/ 15 August 2016

#ColouredExcellence: How Wayde van Niekerk’s victory challenges stereotypes

Wayde van Niekerk at the Diamond League meeting in France
Wayde van Niekerk at the Diamond League meeting in France

When Wayde van Niekerk stopped the clock in 43.03 seconds, South Africans who had watched the race unfold at 3am this morning leapt up in celebration. The South African sprinter’s victory had a particular resonance with coloured people, sparking a debate about identity politics in the country.

Earlier this year, Odessa Swarts, van Niekerk’s mom and once an incredible runner in her own right, told the Mail & Guardian that being coloured had very little to do with the conversation around her son’s success.

“Most of the public post incorrect information on social media saying that Wayde is not being acknowledged because he’s coloured,” she said. 

“I don’t like that. Within half an hour of me tweeting that he ran sub-10, so many tweets starting coming in to me congratulating him. 

“If the public knew how many media people contacted us they wouldn’t make things up and post them randomly.

“People are making it a race thing. This puts a damper on his achievements,” she added.

But after van Niekerk’s victory at the Rio Olympic Games this morning, coloured people began celebrating what is called #colouredexcellence on Twitter. 

The athlete was born in Cape Town in the Western Cape, which unlike other provinces in South Africa, has a population of coloured people higher than black people. The so-called Cape Flats in Cape Town – where drugs, gangsterism and crime are the order of most days – have become synonymous with coloured identity, fuelling prejudice against coloured people as being lazy and criminal.

Van Niekerk’s world record breaking win challenged stereotypes, with coloured communities proudly standing behind the sprinter’s victory. As people streamed on to social media, some identity-splaining popped up when coloured people were told to leave race out of it and celebrate as South Africans.

A more complex sort of explaining to coloured people then started coming through, as black South Africans began telling coloured South Africans that they should be identifying as black.

When Steve Biko wrote that “being black is not a matter of pigmentation – being black is a reflection of a mental attitude”, he helped expand black identity politics to include all people of colour who have experienced oppression. 

It was also a call to unity for persecuted South Africans to stand together against their common enemy: apartheid, racism and the people – namely white people – who perpetuated and benefited from it.

When the Population Registration Act was implemented, groups of people from different backgrounds in slavery and indigenous communities – Malay, Khoikhoi, San, Creole, etc – were forcefully classified and identified as coloured. The tensions around coloured identity date way back even before coloured became an identity marker. Although many consider the Cape’s indigenous people to be the Khoisan, that in itself is a confusion of identity, where Leonard Schultze, a German anthropologist fused Khoikhoi people and San people into a single community when he coined the term Khoisan.

“It’s a portmanteau term standing for the San (the hunter-gatherers) and the Khoi (the herders),” writes Anthea Garman, an associate professor in media studies at Rhodes University, in her article Khoisan Revivalism: the claims of Africa’s first indigenous peoples.

The term is just one example of a historical legacy that has erased parts of people’s identity as new words have developed to classify them. But the term coloured existed long before the National Party took over and began implementing apartheid. In her essay Coloured Identity and the Rainbow Nation, Cheryl Hendricks recounts a speech made by Dr Abdullah Abdurahman, a community leader in the Cape in the early 20th century, who urges that coloured people must remain polite so that the colonial government would allow them more participation in their home cities. At that point, Hendricks says, coloured was already a popular term.

Fast forward a few decades later to apartheid and Sharon Gabie, in her master’s paper at the University of the Witwatersrand, writes that few people challenged being called coloured because it afforded them a higher rank on the racial hierarchy that the apartheid regime banked on. Black people were at the bottom, coloured people slightly higher, Indians a little more higher and white people on top of the regime’s social order. Because there was some benefit in being coloured during apartheid, Hendricks says that Biko’s Black Consciousness ideology wasn’t big in coloured communities at the time.

Post-1994, more researchers like Garman have focused on the reclaiming of Khoisan identity and the tension between black South Africans and coloured South Africans. Many coloured South Africans reject black identity, partly because they feel like they have benefited the least from democracy which, as Eusebius, writes “leaves many of my coloured friends and relatives frustrated. We weren’t white enough before and now we are not black enough!”.

“The lack of adequate economic opportunity for coloureds since the dawn of democracy here — combined with their lingering, paralysing sense of victimhood — explains why the coloured community is the most class-homogenous racial grouping in South Africa: an essentially poor, lower working-class community. Very few of its members escape that stereotype,” McKaiser, a South African columnist, wrote for the New York Times.

The rejection of black political identity has, at times, been indicative of racism towards black South Africans from coloured people. The debate sparked by van Niekerk’s victory demonstrates that, even today, coloured people are still being told how to identify themselves, regardless of their own experiences and cultures. While black identity can be a political umbrella of unity, it can’t erase cultural differences or roots: like a coloured family in the Cape growing up on kombuis Afrikaans (a mix of Afrikaans and English that coloured people adapted from the dictionary form Afrikaans), while some black people consider Afrikaans to be an entirely oppressive language because of the Bantu Education policy under apartheid.

While black South Africans have celebrated Luvo Manyonga’s long jump gold victory under #blackexcellence, coloured South Africans are taking the time to celebrate the victories of one of their own heroes.