Class discussion topic: Naming people

When the words 'black' and 'white' are used as adjectives to describe skin color e.g. She has a black skin - it is not usually considered racist.  If, however, 'black' and 'white' are used as nouns the words becomes derogatory e.g. She is a black. Here 'black' implies a whole lot more than just skin color.

If, for example, a black skinned South African was adopted into a Chinese family as a baby, she would not change her physical appearance, but in every other way would become Chinese. Culture is learned. Skin color is inherited. Culture is the shared patterns of behaviors and values that are learned through a process of socialization. Culture is constantly changing.

The challenge to advance inclusive nation building is ongoing. For Freedom Day on 27 April 2007, the 13th anniversary of South Africa's liberation from apartheid, the State President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, called on all South Africans to be agents for change:

"Some among our compatriots have as yet not become fully aware of the fact that our country shares an important national agenda, whose realization is a task that faces all South African patriots, regardless of color, class, gender, age or political affiliation." - ANC Today, Volume 7, No. 15 (20-26 April 2007)

'Us' versus 'them'

European colonisation of Africa went hand in hand with making the colonised different, or the 'other' or 'them'. Stereotypical images were used to represent 'others'. The process of making some groups of people 'other' has been used to disempower, subordinate, marginalise and denigrate.

In the South African context, European colonisers became 'us' and the indigenous population 'them' - othering those they wanted to control. 'Others' were called non-whites or non-Europeans and they were in turn divided into different groups in an attempt to divide and rule.

The legacy of othering in South Africa can be seen in many of the words used to name groups of people. Naming 'other' groups is not just a past habit, the process is not static. As South Africans struggle with nation-building and creating unity in diversity after centuries of deliberate social engineering of disunity, new words and new debates continually make the news.

A word or phrase may imply contempt or disapproval. The speaker, the intent of the speaker, and the context of what is being said, should always be taken into account.

Because of the apartheid past, when charged words were used to foster racism and exclusion, the South African media is particularly sensitive to 'political correctness' (abbreviated as PC) and can be seen as a positive aspect of social change. No one wants to publicly use the 'wrong' word both for fear of being denounced as racist and to genuinely provide minimum offence. 

Who were the first people in southern Africa?

The San of southern Africa are believed to be direct descendents of the first evolved Homo sapiens over 100,000 years ago. They were widely dispersed in the region, and were the inhabitants of the Cape at the time of the Dutch settlement in the mid-17th century. They were hunter-gatherers who made and used stone tools, lived off the veld, hunted animals, and did not herd cattle. The Dutch called them 'Bushmen', a derogatory name. The term, 'bushman', came from the Dutch term, 'bossiesman', which means 'bandit' or 'outlaw'.

The other inhabitants of the Cape, the Khoi, who were sheep and cattle herders, looked down on the hunter-gatherers. The word San was used by Khoi herders to describe them in a disparaging way, and was never used by the hunter-gatherers themselves. Today, the descendents of these hunter-gatherers do not have a collective name, but prefer outsiders to use "Bushmen". However, the term San is still widely used.

The Dutch called the Khoi herders "Hottentots", an insulting name. These herders referred to themselves as Khoikhoi meaning 'real people' (sometimes also spelt Khoe). Over the years, as the Khoikhoi lost their cattle to the Dutch settlers, those Khoikhoi who did not become servants of the Dutch moved away from the Cape and joined with groups like the San. Therefore, the indigenous people of the Cape are called Khoisan.

The Khoisan did not own land but rather thought of the land as they thought of the rain - something that could not be bought and sold by individuals. They did not have permanent farms but moved around as summer changed to winter.

As colonial settlement expanded, many Khoisan were mercilessly killed by Dutch hunting parties, in resistance wars and by smallpox. As they came under pressure, they retreated inland.

Derogatory Afrikaans slang words for the Khoisan, namely 'Hotnots' and 'Boesmans', are insulting terms that imply inferiority. So, even though the term Bushman has come back into usage, its racist connotations can make it Politically Incorrect and we seldom find the word used in popular literature or school textbooks without explanation.

Who are Africans?

South Africa is often called the 'rainbow nation', a term coined by then Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu. In Thabo Mbeki's utopian speech at the adoption of the final new constitution in 1996, he delivered his 'I am an African' speech which embraced all South Africans in its conception of Africanness.

Black Africans make up about 80% of the total population. The 'white' population is about 10%, the 'coloured' population about 8% and the 'Indian' population about 2%. None of these 'groups' are culturally or linguistically homogenous.

Since the end of apartheid, there has been a growing sense of nationhood in this race-conscious society, with many people identifying themselves as primarily South African and moving beyond crude racial categories. In terms of identity, there are encouraging levels of social cohesion, unity, coherence and pride among South Africans.

At various times, policy makers have stressed that black Africans are dominant in the population and so in some sense represent the nation. The debate about collective identity is ongoing.

A South African journalist, Mphuthumi Ntabeni, writes on his blog that 'The question then is not whether we're all Africans, but that as diverse Africans we can learn to live in respect of each other?'

You can read more about Max du Preez on

The well-known Afrikaner journalist, Max Du Preez, in his book Pale Native describes himself as 'a native of this land, but unlike most other natives, I am pale. The tongue of my heart and my soul is a tongue born in Africa and called after Africa, but after many decades of abuse it is now resented by many as the tongue of alien invaders.'

The building a new stadium for the 2010 World Cup in the mostly-white Green Point suburb of Cape Town has met with opposition from residents of the area, who are mainly 'white'. Those who oppose the stadium are accused of being racist. However, it can be argued that the impending construction and the anticipated crowds would create a fuss from any middle class property owner in the area, whatever their skin colour.

What is 'white'?

South Africa's 'white' population descends largely from the colonial immigrants from Holland, Germany, France and Britain.

The term 'white' in the South African context refers to the 'racial group' characterized by light skin colour and those who were classified 'White' by the apartheid government.

'White' was used a metaphor for 'race' and contained assumptions of 'racial' superiority.

Those classified as 'White' under the old regime were privileged and maintained political and economic power through brutality. From the time the National Party came to power in 1948, the number of 'Whites' who voted for its apartheid policies increased with every election. However, there were also many 'whites' who participated actively in the struggle against apartheid and some rose to positions of power in the government after the first democratic elections in South Africa.

Afrikaans and English are spoken by 'whites' and these languages were the only two official languages before 1994.

The legacy of the past has deeply impacted on people's lives in post-apartheid South Africa. In the past, those classified 'White' were regarded as superior to everyone else, and the laws gave them political, social and economic benefits. The policy of Affirmative Action or Black Economic Empowerment has been adopted by the ANC government as a form of redress.

Many 'whites' have struggled to adapt to socio-political change, while others comfortably regard themselves as Africans. The word 'settler' is also an insulting term for 'whites', regarded by some black South Africans as not belonging to South Africa.

An interesting in-depth review of the book Whiteness Just Isn't What it Used to Be - White Identity in a Changing South Africa, by Melissa Steyn: State University of New York Press can be read on:

What is 'coloured'?

The term 'colored' is sometimes used for people of African descent in North America, and has a different meaning in South Africa, where it is spelt 'coloured'.

The apartheid government found it hard to define 'race', especially when it came to what they called 'Coloured' people. Under apartheid, according to the Population Registration Act, 'Coloureds' were divided into 'Cape Coloured', 'Cape Malay', 'Griqua', 'Indian', 'Chinese', 'other Asiatic' and 'other Coloured'. They speak English and Afrikaans, and live mainly in the Western Cape.

A coloured person was 'a person who is not a white person or a black.' A white person was 'a person who: a) in appearance is obviously a white person, and who is not generally accepted as a coloured person, or b) is generally accepted as a white person and not in appearance obviously not a white person.'

Those classified 'Coloured' had more privileges than Africans in the apartheid system, but were disadvantaged by discriminatory apartheid laws. The Black Consciousness Movement in the 1970s encouraged all those who were 'non-white' to identify themselves as 'black'. 'Coloureds' played an important role in the anti-apartheid struggle, and some rose to positions of power in the ANC after the democratic elections in South Africa in 1994.

This term 'coloured' can be regarded as offensive as it makes 'white' the benchmark for 'racial' division, and fosters 'us' versus 'them' othering. Today, the label 'coloured' is a contentious one, but is still used for people of 'mixed' descent - from slaves brought from East, the indigenous Khoisan who lived in the Cape at the time, indigenous Africans and white settlers.

The term is hotly debated, with some using the label and others despising it.

After the end of apartheid, 'coloureds', particularly the poor, supported 'white' political parties as they felt threatened by the policies of the ANC. The 'coloured' vote in the 1994 election put the National Party into power in the Western Cape Provincial Parliament for a short while.

'Coloureds' are considered 'black' for the purposes of Employment Equity, and are thus eligible for affirmative action, although some of them feel discriminated against for 'not being black enough'.

What is Indian?

The majority of South Africa's Asian population is Indian in origin, many of them descended from indentured workers brought to work on the sugar plantations of the British Colony of Natal in the 19th century.

Indians were discriminated against under colonialism and apartheid and are considered 'black' for the purposes of Employment Equity, and are thus eligible for affirmative action. Some also feel discriminated against for 'not being black enough'.

Indians are largely English-speaking, although the elders still speak some Indian languages such as Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Urdu and Gujarati. Most live in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.

Indians played an important role in the anti-apartheid struggle, and some also rose to positions of power in the government after the first democratic elections in South Africa. In the 2004 general election, most historically Indian areas voted for the ANC.

Indian was largely centred in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, as an unusual piece of apartheid legislation did not allow Indians to reside in the Orange Free State. Indians needed special permission to enter or travel through the province.

What is affirmative action?

Affirmative action is an attempt to level the playing field for all 'racial' groups. The Constitution recognises that to promote the achievement of equality, the new South Africa has to undertake special initiatives, such as affirmative action, to correct the imbalances created by our colonial and apartheid past.

The policy of affirmative action is not unique to South Africa. The United Nations Human Rights Committee states,

"... the principle of equality sometimes requires governments to take affirmative action in order to diminish or eliminate conditions which cause or help to perpetuate discrimination prohibited by the United Nations Covenant. For example, where the general conditions of a certain part of the population prevent or impair their enjoyment of human rights, the State should take specific action to correct those conditions. Such action may involve granting for a time to the part of the population concerned certain preferential treatment in specific matters as compared with the rest of the population. However, as long as such action is needed to correct discrimination, in fact, it is a case of legitimate differentiation under the Covenant."

The South African Employment Equity Act aims to promote and achieve equity in the workplace. Those who benefited from institutionalised racism and institutionalised gender discrimination are referred to as 'previously advantaged individuals' and the policy advances those who were 'previously disadvantaged individuals (commonly abbreviated as p.d.i.). The aim is to redress the effects of apartheid discrimination.

Legally, those who were previously disadvantaged include all those classified as 'coloured', Indian' or 'Black', white females, people with disabilities, and people from rural areas. Companies are required to meet minimum requirements in terms of representation by previously disadvantaged groups.

The policy remains controversial. One justification for affirmative action is that society cannot simply rely on elites to behave fairly to change the situation. Some pdi's regard affirmative action as insulting because they feel that they are capable of becoming successful regardless of the government's help.

What is xenophobia?

Xenophobia is fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners or of anything that is strange or foreign. Recent research has shown that South Africa has the highest level of xenophobia in the world.

There are many foreigners from other parts of Africa living and working in South Africa. Some have escaped conflict in their home countries, and others are merely seeking a better life in South Africa. Foreigners come to do business, trade, marry, and study. In 1993, South Africa made an agreement with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to help asylum seekers and refugees who come to South Africa.

There are hundreds of new refugees each month that head for the most industrialised country on the continent. No one knows how many African immigrants have settled illegally in South Africa. Estimates vary from 2 to 10 million people, or between 5 and 25 percent of South Africa's population.

Some South Africans are very angry with refugees as they feel that the government has to meet the needs of South African people first before they look after the needs of people from other countries. This has led to xenophobia in a country where high unemployment causes locals to resent any newcomers who might compete with them for jobs. Many refugees have reportedly been killed in attacks against foreigners.

According to Bea Abrahams of the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation:

The economy is another factor fuelling xenophobia: up to 40 percent of South Africans are unemployed. The vast majority of them are poor, uneducated blacks who depend on selling and trading on the street for survival. Many immigrants also wind up in the informal economy, even though 80 percent have a minimum of 12 years of schooling and up to 40 percent have a university degree.

However, during the 1980's many African countries assisted the liberation struggle against apartheid.

The old South Africa was divided in terms of an 'us and them' and post-apartheid South Africa, encourages an inclusive nation-building for South African citizens. The rhetoric is openness, but the reality is that exclusion for non-citizens applies.

Evidence of exclusion can be found in the name 'makwerekwere', a derogatory word coined in South Africa for foreigners of non-South African (black) Africans. The word is similar to 'barbarian' and used to suggest 'uncivilised' culture. It is another label used to exclude people who are 'other'.

Last updated : 16-Jun-2011

This article was produced by South African History Online on 22-Mar-2011

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