by Eusebius McKaizer, New York Times
JOHANNESBURG – A few weeks ago, a British friend of mine served a
sumptuous confession as a starter for dinner, “I only realized recently
that you’re not actually black!” We had met several years back in the
English midlands, where, judging by her remark, I had passed as black.
But now that she has lived in South Africa for a few months, she is
fluent in the local racial vocabulary: things are not quite black and
Let me explain. In South Africa I’m referred to as “colored,” a term
that does not have the same derogatory denotation here as it does in the
United States when it is hurled at black Americans. I am not black. I
am of mixed racial heritage, as my parents are and their parents were.
When racist colonial settlers arrived at the southern tip of Africa
during the 17th century, their racism did not preclude sexual relations
with the locals. Several generations later, the colored community is
ostensibly an ethnic group just like the Xhosas or the Zulus or any of
the other myriad groupings within South Africa’s borders. It makes up 9 percent of the country’s population of 50.6 million.
South Africans are adept at broadly classifying one another as black,
white, Indian or colored, despite often complicated lineages. Some
colored families, especially in the Cape Town region, have Malay
origins, courtesy of the historic slave trade that brought Asians to
South Africa; others have roots in the local indigenous Khoi community.
Our discriminatory skills are so fine-grained that Barack Obama would
not pass as colored here; the U.S. president is “biracial.”
My own half-brother, whose mother is Xhosa but whose father — our
father — is colored, is also not colored; he is “mixed race,” the local
linguistic marker for biracial. The criterion for being classified as
colored is clear: both your parents must be colored.
This nimble racial footwork, which often baffles outsiders, is the
noxious result of racism’s history. It is also the kind of result that
has some people think all race talk is undesirable. I disagree. I think
the language of race is honest because it captures how many of us here
experience racial identities in South Africa post democracy: in terms
of skewed access to economic justice.
During apartheid, the National Party government reinforced racial
identity among coloreds by forcing the community to live separately from
black African groups. It passed laws such as the Population Registration Act, which defined each race group, and the Group Areas Act, which mandated geographic segregation.
Colored communities lived in their own neighborhoods — most still do —
and spoke Afrikaans as their mother-tongue, a language similar to Dutch
and dissimilar to indigenous African languages. We were not white, and
we were not treated as white. More money was spent on us than on the
average black African community but less than on the average white one.
Thus the racial hierarchy was legally, politically and economically
However unflattering the politico-historical origins of race talk,
though, they cannot eliminate its phenomenological relevance in 2012.
Rather than mandate nonracial identities, we must eliminate racism.
Colorblindness is the wrong antidote.
Today, 18 years into democracy, many colored people feel that they
benefit less from policies designed to redress past discrimination than
black Africans, who are seen as worthier victims. For example, “black economic empowerment” policies,
some of which grant preferential access to state tenders for companies
with a mostly black ownership, mostly serve well-connected black African
men and women. This leaves many of my colored friends and relatives
frustrated: “We weren’t white enough before, and now we are not black
The lack of adequate economic opportunity for coloreds since the dawn
of democracy here — combined with their lingering, paralyzing sense of
victimhood — explains why the colored community is the most
class-homogenous racial grouping in South Africa: an essentially poor,
lower-working-class community. Very few of its members escape that
In the Western Cape, the province with the largest concentration of colored people in the country, rates of fetal alcohol syndrome
are some of the worst in the world. This community is like the drunken
uncle of the South African family, the relative you tuck away when posh
visitors come around. Paradoxically, many more colored people are worse
off than black Africans now than were during apartheid.
Democracy was bound to spread abject poverty across races. On the
other hand, too many coloreds have compounded their invisibility by
failing to develop a sense of can do-ism. At times I feel like the
accidental survivor of the coloreds’ curse; at others, like a role model
of how to defeat the self-fulfilling hopelessness of my community. I
swing between feeling angry at the state and feeling angry at my own
Either way, the fate of the colored community will be a litmus test
of whether South African democracy can treat fairly all the victims of
apartheid or will perpetuate a racial hierarchy of suffering.