This is a black conversation.
Repeat something often enough and it becomes real. We become habituated to what we are told we are. In their obsessive need to categorise and control, the colonial and apartheid administrators differentiated between white settlers, people of Indian descent, Africans of ‘bantu extraction’ and then the hugely heterogenous other. This last group became a potpourri of people constituted by groups formally known as Indonesian and Malaysian enslaved descendants, Khoikhoi, San, Griqua, and descendants of people of ‘bi-racial’ extraction among others that didn’t fit the script of the grand race lie. So a Mpondo person whose great grandfather may have been a European shipwreck castaway but who was raised Mpondo, would be labelled coloured. An isiZulu speaking person from a KwaZulu-Natal north coast hamlet whose father was Indian but who was raised Zulu by her Zulu mother and family on a sugarcane plantation would be called coloured. This label requires forgetting and surrender to the great scheme and crime of colonial amnesia. All traces of Malaysian descent or ones lived reality as Pedi must be jettisoned in order to fit the homogeneous narrative of this place called South Africa.
In truth, most people in Southern Africa have a trace of elsewhere in their blood. But because of Afrikaner anxieties about their own mixed heritage, we were trained to valorise purity and to be suspicious of complexity. What does a pure coloured look like? What does it mean to be 100% Zulu or Tswana? Is the person of Indian descent flatly Indian after more than a century in Africa? The coloured label flattens out, divides and alienates. Sure enough, there are people who want to be called coloured. It has been their reality for too long and they have developed a culture around this nexus of identification. Many of these have been raised in the coloured ghetto. Cape Town may be the most representative of this experience. But it is not everyone’s experience. In fact, this may not be most peoples experience. What does it mean to deprive people complexity?
Tshepo Madlingozi recently suggested that all blacks including those called coloured were black Africans. He simultaneously remarked on the nonsensical label of ‘black African’. After all, why should Africans qualify their African-ness with ‘black’? In response, some ‘black Africans’ challenged this inclusion of coloured people as black African. They asserted that many coloured people that they knew did not want to be called black because coloured identification resonated most with their experience. Some said coloured people had internalised racism and hated the blackness inside of them and in others. While all of this may no doubt be true, it is not the whole story. The fuller story has many shades to it and a blanket naming and generalisation falls foul to ‘the danger of a single story’. So what should be done with this conundrum? To begin with, gender and sexuality politics have taught us the value of self-naming and the productivity of fluidity.
I am black.
But every once in a while, someone asks – “what are you?” This is a big – small question. The response could of course be long but I keep it short. “I am black”. For me, black is open, embracing, fierce, historical, nuanced, wounded, proud, vulnerable and lived. Black is open, knowing and inviting. Most people accept this response but the race police who believe in certainty and purity are sceptical. I don’t care. I know my experience more than anyone else. My blackness does not delegitimate the experience and identifications of those who want to be called coloured, Indian or Khoikhoi. They are who they say they are. Given the inexact nature of race and the contingency of identity, people might change the way they see themselves over time. And we should be open to this. Identity policing is a colonial artefact that some woke people have come to embrace wholeheartedly. Some call this embrace of the colonial – ‘coloniality’. The colonial hangover. Or the ongoing internalisation and practise of colonial values.
I generally prefer to keep away from the coloured conversation. It is fraught. The coloured identity activists and the black purists are tiring. They share an obsession with exactness and identity boxes. They have no patience for fluidity and paradox. They flatten experience and see history as a straight line. They foreclose possibilities of solidarity, relation and class consciousness. And so we can have ‘race’ wars between two impoverished communities who could better advance their cause through solidarity. In the same vein, my reading of Shireen Hassim’s latest book illustrates that we are ready to deny the seminal contributions of people like Fatima Meer to black studies because she does not fit our narrow conceptions of blackness and because some people of Indian descent are racist. Walter Sisulu is considered a great black South African. We do not split hairs about his blackness. But what would we see if we did? Writing about Frieda Mathews (partner to ZK Mathews of Fort Hare University) in the 1950s, Noni Jabavu observes that “her generation and branch of the family were partly English and Scotts; but Xhosa people have no complex about ‘miscegenation’”. Would this be true in 2019? Do we have a complex now?
I am not a race abolitionist or denialist. I am also not a rainbow nationalist. We have to do the work necessary to get out of the melancholic rut of race. We can’t do that by abolishing race. But like Zimitri Erasmus, we can certainly work to expose its lie.
There was no coloured person in southern Africa until colonial administrators decided there was. With this in mind, I end with some questions that might or might not be useful. What was lost in this naming and what was gained? By whom? How much longer do we hold on? What would decolonisation look like for how people identify? What are the implications of this for the categories presented in the census, employment equity forms, employment contracts, and the attendant discriminations and stereotyping? What happens when we assume that the person from Mannenberg, Kuruman, Mandeni and Flagstaff share the same experience and identity? What are we afraid of?
Afterword: There are paradoxes in this piece. I contradict myself because this shit is complex. Sometimes, I police identity. I too am a product of this place. But we can do better.