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In The Spirit Of The Nation In The Making

The development of non-racialism in the coloured community was repeatedly derailed by shifts in government policy: after first alienating coloureds through disenfranchisement and the relentless Group Areas Act removals of the 1950s to mid-1960s, over the next decade the regime renewed its emphasis on the 'coloured preference' policies aimed at undermining coloured-African relations and incorporating coloured 'moderates' into the middle level of the apartheid hierarchy. 

“When I was younger there was a kind of striving towards whiteness. Some of my forebears were whites so we tend to look a lot like whites, and there was quite an issue in the family because so many relatives had applied for reclassification. So whiteness was something that was sought after, very basic notions like what your hair looked like and were you fair, etc. being things that actually mattered within the coloured community at that point in time. Some of our relatives succeeded in being reclassified, but it had never been on in our family.

Did you know these whites in your family's background or was that many generations back?

The strange thing is that when the generation before me related stories about our forebears the whites were remembered, but I haven't been able to trace my black roots as yet. That's the kind of emphasis that's always been there.

How did you first hear about the historical political organizations?

There was somebody in our community, Toufie Bardien, a taxi driver who had been banned for some fifteen years, and he'd been active in the Coloured People's Congress. I tuned me a copy of the Freedom Charter in the early '70s — that was my first kind of exposure.

How did you respond?

I think my first response to the way in which the Congress Alliance had organized was that it made perfect sense, given the extent to which areas had been segregated and that people lead entirely separate lives — the cultural divisions which do obtain and were further entrenched by the pass laws. But I'd say the period between 1970 and 1976 was a very hazy and mixed-up period for me. Given all my early experiences about some members of the family, having tried for white and some actually having succeeded, there was that difficulty in trying to define how coloureds relate to a South African context: were we a buffer group? Were we part of the solution? Were we part of the problem?”

TREVOR MANUEL, UDF Western Cape executive member

An important legacy of the Black Consciousness era in the coloured community was the emergence of a qualifier that preceded references to the word 'coloured': ‘so-called'. It was enunciated with an inflection of disdain that conveyed the mandatory inverted commas — often people would motion in the air with two fingers of each hand.

“I think it was in 1979 when I first heard 'so-called coloured'. To me, it was rather fascinating, because at school quite a number of students used to ask, ‘What is a coloured?' You know, 'Explain a coloured.' In my family we have one brother who looks like a Chinese, my one brother looks like a so-called Indian, my one brother looks like a white, and we have one brother who is dark of complexion. So we always used to call one another, 'You, "China", you, "coolie", you "swartskaap " ' [black sheep] — that's why we say 'so-called' coloureds.

I come from a community which is very stratified, in the sense that there's a line dividing the sub-economical houses from the others, and therefore people used to call each other the 'high bucks' and the ‘low bucks'. I realized afterwards that it is a class struggle as well, because some people were living worse off than what other people were living. Like people that's living bad in Riverlea, we have no hot water, no electricity, very small rooms and very crowded places. And that, to me, is just like a link that we are no different — South Africa is our country and we are African people, and the word 'coloured' means nothing to me. It has no meaning at all.”

PATRICK FLUSK, Anti-President's Council committeei member from Johannesburg's coloured township of Riverlea

Others, however, refused to negate their 'colouredness' by attaching ‘so-called' to the term.

I have noticed now in speeches, articles, interviews, etc. in Sechaba that I am called a 'so-called Coloured' (sometimes with a small 'c'). When did the Congress decide to call me this? In South Africa I was active in the Congress Alliance and was a member of the Coloured People's Congress, not the 'so-called Coloured People's Congress'. When we worked for Congress of the People and the Freedom Charter we sang, 'We the coloured people, we must struggle to exist ...' I remember in those times some people of the so-called Unity Movement referred to so-called Coloured people, but not our Congress. 

Comrade Editor, I am confused. I need clarification. It makes me feel like a 'so-called' human, like a humanoid, those things who have all the characteristics of human beings but are really artificial. Other minority people are not called 'so-called'. Why me? It must be the 'curse of Ham'. In the meantime, I remain, respectfuly,


Capie (Alex La Guma)

Editor's note:

As far as I can remember, there is no decision taken in our movement to change from 'Coloured' to 'so-called coloured'. All I know is that people at home have been increasingly using the term 'so-called coloureds'. I suspect that what you have noticed is a reflection of this development.

Not long ago, Sechaba said: 'It is not enough to say the so-called coloureds or to put the word coloureds in inverted commas. A positive approach to this problem needs to be worked out because we are dealing w. h a group of people who are identifiable and distinguishable.' In other words, a discussion on this issue is necessary, and I think your letter may just well be a starting point for such a discussion. 

Letter to the editor of SECHABA, June 1984  


The mass of young people, after and during the 1976 national youth uprising, more and more questioned apartheid terminology, not as ethnologists or professors of anthropology, but rather as hurt and confused human beings sick to death of manipulation by those who had set themselves up as their white masters. The term 'so-called coloured' was commonly used amongst the youth in popular expression of rejection of apartheid terminology.

I am in full agreement with what was said in Sechaba, but would add that it would be equally wrong to accept the term coloured. Coloured is a term which cries of lack of identity. The term was fundamental to the racist myth of the pure white Afrikaner; to accept the term is to allow the myth to carry on. Today people are saying, 'We reject the racists' terminology,' and are beginning to build the new in defiance of the old, right in the midst of the enemy. We should see the prefix 'so-called' as the first step in coming towards a solution of something which has been a scourge for years. We have got to move on from the term 'so-called coloured' in a positive way. People are now saying that we have the choice of what we will be called, and most, in the spirit of the nation in the making, opt for 'South African'. If one really needs a sub-identity to that of being a South African, maybe through popular debate the question could be sorted out.

Yours in the struggle,

Mayibuye i Afrika!

Letter to the editor of SECHABA, August 1984 


 “This reference to 'so-called' coloured was a contradiction, because you never thought of yourself as a so-called coloured — you thought of yourself as a coloured. The community was completely suspended between the blacks and the whites. My only memories of blacks were of the bogeyman who was going to catch you at night: Tie boetie kom jou tang kom slaap.' I had no contact with black people, and what was amazing is that on the other side of the road were the Langa [African workers'] hostels. People ask me what is apartheid all about — this is what apartheid is: to have people living on the other side of the road or the railway line or the hill, and not to have any kind of human contact or recognize the person on the other side as a human being.

I mean, BC had some very primitive and very bare ideas, quite simplistic, about the differences in the levels of oppression: no, coloureds aren't different from blacks — you're either pregnant or you're not pregnant. Whether you're three months pregnant or nine months pregnant is not the point, so whether you're oppressed to this degree or whether you're oppressed to that degree, it's not the point. But the reality of the Indians is also different from the reality of the blacks, and the coloureds are different from the Indians, so why should the coloureds and Indians be a part of the black community? My social experience does not give any kind of credibility to the idea that the coloureds regarded themselves as a part of the black community. It's one of the most bizarre communities in the world, the coloured community — a community in limbo.

Of course, now people don't have any qualms about using the term ‘coloured'. I think that the last few years have really brought the coloured community a very, very long way in moving towards a recognition that our destiny is tied up with the rest of the people of South Africa. The fact that the coloureds see Nelson Mandela as a leader, this would have been unbelievable ten years ago — certainly for the Muslim community. You see, Muslims' sense of race has been tainted by a religious arrogance, which is also characteristic of a minority ethos. It is Congress that has moved people.

When you refer to 'Congress; you mean the ANC now, not the Coloured People's Congress of the 1950s?

The Coloured People's Congress is never mentioned: now that's very significant. We have a sense of embarrassment about it. We really feel uncomfortable about the fact that there was actually a time when the coloured people called themselves 'coloured', and we're ashamed of it. Politically, ideologically, we ought to be supporting that idea for that time, but no, we gloss over the idea that our people did actually organize as a separate community. The Indian Congress is legitimately a part of the tradition of the Indian people, but the Coloured People's Congress is not a part of the tradition of the coloured people. You didn't have a Gandhi in the coloured community. It's a tragedy that you actually have a whole community without any traditions, without any folk heroes.”

, founder member of the UDF
-affiliated Call of Islam

In the coloured community the tradition of non-racialism had thrived among organized workers,iii but the vacuum left by SACTU's demise was not filled for another decade. By then the conservative unions had so successfully depoliticized their coloured membersiv that even the independent non-racial trade unions of the late 1970s were daunted by the challenge of organizing coloured and African workers together. Thus it was not workers but the coloured youth that led a political reawakening of their community, first joining in the 1976 Soweto-inspired student uprisings, then taking the lead in a wave of school boycotts that emanated from the Western Cape in 1980. These coloured students cemented the most enduring alliance to date with their African peers.

Witnesses who had given a great deal of thought to the matter gave the sense of solidarity with Soweto as the main cause of the riots, and explained why the Coloured, who used to be closer to the White man than the Black man, had changed to the extent that he was prepared to regard the Black man as his comrade in distress and to continue the struggle for improvement with him.

The Coloured community has been caused pain and suffering by institutions such as race classification, group areas and even separate universities. This classification is humiliating; they reject not only the word ‘coloured', but also the idea of a separate Coloured identity, and ‘Non-White' is unacceptable because it is a negative definition in the language of a dominant White group.

As a result of the unnatural separation of population groups forced upon them by the White Government, the view gained ground that the White man had rejected the Coloured as a friend and fellow citizen. The attraction felt earlier gave way to resentment, frustration and aversion. The Coloured then turned anti-White and took a closer look at the various facets of the Black man's struggle. He joined up with the Black community so as to remove his grievances and obtain his rights through concerted action.

Other witnesses traced a shorter course. According to them, dissatisfied Coloureds had sensed an uneasiness among Whites about the rise of the Black man and had found a new comrade-in-arms in the Black man. To this may be added that the Coloured might well have thought that the Black man was gaining the upper hand and would rule the White man; for this reason, he had joined up with the Black man.

Report of the State Commission of Inquiry into the Riots at Soweto and Elsewhere from 16 June 1976 to 20 February 1977


The boycott has deliberately been made a coloured issue by the ruling class newspapers and television. To attempt to solve the problem of coloured education is not enough. From Mamelodi to Manenberg, from Rylands to Riviersonderend,students taught under Coloured Affairs, Bantu Affairs and Indian Affairs have come out together in the boycott. In spite of the deliberate tribalism fed into our brains, we realize that our inequalities spring from the same root causes and that we are not Bantus, Coloureds or Indians, we are human beings. Power to the People! Amandla Ngawethu! Alle Mag Aan Die Mense!vi

‘Manifesto of the Committee of 81’, 14 May 1980 (statement of the students who coordinated the school boycotts) 


“The interesting thing is that at first I didn't understand why the coloured students were also boycotting. I was a prefect at school at that time, and one day I was walking in town and I met this African fellow, you see, and he called me. That was the time when these type of questions came up — the role of the prefects at school and the way they are seen as being superior to other students, doing the dirty work of the principals and the authorities, maintaining discipline — questions that I couldn't give answers to. Because that was the first time I was actually made to think about these things. The boycott made me see that the whole education system was unequal.

All those questions were thrown at me and that made me realize that I mustn't just see this thing in terms of a coloured issue, but that it affects us all in the country, with these divisions that's been created between the coloureds and the African people and the Indians and the whites. I think the coloured community has been very affected. They've developed that consciousness of being separate, because you find that the coloured people are more privileged than the African people. And then again the Indians were a little bit more privileged than the coloureds. There's that whole point of co-opting the people in that way, having more privileges, somehow a sense that you've got more to lose.”

PRESTON GESWINT, a secondary school student in Port Elizabeth during the 1980 school boycotts 


“I think the coloured community is a really racist community, so I had a sort of fear for the African people. But also, although I had that fear for the Africans, in a way I sympathized with their oppression, and somehow I just knew that what was happening to them was wrong. Because I came from a poor community I could always sympathize with poor people, and the Africans being the poorest people, I could, in a way, associate with them.

How did you move from that fear and sympathy to feeling equal?

My idea of my fellow South Africans changed from 1983. I attended the COSAS Annual General Meeting in Durban in 1983, and I came into contact with various African people and I spoke to them and I learned about them as people — not as politicals or revolutionaries or whatever, but I learned to know them as people who perhaps had the same longings that I had. And I think that contributed to the acceptance of the Africans as my brothers.

What was it like, those first conversations with African people at the conference?

To tell the truth, I was actually afraid, because at the COSAS conference we sang political songs. In fact, that was the first time when I heard such militant songs being sung, and I was actually afraid. Because in the history books they've always taught us that the Africans, they invited Piet Retief there and they sang and danced with him and afterwards they murdered him.vii So that image drew up in me of how you think they are friendly and all of a sudden they would murder you. So when we had that intense atmosphere in that hall I was getting afraid of it, but as the days passed I learnt to fit myself into that atmosphere.”

PETER WILLIAMS, a Cape Town student who was still in primary school during the 1976 and 1980 student uprisings

This newly fortified solidarity across racial lines prepared the ground for the campaign against government efforts to woo coloureds and Indians with its reforms. Opposition coalesced around censure of the Labour Party's decision to participate in the 1984 tricameral elections, and was mobilized by UDF affiliates like the Cape Areas Housing Action Committee (CAHAC) and the UWO.

“People were initially saying, ‘Now, let's see what the coloureds are going to do.’ On a large scale, under the banner of the UDF, people mobilized around that, and it gave us an opportunity to speak to different kinds of people. And I think it wasn't strange for an African woman to go into Bonteheuwel [coloured area] and knock on the door and speak to the person about the antielection campaign and ask her to sign the UDF declaration. And in the same way, lots of coloured people went into Crossroads [African shanty-town].

I think that struggle proved our principled position on non-racialism. The oppressed — the black oppressed, including the Africans, coloureds and Indians — had a chance to show that they are united. I think that struggle in itself was a breakthrough. I mean, the African comrades were there at the polling station — everybody was excited to see whether our work in the anti-election campaign bore fruits. And it wasn't a coloured struggle — we tried throughout to project it as a non-racial struggle. One demand was clear in the anti-election campaign: what we are fighting for is a non-racial South Africa. We are being offered the vote, but what about the majority of the people who are denied the vote? And that was the theme that ran throughout.”

, who canvassed for the anti-election campaign not only in the coloured community, but in African, white and Indian areas of the Western Cape
as well


 “Do you think that non-racialism is now widely accepted in the African areas of the Western Cape? 

I think so, because of the experience. Like from '76, when coloured schools went out in support of the African schools, that started to educate people from the African townships that we are all black. Even now, the government announced that it is going to move all African townships into Khayalitsha, and then put coloureds in all these established townships like Langa, Nyanga, Gugulethu. The government wanted a fight between so-called coloureds and the Africans, but the coloured people were saying,

‘We're not moving, we're not moving to Gugulethu, Nyanga and Langa — black people stay there. Build more houses for us — and for Africans!' That helped in educating the people.”

NOMA-INDIA MFEKETO, a UWO founder member

While the national media focus tended to be on Western Cape politics, coloureds all over the country spurned the government's 'reforms' and demanded non-racial democracy — in ways as diverse as their differing regional experiences.

“It was only after the tricameral elections that we started getting involved in political education and began to find out why we needed a coloured organization. We thought that it's important that we take people from where they are to a stage of understanding of why we need to practise non-racialism. I think that if the UDF wasn't there we'd have problems in defending our stand, because we always argue that we are all UDF — it's non-racial, it's Charterist, and we support that. In fact, most people don't see us as the United Committee of Concern — they see us straight as UDF.

With the difference in conditions between the Indians and coloureds, the types of struggles we get involved in is very different, how we organize them is quite different, and people's reactions in the two different communities is quite different also. African people are almost naturally conscientized by virtue of their repression — it's not the same with coloureds and Indians, definitely not.

People in the Cape would disagree very seriously with how we operate. I meet with them and I always argue it: I say you can never relate the conditions from the Western Cape to Natal or the Transvaal. Cape Town is largely coloured, they've got over two million coloureds there. The Indians are in the minority there, and even Africans are in the minority to the coloured people.

Western Cape has years and years of political experience, but we don't have it in Natal. Our people are very conservative. The only type of Africans that coloured people meet are the ones who pick pockets and fight, so they [coloureds] can be quite racist as a result. The difference between coloured and Indian has been very sharp in the Durban area. If you saw an Indian guy with a coloured girl, or vice versa, there would be lots of fights taking place.

It's the system that exploits the differences between people. They spend more on Indians than they do on coloureds, and Natal being more Indian-orientated as such — only about two or three per cent of the coloureds of South Africa are in Natal— the coloureds see themselves being exploited by Indian people.

Now the problem would be that the coloureds are exposed only to the Indian who owns the businesses in Grey Street, or Indians who come to their discos all flashy. They're not exposed to people deep within, say, Phoenix or Chatsworth, to some of the Indians who are suffering. They pick up anti-Indian vibes, you can see it all the time, and you actually have to explain to people how apartheid is ensuring that these differences exist.

One is always conscious of race in South Africa, because of the Group Areas Act. It's essential to the government's policy that that is the case. I think that people might begin to realize that we can actually live together, and once the people can see that, they will see less differences between each other and will begin to stand more united. And when people stand united, the government's got problems.”

, founder member of the United Committee of Concern (UCC), a UDF affiliate in Natal's coloured community 

In the towns of South Africa the segregation of the different race groups into discrete Group Areas was largely successful,ix but in the rural areas it has proved more difficult to effect such rigid separation.

"There was no real contact at certain stages between the coloured people and the African people. But as time went on, because the African people had to come through to Bridgton [coloured township] to go to town, we restored the old type of relationship that existed, and so we were not fighting any more. I think they were more the better-off type of African people that lived there, and our families would share, and I think that that broke the type of thing that was created through our separate schools. Our parents, I think, played a very important role in relating to us also that these are not our enemies, these people are undergoing the same thing that we are undergoing, and that's why I think that we came together again. Gradually the bonds were restored. 

We have been able to form youth congresses with people from both areas, coloured and African. Every organization in Oudtshoorn is non-racial.

African and coloured people have been working together, hand in hand. The youth basically broke down that fear, through their interaction all the time in community organizations.

Do people in the Oudtshoorn coloured community ever ask you what it will be like in the future under a non-racial government? 

People ask me that regularly. People ask me, 'Don't you think that because we are treated as a buffer group by the system now that the African communities would do the same thing in the future?' My response to that is that we are talldng about liberating ourselves from those evils that have been practised by the system. This system has used every possible means to dominate, whereas in our organizations today, in everything that we do, we don't have any colour bar. Let's take the UDF: we have a lot of coloured people on the national executive committee, we even have white people. On the ANC executive there are people of all kinds of groupings.

Do you do all your politicizing in Afrikaans?

Basically, and the Charter has also been translated into very beautiful Afrikaans because particularly the older people is not that good in English. They speak either Afrikaans or Xhosa. Most of the youth, they speak English, except for the youth that have not been to school.

Did you ever go through a stage where you felt that Afrikaans was `the language of the oppressor'?

I think that many people went through that stage, but I'm only basing my politics on realities, and it is the reality that a lot of people, particularly coloured people, do speak Afrikaans. I think that it'd be totally unfair of anybody to come afterwards and say that Afrikaans has to be ruled out because of the fact that it was the medium through which our people were dominated and oppressed. I feel that Afrikaans is a beautiful language, and I feel that, particularly in the Cape Province, there is certain words, there is certain phrases in Afrikaans that cannot be said in English. It's beautiful, it's the language of the klonkies, the coons, the carnivals.x

Do you call yourself a 'so-called coloured'?

That's a difficult one. I don't have any problems about whatever people call me. It's no big deal."

REGGIE OLIPHANT, community activist in Oudtshoorn, in the Southern Cape



None of the UDF-affiliated groupings in the coloured communities use the term 'coloured' in their names; thus the Transvaal's `Anti-PC' refers to the refusal of the coloured (and Indian) community to be co-opted onto the President's Council. Established in 1980 in an effort to simulate power-sharing' while perpetuating white domination, the council consisted of government-appointed whites, coloureds and Indians — but no Africans.

ii A Biblical reference from the Book of Genesis to the curse Noah put on his son, Ham, for mocking his drunken father: that Ham and his descendants were to be enslaved, thus condemned to serve as 'hewers of wood and drawers of water'. In one of the crudest forms of racist reinterpretation of the Scriptures, South African Dutch Reformed Church theologians argued that the 'Hamitic curse' had predestined black people to a lowly status, while Afrikaners were likened to the 'Chosen People' of Israel.

iii Non-racialism has also thrived among a certain politicized sector of sports enthusiasts. The South African Council on Sport (SACOS) claimed a commitment to non-racialism from its inception in 1973, and made an important contribution to the popularization of its Unity Movement-inspired understanding of non-racialism. The fact that its membership remained largely confined to the coloured and Indian community, together with its steadfast adherence to the principles of non-alignment and non-collaboration, led to its threatened marginalization and ultimate eclipse by a new pressure group formed in 1989, the UDF-aligned National Sports Congress.

iv Since the Coloured Labour Preference Policy had mainly benefited skilled and educated coloureds, the management-aligned garment workers and public service unions were able to capitalize on exacerbated class divisions, resulting in a decline in progressive trade unionism and the further estrangement of coloured and African workers.

Respectively, African, coloured, Indian and coloured living areas of Cape Town.

vi Translation of the popular slogan into Zulu and Afrikaans. It should be noted that Afrikaans is spoken by more blacks than whites, for in the coloured community English is largely confined to the middle class and educated elites.

vii A reference to the encounter between the Natal Boer leader and the Zulu King in 1838, in which Dingane ordered the Zulu armies to execute the Boers (see Chapter 8, note 2). The incident gained mythic proportions in the work of Afrikaner nationalist historians who ignored the violent Boer invasion that provoked Dingane's response and the countless other amicable encounters between Africans and frontier whites.

viii Lineage in Natal's small coloured community is sometimes directly traceable to prominent English settlers. The 'Dunn's Descendants Association' of nineteenth-century trader John Dunn's progeny numbers some 5,000 in the Mangete area of Zululand.

ix However, by the late 1980s even segregation in the urban areas was breaking down. Johannesburg's Hillbrow, for example, had become a 'grey area' housing blacks as well as whites.

References to the coloured working-class culture of the Western Cape 'Coon Carnival', an annual post-New Year celebration featuring crazily costumed revellers parading through the streets.


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