Way back in the late 1960s and early 1970s one of the highlights of our regular visits to our maternal grandmother in Rockville, Soweto, was going to the cinema in Kliptown. We used to walk on foot, passing through a predominantly coloured area in Kliptown before reaching the cinema. Although we generally never encountered problems one racial incident remains deeply etched in my memory to this day. As we were walking past one residence, the dogs started barking at us. Before we could even react, a young girl of mixed race, that is the race that is commonly referred to as “coloured” in South Africa, started swearing at us in Afrikaans:
“Kyk wat het julle vokken kaffirs! Julle het ons honed laat skrik om deur te staap en nou blaf hulle en lawaai maak! Voetsek!“
Since my I am not as well conversant as others in Afrikaans , I sought the assistance of my cousin Aloysius who helped me to write the above quotation and the corresponding English interpretation thereof as follows :
“See what you have done you fucken Kaffirs! You startled our dogs by walking through our area and now they are all barking and making noise ! Voestek! “
We were quite naturally deeply hurt. I was personally not angry but felt deeply insulted and humiliated. Apart from the hurt and humiliation suffered I was also deeply confused by the attitude of this young girl more so because she was in my view much darker than myself my brothers , and cousins. Anywhere else she would have been readily identified not only as being black but also very much African.
Years later when I related this incident to my parents, my mother told me of an incident way back in the late 1940s wherein my late grandmother, Lydia Bandes (born Molokwane) embarrassed one of their neighbours who had made disparaging and racist remarks about Africans, referring to them as “kaffirs”. My grandmother’s friend was apparently much darker than my mother and grandmother, whose photo I have decided to attach herein. Incensed about her friend’s racial attitude, my grandmother challenged her friend to stand by her side so that others could decide which one of them was much darker and therefore a “kaffir”.
Despite the colour of her skin and her facial features, my grandmother steadfastly refused to have herself classified as coloured even after the coming into effect in 1950 of the Population Registration Act. She always regarded herself as an African and, in terms of ethnicity, as a MoTswana. Indeed she only spoke SeTswana and battled to express herself in any other language. When the Group Areas Act came into effect, my mother’s family were forcefully removed from Sophiatown and moved in trucks to present-day Westbury. After a few years grandma felt that she could not live in Westbury and relocated to Rockville, in defiance of apartheid segregation legislation. It was there that she eventually passed away on 21st October 2000.
Although in post Apartheid South Africa we tend to sweep under the carpet such issues of racial bigotry between those classified as coloured and those classified as African, the issue itself remains very much alive and is perpetuated by ignorant and politically backward compatriots on both side of the racial divide. A close family friend who studied law at the University of Cape Town tells me that he tried on a couple of occasions to solicit the companionship of coloured girls in Cape Town. On both occasions he was told to “….go to your nation!”. In similar vein, I have heard some of our African compatriots making very racist remarks about our coloured brothers and sisters. Common among these are such racist remarks : “…they are criminals!….drug addicts and alcoholics!..” The tragedy of the gang-violence , especially that occurring with sickening regularity in the crime infested coloured townships in the Western Cape only serves to reinforce this crude racist stereotype: “What do you expect of them; ngama boesman lezinto!” is the common insult which is spat out even by those among us who believe that they are more enlightened than others. For us in South Africa to refer to someone as either a “boesman” (ie “bushman “), “kaffir”, or “iKula “ (ie “coolie “ ) is as offensive as referring to an African-American in the United States as a “nigger”. It is criminal , racist and readily betrays the political backwardness of the person making such a statement.
The issue of the coloured people and the attendant racial tensions which cloud the very beautiful history and culture of these compatriots, together with their heroic role in the history of our national liberation struggle have received very little attention even from within the ranks of intellectuals in our liberation movement. This failure to fully appreciate the place of the coloured people in our liberation struggle and their massive contribution to the building of a united democratic South Africa has served to alienate politically and socially large sections of our coloured communities from their African and Indian compatriots, together with whom they form the majority of the Black masses who were previously subjected to apartheid humiliation and oppression .
The racial incident at Klipspruit High School whereby coloured members of the local community refused to accept the appointment of an African principal because the school was in a coloured area speak to the issue of the political and racial estrangement of our coloured people from their fellow black compatriots, in this case the African community. A similar incident took place in the Roodeport area last year and it took considerable effort on the part of government to resolve it. If not properly addressed, this issue will continue to fester and will set our noble goal of building a united and democratic South Africa backwards. It Is important that our coloured compatriots realise the futility of their attempt to establish racial enclaves irrespective of how much they feel marginalised in post-apartheid South Africa.
The primary organ of national liberation and the leader of society, the African National Congress, together with progressive formations within the coloured community, is seized with the responsibility of playing a leading role in fostering a much broader understanding of the role of the coloured people in the National Democratic Revolution and the building of a new South African nation. A starting point in this political process is the need to make both our African and coloured people appreciate the fact that they have a common political identity and destiny. Those within the ANC who are experts in what is called the “national question” must also take the lead in addressing this situation by looking into the issue of our coloured brothers and sisters from within the context of this political theory. In the old days of the liberation struggle I would have looked in the direction of some of our pre-eminent experts on this subject, namely the late comrades Joe Slovo and Mzala Nxumalo. Cde Pallo Jordan brilliantly captures the basic tenet of the national question in the pages of the book on the subject to which I refer to herein . He states that the national question “..has been centred on three sets of problems: those of national oppression (of minorities and majorities) within a single political unit; of colonial oppression; and of the unification of the disparate sections of potential nations ..” ( p110 )
We are fortunate that we still have within the ranks of our organisation brilliant theorists on this topic like comrades Essop Pahad and Pallo Jordan.The former wrote back in 1988 a brilliant article on “South African Indians as National Minority in The National Question“ “ The National Question in South Africa“, M van Diepen (ed), Zed Books, London.
Time and space prohibit me from writing at length about his thesis of the Indian situation as a minority in South Africa. Suffice to state that he draws the conclusion that any attempt by our Indian compatriots to seek their rights in isolation from those of their African compatriots leads to “…a cul de sac since the democratic rights and welfare of the Indian people and the white community can best be defended in a country free from the scourge and evil of racism, national oppression and class exploitation “ (p95).
Our coloured compatriots would do well to understand this political reality. To do otherwise would not only serve to deepen their political and social isolation, but it will serve the interests of those who seek to undermine our collective quest to create a democratic , non-racial and non-sexist South Africa.