race classification

Who do you think you are?

On Thursday I had to go to the Post Office for work. The clerk was very chit chatty, soon he began to stammer slightly then asked me: “Are you Indian?”, I responded (as usual), “No, I’m South African, and yes I’m asked all the time!”.

Technically I am Australian. I was born here, but growing up brown in a white Australia, I was always questioned about my nationality (which really is my ethnicity). I would say I’m Australian, then they would ask where are my parents from, I would respond with “South Africa”, which would follow with “well then you’re South African not Australian”. How come the white kids didn’t get that?

I have lost count on the number of times people assume they know what I am. In high school, a friend’s mother said to me, when I told her I’m not Indian, that “you don’t know what are!” It can be frustrating, even upsetting at times for someone to pretty much tell you that they know more about you than yourself, when they know nothing. This is the reality of being mixed race, and not just two or three races, but heavily mixed.

The flip side is that it’s a great ice-breaker/conversation starter. Depending on my mood, I will often let someone have three guesses. Nine out of ten times they’re wrong. The one out of ten are often spot on, particularly if they understand Southern African history and noticed the gold pendant of the map of Africa which I wear around my neck (well now past tense as my son lost it just before Christmas). I am always fascinated by the guesses. The top three are Indian, Sri Lankan and Persian. Other more common ones are Colombian, Brazilian, Arab and Mauritian. The more unusual have included Puerto Rican, Maori, Thai and Eritrean.

Both of my parents were classified as Cape Coloured during Apartheid. So therefore I am a Cape Coloured. According to the Population Registration Act, 1950 ““coloured person” means a person who is not a white person or a Bantu”. In Section 5 (1) and (2) distinguished the following subgroups: Cape Coloureds, Malay, Griqua, Other Coloureds, Chinese, Indians and Other Asiatics. Classification was determined according to physical appearance and social acceptability (including language).

Identity card, ID card, pass card, South Africa

My father’s South African identity card

My mother’s South African identity card

The breakdown of the different Coloured classifications is complicated (and difficult to find online). My parents and their parents were from Cape Town, hence the “Cape” Coloured classification. Another issue is people either don’t know or don’t want to talk about the past, especially the brown past. Learning about the European side of the family is very easy, but trying to find out about the brown roots is difficult, especially once you get to slave records (I haven’t been able to get that far back). You always know bits and pieces.

Due to this, the issue of racial definition in South Africa is complex. Particularly when different ethnic origins and mixes are clumped together as in the case of the Coloureds. It’s hard to explain this to people, but I can spot a Coloured a mile away and I didn’t even grow up in the country.

The impact of the racial definition of being a Coloured in post-Apartheid South Africa is also a complex subject. The documentary I’m Not Black, I’m Coloured (below) goes into a great amount of detail explaining the definition, while not comprehensive — a whole 12 part series would be the only way to do this — it does discuss the impact of being Cape Coloured in today’s South Africa and how not being white or black still plays a big part in employment and political power.