Race identity policy is irrelevant to ‘new South Africans’


The institutional practice of asking people to tick their racial identity on various forms is one mechanism the state uses to organise society into racialised social systems.

A rigid form of racial classification was the norm during apartheid era. Four major categories were created: black, white, coloured and Indian.

Despite the post-apartheid state’s orientation towards nonracialism, the racial categories continue to feature on administrative forms. The rationale behind this is to redress race-based inequalities through affirmative action programmes. Notwithstanding this noble aim, society continues to be racialised and race thinking endures.

State-sanctioned racialisation also affects refugees and immigrants when they are asked to select their race on official forms.

How do immigrants, who originate from societies with different social differentiation systems, respond to racial identification questions on South Africa’s bureaucratic forms? Do they accept or reject imposed racialisation?

One of the problems facing immigrants in South Africa is to confront the reality of adapting to racialised identity categories and to find their place in the racial classification system.

Most refugees and immigrants come from contexts where racial categories are absent and whose social classification systems and self-identification habits are based on culture and ethnicity. Many first-generation immigrants, including myself, define ourselves in terms of identity categories found in our countries of origin.

My everyday conversations with my fellow Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers revealed that they were uncomfortable about being asked to classify themselves in racial terms. They describe the practice of racial classification as “unfamiliar” to their sense of belonging and identity.

I always experience identity conflicts when I am asked to self-report my “race”. I usually ask myself: “Am I black or coloured or Indian?” Even though I check off “black”, to benefit from affirmative action programmes, I reject racial identification questions because they do not reflect my preferred self-identification.

I usually see myself as an Eritrean and Habesha. Habesha is a cultural identity claimed by Eritreans and Ethiopians. I never thought about having a racial identity prior to my arrival in South Africa.

We Eritreans come from a sociocultural context in which racial categories are absent. The Eritrean state recognises nine ethnolinguistic groups but physical appearance is not the basis of the ethnolinguistic classification. For Eritreans, sense of belonging tends to be, among others, based on religious affiliation, neighbourhood, region, village of origin, national identity as Eritrean and culture such as Habesha.

Such resistance to imposed racial classification illustrates that South Africa’s racial categories are viewed as invalid and irrelevant to their sense of identity by immigrants and asylum seekers. It is seen as incompatible with the self-definition habits we were socialised into in our home countries.

I think, besides the Eritreans I interviewed, other refugee and immigrant groups in South Africa, who were unfamiliar with race-based self-identification prior to their immigration, might also experience confusion when asked to self-racialise on forms.

The reluctance of immigrant groups in South Africa to accept race-based classification is an example of disruption to the dominance and continuity of racial classification in the post-apartheid era. It also illustrates the limits of such categories in the context of resistance by immigrant communities.

This opposition opens up important questions related to state policy and practice in relation to official identity categories. Will the four racial categories be expanded to accommodate identity claims by refugees and immigrants who are becoming the “new South Africans”? Or will the categories continue to remain the same?

If strong lobby groups put pressure on the state to create check boxes for them, the traditional South African racial categories might be transformed to include other racial, national or ethnic categories important for recognition and visibility.

Perhaps, immigrants’ perspectives can even assist South Africa in its transition towards a truly nonracial society.

Dr Amanuel Isak Tewolde is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre for Social Development in Africa, University of Johannesburg

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories


Subscribers only

Poachers in prisons tell their stories

Interviews with offenders provide insight into the structure of illegal wildlife trade networks

Covid-overflow hospital in ruins as SIU investigates

A high-level probe has begun into hundreds of millions of rand spent by the Gauteng health department to refurbish a hospital that is now seven months behind schedule – and lying empty

More top stories

Covid-19 on the rise in Zimbabwe

The South African variant of the virus is ‘clinically present’, while a lockdown tries to limit new infections

Bitcoin rules take edge off crypto-nite

New regulations for cryptocurrency exchanges could boost investor confidence in such assets

An experiment in what school could be

Two Limpopo principals will be helping to create radically reimagined communities of learning: schools as living systems

The inefficiency of the Gini coefficient

To simplify complex inequality into a single statistic doesn’t address how to accurately assess (or reduce) South Africa’s large wealth divide

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…