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8— Coloured Identity and Coloured Politics in the Western Cape Region of South Africa
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The Rear-guard

The mobilization of a separate Coloured ethnic identity at the turn of the century was at least in part a rear-guard defensive action by skilled and petty bourgeois people against their exclusion from the white society. It was an attempt to establish a springboard from which to launch a greater claim for inclusion within the ruling dispensation. At the same time the establishment of a distinct Coloured identity was a signal that the interests of certain skilled segments of the non-European population could best be advanced—or at least protected—by organizing in isolation from the African working class.

The South African Spectator, a newspaper established in December 1900 under the editorial guidance of F.Z. Peregrino, reflected these concerns. It aimed to increase 'race pride' and was 'exclusively in the interest of the Coloured people'.[76] In particular, it aimed to advance the cause of the Coloured petty bourgeoisie whose 'business and economic progress' Peregrino sought to promote through a boycott of white commerce.[77] Through his Coloured People's Vigilance Society, Peregrino set the stage for future generations of Coloured petty bourgeois politicians. In particular, his ambiguity regarding the identity of Coloureds has remained a hallmark of subsequent Coloured organizations. At times, Peregrino urged his constituents to regard themselves as 'Negro'. At the same time, his newspaper devoted much of its attention to the promotion of narrowly Coloured interests. The Coloured People's Vigilance Society restricted its membership to Coloureds on the grounds that it was 'expedient and to the interests of the Coloured people generally that the Coloured Afrikander people held their meetings separate to the native'.[78] The Coloured People's Vigilance Society was principally confined to mutual aid and temperance activities. The society brought together Coloured men and women and provided a breeding ground for a separate Coloured identity. In 1902 the development of this identity was expressed in the formation of the African Peoples' Organization (APO). Mr W. Collins, the president of the organization, told the assembled delegates at the founding conference: "This is the first time in history that we are meeting together to discuss our affairs.'[79] The foundation of the APO constituted a watershed in the development of a reconstituted Coloured identity, and exercised a decisive influence over the development of a distinct Coloured consciousness for half a century.

The principal concerns of the organization were the defence of the Coloured franchise and the extension of educational opportunities for Coloured youth.[80] It is no accident that teachers came to play a leading role in the APO and in subsequent Coloured organizations. Collins, the APO's founding President, saw in the extension of Coloured education the means to advance the participation of Coloureds in the ruling polity. At the turn of the century the education of Coloureds, like so many other matters affecting them, was coming under


increasing attack. The basic link between education and the franchise further increased the anxiety of the incipient Coloured organizations. These rallied around the issue of the extension of education for Coloureds to prevent the further disenfranchisement and deskilling of their communities. In 1899 the Superintendent General of Education, Sir Langham Dale, fuelled the fears of the Coloureds when he confirmed that the

first duty of the Government has been assumed to be to recognise the position of European colonists as holding the paramount influence, social and political, and to see that sons and daughters of the colonists should have at least such education as their peers in Europe enjoy, with such local modifications as will fit them to maintain their unquestioned superiority and supremacy in this land.[81]

The government's policy had meant that the education of Coloured children de facto was left to missionaries and other private benefactors. In 1883 the enrolment at mission schools was 38,000, of whom fewer than 6000 were white.[82] The restriction of Coloured children and teachers to the inferior mission schools of the Western Cape contributed to the forging of Coloured identity, as pupils and teachers came to recognize their common exclusion and mobilize to increase their claim on the state system. Fearful of a further squeezing of its main base, the relatively educated and skilled Coloured class, the APO from the outset campaigned for the improvement in the education and teaching of Coloured youth. The organization aimed to show the administration that 'an educated class of Coloured people' existed in Cape Town.[83]

The APO from the outset was engaged in a rear-guard action in which the organization's tactics were informed by the politics of survival rather than a long-term vision of Coloured identity. In this defensive process, Abdurahman, the leader of the APO from 1906, attempted to extract the maximum gain from the strategic concerns of the ruling class. In 1853 the threat of an alliance of Coloured and African men and women had forced the Crown partially to incorporate Coloured men. In the first half of the twentieth century Abdurahman was able to achieve considerable leverage by the skilful manipulation of similar fears. The manipulation of these strategic concerns provided a shifting foundation for the APO and in part accounts for the ambiguity of the APO and subsequent Coloured organizations. To increase its leverage, the APO sought to emphasize to the administration its common cause with the white polity. At the same time the identification of the APO with African sentiment was used to demonstrate to the regime the cost of alienating Coloured intellectuals.

It is no accident that the growth of the APO under Abdurahman occurred at a time when the strategic concerns of the administration were increasingly focusing on a policy of 'divide and rule' in which the non-European world would be fragmented into Coloured and African. Lord Selborne, the High Commissioner of South Africa during the formative stage of the development of separate Coloured organizations, between 1900 and 1910, warned that:

Our object should be to teach the Coloured people to give their loyalty to the White population. It seems to me sheer folly to classify them with the Natives, and by treating them as Natives to force them away from their natural allegiance to the Whites and making common cause with the Natives.[84]

Abdurahman was sensitive to the concerns of Selborne and capitalized on them to advance the Coloured cause. He criticized Lord Milner for allowing Coloureds to be treated like the 'barbarous Native' noting that 'although Natives are


excluded from the vote [in the Transvaal] the Coloured should not be'.[85] Abdurahman was consistent only in his commitment to the advance of the Coloured franchise. The threat of an alliance with Africans and a wider commitment to non-European unity (as reflected in the name African Peoples' Organization) was used by Abdurahman in order to extend his leverage in his campaign to further Coloured rights. In 1912 Abdurahman warned the regime that if it continued to alienate Coloured people 'there will one day arise a solid mass of Black and Coloured humanity whose demands will be irresistible'.[86] But, at the same time, Abdurahman consistently refused to open the membership of the APO to Africans. Abdurahman was instrumental in maintaining the APO as a specifically ethnic Coloured organization. Tautologically, he argued that the legitimacy of the exclusive Coloured identity of the organization rested on its existence as a racially exclusive organization. For, as Abdurahman told the 1910 Conference of the APO:

people of South Africa . . . it is my duty to deal with the rights and duties of the Coloured people of South Africa as distinguished from the Native races.[87]

The focus of the APO on the advance of an identity of Coloureds separate from that of Africans reflected the determination of the organization to secure for its more skilled and petty bourgeois constituents some political and economic benefit. Illiterate and impoverished Coloureds had no political muscle and were left out of the electoral arithmetic. The organization of this class of Coloureds was left chiefly to the socialists from the International Socialist League and other organizations.[88] From the turn of the century, meetings at the 'Stone' and other venues were the forum for the development of a working class identity which was in opposition to ethnic identities. At a time when ethnicity was crystallizing in the Western Cape, radicals kept alive an alternative tradition. They recruited Coloureds and Africans in the docks and elsewhere into non-ethnic organizations. Whereas many more skilled and petty bourgeois Coloureds rallied in support of the APO and favoured ethnic organization, unskilled men and women were not similarly motivated by a desire to challenge the increasing racial exclusiveness of white trade unionists. Neither were they as disenchanted with the process of disenfranchisement, for they had never had the vote and were not compelled to revise their political expectations at the turn of the century. Although many of the factors accounting for the rise of Coloured identity affected the working class, others were missing. Socialists were able to point to destitution as a condition that afflicted working class people of all races in their efforts to forge non-ethnic working class organizations.

Though evidence of their participation is fragmentary, there can be little doubt that Coloureds were active in the leadership and membership of a number of non-racial organizations. The Industrial Workers Union, formed in 1913, actively recruited Coloured as well as African and white dock workers. In 1919 the IWU gave way to the Industrial and Commercial Workers' Union. Prominent in its leadership were J.K. La Guma and J. Gomas, Coloured members of the Communist Party. Although eventually expelled by the increasingly Africanist union, La Guma, Gomas and others did bear witness to the fact that the APO was representative of only a section of the Coloured community.

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