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Coloured Political Identity
The term 'Coloured' had been developed in the British era for the many people of mixed descent living in Cape Town. The definition, however, included people of different religions and language groups, wealth and education. This 'group' was struggling to form a collective identity.

On the one hand they felt a rivalry with black people, particularly over employment. On the other, they felt rejected by the white community. This was particularly evident during the South African and First World wars.

Despite calls by coloured leaders to support the Allies in the First World War, the government was hesitant to enlist coloured men. Finally the imperial government granted permission for coloured people to sign up and the recruitment committee featured well-known coloured leaders such as Dr. Abdurahman, Sydney Lavis (an Anglican clergyman) and James Currey (a coloured politician).

But few men were recruited due to a request for single men, the lack of separation allowances (given to white recruits) and low pay that was tied to the wages paid to the British West Indian contingents. Eventually separation grants were organised after the coloured soldiers departed Cape Town and it was clear that many women had no source of income.


Although they collectively experienced rejection and discrimination Coloured people struggled to define themselves. A definition including 'African' and 'European', 'Christian' and 'Moslem', 'English' and 'Afrikaans', 'Coloured' and 'Malay' was not easily found. Nevertheless, in the midst of many ethnic identities there was still a notion of political affiliation amongst the coloured population, but it fractured during the early twentieth century.

By 1919 the 'APO' (African Political Organisation) political party was fading, although the presence of the well-known leader Abdullah Abdurahman ensured popularity. It was criticised for its lack of focus and drive. Abdurahman had participated in 'white' political structures, but always opposed segregation. He attempted to form a coloured trade union but without much success, so was keen to co-operate with the Industrial and Commercial Union (ICU), the black trade union formed in 1926. This union generated much support from coloured workers in the Cape until it moved its headquarters to Johannesburg in 1926.

However, in the midst of this, many coloured people still retained their conservative values and their leaders sought protectionist deals from Hertzog's South African government. One example was a 'New Deal' which ensured that coloured dock workers were hired in preference to Africans; even though the greater influence of Hertzog's 'civilised labour' policy overtly protected white employment.

As segregation began to permeate across the country, resistance emerged in the form of a new generation of coloured leaders who came from the inner-city schools. Despite the lack of equipment and over-crowding, dedicated teaching and high moral standards produced articulate and competent intellectuals.


The ability to speak English was seen as evidence of a good education and a high social status. Many coloured people could move easily between Afrikaans and English. Conversely, a range of Afrikaans dialects emerged, from the respectable to the tsotsi taal (gangster language).

Choice of language amongst coloureds was seen within the community as an indication of affiliation to the white or non-white community. Some coloured families of paler skin and more European features started to disassociate themselves from family members and friends who were 'too dark' to be able to pass for whites.

A parallel trend occurred among blacks as some 'played coloured' in order to gain access to education, employment and residential areas not accessible to Africans. Anthropologists Monica Wilson and Archie Mafeje describe Bantu men who arrived in Cape Town during the 1940s and passed as coloured because they had paler skin and could speak Afrikaans fluently.

'Respectability' was projected through choice of religion, education, use of language or dialect and lightness of pigmentation. Some among the coloured elite formed temperance movements, modeled on those common in the Victorian era, but the process of asserting 'respectability' (i.e. internalising white middle class values) widened the cultural gulf between these coloured families and their communities.

As some educated coloureds opted for a 'respectable' and conservative identity others turned to an intellectual Socialism. Various left-wing parties were formed, such as the Lenin Club in 1933. Intellectual political debate led to some criticism of the New Year Carnival by left-wing activists (such as the New Era Foundation) whose newspaper 'The Torch' refused to cover the event on the grounds that it was degrading and reinforcing of white stereotypes of coloureds.

In 1934 Smuts' government had announced that the Cape Coloured Permanent Commission would be established and hence the likely formation of a separate Coloured Affairs Department. This was opposed by the militant organisations such as the NEUF (Non European United Front). However little support was generated because the leaders of these movements were not sufficiently in touch with coloured workers.

Young coloured people started to dismiss the moderate stance of the APO, and the National Liberation League of South Africa, formed in 1935, took a more militant stance. It called for a political alliance of the oppressed against a common enemy, the 'white capitalist imperialists', and its slogan and emblems recalled Cape Town's slave past.

By 1940, when Dr. Abdurahman died, political identities remained divided. Extreme poverty excluded most from taking part in political life and the small coloured elite was divided. The war added to these divisions as those aligned to communism denounced the war and refused loyalty to Smuts and the King, while others took the view that the war was a threat to the whole population so could not be fought by whites alone.



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