Friday, May. 24, 1963


A South African Tragedy

AT a funeral in Cape Town recently, a young Colored woman ran up to her father's sister, whom she had not seen in several months. "Hello, auntie!" she cried. Tossing her head contemptuously, the older woman snapped: "Don't call me auntie. Call me missus."

By the letter of the law, the aunt acted irreproachably. Until this year, she and her husband had spent their entire lives in the murky social limbo to which South Africa relegates the Coloreds, its 1,500,000 people of mixed European and nonwhite descent. Then one day this year, Cape Province's Race Classification Board informed the light-skinned couple that they had been reclassified as whites. Henceforth, if they are seen associating with Coloreds, even close relatives, they will run the risk of being downgraded to Colored status again and forfeit the civil rights and economic advantages that accrue exclusively to the white man in apartheid-ruled South Africa.

Heartbreak at Home. Since 1950, when South Africa's Population Registration Act was passed to reinforce Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd's "granite" apartheid policy, faceless inquisitors have been methodically dividing the entire population into neatly labeled groups: black, white, Asian and Colored. Designed to prevent racial "contamination" of the nation's 3,000,000 whites, the law gave the government power to list names, ancestry and accepted skin color of South Africa's 16 million citizens. In the process of compiling these human pedigrees, pigmentation commissars have reclassified thousands of dark-skinned Coloreds as blacks, thus consigning them to the 11 million-strong majority of Unpersons who are denied even the tenuous rights and privileges accorded those of mixed blood. Ironically, however, it is at the other end of the scale that the process often works most cruelly.

In Cape Province, where 1,000,000 Coloreds are concentrated, more than 300 borderline families have been reclassified as whites since January. Not only have the racial "promotions" stirred resentment among many whites; they have also been bitterly attacked by the leaders of the Colored community. For virtually every case represents heartbreak and disruption.

Last week in Parliament, suave Interior Minister Johannes de Klerk blandly denied Colored leaders' charges that the government is deliberately siphoning off the light-skinned in order to increase South Africa's white population as a bulwark against the huge black majority. De Klerk explained that in issuing white identity cards to the 300 Cape families, his officials were only trying to "act humanely" and give borderline cases "the benefit of the doubt."

Daniel's Passage. His assurances were hardly enough. A Colored who becomes a card-carrying white must uproot himself and his family from home, job, friends and kin to enter a world in which he may never be fully accepted. In one recent case, Edward Raubenheimer, a relatively well-to-do Cape Town Colored school principal, learned that his older, less successful brother Daniel had been reclassified as white at age 67. White status was simultaneously conferred on Daniel's wife, who is the daughter of a Colored woman and a white salesman, and their four children, one of whom applied for reclassification in 1961 and was rejected at the time. One of Daniel's sons had to quit his Colored college. A daughter who is a teacher was forced to give up her post but will automatically earn up to 40% more in a white school if she can get a job. Her sister has a young daughter by a previous marriage who also "passed"; as a result, the child's Colored father may no longer ride in the same section of a bus as his daughter or take her to any of the Cape's rigidly segregated beaches.

Light-skinned Daniel Raubenheimer, a retired small-time tailor who drew a $14 monthly pension as a Colored man, is now entitled to $34.

"My kids are white, their friends are white, they lead a white man's life," he says. "As far as my brother is concerned, I'm dead. Well, that goes for him too." Sighed Edward: "These Colored people who pass over—they're more anti-Colored than anyone else."

Colored Historian Richard van der Ross says, only slightly in jest, that the Colored race "was born nine months after the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck," the Dutchman who founded Cape Colony in 1652. Since few white women ventured to join their menfolk, the Dutch encouraged racial mingling as a means of persuading the colonists to stay permanently in South Africa.

Dutch East India Company pioneers married Hottentots, imported female slaves from equatorial Africa, and spiced the melting pot by shipping native girls from such far-off breeding grounds as Dutch-ruled Java and Ceylon. In three centuries, an estimated 250,000 Coloreds have passed into South Africa's white population.

Who Is a White? Those who remain legally Colored are caught tragically between the two big layers of South Africa's population. They look with disdain on the blacks and are rejected by the whites. Though they share a common culture and tongue with the white man (90% of the Coloreds speak only Afrikaans), they are denied full representation in Parliament, and are segregated in Colored neighborhoods; they may not compete with whites for many jobs or even enter a post office by the same door. Split between conservatives and radicals, the Coloreds have never been as potent a political force as the blacks, whose African National Congress, headed by Nobel Prizewinner and former Zulu Chief Albert Luthuli, has been banned since 1960. Today, 21,000 borderline Coloreds have yet to be classified; the two-thirds of them who are at the dark end of the spectrum live in constant fear that their new identity cards will read "native."

Few of those who are reclassified as blacks ever succeed in reversing the decision. An appeal to a special board costs $28, and involves exhaustive and sometimes humiliating questioning ("Why are your lips so thick?"). Coloreds almost never object formally to being reclassified as white, because of the social privileges they gain, and in many cases actually petition to have their racial status upgraded. Before reaching a decision, officials interrogate the applicant's longtime friends, employers, landlords, but never reveal to the petitioner what has been said about him.

The law itself is a hodgepodge of etymological and biological confusion in which the official definition of a "European" would seem ludicrous if it were not also tragic: "A white person," it says, "means a person who in appearance is a white person and who is generally accepted as a white person and is not in appearance obviously not a white person, but does not include any person who admits that he is by descent a native or a Colored person."