The ‘coloured’ issue: Keep writing


The ‘coloured’ issue: Keep writing

INGRID JONES was sceptical at first about yet another book on the topic. But she persevered and realised that each generation must engage in self-examination about its origins.


WHEN Coloured: How Classification Became Culture landed on my desk, I was initially sceptical about yet another book on the coloured issue, but I promised myself to persevere and perhaps gain a fresh perspective from a younger generation. 

The publisher's blurb promises: “This is a book for Coloured people, by Coloured people, a book of Coloured and colourful stories from varied corners of the South African vista, past, present and future.”

Both authors grew up in Eldorado Park, Johannesburg. Tessa Dooms is a sociologist, political analyst and development practitioner, and Lynsey Ebony Chutel is a multimedia journalist and writer. In my opinion, a personal narrative always provides an unconscious/subconscious insight into the history and political milieu of a country and a people without the narrator having to sit with a history book in hand. The reader is sufficiently aware.

Lees hierdie artikel in Afrikaans:

I was sceptical, but I had an open mind. I wondered about the capital letter C and the absence of the quotation marks for “coloured", but it's a new generation.

It's Heritage Month in South Africa and also unofficially Bantu Steve Biko Month in memory of the murder in custody of the Black Consciousness leader on September 12, 1977, 46 years ago.

I attended two memorial services where Biko's legacy was discussed: one in St George's Cathedral in Cape Town where Dr Allan Boesak approached Biko's legacy in terms of love and hope, and the other in All Saints Cathedral in Somerset West where Archbishop Thabo Makgoba spoke about the decolonisation of the Anglican Church. The refrain of both conversations was Biko's words: “The greatest weapon in the hand of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed." This quote is also used in the book by Dooms and Chutel.

One thing the archbishop said at the beginning of his talk stuck with me as I read the book. He said he understood life as Thabo Makgoba, son of the royal Makgoba family of Mago(e)baskloof, Limpopo; that his great-grandfather Kgoshi Mamphoku Makgoba was beheaded in 1895 and his head is still missing; and that his polygamous father was a Zionist Christian pastor. Through all these experiences, and through a lifetime of soul-searching and reflection on race, politics, apartheid, poverty and the church, he wants to say that he, Thabo Cecil Makgoba, is a Christian, Anglican African with no identity crisis. Identity is important, even if in many cases it causes you to be a family outcast. In his case, most of his family are African traditionalists. But he had to choose.

Back to the book. The challenge with personal/remembering narration is that it takes a broad view but at the same time awakens recollections in others, and then some of the recollections do not add up. We tell a story through our own filters — politics, race, language, faith, gender, apartheid, and so on.

The authors wrestle and grapple with two themes:

  • We are not white enough and we are also not black enough.
  • Is there such a thing as “coloured" culture (I still write it in lower case and quotation marks à la Adam Small and the Black Consciousness Movement of the 1970s)?

In the chapters they become entangled in their own experiences, family origins, language, race, culture, food, music, hair, words. And Trevor Noah and Sandra Laing. Why were they dragged in? Noah even gets a chapter title.

The personal narrative that is filled in of the growing-up years during apartheid includes examples that sometimes left me stunned. Noah has already told his story, and so has Laing. And so there are examples without references that do not make sense if you are not Salman Rushdie, who expects/requires a presupposition of history and frame of reference from his readers.

Responding to a question about African spirituality and the decolonisation of the Anglican Church, the archbishop replied: “People should really dig deeper than asking about impepho, sangomas and inyangas when they reference African spirituality. It’s just a speck in the vastness that is African spirituality. It is rich and broad and should not be boxed into three things.”

I felt the same about the writers' assault on culture which was limited to food, music, language, words, heritage, hair, church. Hair is a sensitive issue, not only for coloured people, but hair has become the impepho of “coloured" culture.

Our origins are I-almost-can't-believe-the-apartheid-maintainers-were-so-inhumane messy, and that's precisely why we have to deal with it as clearly and as honestly as possible.

The past no longer shocks me. Vlakplaas left me speechless, but what can still shock me is that the regime was not only maintained by politicians, but that ordinary citizens, who are now naturally underground, were accomplices and — almost like neophytes — were more zealous about the apartheid faith than the fathers of apartheid themselves. A society of scoundrels and few heretics.

With this book, the authors dig up examples I wasn't even aware of. And also far-reaching statements.

My friend the psychology professor says the following when I tell him about the book I am reading and my discomfort with the question of whether “coloured" people have culture:

We tend to think of culture as something definable. Like the seed of a peach; a pilot in an airplane. I don't think it's culture, and especially not when it comes to ‘coloureds'.

There is a concept from the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu that is much more revealing than the term ‘culture'. He talks about habitus, a way of being, about shared experiences, language, food, music, about the way we ‘carry' ourselves. ‘Lived experience', as one would say.

Bourdieu's habitus can be summarised as ‘the learned set of preferences or dispositions by which a person orients to the social world. It is a system of durable, transposable, cognitive schemata or structures of perception, conception and action. It refers to the physical embodiment of cultural capital, to the deeply ingrained habits, skills and dispositions that we possess due to our life experiences' [I immediately started reading up about Bourdieu and habitus].

It is not culture in the sense that is definable. I prefer habitus, ‘a way of being, by virtue of lived experiences', when I look at us. Otherwise we are held captive in the ontological language; prisoners of the search for evidence that we have culture. We are becoming hamsters in the ever-turning wheel."

Thank you, professor, Archbishop Makgoba and Bantu Biko. The most dangerous weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.

Finally, it is important to say that each generation needs to engage in self-examination and examine where they came from. Even if we should be ashamed that “coloured" people were favoured over their black compatriots in certain respects, that the book refers to us as “lucky coloureds".

Write. Write. Write. Write until we feel we have said everything that is to be said; there is no time limit. There is a “book about the past, the present and the future" in all of us. Read the book. Read to know the bigger picture so that no one can ever again say that they didn't know.

On page 116 I wrote the following in heavy pencil: Follow your own advice! “Take time to know yourself. Take time to understand your brokenness, your pain, your cracks, your bruises … You are more than adequate.”

That is precisely the answer to the question at the beginning of the book: “Are we enough?”

“Your greatest gift is the gift you can give the world — the ability to change the course of your life as often as you need to, to ensure your own growth and your place in the world.”

♦ VWB ♦

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