|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
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
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
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
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
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
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
'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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