In Our Own Skins: A Political History of the Coloured People (2015)

Richard van der Ross’ book is a veritable introductory course to the Coloured people of South Africa, who are both ethnically and politically distinct from other mixed-race groups found around the world. The text is meant to be a basic tutorial that explains the colonial composition that created this community and to reflect on the institutions that have both supported and undermined their existence.

It begins with the confusion about the ancestral line that is the progenitor of the Coloured people. San, Khoi, and Khoisan, were Dutch names ascribed to the indigene population in the Cape of Good Hope in the 1600s. “The Coloured people - while neither Khoi, San nor Khoisan - are the large group of people, now [2015] numbering over five million, who live mainly in the Western Cape province, but also all over South Africa,” reads page 22. Their ancestral mixtures blend Cape Malay and European parentage with natives of the Cape, to manifest today as a unique linguistic and ethnic minority that has had varying positionality over time.

The text explores autogenous organizations and institutions, as well as the way that the colonial and apartheid regime exploited and reinforced differences between Coloureds, Blacks, and Indians. The institution of slavery is a primary touchstone for understanding the hierarchies of labor that later came to undergird apartheid itself. From the Anglo-Boer war to the African Political Organisation (APO), this text offers a people’s history of South Africa that is rarely heard through this lens.

The book concludes with a review of the voting behaviors of Coloured people during the 1994 elections that brought an end to apartheid. Less a conversation of justice, the vote represented the spectrum of diversity of racial conceptions within the Coloured community, with some agreeing that they are Black and others saying not. While most Coloured people agree that they are not White, and have never been treated as such, the divisions of Blackness have been more indoctrinated than imagined.

While this book tries to establish a comparative paradigm with Coloured communities in the U.S., I’d argue that that methodology does the Coloured community in South Africa a disservice.  Although situational contexts could establish preferences based on skin color, the legality of Blackness was clear in the U.S.’ one drop rule. Nor does miscegenation in the U.S. equate Blackness with indigeneity, in the North American context. The distinct legal and political codification in South Africa should not be discounted, nor should the fact that Coloureds maintain a linguistic distinction from most other Black groups be ignored. In terms of identity, these nuances matter - making all the difference in self-identification and social cohesion. This text is a must-read for anyone looking to understand ethnic and linguistic minorities within an African context, as well as the long-lasting legacy of Dutch colonization in the global South.

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