A tangled web of race classification

Posted on October 30, 2011


South Africa’s 2011 census, bar the tallying, the number crunching and a few follow-ups, is over.  And there were remarkably few difficulties encountered although, being South Africa, the question of race was once again raised — and it highlighted some peculiarly South African problems.

Race has always been a contentious issue, and not just in South Africa.  It is a specious and unscientific category that appears on official forms in many parts of the world and is justly rejected by most aware and thinking people.

This is understandable.  After going into exile from South Africa in 1965, I refused to answer such questions on any forms in the expected manner, always writing “human”.

This often went unnoticed or, when it was spotted, resulted in sometimes angry exchanges with officialdom.  These usually ended up with an official penning whatever was considered acceptable by that particular jurisdiction.  I remember, once, it was “white/other” which I suppose was a distinction from “white/European” or, perhaps, “white/American”.

Arguments that I could scarcely be classified “European” since I was born in South Africa and that my ancestors on my mother’s side had settled on the continent in 1688, tended to be listened to — and then ignored.  Suggested compromises such as “caucasian” only seemed to have meaning to people from north America.  European officialdom would have none of it.

Racism underlay these questions, along with the expected responses;  a racism deeply ingrained and probably having its roots in colonialism and the slave trade.  So it was, I think, correct to resist them.

But it was not correct — as so many callers to local radio stations claimed — that it was right to resist the race question in the current census.   The question in this context, is justified because of the country’s recent and deeply divided history, based on classifications according to “race”.

In order to understand how and to what degree, communities that were historically disadvantaged or advantaged on the basis of racial classification, are melding into one community, the race question has to be posed.  But, in the domestic context, it does raise an awkward — and peculiarly South African — problem.

It was a problem that began with the determination by the former apartheid government to register every person in South Africa according to “race”. This was a rigid “racial” hierarchy with a “white” classification at the top, followed by “coloured” (of mixed origin), “Indian/Asian” and “black” at the bottom.

It was this that led to the notorious “pencil test” whereby a pencil was pushed into the hair of a curly-haired, dark skinned person to assess whether the person was “coloured” or “black”. If the pencil inserted by an official, was retained by the tightness of the curls in the hair, the subject was “black”. This applied especially in the Western Cape, scene of the early settlement by people from Europe and to which slaves from the East Indies were imported. The majority of people once classified “coloured” still live in this region.

In the case of those who should be classified as “coloured” or “white” it largely boiled down to appearance, skin tone and whether neighbours and workmates regarded an individual and his or her family as “white”. So a number of “coloured” families tried for, or succeeded, in becoming “white”, often after moving away from their relatives.

It may not, in the final analysis, be regarded as statistically significant, but how, for example, does one classify a family that fled from its “coloured” roots in Cape Town 50 or more years ago, to be registered in Johannesburg, 1,600km to the north, as “white”?  Especially when, after the new dispensation, the “white” branch returns to the Cape to be reunited with the “coloured” family left behind decades ago?

The same applies to “coloured” individuals possessing the then favoured pigmenation who turned their backs on family, friends and backgrounds to seek a new life amid the advantaged minority.  A number of such men and women then married into established “white” families and, in some cases, became devout supporters of apartheid and “white” domination.

Can these people now claim to be “coloured”, part of an historically disadvantaged community?  By the rules as they now exist, they may certainly do so.  Because the census form does not ask what their classification was before the new, non-racist dispensation.

The people involved in this opportunistic change of classification were not the “play whites”, those individuals of lighter complexion who managed to go to “whites only” bars, restaurants and cinemas, only to have to sneak back to their homes and families in “coloured” areas.  Those who moved north were individuals and families  — or, tragically, sometimes only parts of families — that managed to have themselves classified “white” by the apartheid regime.

In several documented cases, families fleeing classification as “coloured” left behind, in the care of relatives, children of darker complexion who remained part of the “coloured” community.  As a result, all contact with lighter complexioned siblings and parents was lost until apartheid disappeared.  In some cases, there was no reconciliation even after 1994.

That there is considerable anger within the coloured community about those who sought and gained “white” classification is understandable.  They were people who turned their backs on their families and fellows in order to become part of an advantaged minority.  However, there is also an acknowledgement that, given the opportunity of a better life for self and family, such a course may have been justified.

But a new complication has now arisen that also shows up the nonsense of racial classification.  The genome project made it possible for individuals to have their DNA tested to discover where their maternal ancestors came from.  As a result, several formerly “white” families have discovered that they have “non-white” ancestry and that, in terms of the apartheid definition, they are “coloured”.

This has economic implications — let alone the assessment of the census.  Do newly, genome-defined, “coloureds” now qualify for preferential treatment under Black Economic Empowerment policies designed to uplift the previously disadvantaged?

It’s a very South African question — and problem.  But almost certainly not statistically significant enough to skew the census although it may have some implications in the business sphere.

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