The limits of coloured nationalism

The apartheid strategy of treating coloureds as a “buffer” between whites and “Africans” had the unintended consequence of crystallising a separate coloured identity. (David Harrison/M&G)

The apartheid strategy of treating coloureds as a “buffer” between whites and “Africans” had the unintended consequence of crystallising a separate coloured identity. (David Harrison/M&G)

Siqalo is a mostly Xhosa informal settlement in Mitchells Plain, the largest coloured township in Cape Town. Some Siqalo squatters are coloured, but to outsiders the settlement’s identity is firmly Xhosa.

It’s just across the road from Colorado Park, one of Mitchells Plain’s more middle-class neighbourhoods, in which just about every resident identifies as coloured.

Siqalo came about when, in 2012, squatters occupied privately-owned land and subsequently won the right to stay put in a high court decision. Now, years later, the City of Cape Town has yet to install a reasonable number of water standpipes, and most residents are still shitting in buckets. They’ve been protesting for years, and the latest upsurge was last month.

On May Day, some of them burned a nearby ATM and a fruit vendor’s stand. In response, Colorado residents marched on Siqalo wielding baseball bats, golf clubs, and axes, with only a line of police standing between them and the rock-wielding squatters on the other side of the road. Rounds of rubber bullets were fired.

That evening, a taxi plowed through the crowd, killing a 21-year-old coloured man and injuring two more. Rumours proliferated, and a few self-appointed leaders began to circulate racist messages over WhatsApp and post to Facebook using the hashtag #ProudlyColoured and denouncing Siqalo residents as criminals and opportunists.

The following week, new land occupations sprung up across the city, all in coloured townships: from Vrygrond and Parkwood in the southern part of Cape Town to Philippi and Woodlands (Mitchells Plain) on the Flats.

And in a related set of events in Ocean View, an apartheid-era coloured township down the Cape Peninsula (abutting the wealthy white neighborhoods of Scarborough and Kommetjie), squatters were forcibly evicted from two flats. There, as in all of the occupations mentioned, residents pummeled cops with rocks and blockaded major thoroughfares with burnings tyres.

They likened their continued exclusion from affordable land and housing to the situation under apartheid. In Parkwood, after police hit a 15-year-old boy in the face with a rubber bullet, protesters set fire to the rental office.

In Siqalo, coloured residents are denouncing squatters and urging their removal. For years, they’ve been marching with homemade signs with slogans like “Move Siqalo!” But in these other occupations, coloured residents are invoking the constitutional right to housing and demanding the right to stay put. What explains this volte-face?

If it’s not already obvious, the answer is race. In both cases, an organisation called Gatvol Capetonian was active on the scene. Founded just days before the Siqalo protests, it is a coloured ultra-nationalist organisation led by three men from the Flats who insist that their fellow coloureds have been wronged by a racist government.

So far so good. But here’s the kicker: their racist culprit is the post-apartheid government.

And why is the government racist? Black economic empowerment programs actively exclude coloureds, Indians, and whites (Gatvol Capetonian activists refer to “the minorities” collectively), they allege, and housing and service delivery programs are rigged to their disadvantage.

Their national spokesperson Fadiel Adams insists, “Sixty-five-year-old grandmothers [presumably coloured] are living in wendy houses while 25-year-old black youth from the Eastern Cape have been here for six months and get title deeds.”

There’s of course no evidence that this is the case, but no matter; empirics isn’t their game.

Their claims of favouritism are patently ridiculous. If the ANC government can be accused of neglect, it is that it has abandoned all black people, coloured and African alike, in equal measure.

But, Adams continued, “I am not a racist. We have never shown hatred towards blacks. This is about fairness, justice and equality. We have welcomed people from the Eastern Cape until we discovered they don’t want us here. They want our land.”

We have welcomed people from the Eastern Cape. And there you have it.

At a forum on the renaming of Cape Town International Airport during the first week of June, Adams repeated this framing. After an advocate of naming the airport after Winnie Madikizela-Mandela spoke, Adams tried to correct her.

“Ma Winnie was never part of this province,” he insisted, pointing to coloureds in the crowd, who he identified as “the first aboriginal nation”. He shouted: “This is our land. The first Xhosa person to come here happened in the 1900s,” he concluded. “We’ve been here for 30,000 years!” He then proceeded to call for “war”.

Adams also seems oblivious of fact that Khoisan identity is a modern invention and reduces two distinct groups, the Khoikhoi and the San, to a single “indigenous” catchall. And he’s equally oblivious of the deep interconnectedness of Khoikhoi, San, and Xhosa cultures.

Indeed, nearly one in seven Xhosa people in South Africa is estimated to be of San descent and there are Khoi clans among the Xhosa nation; so, does this make them Xhosa or Khoisan?

This politics is of course nothing new. But the extent to which it’s spreading across Cape Town is absolutely alarming. For nearly a decade now, a tiny secessionist party called the Cape Party has been dog-whistling to their base, attempting to form a white-coloured alliance against black Capetonians.

Their aim? To unite the Northern and Western Capes and secede from South Africa. After the 2009 presidential elections, the party’s deputy leader called then president Jacob Zuma an “illegitimate colonial occupier of the Cape”.

In 2011-2012, a white Cape Party operative, herself an immigrant from Finland, consistently visited a land occupation in Mitchells Plain. There she attempted to form an organisation called First People First, in which coloured land occupiers would invoke their status as indigenous to the Cape, and they’d unite with white people against “migrants” – their preferred term for black people. 

But at that time, First People First and the Cape Party might’ve been dangerous, but they were laughably insignificant. Now, this politics is gaining traction, and violent conflicts are spreading, from the racist assault on Siqalo to attacks on a Somali shopkeeper in Woodlands, and it shows no sign of abating. 

But what explains the sudden emergence of this brand of ethno-nationalist populism? Why do people organise in this manner? As we see it, there are three primary reasons: the failure of the municipal state to actually engage residents and the consequent crisis in the Democratic Alliance’s hold over coloured voters; a submerged history of coloured reactionary nationalism, paradoxically tied both to claims of indigeneity and their cynical manipulation by the apartheid state; and finally and perhaps most importantly, a lack of any other organised outlets for their anger.

This latter point is but another way of noting the growth not just in South Africa, but indeed globally, of a brand of politics which emphasises difference, xenophobia and nationalism in resource management and access to services and rights.

Cape Town is governed by the DA. The party loves to tout its claim that the Western Cape is the best-governed province in the country.

But it cannot spin away dismal conditions for most Capetonians on the Flats, black and coloured alike, who remain exposed to substandard housing, rampant violence (including mafia-style executions) and the general failure of the local state to provide even the most basic essential services.

Yet most coloured voters continue to cast their lot with the DA. For years they appeared to tolerate the DA’s misgovernment, though the last few months have signaled a potential shift as the DA’s “good governance” myth has been exposed. From the mismanagement of the water crisis to the purging of Cape Town’s current mayor Patricia de Lille, the DA’s attempts to spin its way out of one crisis after another is no longer working, and coloured voters are taking notice.

Just as importantly, this has exposed some of the racial fault lines in the city and the DA’s base.

Usually the spectacle of coloured Capetonians pitted against their black neighbours works for the DA, but this time it has not. Gatvol Capetonian predictably direct their anger toward the ANC, which they deem an “African” organisation.

It is significant, however, that their slogan, proudly displayed on the back of their t-shirts, reads, “The only good POLITICIAN is a DEAD politician.”

[(David Harrison/M&G)]

Coloured and white DA politicians now face skepticism and even animosity at public meetings in coloured neighbourhoods where they have comfortably held majorities since the mid-2000s. Some, like the DA councillor in Vrygrond, skip critical meetings with angry residents, citing other important business to which they must attend.

Secondly, coloured political activity must be understood in relation to their place in the South African racial hierarchy and the formation of a distinct political identity understood as separate from that of “Africans” particularly since the 1950s. Over time, in some quarters, this was transmuted into a reactionary coloured nationalism.

The apartheid strategy of treating coloureds as a “buffer” between whites and “Africans” had the unintended consequence of crystallising a separate coloured identity. Nowhere was this as evident as in the early 1980s with the creation of the Tricameral Parliament, which gave limited, ineffectual representation to Indians and coloureds even as it continued to exclude black Africans altogether.

Though the reforms were largely rejected by coloureds (who launched the United Democratic Front in Mitchells Plain in response), it still had the effect of formalising coloured politics as a discrete domain.

After apartheid, this lived on in the politics of first the rebranded New National Party and the DA, culminating in the election of one-time Tricameral Parliament representative Peter Marais, a coloured from Bishop Lavis on the Flats, to mayor of Cape Town and subsequently premier of the Western Cape. (While originally elected as a member of the New National Party, the party entered the DA in 2000, and Marais was simultaneously a member of both.)

Now Marais is making a political comeback through his Brown Empowerment Movement. He doesn’t endorse Gatvol Capetonian’s secessionist demand, but he does agree with it that the ANC favors “Africans” over coloureds.

Finally, the rise of coloured nationalism can be traced to the utter failure of the left in coloured neighbourhoods. While we can think of exceptions, there is very little in the way of an organised force active on the Flats that speaks to residents as inadequately housed or in dire need of basic services, in contrast to the 1980s when such movements dominated.

Instead, the predominant politics tends to assume an exclusivist guise, hailing people not as residents, but as coloureds and pitting them against their black neighbours who are in much the same predicament, if not far worse.

The latest iteration of this politics, refracted through appeals to an imagined indigenous identity, dates back to the late 1990s when a group of coloured ANC activists, disgruntled over the party’s decline in coloured areas, began to appeal to coloureds’ shared experience of the legacy of slavery in the Cape.

While this began innocently enough, a number of associated organisers focused less on the experience of slavery and more on their shared Khoisan ancestry, making this the basis of their politics. “The Cape isours,” Khoisan activists insisted, which produced the necessary corollary that its black inhabitants were uninvited invaders.

And so at all of the various land occupations in which Gatvol Capetonian has been involved, self-proclaimed Khoisan leaders are present on the scene articulating their demands in terms of a reactionary coloured/indigenous nationalism.

But it would be misguided to dismiss this politics as particularly coloured. Instead, this brand of reactionary nationalism is of its time in South Africa. White identity politics is, as always, the most flagrant example in the Cape, from the barely veiled white supremacist claims of AfriForum (with its links to the alt-right in both Europe and the United States) to Helen Zille’s unabashed defense of colonialism.

On the national scene, we can see Jacob Zuma reviving his claims to Zulu-ness, not least with the launch of his proxy party the African Transformation Congress. And while we usually laugh when white people whinge about some “racist” slight from the Economic Freedom Fighters, Floyd Shivambu’s latest racist rant is indefensible and not too far removed from some of leader Julius Malema’s more xenophobic moments.

And in Cape Town, we see a revival of quotidian xenophobia, most recently with a mid-June attack on Congolese immigrants in Khayelitsha and a May attack on Somali-owned shops in Woodlands.

All of these examples, white, coloured, black, or otherwise, embody what in an American context the Black Panthers’ Huey P Newton famously termed “reactionary nationalism”.

Drawing on the great anticolonial thinker Frantz Fanon, Newton distinguished a revolutionary nationalism that constitutes the people against their oppressors from a reactionary one that attempts to revive some sort of imagined national identity at the expense of others.

Or as Fanon puts it, “The liberation struggle does not restore to national culture its former values and configurations.”

Here’s hoping we’re alive to see the last nail hammered into the coffin of reactionary nationalism. But until then, we must be alert and denounce reactionary nationalism in all its guises wherever we may encounter it.

Zachary Levenson is an Assistant Professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. Sean Jacobs is an Associate Professor of international affairs at the New School for Social Research and the founder and editor of Africa Is a Country.

Sean Jacobs

Sean Jacobs

Sean Jacobs is an Associate Professor of international affairs at the New School for Social Research and the founder and editor of Africa Is a Country. 
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