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Mandela death prompts soul-searching among ‘coloureds’ in racial limbo

As the nation mourns its first black president, many Cape coloureds are ambivalent about where their loyalties lie

When Linda Orderson was 17 years old, the apartheid regime forced her to make an agonising choice: be “coloured” and live in poverty, or enjoy the privileges of being “white”, and live apart from the rest of her family.

“I could have played white. My best friend went for white, and she advised me, ‘Go for white, you’ll be better off’,” said Linda, whose mixed race ancestry gave her milky skin and green eyes. Her four siblings, all darker skinned with brown eyes, were classified as “coloured”.

Linda chose coloured.

Often simplified into a struggle between a repressive white minority and oppressed black majority, apartheid’s rigid and sometimes contradictory racist classifications struggled with fluid identities – especially in the Western Cape, where centuries of settlers, slavery and immigration washed a tangle of ethnicities on to the country’s southern shores.

As the nation mourns Nelson Mandela, whose decades of struggle helped dismantle apartheid, many Cape coloureds are ambivalent about where their loyalties lie.

“Apartheid was worse for blacks, it’s true. But after everything we coloureds did to help [Mandela’s party] the ANC, they only care about their own people. I spent time in prison for the struggle, and I can’t see anything is better for us coloureds today,” said former dock worker Lofty, 64.

Cape coloureds like Linda and Lofty were originally descended from the mixing of white Afrikaner settlers and the sand-coloured Khoisan they conquered. Later intermingling with many other ethnic groups, they form a majority here, blurring the lines between distinct black, white, Malay and Indian racial groupings.

As a child growing up in Cape Town’s impoverished District 6, Linda had not been aware of discriminatory partitioning. “All of us had the same horrible rotting floorboards in our houses. But we never had any of those [whites only] signs in my street. On our street Africans mixed with Europeans,” she said, using the terms assigned to blacks and whites under apartheid.

Then, in 1966, the prime land in the heart of the city was declared a “white group area”. Bulldozers razed the ramshackle houses so whites could move in. Today, cramped black and coloured townships on either side of the palm-studded valley are an enduring and stark reminder of persistent informal apartheid.

“I doubt my friend who chose to be white is now sharing a house in a ghetto with grandchildren, but I’m happy here,” said Linda, as two hyperactive dogs and dozens of grandchildren of varying shades of butterscotch darted around the wooden shack where she was relocated.

It was one of the many injustices Mandela sought to end. But Cape coloureds, who had also enjoyed some privileges under apartheid, feared being cast alongside white nationalists at the advent of democracy in 1994, and overwhelmingly voted for the white Afrikaans nationalists who for decades had also oppressed them.

Part of the appeal was a shared language. In Lofty’s township of Valhala Park, almost everybody was raised speaking a creole version of Afrikaans. Black opposition to Afrikaans as “the language of the oppressor” triggered the 1976 Soweto uprising, during which the white minority government gunned down almost three dozen unarmed students.

At that point, Lofty joined the armed wing of the ANC. He had already felt embittered after his eldest sister, Lilian, underwent the notorious “pencil test”. When she shook her head, the pencil fell through, indicating an absence of kinky black hair. Lilian officially became white.

“She didn’t want to be seen walking down the street with us because then people would say, oh, she’s not really white, she’s coloured,” he said, the pain still clear in his voice decades later.

Today Lofty feels betrayed by the ANC, who he says have been too focused on blacks with clear clan lineages.

The racial limbo coloureds suffered under apartheid continues. For many, Mandela’s death has prompted painful soul-searching.

Doreen Coetzee’s caramel skin allowed her to migrate from black to coloured. “I wanted to be coloured so I could get a job, but it was very hard on my [black] mother. She couldn’t even sit next to me on the bus,” said Doreen, struggling to hold back tears. “It’s going to take lifetimes to make peace with the damage that kind of thinking did.”

Every day this week, she has laid yellow flowers in the square where Mandela gave his first speech after being released from prison.

At least for one week, the “mother city” was transformed into the rainbow city it aspires to become.

Fingernails painted the bright yellow and green colours of the ANC, 19-year-old Siphokazi from the black township of Delft whistled and cheered raucously when Francois Pienaar, the white Afrikaans ex-rugby captain whom Mandela famously hugged, took to the podium during an official memorial ceremony.

Nearby sat Louisa Power, a white designer, with her adopted black daughter. “When she was still in her pram, people would come up to me and say, you can dress her up as pretty as you like but she’s still a kaffir. We’ve come here to put all that aside today,” she said, as three-year-old Alba Blossom clapped her hands to a rousing rendition of My African Dream.

Monica Mark in Cape Town

De The Guardian, 14/12/2013.

Posted in Português.

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