In South Africa, Police Violence Isn’t Black and White
The killing of a coloured teenager in Johannesburg exposed the fraught state of race relations in South Africa—and how the racial hierarchies created by apartheid continue to plague the country.
Sometimes an unjust killing reveals all the hidden scars of a nation. An innocent 16-year-old teenager, Nathaniel Julies, was shot dead by police on the evening of Wednesday, Aug. 26 near Johannesburg. This violent act was remarkable for many reasons despite South Africa’s familiarity with violence: Nathaniel was merely on his way to buy a biscuit at a nearby shop, and was killed a few meters from his home, for no apparent reason. He was a popular kid who had Down’s syndrome—and everyone in the community loved him. He was often jovial and quick to burst into dance. His killing felt like one gratuitous police assault too many on the entire neighborhood.
The racial dynamics of this case—and of South Africa more generally—tend to confuse most outside observers. While the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States is straightforwardly about Black people pushing back against anti-Black racism, South Africa’s situation is more complicated. The country’s apartheid and colonial histories introduced more fine-grained racial classifications that drew an administrative and sociopolitical wedge between Black people and so-called coloured people (mostly people of mixed heritage).
In Eldorado Park, the brutality of the largely Black police force left Nathaniel’s predominantly coloured community furious. The killing affirmed locals’ deeply held belief that they were marginalized and trampled on during the apartheid era under white supremacist rule, and now face a similar fate during the post-apartheid period under Black leaders. Their anger, in other words, stems in an important respect from the fact that they identify as neither Black nor white.
It was all the more significant because the officer who pulled the trigger was herself a coloured woman. The deepest source of rage in the community is that the police are seen as representatives of the country’s Black-led government and are perceived as institutionally racist against coloured people. Regardless of how individual officers look, the force is simply not trusted by a community that has experienced too much brutality from those meant to enforce law and order.
A closer look at Black-coloured relations reinforces just how abominable colonialism and apartheid were and allows outsiders a clearer understanding of South Africa’s contemporary racial politics.
Identity politics is sharply contested the world over, but the reality is that none of us, including skeptics of identity politics, are free of identities—even if these are imposed on us by society. My own experiences growing up as a coloured South African reveals some stark truths about my country.
Shortly after the apartheid government came to power in 1948, it passed legislation that defined each race group. Every person was designated a race according to the state’s arbitrary criteria. These included skin color, hair texture, the shape and size of one’s nose, and even whether you “passed” certain unscientific tests like a pencil being stuck in your hair to see whether it fell out or not—an apparent indicator of whether you may be white, coloured, or Black.
There were many sub-categories too, all of them arbitrarily defined, and your race depended on the whimsical judgment of a white state bureaucrat. This led to ridiculous and unjust scenarios in which families could be torn apart because officials assigned different members to different race groups.
These classifications were accompanied by laws that compelled people to only live in areas with members of the same racial group. This apartheid spatial geography is how coloured and Black communities came to be further separated from each other. It was a divide-and-rule tactic and worked well for white supremacists to the extent that, over the course of the country’s history, many coloured people internalized the fiction that we were not Black. This belief was prevalent in my neighborhood, too.
I grew up in Grahamstown, a South African frontier city named after a colonial-era Scottish soldier, Colonel John Graham, in the early 1800s. He had fought the indigenous Xhosa people as part of Britain’s racist, colonial project to expand its empire across the world.
Only recently (in 2018) did the name of the city change to Makhanda, a Xhosa warrior and prophet who had led an attack against the British garrison in Grahamstown in 1819. This change signaled the commitment to remembering resistance to empire. But name changes cannot mask the enduring legacies of colonialism that still define the geography of the city.
The neighborhood where I spent most of the 1980s and 1990s was racially homogenous. I grew up hearing people in my neighborhood being referred to as coloured or brown. We were, mostly, of mixed racial heritage. These definitions were also framed in the negative: coloured or brown people are neither white nor Black. We spoke Afrikaans, not English or Xhosa, and we self-identified as a distinctive cultural and racial grouping.
I have many warm and positive memories of my early childhood, but I also have distinctly shameful memories of casual anti-Black racism and bigotry. My late mother’s tactic to get my sisters and I to draw the curtains in our bedroom at night was to scare us by saying that “the Bantu” would stare at us while we slept if we did not close the curtains. Bantu was a racist term for a Black person. My mom knew that we had been raised to think of “the Bantu” as a scary monster, and so she could draw from the well of anti-Black racist sentiment among coloureds to get us to behave.
One of the interesting aspects of South African life is that many poor and working-class families have domestic workers. In my community, domestic workers and gardeners were mostly Black. Some were treated decently but many were also badly mistreated by coloured families. I recall witnessing lots of abuse and prejudices, from a refusal to use the Xhosa names of the workers and giving them English names instead—Mavis and Regina were especially popular choices—to accusations of theft, without due process, that could lead to dismissals on the spot.
White supremacists were so successful with their political project to keep race groups apart, in an attempt to preserve the imagined racial purity and presumed moral superiority of white people, that a hierarchy of races were codified in law, with profound social and political consequences for every community.
The apartheid government went so far as to establish separate and unequal chambers of parliament in the 1980s to represent coloured and Indian people. The puppet parliament supposedly elevated these groups above Blacks and sought to defuse any sense of solidarity among South Africans who are not white against apartheid, although it quickly lost credibility. Spatial segregation and political divide-and-rule tactics nonetheless had the intentional upshot of fueling Black-on-Black racism by dividing Black people with the invention of coloured identity.
I was not immune to this racism. I could not imagine being attracted to Black people sexually or romantically. It was only through cross-racial friendships and experiences at a mixed-race high school and university that I started to chip away at my own inherited anti-Black beliefs and attitudes. But for too many South Africans, as the shooting in Eldorado Park showed, that racial hierarchy and the antagonism it created between Black and coloured people lingers.
After the police shooting, many of the locals I spoke to in Eldorado Park echoed a popular refrain among coloured South Africans, “During apartheid we were not white enough! Now we are not Black enough!” This captures a sense of being neglected by both the apartheid state and the current democratic government.
These feelings of political and economic marginalization reveal several things: Coloured people feel invisible, neglected and, crucially, they feel they are not being seen because they are coloured. Not many coloured people connect their struggles for visibility and inclusion to the struggles of Black communities that are also living under conditions of poverty or relative deprivation. The failure to see these connections is precisely because colonialism and apartheid made coloured people think they are not Black, or even African.
Historian Patric Tariq Mellet has argued that the “de-Africanization” of coloured people goes back to at least 1911, when the British-South African authorities, in the census data of that period, lumped together a diverse range of people as “coloured.” This was entrenched in the middle of the 20th century with apartheid’s racist legal framework.
Sadly, this long history is what has led to so many coloured people still feeing morally superior to Black people. A quick way to insult a coloured person in my neighborhood was to accuse them of behaving like a Black person or, worse, of being a Black person. This insult worked, not because it reminds the coloured person of white racism, but because the insult “reduces” you to being Black. This, of course, is precisely what white supremacists intended.
Although there are historical examples of cross-class and cross-race solidarity (such as the anti-apartheid work of the United Democratic Front—a non-racial movement of civic, labor, church, and other organizations—in the 1980s or the 1956 Women’s March on the Union Buildings in Pretoria that protested against racist laws limiting Black people’s movements), these are, to this day, few and far between.
The coloured community is ultimately a construction. There are many so-called coloured communities in South Africa with different lineages. Mellet argues that instead of talking of coloured people we should “talk of Cape Khoi, Camissa, Nama, Korana, Griqua, Damara and San”—a reference to many indigenous groups of mixed racial heritage.
That is one way to respond to the historical fiction. Some people simply want to reject the label of coloured even if they do not yet know what to replace it with. Others, like Mellet, insist on the recognition of the “de-Africanization” of coloured people and restoring the deeper historical affinities between all people who are not of European descent.
But the yearning for a non-racial South Africa, or a nascent Black political project that aims to dismantle the Black-coloured distinction, should not be dishonest about how much anti-Black racism coloured communities must still deal with, and how much anti-coloured racism exists in Black communities.
South Africans cannot, painful as it is, deny the psychological successes of colonialism and apartheid. Just because many white South Africans have work to do to root out an ingrained sense of superiority, does not mean that Black-coloured relations don’t require urgent attention.
South Africa may yet be a gift to the global Black Lives Matter movements. It demonstrates the complexity and necessity of both opposing white supremacy while taking a long look at our Black selves and the way we have been damaged by white supremacists—in more ways than are comfortable to admit.