South Africa’s Rainbow Nation: Still Stuck on Color

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Two race scandals dominate the headlines in South Africa today, both of them concerning slurs against the colored community of the Western Cape, where I live. On Sunday, socialite Nomakula “Kuli” Roberts wrote a poorly conceived and dreadfully executed column about the characteristics supposedly shared by all colored women in her Bitch’s Brew column in the Sunday World newspaper. She was apologized, but was sacked anyway. Today, remarks by government spokesman Jimmy Manyi that there was “an over-concentration of coloreds” in the Western Cape earned him a public rebuke from Trevor Manuel, the highly respected and Cape colored former finance minister and current Minister in the Presidency. Manyi has withdrawn his remarks but there are calls for him to go too.

The word “colored” is pejorative in other parts of the world. But in South Africa “colored” denotes a non-black, non-white ethnic group: either of people mixed race or descendants of Malaysian slaves brought over by Dutch colonizers. Coloreds are predominantly Muslim and Afrikaans-speaking and live mostly in the Western Cape, where a highlight of their own distinct culture is a sweet and spicy cuisine increasingly recognized as the taste of South Africa. Like blacks, and Indians and Chinese, coloreds were discriminated against under apartheid. But while much of the negotiations between Nelson Mandela and the white supremacist regime to end apartheid concerned white fears about their position under a black majority, less attention was paid to other ethnic groups. Perhaps as a result, while blacks and whites mix freely in today’s South Africa, other colors in South Africa’s racial rainbow – coloreds, Chinese, Indians, Zimbabweans, even Somalis – can find themselves not just left out but violently discriminated against. Often they seek refuge in the kind of ethnic ghettos that should have disappeared with the end of apartheid 17 years ago. Cape Coloreds in particular tend to gravitate to Cape Town and the surrounding Western Cape, where their numbers ensure the province is the only one in South Africa where the African National Congress – which runs the national government and is supported overwhelmingly by blacks – is not in charge.

As the South Africa Institute of Race Relations points out, anti-minority racism somtimes finds expression not just in the utterances of government spokesmen but government policy too. The institute’s head of special research, Anthea Jeffrey, says a new draft Department of Labor bill which requires large employers to ensure the racial make-up of their workforce conforms to South Africa’s national mix – rather than, say, the regional one – “could impose a freeze on the hiring of additional colored workers, while employers in the Western Cape will face the impossible dilemma of needing to reduce the proportion of the workforce that is colored while at the same time avoiding penalties for unfair dismissal. Though Manya has retracted his statement that colored people should move elsewhere to end their ‘over-supply’ in the Western Cape, his position is effectively endorsed” by the bill.

No one ever thought leaving behind the racism of South Africa’s past behind would easy. But some South Africans apparently still need to learn that race is a more complicated matter than one simply of black or white.