The place of Coloured people in the ANC's South Africa

Nicole Van Driel says the socio-economic reality of this group has improved only marginally since 1994

Shall the 2017 ANC policy conference make any difference to Coloured people’s reality of being “God’s step-children?”

The African National Congress (ANC) is holding its 5th Policy Conference in Johannesburg. Notwithstanding the crises facing the party, and the possibility that the ANC may lose its majority in Parliament in the 2019 elections, I ponder whether policy outcomes shall make any radical difference to the lives of Coloured people.

Thus far, in my opinion the socio-economic reality of Coloureds has improved only marginally since the advent of democracy. Coloured people as a group have in some respects least benefitted from the new South Africa; although there has been some upward social mobility by a small number of individuals - the vast majority of this group remains in abject poverty.

Education and Crime statistics provide some idea of the stagnation in Coloured communities.

Between 1991 and 2006 Coloured matriculants increased in number from 22 405 to 34 417, although the number of matric exemptions for the same period decreased from 22% to 17%.

In a 1999 national homicide study, Coloured women were found to be most at risk of being killed by an intimate partner with a rate of 18.3 per 100 000. This is in comparison to: African women with a rate of 8.9 per 100 000, Indian women with a rate of 7.5 per 100 000 and white women with a rate of 2.8 per 100 000 (“Every six hours a woman is killed by her intimate partner”: A National Study of Female Homicide in South Africa, Mathews et al 2004: 2)   

Why are matters so dire in the Coloured community? There are a number of possible reasons. At an individual level - unemployment, crime, drug and alcohol abuse - has caused much inertia and stagnation within Coloured communities. At a government level, the major factor is that the ruling ANC has not recognised and understood the historical context of Coloured people: their super exploited labour under slavery, the impact of approximately 200 hundred years of slavery on their psyche and the subsequent political necessity for a democratic government to intervene with some form of reparations so as to improve the lives of this community.

Who are Coloured people? They are not a homogenous group and are part of a continuum of blended DNA backgrounds: they are inter alia descendants of the indigenous San and Khoi people who were ultimately dispossessed of their land by the Dutch East India Company; they are also descendants of other African and Eastern peoples who were brought to Cape Town’s shores as slaves between the 17th and 19th centuries; they are the descendants of slave masters who brutalised slave women and some Coloured people have traces of European ancestry to a greater or lesser extent.

The ANC’s Strategy and Tactics 2017 policy document fails to mention slavery at the Cape which lasted from 1652 to 1838 - the first slave arrived in 1652 per chance, others arrived piecemeal until 1658 when the Amersfoort came with the first shipload of slaves – although slaves were freed in 1834, they were forced to serve a four-year ‘apprenticeship’.

The ANC’s Strategy and Tactics 2017 policy document glosses over Coloured people’s place in South African history, and I quote:

“Historically, the ANC asserted that the motive forces of the revolution were Black people in general and Africans in particular. Why the distinction, the question is always asked. In simple terms, this is because in the cynical hierarchy of apartheid oppression, Africans occupied the lowest rung on the social ladder. They were therefore impelled to act more determinedly to change society. Their liberation, it can be argued, was and still is a condition for the liberation of all South Africans. White privilege, however, rested also on the oppression and marginalisation of Coloured and Indian communities; and much of the legacy of apartheid colonialism continues to manifest in these communities as well [my emphasis, paragraph 116].”

In terms of the above document, the ANC fails to recognise historical injustices: 1) that the San and the Khoi are the first peoples of South Africa and were first dispossessed of their land and later classified under the Coloured umbrella; 2) that the exploitation of slave labour was integral in part, to the economic building of modern-day South African society and the descendants of slaves were later classified as Coloured, and 3) that the brutal system of slavery and later the ‘dop-system’ on White-owned farms, all left deep-rooted economic, psychological and social scars on large sections of the Coloured population.

In this regard, possible parallels may be drawn between South Africa’s Coloured community and the African-American community, both of which are descendants of slaves, and who display similar social challenges centuries after the abolition of slavery. Parallels may also be drawn between Native American communities and the Khoisan both of whom suffered land dispossession and subsequent social problems.

To exacerbate matters, racist beliefs about Coloured people have persisted.

As far as back 1924, Gertrude Millin published a controversial novel, God’s Step-children about a missionary, Reverend Andrew Flood, who marries a Khoisan woman and begets two children with her. As the story progresses Reverend Flood becomes mad; obsessed with the “sin” of having begotten half-caste children.

In the period prior to Apartheid, the majority of Coloured people were identified as poor. In 1940, a study conducted by the Sociology Department at the University of Cape Town (UCT) found, “that 53% of coloured households in Cape Town lived below the poverty datum line.” In its conclusion, the study cited the root of the problem as “the low level of Coloured wages, kept artificially low by the economic colour bars.” (Lewis, G. Between the Wire and the Wall: A History of South African “Coloured” Politics, Cape Town, David Philip, 1987. p.170)

Economic matters did not improve much for Coloured people under Apartheid and the Coloured Labour Preference Area Policy was a misnomer in terms of giving preference to Coloured people; it kept most people in unskilled or semi-skilled jobs. In terms of professional development a Coloured person could not for example become a physiotherapist or a veterinarian.

Few people including teachers owned cars or had telephones in their houses. Most Coloured people were either labourers or factory and domestic workers. The elite consisted of teachers (in the main), doctors, lawyers, artisans and small businessmen (Van Driel, N, The Journey to Wankie: A Biography of James April, unpublished Honours Essay, 1991, UWC, p.13).

Coloured people did not enjoy any major benefits under Apartheid, although importantly they did not carry passes, as their Bantu-speaking counterparts had to. Although an astute historian may point out that the Khoisan had historically carried passes at a previous point in colonial time (but this in no way justifies or lessens the pain of carrying passes under Apartheid).

A clear indication of the non-standing of Coloured people under Apartheid was surely in the 1980s when Marike de Klerk, then wife of then President De Klerk, referred to Coloured people in this way, "You know, they are a negative group ... a non-person. They are the people that were left after the nations were sorted out. They are the rest."

In more recent times, a book, titled Rainbow Nation Navigation Guide, created a social media uproar after a series of stereotypical excerpts from the book were posted about Coloured culture. These racist attitudes determine and influence the economic opportunities and employment offers available to Coloureds today; namely perceptions of whether Coloureds are capable and/or able to occupy top positions in society.

Coloured people are discriminated against in the new South Africa I hear you ask? It is a topic that many Coloured ANC members shy away from. When I worked at GCIS the post of Director: International Liaison was not offered to the top candidate as he was a Coloured man. It was argued that a Coloured person could not represent South Africa on the African continent. Yet, shortly afterwards a White woman was appointed to head the International Marketing Council (IMC) and she reported to the CEO of GCIS.

In terms of governance, a sore point for some Coloured people is the national government’s refusal to bring the South African Police Service (SAPS) in full force onto the Cape Flats - over a number of years or to bring the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) onto the Cape Flats - to combat heightened gang violence. The latter permeates everyday activities and makes life impossible for many poor inhabitants. The ANC seems woefully out of touch with the daily reality poor Coloured people face. On one occasion, so out of touch was President Mbeki with drug problems in Cape Town that at a public gathering in 2007 he asked what is “tik”?

However, recent gestures by two ANC politicians show some acknowledgment of problems in coloured areas on the Cape Flats. Both gestures entailed visits to Elsies River: Zuma’s visit to slain Courtney Pieters family and Fikile Mbalula’s visit to an area plagued by gang violence.

It is clear that Coloured people still suffer the pains of stigma and stereotyping and may even occupy the direst place in South African society. Coloured people occupy too few senior or even middle management positions both in government and the private sector. Following on the ANC’s 5th Policy Conference, shall poor Coloured people be able to pin any future hopes on the ANC (who seem oblivious to their plight at the moment)? Or shall Coloured people remain “God’s step-children” for a little while longer?