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The Coloureds of Southern Africa

Population:     5,247,740 (2020 Estimate), South Africa Gov't Stats); Namibia 165,000
Religion:        Christian (80%), Muslim (1,5%), Hinduism (1,2%), African Traditional Religion (0,3%)
Registry of Peoples code:  Coloured:  102264
Registry of Languages code (Ethnologue):  Afrikaans:  afr (West Cape dialect)


The mixed-race people called Coloured, about 85% of them live in the Western Cape Province of the Republic of South Africa.  They are found in Namibia also.

Some sources will also list the Griqua and other tribes of Coloureds separately.  In the 19th century, the Griqua Coloured established themselves in a homeland including the town of Kimberly, where gold was first found in South Africa.  The Griqua Nation served as an ally of the British in war with the Boers (Afrikaners).  Griqualand was annexed by the British as a Crown Colony then assigned to the Cape Colony.

The Rehoboth community in Namibia are usually classified as Coloureds, but they consider themselves distinct, though of similar origin.  The population of all the Coloured groups in Namibia is reported to be about 165,000.

One source reports that the Northern Cape Coloureds (population of approximately 460,000) in the country of South Africa are a unique culture of racially mixed origin.  This correlates with resident sources in the area.  This group should likely be classified as a distinct segment, or perhaps even a separate people group.

The various Coloured communities in southern Africa developed out by events of the Dutch colonization of South Africa.  In 1652 a small company of employees of the Dutch East India Company were settled on the southern tip of Africa in order to establish a refreshment station for the Company's ships en route to the Far East.

As groups of settlers moved away from the Cape settlement to develop farms, they needed workers.  The Dutch government forbade enslaving indigenous people of southern Africa.  They did allow the importation of slaves or indentured servants from other territories.  A Coloured correspondent states that slaves were imported from India or Madagascar, with a total of about 189 by 1658.  During the next year, about 300 African slaves were imported from Angola and Guinea.  By 1700 there were an additional 180 slaves from the Indonesian Archipelago (the Dutch East Indies at the time) [confidential personal email, June 2009].  The peoples and languages of Indonesia are part of the broad Malay cluster of Southeast Asia.  The Cape Malay have continued to maintain their unique identity into the present.

Though overlooked or ignored in traditional political histories of South Africa, early settlers in the Dutch colony were of German and Swiss origin, as well as Dutch.  This mix was enriched by Indians and Africans.  Offspring resulted from various combinations among these groups.  Settlers or soldiers also had mixed offspring with the indigenous people, the Khoikhoi, the San and later the Xhosa.  An additional contribution to the gene pool were the slaves imported from West Africa.  The various other Coloured peoples also intermarried with the Khoikhoi, the indigenous people of the cape, until they have largely been absorbed into the Coloureds.

Another source (no longer online) also comments on the varied origins:

The Malay came from the Dutch spice islands in South East Asia, the Malagasy were brought from the island of Madagascar and the Khoi were living in South Africa when the Boer farmers arrived. The various groups of slaves intermarried freely, and were augmented by quite a few marriages and informal partnerships with Dutch settlers. Sociologically the Coloured community has been more open than any of the other racially based communities and has welcomed all persons of mixed ancestry.

The term Coloured came to be applied to all mixed people, then later came to be an politically-imposed ethnicity.  One group of Coloureds escaped to the bush and lived as an African tribe, but became fearsome warriors on horses.  These were the Griqua, who are still an Afrikaans-speaking people today.  (One group of less than 200 Griqua also speak a Khoi language called Xiri.)

The form of Dutch spoken in the Cape gradually changed significantly from that spoken in Holland.  The Cape dialect came to be called Afrikaans ("the African language").  In the church, the law courts, educational institutions and official government circles, the official language was Dutch.  But the common language of the people was increasingly Afrikaans.  The Coloureds share the same language and religion as the "white" Afrikaners, although separated from them by strong social and class distinctions.  Today over half of the 7 million Afrikaans-speaking people in South Africa are "Coloured" people.

The "Coloured" peoples represent a wide range of genetic backgrounds.  They commonly have lighter brown or yellow skin with somewhat Negroid features.  But skin color and features vary considerably, showing the broad gene pool represented.  Many Coloureds claim ancestors and relatives of Indian extraction.  Some coloureds might not have any white blood; they might be Indian, San and Xhosa, or any other mix of otherwise identified traditional ethnic groups.

The tribal or racial identity of Coloureds has been basically imposed by the social attitude of Europeans, both British and Afrikaner, who have considered non-Europeans inferior.  Their rights were legally limited under apartheid, 1948-1990.  The classification of people in South Africa under the old regime was quite arbitrary, and people could apply to change their classification irrespective of their actual genetic history or ethnic history.

According to some sources, the Cape Malay group of Coloureds number only about 200,000.  But a recent Coloured source suggests the focus on a Malay population has been exaggerated and stereotyped in traditional sources [confidential personal email, June 2009].  He suggests the Cape Malay population may be 40,000 or less.  Coloureds as a whole make up 9% of the population of South Africa.

In the New South Africa (since 1994), there has been much open discussion among the Coloured community on aspects of their history and identity.  They report that it is difficult to unravel the myth and misdirection from the actual historical facts.  Various Coloured communities are researching the questions of their history and identity, developing their own self-identity along different lines in the new open society.

When I was in South Africa in 2005-2009, various individuals would comment about their Indian or Xhosa ancestors or relatives.  Various varieties of people formerly legally assigned to the category of "Coloured" have been probing their history, sociology and self-identity in a search for a satisfactory understanding of their identity.

Most Coloureds speak Afrikaans.  About half the Afrikaans speakers in the world are Coloured people.  The rich cultural mix of the Coloureds has contributed to the development of Afrikaans as a distinct language.

Afrikaans is a language that developed in Southern Africa from Dutch.  Besides normal change, the Afrikaners borrowed words from the local people.  Other changes were derived the Malay language of slaves (which my correspondent identifies as Batavian [Javanese] and Malagasy).  Linguists also identify Khoisan vocabulary in Afrikaans.  Other vocabulary seems to have derived from the trade relations with the Dutch East Indies.  (The Malagasy group of languages are closely related to the Dusun languages of Kalimantan.)

The language was legally suppressed by the British Empire.  The movement to have Afrikaans recognized as an official language was strongly resisted by Dutch purists, and it was only in 1925 that Afrikaans was finally given official recognition and used formally in church, legal and government functions.

Great efforts have been made in the development of Afrikaans.  A considerable body of literature exists in the language including some fine poetry.  It has great power of expression in the down-to-earth things of everyday life.  Afrikaans textbooks have been produced in scientific and technical fields.

Some Coloureds also speak English.  In the latter years of apartheid, many joined black South Africans in consciously fostering English as a protest against apartheid, the policy of the Afrikaners.

Political Situation:
In 1795, the British took over the Cape from the Dutch.  When the Boers (Afrikaans-speaking farmers) trekked north to escape British rule, some sources report that this left the Coloureds more free socially and politically.  They benefited in some ways under the more benevolent British rule.  But socially the British also looked down on the Coloureds.  Their social isolation grew as British settlers began to establish themselves in Cape Colony.  As Afrikaans speakers, the Coloureds also suffered under British domination in the 1800s, when Afrikaans was made illegal for public use.

After WWII, the Afrikaners gained control of South Africa in the victory of the Nationalist Party in 1948.  The policy of apartheid was developed as an attempt to maintain white (Afrikaner) supremacy in South Africa.  In 1949 racially mixed marriage was made illegal.  Even though separation of the races (apartheid, "apartness") was instituted in 1948, the Coloured community remained enfranchised until 1952, when their vote was also taken away by new apartheid laws.

Despite strenuous efforts, the policy of apartheid was unworkable and eventually collapsed in the face of increasing black resistance at home and international condemnation abroad, leading to the triumph of the African National Congress in 1994.  Though South Africa under the British had been structurally racist in orientation, after the National Party gained power in 1948, the British South Africans were in some ways opponents of apartheid.  But opponents of apartheid were a minority in the Nationalist-dominated parliament after the war.

Under apartheid they had an advantage over blacks because of their good Afrikaans, required for public or private employment and promotion.  The Coloureds were given a privileged position under apartheid rule, though their rights were also limited.  Even so, Coloureds were visible in political parties and social movements opposing apartheid.

Coloureds are involved in a wide range of society, sharing in the general modern culture of southern Africa.  Many work as domestics or in the hotel industry.  Some are farmers.  The Cape Malay Coloureds are known for their crafts and woodwork, skills brought from Java and Malaysia and maintained in Africa.  The Griqua were herders and renowned as masters of the horse.  Coloureds in Namibia are involved in business.

Urban Coloureds are found in most areas.  Some families and communities are English-speaking.  Author Christopher Van Wyk has written an autobiography that presents helpful backgrounds into the social situation of Coloureds in the past and up through the transition to democracy since 1994.  His book, Shirley, Goodness and Mercy:  A Childhood Memoir, is an insightful resource on the plight of urban Coloureds.

One source comments: The Colored schools produced notable figures in the fields of medicine, law, government, diplomacy, the arts, engineering, commerce and industry, and education itself. Some of South Africa's finest writers and poets—such as the internationally acclaimed Adam Small—are Colored.

The Cape Malay, a distinct group of peoples classified with the Coloured group, have retained the Islam of their Malay heritage.  Most Malay are still Muslim.  The Encyclopedia Britannica notes:  "A Muslim minority, the so-called Cape Malays, lived mostly in separate communities and married among themselves for religious reasons."  The Griqua Independent Church, founded in 1920, is strong.  Pentecostal churches have met a good reception among Coloureds in recent years.

Traditionally sources have reported that the Dutch Reformed Churches has been dominant among the Coloureds.  This was apparently due to the identification of this church family with the Afrikaans language.  The percentage of active participation is uncertain.  The (Coloured) Dutch Reformed Mission (Sending) Church, formed in 1881, became a source of moral strength for their communal opposition to apartheid.  In recent decades, other churches have proven attractive to various communities of those considered as Coloureds.

The Cape Malay Muslims have a unique culture, and their heritage includes a form of Islam.  The Malay Muslims, however, are reportedly more open than the Indian Muslims to overtures from the Christian community.  Other Coloureds who are Muslim would require more specialized communication strategies for significant relationship with Christian communities.

See related reviews and articles on this site:
[Text] The Afrikaners of Southern Africa
[Text] Indians of South Africa
[review] Self- Concepts of Race in South Africa
[review] South African Spirituality
[Text] Shangaan (Tsonga) People of Southeastern Africa
[Text] The Tswana Cluster
[review] Venda Homeland under Apartheid
[review] A View of Africa
[review] White Man in a Cape Town Township
[Text] The Xhosa of Southern Africa

For more on Languages
Dusun Languages – Ethnologue
Khoisan (Khoi-Kwadi) Languages – Ethnologue
Malagasy Languages – Ethnologue

For more on The Coloureds of Southern Africa
Cape Coloreds
Dutch Reformed Churches of South Africa
Cape Malay – Encyclopaedia Britannica
Cape Malay – Wikipedia
Includes Good Further Links
Coloured — Wikipedia
Coloureds — Namibia Endless Horizons
Coloured of South Africa
South African Coloured Peoples Organization
Griqua – Encyclopaedia Britannica
History of the Griqua Nation
Griqua Independent Church - Facebook Page
South Africa's Population - South Africa Gov't Stats
Rehoboth Basters Community in Namibia - Wikipedia
An analysis by race and language, with discussion
Rehoboth Basters Community in Namibia

Adhikari, Mohamed.  Contending Approaches to Coloured Identity and the History of the Coloured People of South Africa.  Cape Town:  University of Cape Town, 2005.
Davis, N E.  A History of Southern Africa.  Nairobi, Kenya:  Longman Group Ltd, 1978.
Fisher, Ryland.  Race.  Auckland Park, South Africa:  Jacana Media, 2007.  250p.
     Fisher, former editor of the Cape Times, in Cape Town, South Africa, Ryland looks at the concepts of race in the New South Africa in a society under Transformation.
This is South Africa.  Pretoria, South Africa:  Central Statistical Service, 1992, 1996.
Van Wyk, Chris.  Shirley, Goodness and Mercy:  A Childhood Memoir.  Johannesburg:  Picador Africa (Pan Macmillan), 2005.
Were, Gideon S.  A History of South Africa.  London:  Evans Brothers Ltd, 1974.

Orville Boyd Jenkins

Originally written August 1996
Published online on GRMI (now defunct) in 1997
Published online on MixedFolks (now defunct) about 2002
Published online on CESA (now defunct) about 2004
Updated version posted on SLRK 30 January 2008
Revised 27 August 2010
Last edited 1 March 2022

Copyright © 1996, 2007, 2022 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.

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