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The Rainbow Nation and its strange racial terminology

Although the World Cup is still on for another two weeks, we are slowly saying goodbye to South African English here on the blog. This is our final guest blog, from Dawn Nell, a Capetonian and historian. You can follow Dawn on Twitter.


The description of South Africa as a Rainbow Nation is both a reality and an aspiration. The vibrant noisy multi-ethnic South Africa was not contrived to look photogenic for the World Cup, it is a reality born of centuries of living side by side, an experience often fraught with pain and sometimes filled with joy, but always, ultimately, one that was shared. Nor is the Rainbow Nation a project that has been fully completed. Just twenty years ago, racial discrimination was still legally entrenched in every element of South African society – defining where people could live and work, how they should love, how they should be educated, and where and how they could travel, amongst many other things.

Race mattered in Apartheid South Africa because it was the basis on which so much was defined. As a South African who embraces the idea of the Rainbow Nation I would dearly love to avoid using racial terminology, however, as an historian it is virtually impossible. No narrative of South Africa’s past makes sense without acknowledging the role played by definitions of race. Moreover, some of the terminology historians of South Africa have to work with carries with it odious traces of the cruel prejudices of the past. Words such as Coloured and Bastaard characterize this dilemma. They would – perhaps should – have vanished from the English language if it weren’t for the fact that they encompassed real identities.

Bastaard is a term that I found the most difficult to use as an historian. Meaning ‘bastard’ or ‘illegitimate’ in Afrikaans or Dutch, it described a category of mixed race Dutch-speaking frontier farmers in nineteenth century South Africa. The term Bastaard was clearly designed to lay emphasis on the mixed race origins of this social group. It is also undeniably derogatory. Nonetheless, it is a term by which a sector of South African society in the nineteenth century wanted to be known because it had acquired a social significance and usefulness for the people it described.

Bastaards had much in common with their white farming neighbours on the colonial frontier. Crucially, they participated on more or less equal terms in local militia units known as commandos, and thereby gained a reputation for loyalty to the colony. In rural areas on the frontier, access to land was in the hands of colonial officials who placed considerable weight on the supposed ‘good character’ of applicants. In this context, the associations between colonial loyalty and the term Bastaard were helpful. And when slaves were emancipated in the Cape Colony in 1838, the term Bastaard gained added significance as being a useful way of distinguishing themselves from former slaves.

The term Bastaard died out in the course of the nineteenth century due in part to an erosion in the status of Bastaards in colonial society. Bastaards found that their reputation as loyal subjects meant less and less where there were fewer frontier wars, and where racial classifications became drawn in increasingly broad and stark terms. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Bastaard had become largely subsumed under the term Coloured.

Coloured is a term which has not been in common usage outside South Africa since the 1960s, and its continued use here raises some eyebrows because it is considered by many outside the country to be derogatory. In an interview with BBC Magazine in 2006, Toyin Agbetu of Ligali, an African-British human rights organisation, said the term was wrong “because it strips me of my identity and reduces me to the most superficial physical identifier. It comes from the ideology of racism, that white people are white, and everyone else is somehow other coloured.”

But within South Africa, the term maintains a social and political significance for the approximately nine percent of South Africans – around 4 million people – who describe themselves as Coloured today. People classified as Coloured were treated differently under Apartheid racial legislation from people defined as African or as White ‘European’. Now free of Apartheid-era definitions, Coloured South Africans are at liberty to define themselves in new ways. So it reflects a degree of pride in the identity that so many South Africans still actively choose to describe themselves as Coloured.

I personally may not like the terms Bastaard and Coloured, but as an historian of South Africa, I can recognize that people claiming, as their own, terms that were once insults is part of the way in which they forge a place for themselves in this world. The cumulative effect of generations of South Africans demanding their right to be treated fairly – as Bastaards or Coloureds or anything else – helped create the Rainbow Nation of today.

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Dawn Nell

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