Identity politics in South Africa has always been a contentious issue. This is largely attributed to the history of oppression in this country. The Apartheid government intentionally separated “coloured” people from “black African” people. The legacy of this division is still alive in the fabric of our society despite black consciousness activists like Steve Biko fighting to undo this destructive and divisive thinking.
In my opinion, coloured people are always fighting two main battles: the battle against the coloured stereotype and the battle to be coloured and not black. So when I first came across the mini web series called Coloured Mentality, I was intrigued.
Coloured Mentality lacks nuance
As so-called coloured people we don’t talk enough about our identity and heritage. We get told stories of the Khoi, the San, slavery, the forced removals in District Six and Die Vlakte, Tweede Nuwejaar, the Klopse, Koesisters, pickled fish, and the bads (public pools). But nothing really about our history of being.
So naturally, anything that gets the coloured folks talking about it should be good. However, I was left a bit disappointed in Coloured Mentality. I don’t quite get what the authors of the web series are trying to do. If it is trying to uncover the “mentality” of so-called coloured people, then that sort of makes sense. I can work with that.
But if not, what are they trying to do? What are they trying to prove? To be quite honest, I think the web series lacks nuance. It lacks a certain depth of exploring identities. It’s somewhat of a cocktail of the two battles I mentioned earlier.
Coloured people have an obsession with not being black, as if being black is something that is dirty, ugly, and leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth. They would like being called anything but black. This thinking is the product of racial classification – the proximity to whiteness phenomenon. Within most coloured communities, light-skinned coloured people with straight hair and blue/green eyes are put on a pedestal. They are praised for their “caucasian features”.
In my opinion, coloured or being coloured is not a racial classification. The Apartheid government only did that to divide and conquer and we perpetuate the division by our insistent denial of blackness. You are either Black or White.
Coloured people and their identities within blackness
Coloured is black culture. Just like Xhosa, Zulu, Tswana, Pedi, being coloured is no different. But many South Africans fail to understand this. The reason for this, I think, is that coloured people were never given the opportunity to explore and celebrate their identities within blackness because of the racial proximity to whiteness and a possible resentment by black people.
Therefore, coloured people were forced into two categories: you were either gham (ghetto) or trying to be white, and therefore thought you were better than black people. Better because white people liked you. They employed you. But they kept you at arm’s length. They wouldn’t invite you to socialise at a dinner party or a braai, wouldn’t want their kids to go to school with yours, and complained about sharing beaches and parks.
This mentality is a tough space to get out of because there’s an illusion of it being better, and this is exacerbated by the so-called Oppression Olympics. Therefore, coloured people often feel stuck in the middle of race debates, also referred to as the zebra debate.
The Coloured Mentality episode “Is Afrikaans a White Language?” was my favourite. Language and culture are mutually inclusive and are fundamental to identity. I agree with most of the sentiments shared. Coloured people have struggled to own the language as the narrative has been dominated by white Afrikaans-speaking people for decades. I studied at Stellenbosch University, where Afrikaans enjoys a certain prestige above other languages. But this Afrikaans is the Afrikaans of Afrikanerdom not Afrikaaps that a majority of the coloured population speak. It’s time coloured people demand ownership of their language. Coloured Afrikaans speakers should no longer be used as the smokescreens for language policy debates at former white public institutions of higher learning.
My other critique of the web series is that it focuses largely on people of influence on radio, television and sports. This means that ordinary folks who identify as coloured only have the opportunity to engage with the material once it has already been published. In the sphere of identity politics, we know that people and opinions are easily influenced and swayed.
I think a greater effort could have been done to talk to the everyday coloured folk in the Cape Flats to get a holistic opinion on the subject matter. I expected the authors to do better. I came across a quote that is quite appropriate for this : “You don’t have to be a voice for the voiceless, just pass the mic.”
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