S. African coloreds seek place in future Political struggle creates hope, fear

November 08, 1992|By Jerelyn Eddings | Jerelyn Eddings,Staff Writer

MITCHELL'S PLAIN, South Africa -- Ahmed Semaar -- "colored" man in this country of abiding ethnic compartments -- recalls the comment of a friend when he talks about the dilemma of his people in South Africa today.

"A few years ago I was too black to be white," the friend told Mr. Semaar, a human rights activist. "Now I'm too white to be black."

South Africa's 3 million coloreds are brown-skinned people trapped in the middle of a political drama that is essentially being played out between blacks and whites. They are racially mixed people who have been shunned by whites, the rulers of the past and present. But they are fearful and suspicious of blacks, most certainly the rulers of the future.

Like Mr. Semaar, whose ancestors include white settlers from Holland and dark-skinned slaves from the island of Java in Indonesia, coloreds are descendants of the various groups of people who came to the tip of Africa and intermingled with the natives -- mostly the pastoral brown-skinned people known as the Hottentots whom Dutch sailors found when they landed in 1652.

Black African tribes were further inland and would clash with whites decades later over control of this vast land. The conflict persists today, pitting Nelson Mandela's African National Congress against the white minority government of President F. W. de Klerk. Both sides would like to win over the coloreds. But neither is a comfortable ally.

"In a way the people classified as colored find themselves in an identity crisis," said Henry Bredekamp, a history professor at the University of the Western Cape, a liberal mostly colored university.

Striving for whiteness

"For so long, people strove to be white because that was the ultimate sign of civilization," he said. They spoke the same language as the whites, Afrikaans, a derivative of Dutch. They went to the same churches, mainly the Dutch Reformed Church. They placed a high priority on education so they could be more like whites, and their outlook was decidedly Western rather than tribal."

In fact, colored South Africans identify more with black Americans than with tribal blacks in their own country.

"In many colored homes today you will find a picture of Martin Luther King," said Mr. Bredekamp, the history professor, who is racially mixed but doesn't know much about his ancestry.

"We've been brought up in these separate compartments," said William Langenhoven, who works for the French language school, Alliance Francais, in Mitchell's Plain, the country's largest colored community.

"We've always been told that blacks are the bogey man," he said. "We have more in common with whites than with blacks."

But under the system of apartheid coloreds were always second-class citizens, treated like poor and distant relatives to whites, which they are.

Blacks treated worse

Blacks were treated worse, of course. "We were lucky. We were not the oppressed. We were oppressed but never like the black people in the townships," said Mr. Semaar.

But there was not much contact between the coloreds here and the tribal blacks -- the Zulus, Xhosas, Tswanas, Sothos and Ndebele people who live inland and along South Africa's east coast

Coloreds are a minority of the overall population, 3 million out of 40 million, but they are dominant in the western part of the country, the region known as the Western Cape that extends from the hot, harsh, semi-desert area in central South Africa to the temperate zone at its southern tip, where spectacular mountains plunge into an icy sea.

Until recently, the apartheid laws of Mr. de Klerk's National Party kept blacks from moving here.

"The National Party for 40 years has been able to successfully divide the people," Mr. Semaar said. "We never knew to what extent they were successful until now."

Under the apartheid laws of the past 40 years, coloreds in the Western Cape could become craftsmen, such as carpenters and bricklayers, while the small number of blacks in the region could work only as laborers. Only whites could be professionals.

Coloreds also lived in better areas than blacks, with better housing, schools and municipal services, although not as good as white areas.

In Cape Town, coloreds used to live among whites, but after the National Party came to power in 1948, it enacted legislation to enforce apartheid, a strict system of segregation. They forced coloreds to leave the coastal city and settle in newly built Mitchell's Plain, which now has a population of about 750,000.

Mitchell's Plain, a low-income suburb with the country's highest crime rates, is in the Cape Flats, an area of sandy, wind-swept plains that extends inland from Cape Town's mountainous coast. A community of neat but small boxy houses built close to one another, it has proper municipal services and paved streets. But there is no hospital. For that, the residents have to go to Cape Town, a 30-minute drive.

Most workers go to Cape Town daily anyway since there are virtually no jobs in Mitchell's Plain.

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