Kalpana Kalpana (Editor)


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South Africa
4,832,900 (2015; estimated)

Coloureds (Afrikaans: Kleurlinge) are a multiracial ethnic group originating in colonial South Africa, who possess ancestry from European, African (Khoisan and Bantu) and Asian (Austronesian and South Asian) ethnic groups. Different families and individuals have a variety of different physical features. There were extensive relationships and unions among these diverse peoples in the Western Cape — in which a distinctive Cape Coloured and affiliated Cape Malay culture developed. In other parts of Southern Africa, people classified as Coloured were usually the descendants of individuals from two distinct ethnicities. Genetic studies suggest the group has the highest levels of mixed ancestry in the world. Mitochondrial DNA studies have demonstrated that the maternal (female) lines of the Coloured population are descended mostly from Khoisan women, a case of gender-biased admixture.



The Coloured community is predominantly descended from numerous interracial sexual unions between Western European men and Khoisan women in the Cape Colony from the 17th century onwards.

In KwaZulu-Natal, Coloureds possess a diverse heritage including British, Irish, German, Mauritian, Saint Helenians, Indians, Xhosa and Zulu. Zimbabwean Coloureds are descended from Shona or Ndebele mixing with British and Afrikaner settlers. Griqua, on the other hand, are descendants of Khoisan and Afrikaner Trekboers. Despite these major differences, their ancestry from more than one naturalised racial group means that they are coloured in the South African context. Such people did not necessarily self-identify this way; some preferred to call themselves black or Khoisan or just South African.

The Griqua were subjected to an ambiguity of other creole people within Southern African social order. According to Nurse and Jenkins (1975), the leader of this “mixed” group, Adam Kok I, was a former slave of the Dutch governor who was manumitted and provided land outside Cape Town in the eighteenth century (Nurse 1975:71). With territories beyond the VOC’s administration, Kok provided refuge to deserting soldiers, runaway slaves, and remaining members of various Khoikhoi tribes. The history of racial segregation and labelling in South Africa and neighbouring countries has meant that the governments placed all such mixed race people together in one class, despite numerous ethnic and national differences in ancestry. The imperial and apartheid governments categorized them as Coloureds. In addition, other ethnic groups also traditionally viewed them as a separate group.

During the apartheid era in South Africa, the government used the term Coloured to describe one of the four main racial groups identified by law in order to keep divisions and maintain a race-divided society: black South Africans (formally classified as "Native", "Bantu", or simply "African"), white South Africans (formally classified as "European"), Coloureds, and Indians (formally classified as "Asian").

Coloured people are made up of Indonesian, mixed-race, and people from Khoisan ancestry. The Apartheid government thus treated them as one people, despite their differences. 'Cape Muslims' are also classified as 'coloured.' They generally have Indonesian and black ancestry, as many Indonesian slaves had children with African partners. Many Griqua began to self-identify as Coloureds during the apartheid era, because of the benefits of such classification. For example, Coloureds did not have to carry a dompas (an identity document designed to limit the movements of the non-white populace), while the Griqua, who were seen as an indigenous African group, did.

Coloured people constitute a plurality of the population in the Western Cape (48.8%) and a large minority in the Northern Cape (40.3%) and Eastern Cape (8.3%) provinces. Most speak Afrikaans, while about twenty percent of Coloureds speak English as their mother tongue, mostly in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal. Virtually all Cape Town Coloureds are bilingual. Some can comfortably codeswitch between Kaapse taal (a creolized dialect of Afrikaans spoken mostly in the Cape Flats) and suiwer Afrikaans (formal Afrikaans as used in schools and media), and South African English.


At least one genetic study indicates that Cape Coloureds have ancestries from the following ethnic groups; not all coloureds in South Africa had the same ancestry.

  • Indigenous Khoisan: (32-43%)
  • Bantu peoples, chiefly from Southern Africa: (20-36%)
  • Peoples from Western Europe, chiefly the Low Countries: (21-28%)
  • Peoples from South and Southeast Asia: (9-11%)
  • The Malagasy component in the Coloured composite gene pool is itself a blend of Indonesian and Bantu genetic markers.

    This genetic admixture appears to be gender-biased. A majority of maternal genetic material is Khoisan. The Coloured population is descended predominantly from unions of European and European-African males with autochthonous Khoisan females.

    Pre-apartheid era

    Coloured people played an important role in the struggle against apartheid and its predecessor policies. The African Political Organisation, established in 1902, had an exclusively Coloured membership; its leader Abdullah Abdurahman rallied Coloured political efforts for many years. Many Coloured people later joined the African National Congress and the United Democratic Front. Whether in these organisations or others, many Coloured people were active in the fight against apartheid.

    The political rights of Coloured people varied by location and over time. In the 19th century they theoretically had similar rights to Whites in the Cape Colony (though income and property qualifications affected them disproportionately.) In the Transvaal Republic or the Orange Free State, they had few rights. Coloured members were elected to Cape Town's municipal authority (including, for many years, Abdurahman). The establishment of the Union of South Africa gave Coloured people the franchise, although by 1930 they were restricted to electing White representatives. They conducted frequent voting boycotts in protest. Such boycotts may have contributed to the victory of the National Party in 1948. They carried out an apartheid programme that stripped Coloured people of their remaining voting powers.

    Coloured people were subject to forced relocation. For instance, the government relocated Coloured from the urban Cape Town areas of District Six, which was later bulldozed. Other areas they were forced to leave included Constantia, Claremont, Simon's Town. Inhabitants were moved to racially designated sections of the metropolitan area on the Cape Flats. Additionally, under apartheid, Coloured people received educations inferior to that of Whites. It was, however, better than that provided to Black South Africans.

    Apartheid era

    J. G. Strijdom, known as the Lion of the North, worked to restrict Coloured rights. He removed their ability to exercise their franchise. Strijdom's government expanded the number of Senate seats from 48 to 89. All of the additional 41 members hailed from the National Party. It increased its representation in the Senate to 77 in total. The Appellate Division Quorum Bill increased the number of judges necessary for constitutional decisions in the Appeal Court from five to eleven. Strijdom, knowing that he had his two-thirds majority, held a joint sitting of parliament in May 1956. The entrenchment clause regarding the Coloured vote, known as the South African Act, was amended.

    Coloureds were placed on a separate voters' roll. They could elect four whites to represent them in the House of Assembly. Two whites would be elected to the Cape Provincial Council, and the governor general could appoint one senator. Both blacks and whites opposed this measure. The Torch Commando was very prominent, while the Black Sash (white women, uniformly dressed, standing on street corners with placards) also made themselves heard.

    Many Coloureds refused to register for the new voters' roll. The number of Coloured voters dropped dramatically. In the next election, only 50.2% of them voted. They had no interest in voting for white representatives—an activity which many of them saw as pointless.

    Under the Population Registration Act, as amended, Coloureds were formally classified into various subgroups, including Cape Coloureds, Cape Malays and "other coloured". A portion of the small Chinese South African community was also classified as a coloured subgroup.[1][2]

    In 1958, the government established the Department of Coloured Affairs, followed in 1959 by the Union for Coloured Affairs. The latter had 27 members and served as an advisory link between the government and the Coloured people.

    The 1964 Coloured Persons Representative Council turned out to be a constitutional hitch which never really got going. In 1969, the Coloureds elected forty onto the council to supplement the twenty nominated by the government, taking the total number to sixty.

    Following the 1983 referendum, in which 66.3% of white voters supported the change, the Constitution was reformed to allow the Coloured and Asian minorities limited participation in separate and subordinate Houses in a tricameral Parliament. This was part of a change in which the Coloured minority was to be allowed limited rights, but the Black majority were to become citizens of independent homelands. These separate arrangements were removed by the negotiations which took place from 1990 to provide all South Africans with the vote.

    Post-apartheid era

    During the 1994 all-race elections, some Coloured people voted for the white National Party. The National Party recast itself as the New National Party, partly to attract non-White voters. This political alliance, often perplexing to outsiders, has sometimes been explained in terms of the culture and language shared by White and Coloured New National Party members, who both spoke Afrikaans. In addition, both groups opposed affirmative action programmes that might give preference to non-Coloured Black people, and some Coloured people feared giving up older privileges, such as access to municipal jobs, if African National Congress gained leadership in the government.

    Since the late 20th century, Coloured identity politics have grown in influence. The Western Cape has been a site of the rise of opposition parties, such as the Democratic Alliance (DA). The Western Cape is considered as an area in which this party might gain ground against the dominant African National Congress. The Democratic Alliance drew in some former New National Party voters and won considerable Coloured support. The New National Party collapsed in the 2004 elections. Coloured support aided the Democratic Alliance's victory in the 2006 Cape Town municipal elections.

    Patricia de Lille, current mayor of Cape Town and founder of the now-defunct Independent Democrats, does not use the label Coloured but many observers would consider her as Coloured by visible appearance. The Independent Democrats party sought the Coloured vote and gained significant ground in the municipal and local elections in 2006, particularly in districts in the Western Cape with high proportions of Coloured residents. The firebrand Peter Marais (formerly a provincial leader of the New National Party) has sought to portray his New Labour Party as the political voice for Coloured people.

    Coloured people supported and were members of the African National Congress before, during and after the apartheid era: notable politicians include Ebrahim Rasool (previously Western Cape premier), Dipuo Peters, Beatrice Marshoff, Manne Dipico, John Schuurman and Allan Hendrickse. The Democratic Alliance won control over the Western Cape during the 2009 National and Provincial Elections and has since brokered an alliance with the Independent Democrats.

    The Congress has had some success in winning Coloured votes, particularly among labour-affiliated and middle-class Coloured voters. Some Coloureds express distrust of the ANC with the comment, saying that the Coloured were considered "not white enough under apartheid, and not black enough under the ANC." In the 2004 election, voter apathy was high in historically Coloured areas.

    Intermarriage in post-apartheid era

    According to the Christian Science Monitor, around four in 100 South African marriages occur between members of South Africa's major ethnoracial groups, with trepidation toward interracial marriage polling far lower among black South Africans than among white South Africans. It is not known how many descendants of post-apartheid interracial relationships identify as Coloured or with the Coloured minority group.

    Southern Africa

    The term Coloured is also used in Namibia, to describe persons of mixed race, specifically part Khoisan, and part European. The Basters of Namibia constitute a separate ethnic group that are sometimes considered a sub-group of the Coloured population of that country. Under South African rule, the policies and laws of apartheid were extended to what was then called South West Africa. In Namibia, Coloureds were treated by the government in a way comparable to that of South African Coloureds.

    In Zimbabwe and to a lesser extent Zambia, the term Coloured or Goffal was used to refer to people of mixed race. Most are descended from mixed African and British, or African and Indian, progenitors. Some Coloured families descended from Cape Coloured migrants from South Africa who had children with local women. Under Rhodesia's predominantly white government, Coloureds had more privileges than black Africans, including full voting rights, but still faced social discrimination. The term Coloured is also used in Swaziland.


    Numerous South African cuisines can be traced back to Coloured people. It is said that bobotie, snoek based dishes, koeksisters, bredies, Malay roti are staple diets of Coloureds and other South Africans as well. Most dishes are passed down for many generations.

    Other usage

    The American English term (spelled as colored) has a related but different meaning. It is primarily used to refer to people of African descent, including the many of mixed race. In the state of Louisiana, the French colonial term free people of color legally denoted people of mixed European and sub-Saharan African ancestry. The use of the term "colored" to describe people of African descent is now considered archaic and offensive in most contexts. It remains part of the title of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a prominent African-American organization established in 1909 to work for civil rights. In addition, some members of the African-American community use colored as a legitimate ethnic/racial label when intentionally self-chosen and used in a respectful manner. In the United States usage, the phrase refers more generally to all people who aren't white, including people of Asian, Native American and African descent.

    In Great Britain, coloured has also been used to refer to anyone who is not white, and is now considered an old fashioned, though not necessarily derogatory term. As of 2016 It is rare to hear the term used by persons under the age of 60 years, though it remains common amongst older people.


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