Being coloured, a complexity in itself

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Heritage Day marked South Africa’s day to celebrate our great history and diverse nation.

Great, I am all for that. I love our history; it is so complex, vibrant and full of colour.

However, when I tuned into Morning Live on Tuesday morning, there was an insert where they were asking coloured people what it means to be coloured.

Now, I am a 22-year-old woman, and if you saw the colour of my skin you would regard me as “coloured”. I have always found the assumption fascinating because I do not consider myself coloured at all.

But this raised the question: How should I define the term coloured?  I spoke to a few coloured friends of mine and asked them how they understand the term or the race?

There are so many different versions to being coloured. You have your very posh, English coloureds who will probably live in Wynberg and attend Wynberg Boys’ High School. Then you get your very Gam coloured people who live on the Cape Flats. They are usually characterised by gold teeth or no teeth.

Now you’ll ask me: So what? Just tell me who you are if you are not like that. Yes, it is as simple as that, but we live in a country where, after 19 years of democracy, people still assume I talk like a so-called coloured because of the colour of my skin.

Coloured people have been depicted in the media based on the “no teeth” stereotype and thus are always up for ridicule.

A good example of this is comedians who use the stereotype of the “no teeth in front” coloured for their material.

Going back into the history of the Kaapse Klopse you find that this was always the trend. It was originally called theCape Coonfestival, where those of mixed race or slave culture dressed up as “Coons” and provided some kind of entertainment for the white colonialists of the time.

The term coloured is derogatory in itself. It was a term used during the apartheid era to classify a segregated population who was of mixed race (non-white).

The coloured community’s history is one that is so diverse and complex because most of us were actually a mixed race to begin with, not necessarily “coloured”.

I feel very offended when people make assumptions about where I come from, who I associate with, how I talk and who I am supposed to be. Still I find myself in situations, 19 years into democracy, where people think I should be a certain way based on my skin colour.

I went to a poetry event where the audience consisted mostly of white Afrikaans people. I got up and recited my English poem. In short, my poem questions the race issue in this country. I asked what this black, coloured, white “thing” means and I asked my audience: Why can’t we all be colourless?

I think my poem astounded some of the people in the audience, because I didn’t get any applause. I probably said something they didn’t like, or they just simply didn’t know how to react to this young “coloured” lady who was questioning their own preconceived ideas of me when I walked up to the microphone.

I was brought up as a South African, with a mixed and beautiful heritage. I define myself as a South African with a Khoi-San heritage. I was born in this land, and breathe its air, and therefore I am South African, a Khoi South African.  I am proud to say it. I do acknowledge my other heritages, such as my Jewish, Indian, British and even Scottish roots, but first and foremost I am Khoi.

Do not get me wrong: I like the coloured culture, but I do not subscribe to it.

Identity is a strange phenomenon. Nobody can tell you who you are or who you are meant to be. You must figure that one out for yourself, but I for one take solace in my Khoi heritage.

Knowing and appreciating my Khoi-San heritage has made me feel more part of South Africa than being a “coloured” ever did.

The former editor of The Cape Times and The New Age, Ryland Fisher, published a book titled Race. It is a book that speaks about the many complexities of race.  I have been reading it for a while, trying to figure out where I fit into the grander scheme of things.

In the book he speaks to various South Africans about identity. One of the people he spoke to was Melanie Verwoerd (former wife of Wilhelm Verwoerd, Hendrik Verwoerd’s grandson), who said, “People get a sense of security from simplicity, but the one thing we have learnt in South Africa is that simplicity is not always the answer. Maybe one should feel comfortable with the complexity. We, South Africans, are the primary examples of complexity in terms of our identities.”

This comment made me realise that maybe I shouldn’t question race, and especially not the coloured race, so much anymore.

Maybe the problem is not race, but the embracing of one’s roots. Like black South Africans are Xhosa or Zulu, etc, coloured people need to know which “tribe” they come from and celebrate it and live with the South African heritage in all its complexities.

This contribution was produced as part of a collaboration between LitNet and the University of Stellenbosch's Department of Journalism in 2013.

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  • Anthony Wilson

    Hallo Terzell Rasmus; We Coloureds are what South Africa would have been if there was no system of social engineering that was designed by evil people who thought they could place us all, God's cream of His creation, in little boxes!  Jason Lloyd, the journalist says we are Politically Black and Ethnically Coloured. I believe all South Africans are mixed - therefore Coloured! The poet Don Materra wrote in his poem "Let the children decide ..." (I hope I'm not paraphrasing because I'm doing this from memory.)  Let us halt this quibbling of racial preservation saying who belongs to which nation and let the children decide for it is THEIR world! Read his "Memory is the weapon" and "The Storyteller. Read Vernon February's "Mind your Colour"


    It is a very complex issue and WE are the ones who should find what works for us. One South African Nation is an ideal that we would like to work towards. You say you've embraced you Khoi heritage. I think this is great and you do not have to explain it to anybody. Democracy is anyway about choice!

  • Terzel Rasmus

    No matter what one's background, there will always be irreconcilable divergent stereotype perceptions regarding the same issue from different quarters, especially skin colour in this country.  Your gripe is others' perceptions regarding coloureds.   On the other hand you insinuated, without clear expression, a perception you hold of Afrikaners in your letter, thus making you also guilty of stereotype perceptions.

    I agree with Alan Wilson above where he states that basically we are all coloured.  Very few white Afrikaners are of pure blood, not mixed with especially Malay and other slave ancestory, albeit to a very small extent today, this having been largely weaned out over the course of centuries.

    Factually, the coloured community within their own midst are also biased regarding their own skin colour.  The darker skinned coloureds will emphatically state that they are ethnically coloured but politically black, whereas the light skinned coloureds  tend to hold a different viewpoint.

    The coloured will have difficulty in trying to find the different tribes to which you expect him to belong to. The Griekwas being the exception.   Looking at your picture, anthropoligically you look more to being a mixture between white, Malay, with only the hair as evidence of a sprinkling of possible Khoi.  Khoi seems to be the least of your anthropological makeup. Your Asiatic ancestery seems to predominate, and I might add, a very pretty face at that.

    Linguistically and culturally speaking, the majority of coloureds and Afrikaners belong together.  Together they must find means and ways of coming to terms with one another.

    As an aside.  My personal stereotype perceptions of persons wishing to side politically with the blacks are those who like the blacks, demand handouts without having to EARN what they have acquired.

    Jaco Fourie

  • Willem Steenkamp

    I think the main problem is, and always has been, one of unthinking group stereotypes. As far as I can see, what irritates coloureds the most is that others (whites and blacks) tend to speak of "the coloureds" without considering that they are talking about a very complex society which runs the entire political, social and economic spectrum. It is true that a majority of coloured people have Afrikaans as a home language, and have had it for three centuries (and helped to develop it, in fact). Some of them speak "Kaaps" which is sort of like a cockney version, but many others speak or spoke it in all its beauty and correctness - Adam Small, for example, and Dr Richard van der Ross, and my late friend Tony Links. A large percentage of coloured speak English - not because it is "cool", as some fools like to think , thereby tossing away their heritage - but because their families have been doing so since the 19th Century. Some coloureds are well off, some are middle and lower-middle class and others are poor. Some are law-abiding citizens and others are not. They adhere to any of a range of political parties, movements and beliefs (just like the whites, exactly). This being the case, to speak of "the coloureds" as a monolithic coherent group is absolute nonsense; it is as wrong as saying (as Malema and company are wont to do) that all whites are thieves, murderers and so forth. They are, in fact, like their cultural and sometime genealogical fellow-citizens, the Afrikaners, a unique ethno-cultural group, born and bred in and of Africa, in whose veins run a crazy mixture of blood from a large number of different nations. Logically they should honour all of these bits of heritage. The government's decision to turn them into "light blacks" is an abomination, a reversion to the ancient belief that "if you have one drop of black blood you're black". One might as well say: "If you have one drop of white blood you're white", which is equally stupid - as stupid as anyone who falls for such rubbish. Every Afrikaner and every coloured (where you can distinguish between the two) is the sum of all of his or her parts. We should all get a life.

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