but they always held on to the hope of a better life after apartheid to the extent that they idealised and romanticised hope and anticipation. It has all come crashing down, it seems, and marks a turn to race-based minority politics.

Today, not without justification (the evidence certainly shows a decline in the overall prosperity of coloured people), the community feels excluded. As they navigate the wild waters of democracy they feel threatened and stuck between the rocks of African nationalism, represented by the ANC, and the dragons of the ethnonationalism embodied by the Economic Freedom Fighters.

These competing nationalisms have made it clear that “Africa is for Africans” and that coloured people are not African. These issues have been brewing (see here, here, here and here) and have given birth to a race-based minority politics, the highest tentpole being the inscrutable Gayton McKenzie and the relatively unknown Fadiel Adams of the National Coloured Congress (NCC). 

Adams sets himself apart from McKenzie (for now) and insists that the coloured community today has no way out, as it were, and seems locked in a cycle of poverty, unemployment and crime which is part of purposeful marginalisation by the nationalists. (The liberals would probably blame it all on “the market”.)

The ANC and EFF share a belief with the DA, notionally representative of the white community, that “pigment” does not matter. The former two speak about the primacy of Africanness (having already excluded those they describe as non-Africans) and the latter believes that race does not matter. In other words, you can join or support the ANC and EFF (just don’t mention non-Africans), or the DA (just don’t mention pigment). 

Race, pigment and Africanness are nought for the comfort of coloureds 

It would be funny if it were not so tragic: the statement of the liberal politician Natasha Mazzone of the DA, who conveniently claimed that her father, who was of a darker pigment, did not enjoy white privilege when he arrived in South Africa from Europe (Italy). It would appear that in some cases, “pigment” matters.

The old racists are simply using new ways to conceal what they mean; this includes statements about avoiding the politics of pigment and not seeing race in a country wracked by centuries of racial hierarchies, and then a switch was flicked (on 27 April 1994) and there was, suddenly, no racism — only “cultures” under threat. These are not tangential matters.

There is a clear global pattern that influences national politics, unless, of course, you suffer from change blindness, with notions of uniqueness or exceptionalism, or imagine that South Africans are isolated from the world. Nonetheless, at the global level, from whence we inherit so many trends and traditions, there are increased concerns and discussions about “civilisations” in confrontation or conflict. It all received great impetus when the old Soviet Union collapsed and “the West” sought new demons to fight…

Racial bigotry and hierarchies are, again, cast in the language of “culture”; again, because it sits deep in the imagination of European liberal thought. This is evident in the earliest of European thinking. The Scottish philosopher and historian beloved by liberals, David Hume, believed “the Negroes to be naturally inferior to the Whites”, not because of race, mind you, but because of culture (habits, customs, etc).

John Stuart Mill, also a darling of liberals (he was, of course, one of Britain’s pre-eminent liberal philosophers, and a colonial administrator), was described as a “cultural chauvinist”, and he proclaimed that his views were not racist, but that colonised people in Asia and Africa were simply inferior because of their (indigenous) cultures, characters and laws. (See Anthony Bogues, John Stuart Mill and ‘The Negro Question’, published in Andrew Valls’ collection Race and Racism in Modern Philosophy; Martin Barker, The New Racism: Conservatives and the Ideology of the Tribe, and Jennifer Pitts, A Turn To Empire: The Rise of Imperial Liberalism in Britain and France.

Anyway, today, racism is now masked behind talk of “civilisational clashes and conflicts” strengthened by Washington’s “war on terror”, and where non-Western or non-European cultures or civilisations are considered as lesser entities and a danger to the complacent hegemony of “the West”.

South Africa’s coloured people don’t readily fit into easily identifiable cultures and, according to Adams of the NCC, are simply ignored or irrelevant and not worthy of consideration. It remains to be seen how long Adams will keep his place and avoid the seduction of the Patriotic Alliance, which, for now, seems to have “the numbers”.

Race as biology is fiction, racism as a social problem is real 

Again, some context and definitional matters are important. The coloured people discussed here are those people to whom the government gave the identity of “coloured” because they are not pure Africans and “mixed”.

There are strong beliefs that race is a “social construct” and a “biological lie”. Even those of us who prefer class analysis, and don’t particularly care for race-based politics, should probably not dismiss the way racism and notions of racial or religious exclusivity and exceptionalism have inspired some of the worst violence over centuries, notably the past 100 years, when at least 120 million were killed for having the “wrong” beliefs and value systems.

The coloured people in South Africa do not have the privilege of claiming new settlements abroad, based on myths, lies or biblical injunctions that are untested and unproven, of claiming ethnicity exception to get access to privilege or even indigeneity.

I am sure that there is a scientific basis that supports claims that coloured people are, for the most part, indigenous. I personally am rather pleased at being “mixed” and it’s a great pity that I will not be around 500 years from now (if we have not destroyed the planet) to shove a finger in the eye of racial or ethnic purists — and when we’re all, well, coloured.

Anyway, a search for purity based on genealogy can be a terrible waste of time, and retrogressive. Unless it is driven by intellectual curiosity or simply as family record-keeping, and to the extent that it includes a search for purity, it can be destabilising and dangerous.

The point is that the nationalists and ethnonationalists who dominate democratic South Africa have the power and influence to state who is and who is not indigenous and place them on a sliding scale of justice. 

The coloured people, as a group, have nowhere to go. They are diverse in most senses. While the majority may speak Afrikaans, they share only a tenuous relationship with the Afrikaner mainstream. If we believe Adams, through a combination of wilful exclusion marginalisation, the coloured people are being led to believe they’re unimportant, “unfit” for work or higher education, and remain mired in increasing poverty, unemployment, violence, hunger and need.

The NCC believes it can make a difference and, at least, raise the levels of prosperity of the coloured people. A hard task for a political organisation that is so narrowly based on an amorphous group like “the coloureds” — who should, if one were allowed to say it, take pride in being “impure” and made up of racial and ethnic influences. The problem, of course, is that it is not up to the coloureds to determine where they “belong”. It is up to the African nationalists and the ethnonationalists. DM

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  • Denise Smit says:

    You are really running out of subject matter. The DA is the most representive of all the races in South Africa and definitely not racist as you make it out to be. Also twisting Mazzonis word to suit your objective. Pigment did matter when her father came to SA in the apartheid era, but he still made it. You take theories and words of 200 years ago to try to prove your point. Get over it. Or are you an agent for certain parties to make racist accusations against the DA to bring down their vote in the Western Cape. I used to look forward to reading your articles, it was full of wit and thought but now it is just bitter

    • Kenneth FAKUDE says:

      I really understand your frustration Denise the DA and political parties get unfairly blamed for things people do themselves.
      1994 was the year that declared freedom of movement away from the apartheid segregation and settlements.
      People decided to stay and expand those areas ie, black,white, coloured,indians etc.
      A lot of people across colour benefited by teaming up and working under the programmes redressing passed inequality, women and disabled irrespective of colour were treated as disadvantaged, only white males were left out fortunately they have been creative enough to survive.
      People must just choose where they want to belong without forgetting their roots.
      Our suburbs are so diverse to a point where you don’t complete a row of one colour anymore.
      Coloureds must get out of their shell and go anywhere they will be welcome.
      It’s black people who can rightfully complain about not seeing enough of the DA in their settlements something that Steenhuisen will have to attend to, people must be spoiled for choice to end corruption.

      • Geoff Coles says:

        A pretty good response Kenneth. Roots do matter to some extent across the spectrum but it is primarily up to the mindset of the individual.

      • Geoff Coles says:

        A pretty good response Kenneth. Roots do matter to some extent across the spectrum but it is primarily up to the mindset of the individual.

    • Bob Dubery says:

      He criticised the ANC and the EFF in the same breath as the DA. The DA are also campaigning for our votes and are currently the official opposition. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t be mentioned in anything other than flattering terms.

      I’m not sure they are the most representative party in SA. I think ActionSA might beat them on that one (which doesn’t make me happy). No party in SA is overtly racist though some are clearly xenophobic.

      I think he’s right about the DA. It’s a problem with them. It’s like they’ve decided that race shoudn’t matter (absolutely right) and thus it doesn’t matter (wrong: Race is still such a strong determinant in this country).

      There’s a greater point here: Nationalism is on the rise in this country, with some parties staking claims to some sort of imagined South African identity – and being a citizen is not enough for some of these folks.

  • Rod H MacLeod says:

    Good article, except for two little flaws. First you just had to squeeze in an anti-USA comment into an article about the iniquitous treatment of “coloured” people in South Africa. Second, Gayton McKenzie is not “inscrutable”. He is very transparent – sharing a past as a convict with his best mate Kenny Kunene, he is now “transformed” into an “honest” businessman and motivational speaker with something of a smell following him from the Central Karoo.
    Save for those two silly statements, a good article.

    • Bob Dubery says:

      I think we need to give people who went to jail once a second chance. McKenzie and Kunene did the time for their crime and there’s no indication that they have re-offended. There are other, better reasons for not liking either of them.

  • Bob Dubery says:

    I don’t think there’s anything inscrutable about McKenzie when it comes to his big ideas. He really does want mass deportation. He is not going to stop at immigrants who are in the country legally, maybe even citizens (neither, for that matter are Action SA – despite their plastering their piety all over social media). What you see is what you will get with that guy and his party. Look at what happened in Johannesburg when Kunene got to be mayor for a day.

    What McKenzie is is unpredictable when it comes to day-to-day politics. He will shake your hand one day, bite it the next. Does that add up to “inscrutable”? He will look you in the eye, shake your hand, give you a smile, but there’s something else going on in his head?

  • Jack Russell says:

    Time you dropped imagined slights, straightened your thinking.
    I live in CT and my observation is that reinstatement of sanity to white – colored relationships has been totally seamless, natural, without rancor, is now social, pretty much like the rest of the civilised world?

    If you want to do something about racism, focus on the anc, eff, their colored soulmates, enough there to keep you busy for many lifetimes.

  • Steve Davidson says:

    Having lived in the Cape for 8 years in two tranches (the rest of 38 years SA-time in the Free State and Natal) I can sincerely say that I have ultimate sympathy for the ‘coloureds’ – too black under apartheid, too white under the ANC’s neo-apartheid – especially as many of them are descendants of the original South Africans. When I go to places like Ceres, say, and see how they’ve been crowded out by the mass of economic refugees from the Eastern Cape, something which seems to be going on throughout the Western Cape, I can understand their anger, but then am always pleasantly surprised at how they just seem to get to work and do the best they can in the unfair circumstances, normally with a smile and a joke. We can only hope that the DA and others carry on their good work of trying to deal with the totally ridiculous situation they have to deal with on a daily basis – and do incredibly well – thanks to the mamparra thieves in the ANC so that everyone down here gets a fair deal, especially the coloureds, IMHO the truly ‘First South Africans’.

  • James Baxter says:

    But I have to disagree with you on that part. There are many African people who are not benefiting from the democratic process, economically and so forth. We are all in the same boat, man. SA is not egalitarian, that’s the problem. We are what the guy in you tube calls techno feudalism, or wat I will call post modern feudalism. We have all these trappings of enlightenment, such as a good constitution founded on love and so forth. But it all breaks down when the rubber hits the sun drenched tar road, with that sticky tar melting as the sun melts our exp

  • District Six says:

    Very thought-provoking article, Sir – again, in spite of the inevitable defensiveness of certain people. It is high time correspondents stopped telling people “to get over racial oppression”. Really. High time.

    Two thoughts come to mind about your article. The first is, please write more about “the complacent hegemony of ‘the West’” in future work.

    Secondly, how does the given term “Coloured” sit with you? What are the politics of being named “a thing” by someone else? How do racialised labels impact a sense of self, agency, worth, etc?
    Look forward to your thoughts down the line.

    • Kenneth FAKUDE says:

      Embracing diversity is knowing you are unique in your difference from other groups irrespective of being Black, White, Asian and so on- there is just too much closeness to the identification to feel it is offensive District Six.
      I was surprised in bank forms you still tick on race blocks, i just wonder if you picked that up?
      I am a proud black person from a rural area you can take me to white people in an urban area but be assured you will never take the blackness and rural area out of me, but I mingle very well with all racial groups and I teach them how it feels like to black and proud and learn how it feels to be white/ coloured /Asian and still be proud.

    • Ben Harper says:

      Your own mind oppresses you dear chap

  • Kanu Sukha says:

    For some weeks now, I have awaited in anticipation of your next submission. Not that that prevented ‘you’ from being the subject of several comments especially the variety that ‘threatened’ stopping support for the DM … for its inclusion of yourself as an opinionista. How ‘sporting’ of them ! I assume they would go with Surve as the alternative? As has become custom, you manage (most times) to ‘rub up’ a pretty vocal section of the readers.. the ‘wrong’ (subjectively speaking) way. ‘Provocative’ some might say? Maybe that is a core part of the essence of ‘learning’? Fascinated by your current observations on ‘identity’ I wonder if you might consider branching into the world of what is described as ‘colourism’ sometime? Me being at the darker end of that spectrum while you are most likely at the lighter end of it. I have been fascinated by the phenomenon of how obvious descendants of slaves in the US today have been identified by Democrats as the US representatives to the UN (the Republicans don’t even bother with such performative devices it seems!) They even have the most senior official of their military on such ‘esteemed’ post. Even more intriguing is that of an obvious slave descendant, sitting on the bench of the highest court in the land, who holds white supremacist views ! I guess it is no different in the UK where an ‘Indian’ with imperialist views, has been appointed ‘king’ of the fiefdom .. for how long? Joining that coterie of beings is Barverman!

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