JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Racial issues in South Africa are usually portrayed in black and white, a legacy of apartheid in which blacks were disenfranchised.
But South Africa is now rocked by a fierce new debate about racism and the spotlight is on the tense relationship between two racial groups that were both oppressed under apartheid: blacks and “coloreds.”
South Africa's coloreds are mixed-race people, a combination of black African and white European, although they also have diverse ethnic backgrounds including Indian, Indonesian and Khoisan, or “bushmen,” and others. Coloreds make up nearly 9 percent of South Africa's population, or 4.4 million of the country's 50 million people. Whites account for 9 percent, blacks are more than 79 percent and Asians more than 2 percent.
Coloreds have a long history in South Africa dating back to the 1700s and the people have their own distinctive accent, cuisine and culture. In general they do not support the ruling party, the African National Congress. They are concentrated in Cape Town, which is a major reason why the Western Cape province is the only one in South Africa not run by the ANC.
The new debate was sparked by government spokesman Jimmy Manyi, who said there is an “oversupply” of colored people in the Western Cape. The controversy has exposed the complex fracture lines created by apartheid that continue to exist today.
Some South Africans fear that the country is returning to a focus on race and racial classification, an obsession under apartheid.
“What is happening in our country?” asked the Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, who recently had his DNA analyzed and was found to have a racial mix that would be called "colored."
Under apartheid's racist hierarchy, the largely Afrikaans-speaking coloreds were second-class citizens, who were oppressed but had more privileges than blacks, who were third-class citizens. In the democratic South Africa after the fall of apartheid in 1994, Nelson Mandela said he wanted to create a non-racial society in which all citizens are equal.
However, race remains a hot button issue in South Africa. Racial terms are still commonly used, in part due to the ANC government’s affirmative action programs which promote representation of previously oppressed non-white groups in management positions previously dominated by white males.
Accusations of racism toward colored people kicked off when comments made by Manyi in a TV interview from last year were posted on YouTube by Solidarity, a mainly white trade union group.
In a separate controversy, Kuli Roberts, a black socialite and columnist, created a public uproar over a column that featured crude stereotypes of colored people. She apologized but her Sunday World column was canceled.
Manyi’s comments, in which he said that colored people “should spread in the rest of the country” to stop their “over-concentration” in the Cape, drew an angry letter from former longtime Finance Minister Trevor Manuel, who is colored. Manuel, who is still an ANC cabinet minister in charge of national planning, called Manyi’s words “worst-order racist” and compared him to the architect of apartheid, Hendrik Verwoerd.
“I want to put it to you that these statements would make you a racist in the mold of H.F. Verwoerd. I want to put it to you that you have the same mind that operated under apartheid,” said Manuel. “I now know who Nelson Mandela was talking about when he said from the dock that he had fought against white domination and that he had fought against black domination.”
Manuel was rebuked by ANC Secretary Gen. Gwede Mantashe, who called for party members to “refrain from behaving like free agents.”
The debate over colored people has become a front line in the battle for colored votes in the local elections scheduled for May. The ANC is trying to win control of the Western Cape province, but the sizable number of colored voters back the opposition Democratic Alliance, which is led by Helen Zille, a white woman.
Meanwhile, the DA is trying to use Cape Town and the Western Cape as a stepping stone to challenge the ANC elsewhere in the country, and colored voters are seen as key to their strategy.
The controversy also exposes rifts in the ANC, with Manuel facing sharp criticism from some of his fellow party members. Manuel “made himself the loneliest man in the ANC” with his letter to Manyi, said Justice Malala, a leading columnist for Johannesburg’s Times newspaper.
However, Manuel was backed by COSATU, the powerful trade union group, which said that Manyi's remarks “fly in the face of the commitment of the country, the ANC and its allies to a non-racial society, in which the rights of all citizens are protected by our constitution and laws and must be treated with respect and dignity.”
Manyi later apologized for offending South Africa's colored population. But he also criticized groups such as Solidarity that are trying to “mislead the public” by focusing debate on his comments about colored people, instead of directing discussion towards the Employment Equity Amendment Bill — another contentious issue.
A proposed amendment to the employment equity act, drafted when Manyi was labor department director general, deals with demographics and hiring requirements for employers.
The bill could result in a freeze on the hiring of colored workers and employers in the Western Cape could have to reduce their colored workforce, said Anthea Jeffery, head of special research at the South African Institute of Race Relations.
“The [Employment Equity] Act itself, with its emphasis on racial classification, racial targets, and racial preferences," said Jeffery, "contradicts the Constitution’s commitment to non-racialism.”