Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

Classification, whether by race or any other arbitrary factor, obliterates the person


A few weeks ago I enrolled my two four-year-old girls in school for grade R. I quickly realised that they do not belong to any one of the four racial groups listed on the form. Since their mother is of Indian nationality and I am white and Belgian, they are unclassifiable as “white”, “coloured”, “Indian” or “black”.

The administrative person from the school insisted that we tick one of the boxes and that we could choose between “white” and “Indian”. The children had to belong to a race, but it didn’t matter which one they belonged to.

This situation was strange and illogical. How can it be necessary to belong to a racial group and yet which one you belong to is arbitrary?

Yet if you’re South African, you do not have a choice in the matter. You have to belong to a race. You have to identify yourself as black, coloured, Indian or white, and, in those groups, as Afrikaans or English, as Zulu or Xhosa, and so on.

If you do not know what group you belong to, or if you do not belong to one of them, or if you refuse to belong to a race, then you’re likely to be identified as a foreigner, as someone who doesn’t know their way about here. It’s as if others won’t see you as South African unless you desire to belong to a race.

Has belonging to a race become something that is desirable, a positive value, in South Africa? It certainly seems to be something that goes without saying. At any rate, that is the impression I get each time I am asked to complete an official form, or when I hear someone ask, “What’s your origin?”, or when I hear someone interpret their behaviour in terms of their racial identity – “that’s not what white people do”, or “that’s not what black people do”.

The division of the population into four racial groups, officially instituted by the apartheid regime in 1950, is far from having disappeared.

It is true that this system of classification by race is used today to identify designated groups to undo the injustices their members have suffered in the past.

But I believe it necessary to be cautious and to exercise some scepticism about the good it is meant to achieve. As with any such system of classification, whether by race, gender, or age group, both in South Africa and abroad, it most often has a strategic and political (rather than a moral) aim.

It is used by the state and by its administrative branches – schools, hospitals, courts or police stations – for population management and control.

The circulation of disease, the spread of crime or the formation of the body and mind of the young can be more easily managed by state authorities and public institutions once they are identifiable under different groups determined by race, gender or age.

As French philosopher Michel Foucault suggests, the aim is to make a population politically obedient and economically efficient.

There are at least two levels at which this system of classification by race commits an injustice. Under the apartheid regime, the division of the population into four racial categories was, as we know, not value neutral. It established a hierarchy, a chain of value, between them. White people came first, then Indians and coloureds, and then black people.

The injustice of this hierarchy is at least being addressed (I will not say that it is being undone) by the various attempts made to reverse it. White privilege undoubtedly remains the status quo. The government has tried to take some steps towards providing opportunities for black, coloured and Indian people to generate social mobility.

But reversing the hierarchy established by the apartheid regime, although necessary, is not sufficient. The whole system must be displaced. But this is something that has not – and possibly cannot – be done by the present or any future government, at least to the extent that a government must rely on such a system of classification to manage and control its population.

Under this system, an individual is reduced to their racial identity. This means an individual is replaceable by any other member of the same racial group. A public or private institution that asks someone to identify themselves in terms of their race, gender or age automatically sees them as a replaceable commodity. It’s as if that person has an exchange value just as a washing machine or a pair of shoes does.

This system breeds a culture in which it becomes acceptable to relate to another person as an example of a certain kind, or as an example of some general state of things. This flies in the face of what justice demands.

Justice demands that I see another person as someone who is unique or irreplaceable, as someone who is unlike anyone else in the world. It demands that I see that person as someone whose experience of the world is incommensurable with someone else’s.

No two individuals of the same gender or race will suffer in the same way from gender or anti-black oppression. They are unique individuals whose perspectives on the world do not overlap. Their experience will in consequence be without common measure.

What justice demands, then, is that we invent a language that is able to describe the unique suffering and vulnerability of individuals. This would be a language subtle enough to capture all this without turning it into a discourse about the general suffering of a group whose members have been reduced to examples, say, of the Holocaust or of apartheid.

What justice demand is perhaps impossible but it is necessary.

This demand does not come from on high, from some god or ruler. It is present in the way we interact with our loved ones, with our partner, family, or friends.

My daughters are to me neither black nor white, neither coloured nor Indian. The world will no doubt experience them in some such way. But they are in my eyes irreducible to any such grouping or context. They are unlike any other. They are twins, yes, but they are not replaceable by each other. If I was to lose one of them, my other daughter – or any future children of mine – could not make up for that loss. To lose my friend or my partner, my brother or sister, would also be to suffer an irreplaceable loss.

The unclassifiability of individuals, or their refusal to be so classified under a race, calls into question this system of racial division and grouping. Perhaps it is our love for others and the fact that we will have to mourn their loss one day that exposes the injustice of this system. After all, it is our love and the possibility of having to mourn them that shows us the extent to which they are irreplaceable in the world and unclassifiable under any system.

Perhaps that is also where justice begins – with love, friendship and the possibility of mourning.

Rafael Winkler is an associate professor in the philosophy department at the University of Johannesburg

Subscribe for R500/year

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them and get a 57% discount in your first year.

Rafael Winkler
Rafael Winkler
Rafael Winkler is a full professor in the philosophy department at the University of Johannesburg

Related stories


If you’re reading this, you clearly have great taste

If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the Mail & Guardian for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a week, and get more great reads.

Already a subscriber? Sign in here


Subscribers only

R350 social relief grant not enough to live on

Nearly half of the population in South Africa — one of the most unequal countries in the world — is considered chronically poor.

More top stories

Tigrayans are starving to death

The famine that was feared has come to pass, and aid just isn’t getting in

How to game Twitter’s algorithm – and hoodwink journalists

It is possible to convince newsrooms looking for a topical story that something is news when it isn’t, to dangerous effect

We will do better, ANC president Ramaphosa says in corrective...

At the ANC’s manifesto launch, Cyril Ramaphosa promised to reduce unemployment, increase social security, and stamp out corruption in the party

Young and jobless? Apply for one of 287 000 education...

Education department urges young, jobless people to apply for teaching assistant vacancies

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…