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This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Developing a strategic perspective for the Coloured Areas in the Western Cape by Max Ozinsky and Ebrahim Rasool

This discussion paper is based on and enriched by the forums that have been convened since 1991 to address ANC strategy in regard to the coloured* community in the Western Cape. In this paper we try to pull together much of what has already been discussed. We hope that our strategy will be concretised and actual work will result. This discussion document tries to provoke debate and discussion to that end.

1. What is the coloured community?

1.1 Demographics

According to Westgro, the population of what they define as the Western Cape (roughly the same as the ANC and SACP Western Cape region) is:


1 919 000



920 000



827 000



3 666 000


Of this overall total, 3 281 000 (89%) are urban and 385 000 (11%) are rural.

The coloured group is the majority of the population of our region. As an ANC-led alliance, we cannot claim to represent the majority in our region if we do not draw a significant proportion of support from this group.

The second conclusion to be drawn from this data is that the coloured group is overwhelmingly urbanised and resident in the Greater Cape Town metropolitan area.

1.2 Beyond the demographics

What are the features of this community that we need to take into account when fonnulating strategies?

1.2.1 Socio-economic features and the working class

The coloured communities have, to some extent, been privileged through certain apartheid laws, in particular, the Coloured Labour Preference Area. Since the scrapping of this law, but not only because of its repeal, coloured people have been faced with significant unemployment. For example, less than 10% of school leavers in 1992 will find jobs in the formal sector of the economy. In the past year, retrenchments have increased significantly.

A spiral of unemployment, poverty, crime and gangsterism exists in many of the coloured areas. The effects of this poverty are a widespread inability to pay rents and basic municipal services, resulting in electricity and phone cuts, as well as evictions. Increasingly, people lack money for food.

Besides these features, reliance on social welfare is a major aspect of people's lives. Almost every working class household is dependent, to a greater or lesser extent, on pensions, grants, disability maintenance or other forms of social welfare services.

We need to develop an understanding of how these issues affect people's perceptions and mould their responses. Are the strategies that were used in the 1980s still appropriate today? For example, can we only rely on blaming apartheid and the government for poor living standards, when many people perceive the problem to be caused by "blacks taking over"?

The trade unions, in particular the COSATU affiliates SAMWU and SACTWU, have a substantial membership from the coloured areas, and a wider influence over many working class people in these areas. The process of building these unions and affiliating them to COSATU has had a significant influence on the consciousness of important sections of the working class. At the same time, however, many of the members of COSATU unions do not necessarily support the ANC, although amongst worker leaders there is widespread support. We need to do more to deepen our understanding of what issues can be used to win increasing support amongst both organised and unorganised workers.

1.2.2 The middle class

Besides the large working class population, is a fairly well-off and significant middle class made up of state employees, professionals and business people. This middle class is developed in settled areas like parts of Athlone, parts of Mitchells Plain, and areas of the Northern and Southern Suburbs.

Members of this group may not be easily won over to a support of the National Party, but they may equally be reluctant to support the ANC for a variety of reasons. These include the residue of Unity Movement ideas that still exists in the Peninsular.

1.2.3 Religion

In speaking about the coloured communities, we need to keep in mind the heterogeneity within this group. Religion and culture are important aspects of this diversity. Two main religions play a significant role within the coloured communities Christianity and Islam. Both these religions are, themselves, not homogeneous, and many of the patterns of difference within them are similar.

There are significant numbers of people who do not actively practise their religion but retain links with their religious tenets. There are those who are active practitioners of their religions, and who evaluate politicsfrom that perspective. Some among them are politically progressive and see their political beliefs as a consequence of their religious convictions. Others are much more fundamentalist, or politically right-wing conservative as a result of their religious doctrine.

The esteem in which progressive religious leaders are held is, as a result, quite diverse. An Archbishop Tutu or an Imam Gabier are heroes for some, while they are viewed with suspicion or even as villains by others.

To date we have had very little success projecting the positions of the ANC on religion. The National Party, while it has an atrocious history with regard to religious freedom and while it openly projects itself as a "Christian" party, has managed to portray the ANC-alliance as being anti-religious. We need to find ways of convincingly putting across our message that religious freedom is a basic human right, and that most ANC members are also religious. We believe that all religious groups have an equal right to exist and that no one religion must be favoured by the state. In particular, we need to project our understanding that religion should help liberate our people, and not be misused to keep oppressors in power.

1.2.4 Culture

Understanding the cultures of these communities is important for understanding both the self-identity and consciousness of the people making up the coloured groups. From our general analysis of these communities it is clear that there is not one single coloured culture, but rather a collection of interwoven cultures and identities. At the same time, there are important unifying aspects.

Firstly, there is the question of language. Afrikaans and Kaaps are widely used and we need obviously to address people in our media and speeches in the language with which they are most comfortable.

Secondly, there is a widespread identification amongst people of their own collective dispossession through the hundreds of years of brutality that they have experienced under white rule. Many understand this oppression as going back to the times of slavery and of the dispossession of the Khoi. One way in which this is reflected is in a lumpen humour, which combines a general lack of respect for authority with an alienation from politics and politicians in general.

Thirdly, there are enduring cultural groups and organisations, the Coons, the choirs and ballroom dancing to name a few, that all play an important role in the cultural life of these communities. There is also a widespread influence of American popular music culture and dancing - Disco, Hip Hop and Rap - amongst many youth, although these forms are often alienating for many older people in the communities.

1.2.5 Group identity and consciousness

It is debatable whether the coloured communities constitute a distinct ethnic group. As has been said already, the coloured group is heterogeneous, but the effect of apartheid legislation was to force people into a convenient category and this has led to the formation of some kind of self-identity.

In fact, apartheid has had two contradictory effects on these communities:

1. It physically forced together dispersed groups of people through racial classification, while dividing existing communities and redefining them with the Group Areas Act. It restricted access to resources and facilities on a racial basis and it divided these coloured communities from Africans. To some extent, an element of coloured unity and identity has emerged from the experience of apartheid, group areas, gutter education, etc.

2. However, there are also important differences in the way in which different sectors went through these experiences. The resulting consciousness that emerged from the experience has not been uniform.

This suffering under apartheid, in addition, did not necessarily create bonds and joint campaigns with others also suffering under apartheid. Job reservation and other privileges, relative to African communities, often made coloured people intermediaries in the racist relationship between whites and the rest of the oppressed. For example, the use of the word "kaffir" in the coloured communities has been common, and whilst its use was interrupted by the 1980s, it is starting to re-emerge in certain quarters.

These kinds of sentiments are currently being reinforced by the manner in which many companies are implementing what they are calling "affirmative action programs". For many businesses, affirmative action means employing only African people. This is completely in contradiction with the understanding of affirmative action that we have as the ANC alliance. In our view, affirmative action should be non-racial and should apply to those who have been oppressed and disadvantaged by apartheid. However, this experience of the "affirmative action" of sections of big business has a negative effect on the consciousness of many coloured people. It reinforces the impressionthat the end of apartheid will materially disadvantage them.

Anti-communism also has some resonance in these communities. This is largely, but not exclusively, attributable to state propaganda. Anti-communism results largely from state attempts to feed on the religious convictions of people and from the portrayal of communism as being anti-god. In addition, Muslims have run a sustained campaign against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. As information emerges from the former Soviet Union, stories abound on the repression of religion. There is, therefore, suspicion of the tri-partite alliance.

2. Organising in the coloured communities

2.1 Our experience from the recent past The UDF

There are a variety of sectors among coloured communities where struggle and resistance were once vibrant. One thinks of the youth and professional bodies, for instance. They all felt comfortable under the broad banner of the UDF. Undoubtedly, the UDF was the leading force in politics in the Western Cape in the 1980s. It captured people's imagination, and led in the coloured communities to a largely successful anti tricameral parliament campaign in 1983-4. We need to examine this phenomenon in order to see which lessons are relevant to our present situation.

The UDF was able to provide a home for organisations while they retained their character and identity:

. it was political, but also had a strong emphasis on bread and butter issues;

. its leadership reflected the breadth of the Western Cape population;

. it was able to network with individuals and organisations providing a broader alliance than its formal affiliates;

. it had a strong moral appeal because of the association of key religious figures with it;

. it had a flexible approach to structures, being strong on affiliation, but relying on groups of activists in area committees to accomplish work;

. it maintained a high media profile both in the press and through its own media;

. its campaigns were carried by those who were most closely affected by them, for example the constituency committees for the anti-election campaign and the African township structures dealing with the effects of the Koornhof Bills;

. it was able to project both youth and senior people as its leadership;

. it took up campaigns in an imaginative and dramatic way.

While the UDF had many achievements, we must not over-romanticise the 1980s as a period of great resistance for coloured communities. Those struggles did succeed in preventing the cooption of the coloured communities into the ruling bloc, in intervening in their political consciousness and in providing them with a vehicle for their outrage and frustrations at the state.

Yet we must honestly ask how permanent these gains are. Have the 1980s left us with a legacy of organisation and structures? Have the 1980s created non-racialism, acceptance of African leadership and a sense of common nationhood?

In a sense, our work in the 1980s has indeed laid the basis for all these, but there is nothing guaranteed or timeless about any of this. We need to examine the period from late 1989 to today to understand why a certain discontinuity has occurred.

2.2 The ANC and the coloured communities

2.2.1 How we have mobilised as the ANC

Initially after its legal relaunch, the ANC was not seen to have a clear program for work in communities other than the recruitment of members and the launching of branches. There was no particular focus on mass work and, in time, an ambiguity developed between the ANC and the Civics. Who took up the issues? This led to the dissipation of much of the inherent strength of mass politics in coloured areas.

When the ANC began to take up campaigns, this was done largely at a regional and high profile level, which did not really build strength on the ground. Often the support that developed for mass action was not consolidated.

Politics became centralised and this marginalised the already weakened MDM structures. In this way, a key component of our access to a variety of constituencies was lost. We also often made errors as we sought short cuts to these constituencies, by focusing on figure-heads and notempowering the activist structures below them which had been proven in the past to be key factors in reaching constituencies.

2.2.2 The question of "African leadership"

It is true that throughout the 1980s the ideals of the ANC, as expressed through the underground, the UDF and the other formations of the mass democratic movement, assumed a significant hegemony over the coloured group. It was largely impossible for authoritative leadership to exist within these communities without it coming out at important points in opposition to apartheid and the NP. This is no longer necessarily the case. Tendencies to political apathy and non-involvement in these communities are now much stronger. One of the central issues in this process relates to the perception in our own ranks and more broadly about African leadership within the ANC. The following quote is a good example:

"We brown people are now looking forward to the time when the ANC rules. But have we ever stopped to ask if the ANC is going to do the same to us [as the NP]? I believe I am right when I say that the ANC's first priority lies with its own people - the blacks...Where do uneducated brown people fit in? We must think carefully where our future welfare lies before election day dawns."

Bekommerd ("Worried") of Ceres in a letter to Rapport Metro, 21 February 1993.

In our region we face a unique position, African people are not the majority of the population. Unfortunately there has been a lack of clarity, understanding and debate on what is meant by "African leadership" in the struggle. This has created confusion in our own ranks and it has led to disillusionment amongst many coloured activists.

Any legitimate assertion of the importance of African leadership must relate to the position of the African majority as the most nationally oppressed group in our country. This position of extreme nationaloppression means that the main content of our national liberation struggle is the liberation of the African majority. The African majority is the most reliable force for the completion of the tasks of national liberation. This means that there is a special role for the African masses, in particular the working class in the national liberation struggle. The need for "African leadership" should not refer to the position of individuals within leading structure of the liberation movement.

2.2.2 Partial successes

The track record of ANC organisation since 1990 in organising in the coloured communities has been extremely uneven. There are, however, a number of strong ANC branches in these communities, and it is important to look closely at the reasons for success. The following points can be made about strong branches:

1. These are branches which are actively engaged in campaigns around local issues directly affecting people. A process of struggle exists in the community and that struggle unifies the community.

2. They are branches in which the branch leadership plays a strong and cohesive role. The Branch Executive Committee actually provides direction and leadership to the branch and the community and has come to be seen as the leadership of the community.

3. The branch relates to other organisations and influential individuals in a manner which incorporates them rather than excludes them.

As can be seen from the above three points the role of leadership is crucial in building strong ANC structures in an area. Indeed one of the most interesting developments in the past year is the growth of the influence of the ANC in areas such as Delft and Macassar. These are areas which are newly developed and where community structures are in the process of being formed. They are areas where people had high expectations about their new homes and their ability to build their lives. These expectations are being shattered by high bond repayments and the poor construction of their houses.

These issues unite people in communities which are still developing cohesion and inner life, where there is no existing established community leadership. In this situation, the ANC can become the vehicle for the emerging leadership of the community. The ANC can be seen td be at the centre of people's struggles. This is reflected in the kind of leadership that exists within the ANC in these branches. It also affects the kind of membership that becomes part of the ANC - older people start joining.

By comparison, in many of the"established" coloured areas, the leadership of ANC branches that has emerged is different. The leading figures in the branches are often activists developed from the struggles of the 1980s. In general, these comrades are often young, students or unemployed. They are often not the heads of families and are not seen to be facing the same problems as the rest of the community. This group of activists comes to be regarded as a sub-culture within the community - they are primarily involved in politics and are thought of as "adventurous".

We know from past and present successes that we can develop progressive political organisation in the coloured communities. But we also know that this requires a clear understanding of what we are trying to do, political gains and allegiances cannot be taken for granted.


This discussion document is by no means conclusive. We have tried to raise questions to help us clarify both our understanding and approach to the coloured question. There are no easy solutions, but we hope that this document will help to stimulate a debate which will take us on the road to developing a clear strategic approach to the coloured communities in the Western Cape.

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to theThis resource is hosted by the site.