SA's racial complexity

Eckart Schumann says issue is not simply one of black and white


In the last census it was left to individuals to racially categorize themselves, i.e. race was specified as ‘self-identifying’. People could classify themselves as they saw fit.

So if you wanted to be black, you could be black.

If you wanted to be white, you could be white.

If you wanted to be coloured, you could be coloured.

If you wanted to be Indian/Asian, you could be Indian/Asian.

Of course, if you thought skin colour had nothing to do with who you are, then you could also be ‘Other’.

This idea to get people to racially classify themselves is not surprising, since it is not something which is at all obvious. The authorities saw the mess that ensued when the National Party government tried to specify who belonged to which race group and decided that they wanted nothing to do with it.

It is true that the race of a person does not make them in any way ‘different’, and there is nothing that defines a person’s race apart from a perception. To quote Professor Barney Pityana when he spoke recently in Port Elizabeth: ‘race is an artificial construct that should not play a role in our country’s future’.

Nonetheless, it doesn’t take much insight to realise that race still plays a very important part in the South African situation, primarily because politicians and others who can benefit from it ensure that it remains firmly in the limelight. Interestingly, surveys routinely reveal that less than 5% of all South Africans polled perceive racism as a major problem in the country.

It requires a brief look at history to understand where we all come from and how we fit into the African and South African situation. In particular it soon becomes apparent that the continent has as much diversity as any other place on our planet – there is no cultural, ethnic, religious, racial or other characteristic that can define a person as an ‘African’. Certainly the people of north Africa have a greater association with southern Europe and the middle East than they have with sub-Saharan Africa. Think of the Pharaohs, the Moors, Phoenicians, Carthage, the Arab slave trade (originally into Europe, and then later across the Sahara desert) etc.

The Arab slave trade carried on down the east coast of Africa, and as we now know, there was contact with the peoples of India, China and the middle-East for many centuries before the Europeans came. Finds of Arabian pottery in southern Mozambique date from 1500 years ago and ninth century glass beads have been found in South Africa. From the tenth century there was an increasing involvement of southern African communities with the wider world.

From around 1 100 years ago the Shashe-Limpopo basin, where Botswana, Zimbabwe and SA now conjoin, emerged as a major player in the networks that brought in beads and cloth in exchange for ivory, gold and other produce. Arab writings reveal that skins and ivory were well known exports from southern Africa at that time. Different pottery attests to the influence of different peoples in a complex socio-political environment in the region.

Mapungubwe flourished for more than a century from around 1220, with extensive signs of trade through the East African coast. People of different cultural and economic backgrounds were involved – most were Bantu-speaking, but also included the San. Chinese ceramics have also been found there.

Later, a group moved farther inland to the Tsodilo Hills in eastern Botswana, and around 1300 Greater Zimbabwe became the major centre of political power; it could offer traders gold and ivory, as well as copper from northern Zimbabwe and tin from Limpopo. Its contacts also extended north into modern Tanzania, and it was important that there was a  successful agricultural economy to support the sizeable population.

Quite clearly over these many centuries people from many different regions of the world would have mixed their genes.

After the early Portuguese explorations, by the 1600’s there were a sizeable number of ships passing around the Cape. In 1631 one of the Khoena, Autshumao of the Goringhaicona, established a prosperous village for business with the English. He travelled to South East Asia and lived in Jakarta for around a year, wearing European clothes, and learning much about the Europeans and South East Asians. Over time Autshumao learnt enough English, Dutch, French and Portuguese-Melayu to get by in conversing with the full range of travellers passing the Cape.

Jan van Riebeeck, an official of the Dutch East India Company recalled from Vietnam for stealing from the company, persuaded his superiors that he could redeem himself by starting a refreshment station at the Cape. He landed in 1652, and after being welcomed by Autshumao he later dispossessed the Khoena of their land. The young niece of Autshumao, Eva Krotoa, was taken in by the van Riebeeck family and later became an interpreter and go-between for the two communities. In 1664 Eva married a Danish surgeon by the name of Peter Havgard, called Pieter van Meerhof by the Dutch. After Eva’s death in 1674 two of her children were taken to the penal colony of Mauritius, where one, Pieternella, married Daniel Zaaijman, a vegetable farmer from Vlissingen.

The family then moved to Batavia, from where they later returned to South Africa. They intermarried with many South African families – Barendse, Basson, de Villiers, du Plooy, Geldenhuys, Louw, van Jaarsveld, van Niekerk, Zaaiman and others. In 1679 Simon van der Stel became the first Mauritius-born 'coloured' Commander of the DEIC at the Cape.

Another interesting case is that of Stephanus Johannes Paulus Kruger, or Paul Kruger, President of the South African Republic from 1883 to 1900. He was descended from Catharina van Bengale, also known as Groote Catrijn, a slave from Bengale on the Coromandel Coast of India. Paul Kruger played a leading role in trying to prevent Britain from colonising the then South African Republic.

The conflict later led to the emergence of a strong Afrikaner nationalism, which eventually culminated in a racial minority government foisting apartheid on South Africa. Of interest is the fact that many of its supporters would not have passed the test for their own ‘whiteness’; it was just the perception that they and their society had of themselves. Nonetheless, it is a delicious irony of history that one of the architects of apartheid, DF Malan, unveiled the statue of a descendant of a slave in the main square (Kerkplein) of our capital city, Pretoria, in honour of ‘die volk’.

There are also a number of stories where Europeans have been accepted into local communities. As an example, in the 1730’s Bessie, a seven-year old survivor of a shipwreck on the Transkei coast was accepted by the Xhosa and became the Great Wife of a local prince. The story of John Dunn and how he was awarded a chieftainship by Cetshwayo is well known, and there are many other cases where indigenous people and settlers intermarried.

All these cases are examples of mixing between different peoples all striving to do the best for themselves and their families. No doubt there were very many more throughout our history.

All this brings us to the present, where we now have a diverse society originating from all over the globe. Of course, science is also telling us at the moment that all of humanity originated from a group of people living along the South African south coast some 70,000 years ago. We are indeed all part of one humanity.

It is then a South African peculiarity that we have a race called ‘coloured’, as though this defines a different set of people. The descriptions above indicate that very likely a large proportion of the population (majority?) do not belong to any one particular ethnic grouping (whatever that means).

Even so, society groups together on the basis of perceptions, excluding others who they perceive as somehow different. Skin colour – defined as race – is an obvious criterion to use in this regard, and successive South African governments have discriminated against different racial groups, usually with the objective of economic benefit for their own grouping.

At the present time the perception is promoted that Africans have a dark skin. Thus the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) uses the term ‘African’ to mean ‘black African’, and ‘black’ to mean ‘African, Coloured, Indian and Asian people’. Similarly the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (B-BBEE) Act defines the term ‘black peopleas a generic term for Africans, Coloureds and Indians.

Having identified that very many South Africans are of mixed descent – certainly many more than the 8.7% ‘coloured’ tally given by the IRR 2017 yearbook – it is important that people recognise their origins. As an example, it is no doubt true that a number of so-called ‘white’ farmers could self-identify themselves as ‘coloured’ and become part of the ‘black’ group. Similarly, what would happen to B-BBEE numbers if previously ‘white’ members of companies also became ‘black’?

Where do people who self-classify themselves as ‘other’ fit into the B-BBEE act?

Because racial classification is such an imperfect and subjective topic it will never be without argument, debate and possibly conflict. We can only hope that, in the end, perhaps we can all be classified as South Africans.