Exploring the subleties, humour and pain of being coloured in SA

Review: Vivien Horler

Coloured – How classification became culture, by Tessa Dooms and Lynsey Ebony Chutel (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

Trevor Noah, the South African treasure and winner of an Emmy award this month for The Daily Show, isn’t coloured.

That might surprise most South Africans, black and white, but perhaps not coloureds and almost certainly not Noah himself.

In his book Born a Crime he describes how he is the child of a liaison, illegal at the time, between a Xhosa mother and a (white) Swiss father. He then grew up in Soweto.

He’s not coloured, as the authors of this absorbing book write, because “being Coloured has never simply been a matter of racial mixing… Colouredness is definitely a matter of nurture over nature, characterised by relationships, geographies, language, fashion sensibilities and music. Noah could not claim Coloured identity because, regardless of the inclinations of a system that would be eager to classify him as such, he lacked the experience of Coloured identity.”

(You’re going to have to forgive me here as I switch from coloured to Coloured, depending on whether I’m speaking, or quoting from the book. Throughout the narrative race groups are capped up: White, Coloured and Black etc, and obviously the publishers used some sort of spell-check to achieve this, because every instance in the book of those colours is capped up, hence we hilariously have references to White pepper, White sandy beaches, and writing set in Black and White on the page.

(August publications such as the New York Times tend to cap Black when referring to black people but not White for white people. I was trained in a newspaper style that all races were lower case other than African, Indian or Chinese as these referenced continents or countries. I haven’t quite got my head around the more woke case traditions relating to race.)

Tessa Dooms, a sociologist and political analyst, and Lynsey Ebony Chutel, a journalist and writer, grew up in the coloured Joburg suburb of Eldorado Park.

In their introduction they say the book is intended to be a mirror of coloured life, “and a projection to show this life to people who too often think they know us. It is a book for Coloured people, by Coloured people, a book of Coloured and colourful stories from varied corners of the SA vista, past, present and future. We have written this book not only to capture stories of Colouredness, but to evoke those stories in efforts to welcome all who care to know that Coloured lives truly do matter.”

So who are coloured people? Descendants of slaves, of San and Khoe, Malay and mixed. Never white enough, never black enough, but marginalised people who have often and bitterly internalised this fact.

The book is full of pain and stories of dislocation, classification, violence and rape, of how fine differences in skin colour and hair texture could determine success or failurein life, but it is also full of stories of family, group culture, and joy.

Many coloured people reject the term coloured, but Dooms writes: “It is my cultural experience of Colouredness that make it an identity I use easily and with pride. Coloured is not my race. I do not identify as Coloured because of my skin tone. I identify as Coloured because of shared practices, values and experiences I have with a community that raised me and gave me a sense of belonging in this country. It is an identity that, despite its roots in violence, oppression and pain, has come to mean more to me, and in the Coloured communities who raised me, than a signifier I do not ‘qualify’ for being called White.”

It is not all gloom and doom. There’s an interesting chapter on hair, how little girls saw the comb as a symbol of terror. Chutel writes that every Sunday she would sit at her aunt Joan’s feet and begin a ritual: “…wash, detangle, comb, roll, blow and plait. None of it was gentle, not to my memory”.

Coloured hair had to be tamed, if not people would laugh at you, birds would nest in your hair, little girls were told. It was hair that was not good enough.

The chapter on food is a joy. Food, Chutel points out, is a marker of identity; huiskos is the food we come home to. Huiskos is a clear representation of people defined by a mix of cultures.

She describes the difference between the Dutch/Afrikaans koeksister – “small and pale, dipped in so much syrup that they are sticky and sickly sweet, the syrup totally infused into the dough”.

Koe’sisters, on the other hand, are made with dough spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg and sometimes cardamom until it is deep brown, and later rolled in desiccated coconut. “Both evocations of the koeksister are delicious, but only one tastes like Sunday morning to me.”

She talks about the history of bobotie, its Indonesian origins as Bobotok or Botok, a Javanese dish brought here by enslaved Javans who remembered the meal at home: coconut with vegetables and spices such as chilli and basil, all steamed in a banana leaf.

“It’s a testament to, and tragedy of, the story of colonialism and the erasure of its victms that we do not know the innovative enslaved cook who looked around this alien landscape and found the ingredients to recreate his or her own comfort food, a dish that must painfully have reminded those who ate it of a home they were ripped away from and would never see again.”

There are chapters on language, on music, on women –  “kerksuster or straatmeit?” and men – “manne and moffies”, and origins, going back to Krotoa who, at a very young age and thanks to her facility with language, became a servant in Jan van Riebeeck’s household. She later married a Danish man, and after his early death was shunned by both white and indigenous communities. She died on Robben Island aged just 31.

“Her experience of isolation at the Cape Colony 400 years ago mirrors the collective alienation of Coloured people experiencing contemporary South Africa,” writes Dooms.

This book, on how coloured South Africans have carved out their own important niche in our diverse nation, is thoughtful and worth reading by all of us.






One thought on “Exploring the subleties, humour and pain of being coloured in SA

  1. David Bristow

    Proofreaders blushing over at JBP. And poor old Trevor, cannot find a cultural home … other than in the USA where he is unreservedly black/Black.


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