Commentary: Debating Coloured Identity in the Western Cape

Commentary: Debating Coloured Identity in the Western Cape

African Security Review
Volume 14, Number 4 (2005)
pages 118-119

Cheryl Hendricks, Senior Research Fellow
Security Sector Governance Programme
Institute of Security Studies, (Tshwane) Pretoria

The nature and form of coloured identity in the Western Cape has been vociferously debated. Coloured identity became a particular concern after the 1994 general elections when the coloured vote returned the National Party to the Western Cape provincial government. More recently, a spate of incidents in the Western Cape have propelled the group into the national spotlight.
Many coloureds have indicated that they feel marginalised in the post-apartheid dispensation, and are especially resentful at what they perceive to be a preferential allocation of resources to Africans in the Western Cape, when their needs are just as great. These tensions were highlighted when a group of coloureds protested against the relocation of Africans, whose informal housing had been destroyed in a fire, to a hostel in the coloured township of Bokmakkierie…

…The typical response has been to debate coloured identity. The underlying assumption is that there is something fundamentally wrong with this identity and that some ideological transformation of the bearers of the identity will resolve the problems. This type of response draws on the dominant discourse that has portrayed that identity as bureaucratically constructed and therefore deviant. The onus is then placed on coloureds to change. This is a limited response that forecloses debate on the identity, does not grapple with the larger context of identity constructions in South Africa, and does not adequately address the issues that generate conflict in the Western Cape.
We cannot have a meaningful discussion on coloured identity in isolation from other identities that shape its expression. When discussing the identity we need to take into account conceptual issues (Whom are we speaking about?), discursive issues (How has the identity been constructed? By whom? In which contexts?), and perceived power relations in South Africa…

…Who are the coloureds?

Coloureds are often identified as South Africans who are of mixed race. Since everyone is of mixed race (as there is no such thing as a pure race), the identity is ipso facto meaningless (but then so are all other racial identities presumed on the basis of authenticity or purity). However, we do not dismiss these identities because they have social meaning and material consequences. Coloureds are descendants of the sexual liaisons between colonialists, slaves and the indigenous Khoisan. This ‘mixing’ took place centuries ago and state-enforced self-reproduction has largely been the means through which the group multiplied.

However, coloureds are not simply the offspring of inter-racial liaisons. And, conversely, children of ‘mixed marriages’ do not automatically lay claim to a coloured identity. This is a complex historically located identity that stems from the processes of slavery, genocide, rape and perceived miscegenation. The identity construction has been cloaked by the perceived shame of ‘illegitimacy’ and lack of authenticity that has to a large extent psychologically disempowered the bearers of the identity. For most of the history of this community, steeped in oppression and struggles for liberation, had been erased and/or silenced by successive regimes and the group members themselves…

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