The elections are coming and as usual coloured people are on the agenda as voting fodder. Generally left to rot when it comes to the fair distribution of services and resources, no one makes an effort to get to grips as to what makes them tick socially, politically and historically. Take the tik epidemic for example. Swathes of coloured youth are caught in the grip of this deadly drug that not only destroys them but their entire families as well, and nationally, government, except for executive mayor Helen Zille, has done very little to deal with the problem.
With the run up to the election, every political party looks for a coloured leader to lure this group into their trap, and as sure as hell, some or other figure crawls out of the woodwork claiming to represent the interests of the coloured people. Is this the reason why, perhaps, Alan Boesak has gone to COPE, the highest bidder, wooed as the person they think has a natural ethnic affinity with coloureds?
This routine electoral ploy is an indication of how ignorant politicians are about the coloured people and how they fundamentally misunderstand them. Unpredictable and fiercely independent in their political choices, coloureds remain an enigma to politicians, but this is no excuse. A clue is to start with the history of the Khoisan people and slavery in South Africa. Robert Shell’s book, Children of Bondage, subtly conveys why coloureds, unlike whites and blacks, eschew nationalism. The only thing that united their slave ancestors from countries as diverse as Madagascar, Indonesia, Mozambique, India and Malaysia, was their slavery. Divided by language, religion, and culture, what they had in common was their connection to a colonial master, whom they both despised and felt loyal to. The ambivalence of having to be loyal to a master, while despising the master and fighting in solidarity with other slaves for their freedom, created all kinds of tensions. And as slave descendants, this gene of disunity is still prevalent in coloured society today, and plays itself out in terms of race-affinity with political parties, compounded by ethnicity, class, region, and gender.
The reluctance of state institutions to embrace slave history and to make it part of our national culture is one reason for the political alienation felt throughout the country. This political alienation was of course, exacerbated by the Race Classification laws which destroyed the social capital built up over many years in areas from which coloured people were evicted, and today this anomie manifests itself in all kinds of ways through gangsterism, drug trafficking, lawlessness, self-destruction, and a lack of national pride. No wonder there are more coloureds in prison than any other ethnic group, relatively speaking.
A second problem is the negation of the role coloured people played in the anti-apartheid and the liberation movements and the close affinity between coloureds and Africans in opposing white minority rule. One has only to go to the apartheid museum for a confirmation of this. The history of leaders like Chief Autshumao, Hendrik Witbooi, Trosoa and others and the African People’s Organisation, the Teacher’s League of South Africa, the Non-European Unity Movement, and many more, are blatantly under-played. I think for example of people like Dr Abduraghman, Cissy Gool, Helen and Bennie Kies, Alex La Guma, Dennis Brutus, Harold Cressy, Dr Neville Alexander, Dr Elaine Clark, and many other Khoisan leaders that preceded them. Many of them shaped my political consciousness and taught me history by slipping their banned literature to us under the table at school when no one was looking. Our young people today do not know them and have never heard of them.
The third problem is the failure of the post-apartheid government to preserve the prestigious coloured schools that had pride of place in this community. In its efforts to create social parity, it reduced most schools to the lowest common denominator, schools such as Harold Cressy, Trafalgar High, Spes Bona High, Alexander Sinton, Athlone High School, Wesley and Battswood Training Colleges, Luckhoff High, and South Peninsula High where many of my peers and siblings were in the top ten in matric and won Maths Olympiad competitions. These schools have simply been wiped off the map. I remember how we competed to get into these schools and the snobbery that accompanied our admissions into these schools. That is regrettably all gone.
What’s to be done? That is the question.