No one has tackled the awkward yet urgent question: just where does the “coloured” belong? writes Dr Siona O’Connell.
I was struck by the comment made by a UCT student who approached me after a lecture last week. “I must thank you, Siona,” she said quietly, “for talking about the ‘coloured’ experience at UCT, as no one seems to be doing it at all.”
This brief interlude has given me pause for thought, and echoed sentiments that I have had in conversations with hundreds of people in homes from Paternoster to Pniel, from Manenberg to Ocean View, Atlantis, Athlone and Walmer Estate.
Notwithstanding whether our conversations were in English or in our particular and familiar Afrikaans, the message was clear. Once again, “coloureds” are being sidelined, finding themselves in no-man’s land, caught up in the long shadows that are being cast in the pitting of “black” against “white”.
The Western Cape, in particular, has much to answer for, given that it is home to a group of people who may or may not choose to identify themselves as “coloured”.
The complexities of what this term means have yet to be fully explored, and I suggest that in the current terrain that is marked by protest about transformation, no one has tackled the awkward yet urgent question: just where does the “coloured” belong?
The old adages of “not being white or black enough” and of “being sandwiched in the middle”, remain.
It seems we are tripped up by the term “coloured” itself, weighed down by a past of which we were not the authors.
It is a past that continues to script and represent us in the cruellest way, as an unwelcome shame and testimony of illicit sexual relations between “black” and “white”.
Despite an opportune moment that brought transformation to the fore through student-led protests that began at UCT, no one has thought it prudent enough to think about the questions of colour.
We have failed to think about those shades of skin tone that somehow do not fit neatly within the idea of “black”.
This in part further silences a group of people who share a certain way of being, evidenced in thought, multilayered, fluid and complex cultural practices, and who have carved meaningful lives in the shadows.
This moment calls for a critical self-reflection on the part of anyone interested in a new way of being.
It is a moment that demands that we think beyond blackness and whiteness, arguing instead for a radical reimagining of what we consider humanness to be.
It reminds us to heed the contributions that made 1994 possible, and stresses our obligation to remember – an obligation that must include an honest acknowledgement of the stark divisions that continue to exist between “black”, “white” and the countless coloured shades in-between.
If we are to use this moment as one of rupture, then we are compelled to ask those hard questions about inclusivity and difference, and the apparent reluctance to acknowledge the contribution of “coloureds” in the fight for freedom, as well as the economy of the Western Cape.
“Coloured” lives have been sacrificed for liberation; our women of the local clothing textile industry have been fundamental to the shape and success of this Mother City; our writers, dancers, lawyers, doctors, artisans, teachers, scientists and scholars have been pivotal in giving this city the kudos it continues to enjoy.
Yet we remain on the margins, no one at any level interested enough to see that the troubling question of the “coloured” is not going to go away, despite moves such as those of the City of Cape Town evicting the Sactwu Spring|Queen Pageant from the Good Hope Centre last year.
One only has to look to the contributions made by “coloureds” to this city and South Africa to realise the potential |in bringing about another way of being.
I challenge anyone to be untransformed when reading the poetry of Gladys Thomas, or fail to be inspired when seeing local clothing and textile workers from the Cape Flats take to the fashion ramp.
We are resilient, gloriously multicoloured, forged and strengthened by centuries of oppression.
We are able to survive despite the odds. So perhaps it is time to get used to it, for, as an exceptionally hard-working and accomplished “coloured” woman whose grandparents were forcibly removed to Hanover Park from District Six, I have earned the right to claim my space in the sun.
* Dr Siona O’Connell is the director of the Centre for Curating the Archive at UCT and a senior lecturer at the Michaelis School of Fine Art.