Oppression is deeply rooted within all systems. Be it oppression based on race, ethnicity, class, socio-economic status, it exists and that is undeniable. But sometimes it is the ability to reclaim this oppression that ensures that race, ethnicity, class and socio-economic statuses survive even when oppression has ‘ended’.
There is a constant thought, an unanswered question of how our forefathers and fore-mothers referred to each other before race and ethnicity was institutionalized. How did they recognize the differences between them (beyond the physical differences) and other people and how did they label these differences. When I refer to differences, I am attempting to conceptualize how they differentiated between various races, ethnicities, and tribes. Because it is only with the legislation of the Apartheid system that these differences became labelled. It is these physical differences that led to the institutionalization of race and later Apartheid.
The Population Registration Act of 1950 required each person living in South Africa to be classified and registered according to their racial characteristics. Yet this system of classification was in and of itself flawed. An Office for Race Classification was set up to conduct these classifications. The criteria for classifying people into certain groups were largely based on their outer appearance, general acceptance and their social standing. The manner in which this office described White people is “in appearance is obviously a White person who is generally not accepted as a Coloured person; or is generally accepted as a White person and is not in appearance obviously a White person.” Other criteria used to complete this classification were: characteristics of the person’s head hair, characteristics of the person’s other hair, skin colour, facial features, home language and especially the knowledge of Afrikaans, area where the person lives, the person’s friends and acquaintances, employment, socio-economic status, eating and drinking habits.
One of the most ridiculous tests was the Pencil Test. This was when a pencil was placed in a person’s hair and if the pencil fell out you were classified as White and if it stayed in your hair, you were classified as non-White. The above are not definitive measures of concluding what race people belong to. It is imperative to establish that there were cases where people needed to be reclassified. But what is also important is that this classification of race led to several other oppressive Acts. Namely the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act of 1949 that declared it unlawful for a White person to marry somebody of another race. There was also the Immorality Amendment Act of 1950 that made it a crime for a White person and a person of another race to have sexual intercourse. Coloured and Indian people were further separated into subgroups of Cape Coloured, Malay, Griqua, Chinese, Indian, Other Asian and Other Coloured.
The population that one belonged to determined the social and political rights the person had as well as the educational opportunities and economic status of the person.
The Group Areas Act of 1950 assigned racial groups to different residential areas and business sections in urban areas. This law was legislated so as to prevent non-White people from living in the developed areas.
The Bantu Education Act of 1953 enforced racially segregated educational facilities. This Act made it legal for White people to receive a higher level of education than non-White people. But this Act was also aimed towards directing non-White people towards an unskilled labour market.
The Reservation of Separate Amenities Act of 1953 legalized the racial segregation of public premises, transport and services. The best facilities were reserved for White people.
Apartheid legislation was aimed at dehumanizing non-White people through the denial of basic human rights and especially the right to dignity.
These Acts, acts, of inhumanity were based not solely, but largely on race that was determined by the State. I recall asking Nathan Trantraal, author and poet, how he identified himself as and his response was, “The system tells you who you are, the way the police treats you, tells you who you are.” This was profound because despite having recently celebrated Freedom Day, we need to consciously, consistently and continuously ask ourselves how free we really are and what we have gained freedom from. This question needs to stem from the current systems in place being exercised by the police such as the active criminalisation of non-White students during the #FeesMustFall movements. Another example is that of class exploitation that stems from capitalism which Karl Marx argued is the major organ of oppression. These are the systems that need to be debunked as a means to understand who they were created by and who they will benefit.
Those racial categories that were created and legislated by the Apartheid government are still how we identify ourselves as today.
It is evident that the categories of Black, Coloured, Indian and White are rooted in the very oppression not only generations before us were exposed to, but oppression that we are exposed to daily. Yet we hold on to these identity markers that have been the cause of our demise. We need to understand why we hold on to these identity markers that have been and continue to be one of the causes of our oppression.
It is not to say that we are ignorant for holding on to these identity markers but we need to understand their roots, routes. Roots refer to the origin of these identity markers and who created them. The routes of the identity markers refers to the path they have been on from being created and legislated to them being how we continue to refer to ourselves, post-Apartheid. We need to reclaim these identity markers in order to progress to a stage where non-White is not intrinsically linked to oppression, inhumanity and degradation. Despite the contestation around it, the Hip-Hop culture reclaimed the “n” word through artists using the word in their songs but in a non-defamatory manner according to them. The contestation of it stems from other African-Americans arguing that the roots of it are still oppressive and as a result are against people using the “n” word. Yet people who are adamant about using the word have stated that they do not use it to demean African-Americans.
Perhaps we need to question if we can ever completely make it our identities our own or if we should accept its origins. I am in no way arguing for the dismantling of race and the eradication of it but rather that we need to be cognizant of its roots and routes and why we are tightly gripping onto it.
*This article was published in the Grocott’s Mail under the Makana Sharp section