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What does being ‘Coloured’ mean in South Africa?

July 18, 2019 2 Comments

My name is Kelly and I was born in the mid 80’s, in South Africa, Cape Town more specifically. It was during this time that South Africans were finally able to see that the end of the Apartheid era was coming.

Me in Cape Town. Yes we have proper buildings in Africa.

During the oppressive regime of Apartheid (an Afrikaans word meaning ‘apartness’), many absurd laws were passed; one of them stating that all South Africans be classified and segregated into different race groups. These groups were catalogued as: “white” (of European decent), “black” (native African),“coloured” (neither “white” nor “black”) and Indian (mainly of Asian decent). 

I, my friends was- and still am- classified as a coloured. My parents are coloured and so are their parents.

So, what does being a coloured really mean or represent? 

The origins of ‘coloured’ people and the term ‘coloured’

(FYI- in South Africa, the term coloured refers to a multiracial ethnic group that originated from events of the Dutch colonization of South Africa.  In 1652, a small company of employees of the Dutch East India Company settled on the southern tip of Africa in order to establish a refreshment station for the Company’s ships en route to the Far East.

As groups of settlers moved away from the Cape settlement to develop farms, they needed workers.  The Dutch government forbade enslaving indigenous people of southern Africa.  They did allow for the importation of slaves or indentured servants from other territories.  Hence, slaves were imported from India, Madagascar, Angola and Guinea.  Later on more slaves came from Indonesia- now they are known as Cape Malays. 

Early settlers in the Dutch colony were of German and Swiss origin, as well as Dutch.  Offspring resulted from various combinations among all these groups.  The settlers also had mixed offspring with the indigenous people, the Khoikhoi, the San and later the Xhosa. The term Coloured came to be applied to all mixed race people, then later came to be an politically-imposed ethnicity). 

To me, firstly, the term coloured was one I didn’t always understand, growing up as a little girl, but I knew that’s what I was.

Travels in Tuscany, Italy

Where I grew up…

You see, for the first 10 years of my life, I grew up in what they call the Cape Flats, an area known by a lot of people as the “dumping ground” for the coloured people during this oppressive period. The black African people had their separate areas to live in, so did the Indians, as well as the white South Africans. The conditions of these areas depended on your race within the hierarchy. 

Guess who lived where!

Now, while I don’t want to get too deep in all of this, but just to help you understand, the Cape Flats is an expansive area of many neighbourhoods (the most famous being Mitchell’s Plain and Athlone) that was designed as a Coloured Township for middle-income families. However, by the late 1980s chunks of it had been reduced to ghetto areas where gangsterism and drug abuse were rife. 

Most of the areas where coloured people were permitted to live lay on the outskirts of the city of Cape Town. This ensured that coloured people were close enough to enter the city’s borders to work for white people; but also ensured that they were far away so as to preserve the ‘prestige’ of the city. 

Pay attention to where the city enter is and where non-whites were forced to move to as per the Group Areas Act of 1950.

It’s so crazy to think that we (as a racial group) were generally treated “worse” than the white communities, but still “better” than the black communities; we were in the middle; neither black enough and certainly nor white enough! 

I like to think of “us” as being different (a word I’ve come to relate to very much over the years)!

Which brings me back to what I was trying to say… so for the first 10 years of my life, I grew up there. I saw and experienced some of the hardships that people were faced with while living there, but at the same time, I also witnessed the joy, as well as camaraderie amongst our coloured community. People were generally happy, despite it all and the Cape Flats produced many notable South African musicians from the passionate jazz of Abdullah Ibrahim to the cheerful pop of Brenda Fassie.

For every gunshot I heard, I also heard the sweet voice of aunty Doreen or aunty Fatima (or tietie as she was fondly known as), a few doors away, inviting me in for some cooldrink and sweeties or tea and biscuits. My grandma often sent me across the road, to one of the local house shops, to buy fresh herbs or spices so that she could prepare a delicious pot of curry, cabbage bredie, or my favourite ever, tomato bredie

Over the weekends, sometimes I’d convince my mom to play hopscotch or five stones with me, on the pavement outside my gran’s house. But the minute we saw the police vans driving down the streets, we knew something was brewing and she’d swiftly push me back inside the house. She did this because we knew that at any given time tear gas could be thrown, and that stuff made your eyes sting like hell! This knowledge was a natural part of our lives.

This was a norm for us.

As soon as the gas settled and the commotion would clear, my cousins would come over and we’d giggle away watching some cartoons on TV until bath time (which was usually around 6:00pm), as if nothing had happened. 

My education & identity struggles

Now because of all the struggles and disadvantages that our communities were subject to from the system- education being one of them, my mom always ensured that I had the best schooling. In fact, amongst our community, a lot of coloured parents wanted that for their kids too, but due to low wages, high rates of unemployment and many other social problems created by Apartheid, a vast majority couldn’t afford to send them to good schools. 

Now, we were by no means rich, but my parents did work really hard to be able to send me to an affluent school. A lot people in our community simply did what was considered “normal” for us; be silent, accept and not question what was given to them, and so they sent their children to the Cape Flats schools in the area.

At my kindergarten, I was literally the only child of colour amongst a sea of white faces! So, as you can imagine, here’s this caramel skinned coloured girl, with a bush of black curly hair (that was before I felt the social and cultural pressures of chemically straightening my hair) amongst a bunch of all white children!

I was completely out of place in kindergarten (but at least I as cute!)

I was different and felt different at times.

The kids would often ask me questions like:

“Why’s your skin that colour?”

“Why does your hair do that?” (meaning, why does it curl?) or

“Why are your eyes that colour?” 

I mean, what did I know…? What I did know,however, was that there was a massive difference between when I was in the white areas at school, with my white friends, speaking a certain way and dressing a particular way, to when it was home time! Time to hop on the bus, filled with all the coloured people and go back to my all coloured neighbourhood. Time for my little self to switch between my two identities to suit the context.

The other kids in the area often teased me at home, so I didn’t have many friends there (apart from my cousins). I got teased for carrying myself a certain way, using the language I did, the clothes I wore, the activities I did, I got told that I “shouldn’t keep myself white” that I was too sturvy (to think highly of oneself), too posh etc.

Too “coloured” at school, yet too “white” at home!? 

My identities were often at odds with each other and I think for these very reasons, since that very young age, I haven’t trrruuuullly identified as any one particular race.

Travels in London, England

Later, as Apartheid was dismantling, I continued going to “upmarket” schools; both primary and then high school, again in the white suburbs of Cape Town, filled with wealthy, multiracial and multicultural children.

There were black, white, coloured and Asian children, who were of Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu faiths etc. 

I must note though, that most of the coloured kids who attended school here, had straight hair (hair was another big factor, back in the day, that divided you into what “racial class” you fit into! So if you were a coloured with straight hair, you were considered of a “higher” class, compared to a coloured with curly, kinky or coily hair, then you were simply considered of lower class).

Here comes coloured Kelly with her curly hair! 

Anyway, the education at these particular types of schools was typically of a higher quality because they had some of the best teachers, the learning opportunities were vast, as well as the facilities were better, they had smaller classroom sizes, which meant more interaction and communication between the teachers and students. Also, parents knew their kids would be in a completely safe learning environment.

Here again (specifically in primary school) kids questioned me, asking:

“Why do you take the bus, why doesn’t someone pick you up in a car?” 

“Why’s your hair kroes?” (meaning coarse/curly and not straight)

Far too coloured! At odds with my environment yet again!

What the heck am I?!

Travels in Puglia, Italy

Historically and socially I am classed as a coloured. If you ask me, I’ll even tell you that I’m coloured because its what I have been classified as- from the colour of my skin, the texture of my hair, the colour of my eyes, to the shape of my nose. Most of my friends are coloured, my cousins are coloured, my parents are coloured, my grandparents are coloured. We have coloured cultural traditions, we say koeksiesters (and not koeksisters), we eat polony and vienna gatsby’s and we wash it down with a Cabana fruit juice (or frulati as we called it- why, I don’t know?!).

I mean, I tick a lot of the criteria boxes of being coloured… but deeeeeep down, I don’t think I feel like I truly identify with any one particular race!

Travels in Valle Verzasca, Switzerland

Having the privilege and opportunity to travel, live in different parts the world, as well as interacting with many different people and their cultures has been a huge learning experience and eye opener for me. 

The first time an American asked me what my background was, I naturally replied saying “coloured”, and they nearly fell on their back! Gosh, I learnt that day, that referring to a person as coloured to an American is considered disrespectful and very offensive.

I’ve had people start speaking to me in Spanish, as they assume that I’m Hispanic because of my features. Like most ethnically ambiguous people, I’ve gotten Philipino, British, Australian, Indian, Polynesian, Brazilian, they ask if my dad’s black and my mom’s white or vice versa… but hardly ever do they guess that I’m South African. I don’t blame them though because its extremely rare to see coloured South Africans travelling or living abroad.

Every time I visit home I find it so interesting to see what being coloured means to some people:

To some, it’s what clothes and shoes they wear, how they cut and style their hair.

Where they live, where they hang out, what and where they eat and drink.

To others, it’s how they speak (the slang they use in particular), their dentures or passion gaps even!

What cars they drive, the amount of base their speakers can allow and they type of music they listen to!

To a few, they somehow still can’t escape that lingering and debilitating sense of victimhood, where they feel that life (and obviously apartheid) dealt them the wrong cards.

A lot of the coloured community feel, that back in the apartheid era, they weren’t white enough for the white privilege AND now, even though 25 years have passed since our country first become a democratic nation, they feel that they aren’t black enough for the black privilege. Always stuck in the middle!

I am proud of my country (some days more than others haha) and of where I have come from. I’m forever grateful for all the opportunities and experiences I’ve had thus far. It has always inspired me, AND I believe, will always inspire me to soar freely and live a life beyond the norm and outside of my comfort zone!

Travels in Rovaniemi, Finland

Where am I now?

Currently I now reside in Lake Como, Italy. Yes, I eat pasta a few times a week, pizza at least once a week and I enjoy all the gelato that my stomach can manage!

Truth be told, it personally took me traveling and living outside of South Africa to really appreciate my background, embrace who I am (bushy haired and all) and to fully realize my potential. Not feeling “boxed” or “labeled” is so liberating, and while I’m not everyone’s cup of tea because of this- THAT’S OK!

Now while I’m not suggesting that you must pack your suitcases and go; rather, I hope that you too realize that being coloured (black, white, or whatever colour of the rainbow you identify as) shouldn’t define you or hold you back from achieving whatever it is that you want out of life. You are in control.

Hiking in Monte Crocione, Italy

Anyway, as you can probably tell, I’m not one to be put inside a box; I’ve never really been fond of labels either anyway. Rather give me a plane ticket, and I’m good!

“It’s not about the cards you’re dealt, but how you play the hand.”

Randy Pausch
Kelly is a South African blogger with Italian citizenship currently living in Como, Italy. 
She runs a wonderfully informative blog with reviews, beauty tips, interviews & other related topics on her website. 
Click on the pictures to get in touch with her via her website and Instagram.
Click for Kelly’s Website
You can find Kelly’s Instagram page here

Historical information obtained from Orville Boyd Jenkins (2010).

For more information on the Cape Flats you can read another perspective here.

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  • Kay July 18, 2019 at 7:34 pm

    Ahh absolutely loved this post!! I didnt grow up in South Africa, but I definitely connected with that feeling of being in a weird “middle” space.

    • Kitty March 10, 2024 at 11:03 am

      This article just showed how coloured people enjoyed the privilege they had during apartheid and now that black people are being treated better, coloured people want to play the victim card smh

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