Race in South Africa: 'We haven't learnt we are human beings first' (2023)

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Race in South Africa: 'We haven't learnt we are human beings first' (1)Image source, Corbis

Legal discrimination along racial lines in South Africa ended with the demise of apartheid but racial categorisation is still being used by the government for monitoring economic changes and continues to cause controversy, as Mohammed Allie writes from Cape Town.

The charge of fraud made three months ago against teacher Glen Snyman for ticking the "African" box on his application form when applying for a head teacher job in 2017 has highlighted the country's ongoing problem with racial classification.

Mr Snyman, who was defined as coloured (mixed racial heritage) by the apartheid government, subsequently had the charge dropped by the local authority but the issue the case raised has not gone away.

The Population Registration Act was the cornerstone of the apartheid policy that legalised discrimination. It was introduced in 1950 and divided South Africans into four broad groups - white, African, coloured and Indian - to enforce the minority government's policy of racial segregation.

It was repealed in 1991 as the country moved towards democratic governance in 1994 but racial classification is still very much part of the conversation in the country.

Race in South Africa: 'We haven't learnt we are human beings first' (2)


The government and private sector should deliver to all South Africans equally and not discriminate on identity"

The government uses it to gather data to help redress the stark imbalances in income and economic opportunities that are a legacy of the official racism of the past.

But many in the country, including Mr Snyman, who founded the organisation People Against Racial Classification (Parc) in 2010, believe the use of the categories has no place in a democratic South Africa.

"The fact that the Population Registration Act was scrapped gives job recruitment officers, any government or private system, no legal right to classify any South African by race," he wrote in a submission to the country's Human Rights Commission.

(Video) Thinking critically about the South African identity

'Use class, not race'

While acknowledging there are still huge imbalances that need to be redressed, Mr Snyman suggests that government should instead use a poverty measure to replace racial classification as a means of giving those in need a much-needed leg-up.

"The government doesn't have to know the identity of people by groups, they need to know the people who are in need of services, jobs or whatever the need might be.

"The government and private sector should deliver to all South Africans equally and not discriminate on identity," he said.

Ryland Fisher, a former newspaper editor who initiated the One City Many Cultures project in 1999 while at the Cape Times, agrees.

"If we adopt class as the marker for redress we will inevitably be able to benefit more black people," he said.

"Blacks are the majority in this country and they are also the majority of poor people in this country.

"If you say you will redress on the basis of class, a black person who has lived a life of privilege won't qualify for economic opportunities via the government's affirmative action policies."

During the 1970s when the anti-apartheid struggle was gaining momentum, and inspired by the Black Consciousness Movement led by famed activist Steve Biko and the South African Students Organisation, many among the disenfranchised - African, coloured and Indian - identified as black in a statement of solidarity in the fight to topple the apartheid regime.

'We regard ourselves as black'

And it is in this vein that Mr Snyman has received support from the country's largest teaching union, the South African Democratic Teachers Union.

"Many of us have made a conscious decision not to identify with the racial classification as prescribed by the apartheid regime. We regard ourselves as black, African, South African," says the union's Western Cape spokesperson Jonavon Rustin.

Pointing to a much more nuanced understanding of identity, he adds that "some people embrace the ethnic classification of coloured, Khoisan, African, Xhosa, Zulu, white, Camissa African, Korana African, Griqua, European, Afrikaner and so on."

But some make a distinction between a political or cultural identity and addressing the imbalances created by apartheid.

Race in South Africa: 'We haven't learnt we are human beings first' (3)

B-BBEE Commission

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No-one is permitted to use the racial or gender classification for purposes of excluding any citizen from enjoying the rights in the country, that would be illegal"

Zodwa Ntuli, South Africa's Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (B-BBEE) Commissioner argues that as much as racial classification is an anomaly in a country trying to move away from its race-based past, regulators and government can only measure progress through statistics based on the old categories.

The impact of apartheid discrimination against Africans, Indians and coloured people, she points out, was so pervasive that white people continue to dominate the economy in terms of ownership and decision-making power.

But she stresses that "no-one in South Africa is permitted to use the racial or gender classification for purposes of excluding any citizen from enjoying the rights in the country - that would be illegal".

Race in South Africa: 'We haven't learnt we are human beings first' (4)

Kganki Matabane, who heads the Black Business Council, says that even though democratic rule is nearly 27 years old, it is still too soon to ditch the old categories.

"We need to ask: Have we managed to correct those imbalances? If we have not, which is the case - if you look at the top 100 Johannesburg Stock Exchange-listed companies, 75% or more of the CEOs are white males - then we have to continue with them."

As apartheid discriminated on the basis of race then that is the only way the problems can be dealt with, rather than looking at class, he adds.

"We can only have a sunset clause when the economy reflects the demographics of the country. Until it gets to that, it will be premature to talk about the end of black economic empowerment."

More on race relations in South Africa:

But in some cases the continued use of racial classification to monitor change has led to the hardening of the categories.

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In the Western Cape, which has a large number of people formerly classified as coloured, there is a long-standing feeling among some that in an effort to redress the problems from the past, the democratic government has ignored their needs.

Race in South Africa: 'We haven't learnt we are human beings first' (5)

In Cape Town, a group of activists who identify as coloured, started a pressure group called the Gatvol ("fed up") Capetonian movement in 2018.

In an introductory video on the group's Facebook page, their leader Fadiel Adams explains that "all arms of government have declared an economic war on the coloured people", complaining that there are no jobs for members of the community despite them making up the majority in the area.

Mr Fisher, the former newspaper editor, said people who were classified as coloured were happy to fight alongside black people in the anti-apartheid struggle. But he blames the African National Congress (ANC) government for the sharpening of racial differences.

"What has happened in recent years is that the majority [in Western Cape] has decided to raise their voices and to assert their right to identify as coloured.

"The ANC didn't really take into consideration these kinds of nuances. They alienated people who identified themselves as coloured. What it meant is that these people… identified the kind of things that could affirm their identity as coloured people including things around culture, food, music and language."

He, and others, accuse the ANC-led government of not doing enough for coloured people, and instead concentrating on the national majority, who are officially classified as African, or black.

'We need to identify as South Africans'

Dr Saths Cooper, a clinical psychologist who was an associate of Steve Biko during his student days in the 1970s, argues that dominance of a racial identity has prevented the forging of a truly common identity.

"We haven't learnt we are human beings first," he says.

"We always put a colour, we put external attributes to it and then we put maybe language and maybe belief to it and that allows for further division. That narrative then perpetuates itself.

"We haven't given people enough reason to say we identify as South Africans."

Mr Snyman, through Parc, is meanwhile continuing the fight to outlaw racial classification. "We will take all steps, including legal ones to rid South Africa of this scourge that has once again led to discrimination against those who do not meet the preferred criteria of the present government."

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  • Who runs South African business?

    • 5 May 2019

Related Topics

  • Apartheid
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Which race was first in South Africa? ›

The Khoisan were the first inhabitants of southern Africa and one of the earliest distinct groups of Homo sapiens, enduring centuries of gradual dispossession at the hands of every new wave of settlers, including the Bantu, whose descendants make up most of South Africa's black population today.

How is race defined in South Africa? ›

Racial classification was the foundation of all apartheid laws. It placed individuals in one of four groups: 'native', 'coloured', 'Asian' or 'white'. In order to illustrate everyday reality under apartheid, visitors to the museum are arbitrarily classified as either white or non-white.

Who was the first white person in South Africa? ›

History. The history of White settlement in South Africa started in 1652 with the settlement of the Cape of Good Hope by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) under Jan van Riebeeck.

What is white South African culture? ›

White South African is a term which refers to people from South Africa who are of European descent and who do not regard themselves, or are not regarded as, being part of another racial group (for example, as Coloured).

Who were the first humans in South Africa? ›

The earliest hominid known to have lived in southern Africa is Australopithecus africanus. It was apparently replaced by Homo (? evolved into Homo) by 2 million years ago, at approximately the same time as A. robustus is first recorded locally.

What is the oldest race? ›

An unprecedented DNA study has found evidence of a single human migration out of Africa and confirmed that Aboriginal Australians are the world's oldest civilization.

What are the 5 races? ›

OMB requires five minimum categories: White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander.

Where do Coloureds come from? ›

The communities designated as coloured are primarily descended from the Khoisan people who originally inhabited the western parts of South Africa, from Asian and African slaves brought to the Cape from the earliest years of the colony, from European settlers, and from other Africans.

What are the three races in South Africa? ›

This Act divided the South African population into three main racial groups: Whites, Natives (Blacks), Indians and Coloured people (people of mixed race).

Who lived in South Africa before 1652? ›

Before the arrival of Europeans, the area was inhabited by San and Khoikhoi peoples. In 1652, Jan van Riebeeck established a small colony on the Cape of Good Hope as a refreshment station for the Dutch East India Company.

Where do Zulu originally come from? ›

Originally, the Zulu tribe emanated from the Ngunis who inhabited the central and Eastern Africa and subsequently migrated to the Southern Africa in the “Bantu Migration” which occurred centuries ago. The Zulu tribe represents the largest population of ethnic groups in South Africa; making up to 10-11 million people.

What did the white skinned people of South Africa? ›

(i) In the first decade of the twentieth century, the white-skinned peoples of South Africa patched up their differences and erected a system of racial domination against the dark-skinned peoples of their own land. This created the basis of one of the harshest, most inhumane, societies the world has ever seen or known.

What do you call a white South African? ›

The term "Afrikaner" (formerly sometimes in the forms Afrikaander or Afrikaaner, from the Dutch Africaander) presently denotes the politically, culturally and socially dominant and majority group among white South Africans, or the Afrikaans-speaking population of Dutch origin.

Why do African wear white? ›

White. White is the colour of purity. It represents cleansing and is often worn for festive occasions.

What is the majority race in South Africa? ›

As of 2022, South Africa's population increased and counted approximately 60.6 million inhabitants in total, of which the majority (roughly 49.1 million) were Black Africans. Individuals with an Indian or Asian background formed the smallest population group, counting approximately 1.56 million people overall.

Did humans first come from Africa? ›

Humans first evolved in Africa, and much of human evolution occurred on that continent. The fossils of early humans who lived between 6 and 2 million years ago come entirely from Africa. Most scientists currently recognize some 15 to 20 different species of early humans.

Where are people from South Africa originally from? ›

The first human habitation is associated with a DNA group originating in a northwestern area of southern Africa and still prevalent in the indigenous Khoisan (Khoi and San). Southern Africa was later populated by Bantu-speaking people who migrated from the western region of central Africa during the early centuries AD.

Where did the first humans come from in Africa? ›

sp. A new study suggests that the earliest anatomically modern humans emerged 200,000 years ago in what was once a vast wetland that sprawled across Botswana in southern Africa. Later shifts in climate opened up green corridors to the northeast and southwest, leading our ancestors to spread through Africa.

What race was first human? ›

Evidence still suggests that all modern humans are descended from an African population of Homo sapiens that spread out of Africa about 60,000 years ago but also shows that they interbred quite extensively with local archaic populations as they did so (Neanderthal and Denisovan genes are found in all living non-Africa ...

What color was the first human? ›

From about 1.2 million years ago to less than 100,000 years ago, archaic humans, including archaic Homo sapiens, were dark-skinned.

Which race has the oldest DNA? ›

Another skeleton from the same cave gave us Neanderthal DNA from 120,000 years ago. But all of this DNA has something in common: Almost all of it comes from Europe and Asia. The oldest DNA from sub-Saharan Africa—the place where the whole human story began—dates back to less than 10,000 years ago.

What are the 7 races of people? ›

Categorizing Race and Ethnicity
  • White.
  • Black or African American.
  • American Indian or Alaska Native.
  • Asian.
  • Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander.
4 Aug 2021

What are the 3 main race? ›

Using gene frequency data for 62 protein loci and 23 blood group loci, we studied the genetic relationship of the three major races of man, Caucasoid, Negroid, and Mongoloid. Genetic distance data indicate that Caucasoid and Mongoloid are somewhat closer to each other than to Negroid.

What is the biggest race in the world? ›

The world's largest ethnic group is Han Chinese, with Mandarin being the world's most spoken language in terms of native speakers.

Why do Cape Coloureds have no teeth? ›

For many years, Cape Town residents had their upper front teeth extracted due to regional cultural fashion. A 2003 study performed by the University of Cape Town found that the main reasons for extracting teeth were fashion and peer pressure followed by gangsterism and medical purposes.

What are Coloureds called? ›

Coloured, formerly Cape Coloured, a person of mixed European (“white”) and African (“black”) or Asian ancestry, as officially defined by the South African government from 1950 to 1991. Key People: P. W. Botha.

What are Coloureds known for? ›

Coloured people were the first speakers of Afrikaans; their dialect would later be called "pure" or "true" Afrikaans. The language was originally an informal dialect of Dutch that was spoken amongst the different ethnic slaves to understand each other and also converse with their Dutch masters.

What are the 4 main races? ›

The world population can be divided into 4 major races, namely white/Caucasian, Mongoloid/Asian, Negroid/Black, and Australoid. This is based on a racial classification made by Carleton S. Coon in 1962.

How many races were there in South Africa? ›

The racial categories introduced by Apartheid remain ingrained in South African society with South Africans and the South African government continuing to classify themselves, and each other, as belonging to one of the four defined race groups (Blacks, Whites, Coloureds and Indians).

Who settled South Africa first? ›

The first European settlement in southern Africa was established by the Dutch East India Company in Table Bay (Cape Town) in 1652. Created to supply passing ships with fresh produce, the colony grew rapidly as Dutch farmers settled to grow crops.

Who started slavery in Africa? ›

Slavery in northern Africa dates back to ancient Egypt. The New Kingdom (1558–1080 BC) brought in large numbers of slaves as prisoners of war up the Nile valley and used them for domestic and supervised labour. Ptolemaic Egypt (305 BC–30 BC) used both land and sea routes to bring slaves in.

Who started slavery in South Africa? ›

Dutch rule

The first slave, Abraham van Batavia, arrived in 1653 ("van Batavia" meaning "from Batavia", the name of Jakarta during the Dutch colonial period), and shortly afterward, a slaving voyage was undertaken from the Cape to Mauritius and Madagascar.

What race are Zulu people? ›

Zulu people (/ˈzuːluː/; Zulu: amaZulu) are a Nguni ethnic group in Southern Africa. The Zulu people are the largest ethnic group and nation in South Africa, with an estimated 10–12 million people, living mainly in the province of KwaZulu-Natal.

Where do Xhosa originally come from? ›

The Xhosa people are descendants of the Nguni, who migrated from central and northern Africa to settle in southern Africa. They comprise a number of clans such as Gcaleka, Ngika, Ndlambe, Dushane, Qayi and the Gqunkhwebe, of Khoisan origin. Enchantment winds through the Xhosa language, dress and rituals.

Did Zulus come from Zimbabwe? ›

Small numbers also live in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania and Mozambique. The Zulu were Originally a major clan in what is today Northern KwaZulu-Natal, founded in 1709 by Zulu kaMalandela. In the Nguni languages iZulu means heaven or weather.

Are Afrikaners Dutch or German? ›

Afrikaners predominantly stem from Dutch, French and German immigrants who settled in the Cape, in South Africa, during the second half of the 17th century and the first half of the 18th. Although later European immigrants were also absorbed into the population, their genetic contribution was comparatively small.

What percent of South Africa is white? ›

Black Africans comprise about seventy-five percent of the population and are divided into a number of different ethnic groups including those from Angola and Mozambique who are descendants of refugees who have settled South Africa. Whites comprise about thirteen percent of the population.

Which South African tribes are white? ›

The Boers are the descendants of the first Dutch settlers in South Africa. They call themselves "Africa's only white tribe." Apartheid was the codification 50 years ago of their determination to treat black people as inferior and separate.

How do you say bye in South Africa? ›

Totsiens / “Goodbye”

You can use it in both formal and informal situations, and it's often used when you won't be seeing that person for a long time.

How do you say yes in South Africa? ›

Ja, Nee | Yes, no

These two words are often used in succession to express agreement or confirmation. Example: “Ja, nee I'm fine thanks.”

What is the nickname for South African? ›

This colorful mix of cultures gives South Africa its nickname "rainbow nation." South Africans are passionate about music, often using song and dance to express social and political ideas. They're also known worldwide for their skill in sports, including rugby, cricket, golf, and soccer.

Which African countries have white skin? ›

Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Namibia all have white communities numbering in the tens of thousands, and thousands more are scattered among Angola, Zambia, Mozambique, Tanzania, Congo, Senegal, Gabon, and beyond.

What does yellow mean in Africa? ›

Yellow is reserved only to people of high rank in many African nations, because of its close resemblance to gold, which is universally associated with money, quality, and success.

What does pink mean in African culture? ›

Pink: also represents feminine qualities, including mildness. Red: sacrificial rites, bloodshed and death, but also spiritual and political moods. Gold: wealth in a number of forms, namely high status, monetary wealth and royalty, but also fertility and spiritual purity.

What are the 4 ethnic groups in South Africa? ›

The black population of South Africa is divided into four major ethnic groups; namely Nguni (Zulu, Xhosa, Ndebele and Swazi), Sotho, Shangaan-Tsonga and Venda. There are numerous subgroups within these, of which the Zulu and Xhosa (two subgroups of the Nguni group) are the largest.

How many races are in Africa? ›

A Diverse Africa

There are over 3,000 different ethnic groups speaking more than 2,100 different languages in all of Africa.

Who were called black in South Africa? ›

The Population Registration Act of 1950 classified South Africans as Bantu (black Africans), Coloured (those of mixed race), or white; an Asian (Indian and Pakistani) category was later added.

Where did people from South Africa originate from? ›

Black African South Africans, trace their origins to the Great Lakes region of Africa. Whites in South Africa, descendants of later European migrations, regard themselves as products of South Africa no less than their fellow citizens, as do South Africa's Coloureds, Indians, Asians and Jews.

Who was the first black South Africa? ›

Nelson Mandela, in full Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, byname Madiba, (born July 18, 1918, Mvezo, South Africa—died December 5, 2013, Johannesburg), Black nationalist and the first Black president of South Africa (1994–99).

What is the oldest race in Africa? ›

The San tribe has been living in Southern Africa for at least 30,000 years and they are believed to be not only the oldest African tribe, but quite possibly the world's most ancient race. The San have the most diverse and distinct DNA than any other indigenous African group.

Did all humans come from South Africa? ›

A new genetic study suggests all modern humans trace our ancestry to a single spot in southern Africa 200,000 years ago. But experts say the study, which analyzes the DNA of living people, is not nearly comprehensive enough to pinpoint where our species arose.

Who were the first people in Africa? ›

The First Humans

One of the earliest known humans is Homo habilis, or “handy man,” who lived about 2.4 million to 1.4 million years ago in Eastern and Southern Africa.

Are the Khoisan the first humans? ›

They are variously described as the world's first or oldest people; Africa's first or oldest people, or the first people of South Africa. They are in fact two evolutionarily related but culturally distinct groups of populations that have occupied southern Africa for up to 140,000 years.

When did humans first arrive in South Africa? ›

Southern Africa was first reached by Homo sapiens before 130,000 years ago, possibly before 260,000 years ago. The region remained in the Late Stone Age until the first traces of pastoralism were introduced about 2,000 years ago.

What race was the first human? ›

Evidence still suggests that all modern humans are descended from an African population of Homo sapiens that spread out of Africa about 60,000 years ago but also shows that they interbred quite extensively with local archaic populations as they did so (Neanderthal and Denisovan genes are found in all living non-Africa ...

What color was the first human on Earth? ›

From about 1.2 million years ago to less than 100,000 years ago, archaic humans, including archaic Homo sapiens, were dark-skinned.

Who has the oldest DNA in Africa? ›

The oldest remains belonged to a woman found in Tanzania's Mlambalasi rock shelter amid ostrich eggshell beads radiocarbon dated to about 18,000 years ago. Previously, the oldest human genome from sub-Saharan Africa was 9000 years old.


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