Letter | Should have right to decide on own identity

Khoisan chief Crawford Fraser and author Oscar van Heerden discuss being coloured in South Africa
Khoisan chief Crawford Fraser and author Oscar van Heerden discuss being coloured in South Africa

I read with a keen interest the article by Siyabonga Sesant on the question of being called “coloured” (“Forthright debate on being ‘coloured’ ”, April 9), a debate that is in response to the ANC’s National Question.

I fully agree that coloured communities need to engage this question because challenges in communities such as Helenvale, including gangsterism, are all related to, among other things, issues of heritage and the contributions of coloured people to nation-building in the country.

Concepts such as black, white and coloured I have always found nonsensical when used in relation to perceived predetermined racial categories. At worst these terms are not only inherently racist, but they are wholly inaccurate as well.

Not all people defined as “black” are, in fact, “black”, nor are all people referred to as “white” in reality “white”. The same applies to “coloured” people.

It is perhaps in the latter group where the ridiculousness of colour terms to refer to groups of people is the most obvious.

Now, understandably, we need to critically engage with these concepts as they are relics of the apartheid era which, as we are reminded almost daily, is supposed to be dead and buried.

So why are we then still using antiquated terms that are accepted as normal?

One answer to that is that there are no viable alternatives.
The rejection of the term “coloured” is understandable, but what is the alternative?

What seems to have come out of the National Question event in Helenvale is the idea that “coloured” should be replaced by “Khoi” or “San”, and that is how we as coloured people should identify ourselves. However, the coloured people, more so than any other group, cannot be reduced to a singular ethnic category.

One of the most defining traits of the coloured people is that we are a people emanating from multiple ethnic and cultural origins.

Hence, for some coloured people, their Khoi or San ancestry is not their only ancestral origin, while for others, their ancestry may not include Khoi or San at all.

I think the debate as it pertains to coloured people should now shift to exploring viable alternatives for how we should identify ourselves.

In fact, I would even say that we should have the right to decide for ourselves, even as individual coloured people, how we want to identify ourselves.

We have seen the negative consequences that result when labels are forced upon people.

This is something that we need to avoid, otherwise we risk repeating the same idiocy that has led to this issue in the first place.


Prof T S Petrus, University of Fort Hare East London campus