«The Population Registration Act and Popular Understandings of Race: A case study of Sydenham - Vashna Jagarnath, June 2005 This paper seeks to build ...»
The Population Registration Act and Popular Understandings of Race: A case
study of Sydenham
- Vashna Jagarnath, June 2005
This paper seeks to build on Deborah Posel’s1 analysis of the social impact of the
Population Registration Act by adding a more socially based history that takes into
account the impact of this Act on the subjects of the Apartheid state. The Apartheid
state sought to make race the marker of education, class, lifestyle, politics and social
identity. It sought to demarcate and split society into different race groups all accessing different material realities that were prescribed to each race group. The state was not able to realise all of its goals in this regard. This paper will show some of the failures, contradictions and discrepancies of the implementation and consequences of the Population Registration Act. However one also needs to understand the way in which the act was effective. Its successes were achieved by making race a marker of social and cultural norms. These social and cultural norms in turn became the markers race setting up a mutually reinforcing social dynamic.
The long-term social consequences of the Act became deeply implicated in the articulation and development of social hierarchies. Although the ambitions of the Act were national its consequences played out in particular ways in particular geographical spaces, such as the formerly Coloured suburb of Durban, Sydenham, where this study is based. These hierarchies were closely linked to, and informed by pre-existing and newly developed forms of racial exclusion and prejudice. This was due to the convergence of official racial classification of individuals along with preexisting but dynamic local understandings of race. The system of official racial classification converged with already existing local ideas of race that were based on family history, class, physical appearance and geography. All these components were linked to the development of individual identity and the position of that identity within particular and often interlocking social hierarchies. Although the official classification of race and local understandings of race were connected, the two components did not always compliment each other. This was the case despite the official classification and the local understandings of race being decided through the use of similar categories such as family histories, class, physicality,2 and geography.
These categories were nonetheless subjectively interpreted and it was these different understandings of the social components that led to the discrepancy between state imposition of a classification and local understandings of the classification. This gave rise to a complex lexicon heavily laden with localised ideas of race which informed not only where one fell within the racially informed hierarchy (as understandings of family histories, class, physicality and geography were shot through with racial anxieties and interpretations) but to an extent also determined jobs, relationships and living standards.
Through interviews with individuals within a residential area formerly classified as Coloured, Sydenham, I am able to build onto Posel’s argument that relied heavily on interpretation of the bureaucracy to illustrate the difference between state rhetoric Deborah Posel, “What’s in a name? Racial categorisations under apartheid and their afterlife” Transformation 47 (2001) I use the term physicality to refer to inherited physical features in a non-judgmental way.
about the Act and actual lived experience of the implementation of the Act. Sydenham provides the perfect group of people to analyse the social outcomes of the Population Registration Act as people living there were directly affected by the Act. Many of them were classified as Coloured for the first time while others maintained their racial classification of Coloured from pre-Apartheid South Africa. In both cases many people witnessed their families breaking-up either willingly, or under duress from the state, due to the classification project. Helen, an ex-seamstress who I interviewed
early in the study, immediately remembered the impact of the Act on her family:
Helen: and then my brother was classified in his I.D. book as Other Coloured and my birth certificate says Mixed and my brother after me says Coloured, Earl’s birth certificate says Cape Coloured, and the rest of the children says Coloured. So we don’t know what happens, you tell me that was how it was then. What could we do?3 As Helen’s recollection illustrates the processes of classification were often conflicting and apparently random. Posel claims this was due to the Apartheid state relying heavily on a ‘commonsensical’4 approach to classification. Consequently the practice of state bureaucrats was based on individual’s perceptions of what constituted a racial classification, which relied heavily on subjective interpretations of family history, class, geographic location and physicality. However, when the Act was being planned the state had assumed that racial classification would be a simple matter. This
assumption was well captured in a parliamentary debate in 1950:
We …have never experienced any difficulties in distinguishing between Europeans and non-Europeans.5 In fact, people routinely understood their classification by the state to be inaccurate and a fairly arbitrary. In many instances people felt powerless to define themselves in the face of the authority of the subjective perceptions of local bureaucrats. Roy, a 71 year old interviewee living in Sydenham remembers how officials in the local bureaucracy6 utilized their personal views on race to classify him. Roy explains that all he was required to do was to fill in a few forms. There was no discussion of any sort with the official and in fact he was never within sight of the official. His new classification was just posted to him. It was probably based on a few answers that Roy had given while filling in the forms, which had been interpreted by the official with no serious consideration of Roy’s family history or geographic location.
Interview Helen 30 September 2002, Sydenham: Durban. Transcripts in possession of researcher Deborah Posel, “What’s in a name? Racial categorisations under apartheid and their afterlife” Transformation 47 (2001) Deborah Posel, “What’s in a name? Racial categorisations under apartheid and their afterlife” Transformation 47 (2001) pg 56 I will use the term bureaucrats and official to refer to those individuals who worked within the offices where classification or reclassification took place, namely the Home Affairs Office.
Roy: This was when the I.D. cards came out. That was when I got my birth certificate. It said Cape Coloured. I don’t know how I became Cape Coloured. My elder brothers are mixed Europeans but I became Cape Coloured. This was a shock because I had never even gone to Cape Townand I still have not been there… No you could not tell them nothing they are Afrikaners and they tell you what you were. They really played god.7 The difference between people’s own understandings of racial identity and their official racial classifications is the pivot on which the analysis in this paper turns. In South Africa people were tied to their racial classification in a number of ways. This was more so after the implementation of Apartheid. Once racial classification was fixed one was tied to this identity that determined were you lived, who you engaged with, what jobs you held, where one socialized - in fact most aspects of one’s life.
These bureaucratic underpinnings of state imposed racism also facilitated various popular racisms.
Posel’s examination of the politics of the Act shows the different ways the Apartheid state discussed the functioning of the Act as well as the different scientific discourses used to legitimate the Act.8 Although the political aspects of the Act were important in the formation of the Act it was the social implications that had the more lasting effect on the development of identities. This paper will analyse the different ways individual identities within a particular, mainly residential, area were dramatically shaped through the entwinement of earlier notions of race with the Population Registration Act.
The Act enabled the crude separation of people along particular understandings of race. But it was the convergence of the Act with pre-existing and often local ideas of race9 that impacted on understandings and formations of identity. These pre-existing ideas of race were often subject to, like most things local, particularities that shaped ideas according to geographic location, family history and local understandings of class and gender. So the types of influence and the ways in which pre-existing notions of race and the Act come together in Sydenham was peculiar to a certain extent but was far from completely localised as ideas and discourses may be reproduced in different geographic locations that share similar family histories, understandings of gender dynamics or belong to the same class background and so on. In the same way a different discourse of identity may develop within a few families within the same geographic location because these families either have a different understanding of class or a different family history.
Interview Roy 12 July 2002, Sydenham: Durban. Transcripts in the possession of the researcher Deborah Posel, “What’s in a name? Racial categorisations under apartheid and their afterlife” Transformation 47 (2001) pg 55 These Acts as well as archival sources point to pre-existing understandings of race that were either
official or socially constructed:
Native Beer Act in 1908 Income and Land Assessment Act of 1908 Class Areas Bill of 1919 Pietermaritzburg Archives Repository (PAR) Natal Provincial Administration (NPA) Provincial
Secretary’s Files Volume 152, 2/437: Director of Education to the Provincial Secretary 25-09-1942:
Illegitimate Coloured Children: Admission to Coloured Schools.
Formulation of the Population Registration Act
White racial anxieties and fears were running high during this period consequent to the increase in the urban black population in White spaces resulting from labour pressures arising from the Second World War10 and increase in limits to landownership enforced on the African population meant that many people experienced hardships in rural areas.11 This led to many fears being aired around the increase of visible African poverty in White urban spaces, the increase in informal settlement, a rise in crime level as well as fears of mounting political dissension.12 Europeans and non-Europeans have been working up to a crisis with more and more trouble blowing up, clashes in the towns, crimes, the creation of all sorts of hamlets on the borders of the town full of poverty and misery, clashes on the trains, assaults on women.13 These White anxieties made the segregationist policies of Apartheid proponents increasingly popular amongst the White electorate leading to the development of acts such as the Group Areas Act, the Population Registration Act as well as the Immorality Act. These above mentioned acts, especially the Population Registration Act and the Group Areas Act set up systems of governance that allowed the Apartheid state far more control over every aspect of the lives of racially segregated South Africans. This would not only entitle the state to control most aspects of individuals’ lives but also to appease White anxieties about racial purity.
When the Nationalist came into power in 1948, however, a much more detailed and restrictive policy, Apartheid was out into place. In 1950 two key pieces of legislation, the Population Registration Act and the Group Areas Act were passed. These required that people be strictly classified by racial group, and that those classification determine where they could live and work. Other areas controlled de jure by Apartheid laws included political rights, voting, freedom of movement and settlement, property rights, rights to choose the nature of one’s work, education, criminal law, social rights including the right to drink alcohol, use of public services including transport, social security, taxation, and immigration.14 If we are going to make… a clear demarcation as to who is going to be classified as European… and who is going to be classified as Coloured, then Deborah Posel, “What’s in a name? Racial categorisations under apartheid and their afterlife” Transformation 47 (2001) pg 50 P. Maylam & I. Edwards (ed) The People’s City: African Life in Twentieth-Century Durban (Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press) pg Deborah Posel, “What’s in a name? Racial categorisations under apartheid and their afterlife” Transformation 47 (2001) pg 52 Deborah Posel, “What’s in a name? Racial categorisations under apartheid and their afterlife” Transformation 47 (2001) pg 52 Bowker G. & Star S. Sorting things Out: Classification and Its Consequences (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000) pg 197 we must definitely take blood into consideration. It is no use saying that we know these people are Coloured. We know these people are Coloured but, because by repute and common consent they are White, we are going to make them White. By so doing, we are going to allow Coloured blood into this race which, we some of us, wish to maintain so wonderfully pure.15 The Population Registration Act of 1950 sought to do away with racial ambiguities that were present within pre-Apartheid South Africa. The proponents of the Population Registration Act felt that by creating fixed racial identities and ascribing fixed cultural practices accordingly then intimate interracial relationships would be almost impossible within South Africa.16 Many suggestions and debates went into determining exactly how the state would implement this policy of classification. The Apartheid state agreed that all individuals within South Africa would be racially classified and would have a form of identity document stating their name and race.
The attempt at generating a precise and state organised system of racial classification produced immediate social costs. Once a person was classified as being of a specific race their entire lives changed for better or worse. The state soon began to realise that it was almost impossible to determine people’s race with confidence, and the more eugenicist methods suggested with the hope of introducing more accuracy, such as