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The term coloured, as applied to people, is a blanket term developed under colonial rule (alongside the earlier and even more denigrating and technically incorrect Hotnot [= “Hottentot”]) and later fixed by Apartheid classification to refer both to people of Xhoi or San descent and those of mixed-race (European/Non-European or white/non-white) descent – i.e. what in other parts of the world was often referred to as mulatto[1].

(Often also referred to as “Cape coloured” since the majority of those classified so by the apartheid system lived in the Western Cape region.)

The term was used in much the same indiscriminatory way as native, kaffir or black would be used to refer to all and any people of African or Bantu descent (except the Xhoi-San), irrespective of their particular cultural/linguistic or ethnic affiliations (Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, whatever) .

A complication is of course that because coloured it is a catch-all name, the community has never been homogenous, containing as it does people from a whole range of origins - from the Khoi-San, the Griekwa, Hindu and Islamic slaves imported from the east, and various other African tribes, as well as the inevitable interracial mix resulting from cross-cultural liaisons of all kinds. For example, in an attempt to make sense of it, the apartheid system categorized "coloureds" in a number of sub-categories at one time[2], among them Cape Coloured, Cape Malay, Griqua and so on.

Conveniently seen by Verwoerd and his government as a distinctive “race”, despite the obvious affinity of a large part of that community, particularly the Christian segment of it, to white Afrikaans speaking people in the Western Cape (in terms of social, linguistic, religious and many other indicators) – and the obvious religious differences between the Christian, Muslim and other sections of the community. On this basis all persons classified in this way were disenfranchised in 195* and by the mid 1960’s had been moved (“resettled”) in areas outside their traditional urban suburbs (the notable example of course being District Six in Cape Town.) Later in the “enlightened” period of initial negotiations and the experiments with a Tricameral Parliament (1980’s) this was officially replaced by “Bruin mense” (= “brown people”) alongside the terms “Black” (for anyone of “African” or "Bantu" descent, replacing former terms such as “kaffir”, “bantu” "non-European" or "non-white") and “Asian” (for “coolie” or “Indian”). As politically correct thinking kicked in during the 1980’s, it became common usage to write it in parenthesis as “so-called coloured” (and to do so in speaking as well, by using the first two fingers on each hand to signal the parenthesis!).

After the 1976 uprising the community increasingly shifted to using English as a public language, but in the mid 1980’s another shift occurred, with many intellectuals and writers in Afrikaans (particularly at the University of the Western Cape and led by Adam Small, Jakes Gerwel, Hein Willemse, Julian Smith and others) reappropriating Afrikaans for their struggle, but now identifying themselves as “black”, and linking up with notions taken from the Black Consciousness Movement (see also Black). The effects of this movement were significant in the way the politics and particularly cultural and language politics of the Western Cape developed over the next decade or more.

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