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Race, ethnicity and the census

15 April 2010

Have you ever wondered why, more than fifteen years after the end of apartheid, when we are supposed to be a non-racial democracy, there are still questions on the census asking for your “race”?

The census has been one of the primary tools of apartheid. The census of 1951, the first after the National Party had come to power in 1948,  was made the basis of population registration and racial classifications. The Population Registration Act, which ensured that everyone in the country had a race classification, was necessary for most of the apartheid legislation to be implemented. And so your assigned race determined where you could live, who you could marry, what schools you could go to, and what work you could do.

So now that we are a non-racial democracy one would have expected that one of the first things would be to purge the hated race classification system and its obnoxious racial categories. In the time of apartheid the importance of race classifications was shown by giving the “population groups” capital letters. At the beginning you were European, Coloured, Asiatic or Native. Then it became White, Coloured, Asiatic or Bantu. Then it became White, Coloured, Asian or Black. And the last set has still appeared on all the censuses since the end of apartheid.

One of my interests is genealogy and family history, and so I’ve done a fair bit of looking through British census returns from 1841 to 1891, and they give the names and ages of each person in the household, their relation to the head of the household, their occupation, where they born, and what disabilities they suffered from, if any. No question about race. Unfortunately all the South African censuses have been destroyed after statistical information have been extracted, though I have my doubts about the 1951 census. When identity cards began to be issued to Whites, Coloureds and Asiatics in the late 1950s, the number was based on where one was living at the time of the census on 8 May 1951. That obviously didn’t apply to people born after the census, but people living in the same household had consecutive ID numbers, so the census records must have still been available at the time the ID numbers were allocated.

US censuses have always asked questions about race, but it seems that some people are beginning to question that — see, for example, Refusing to Answer Census Race Question: “In 2010 US Government Wastes Three Billion Tax Dollars On Useless Race Question!”

Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s there was an argument among opponents of apartheid about what the alternatives were: multiracialism or nonracialism. The conservative opposition, such as the Progressive Party, opted for multiracialism. The more radical and anti-racist parties opted for nonracialism, which meant that race would not count as a factor in anyone’s civil rights or legal status or political representation. Multiracialism was what was being tried in the Central African Federation to the north, where representation in parliament was allocated by racial groups, and people of different races voted on separate voters rolls in a fairly complicated allocation system.

Apartheid and its indoctrination reached the point where some people were simply incapable of seeing things other than in terms of racial groups and group rights.

In 1983 there was a referendum for the tri-cameral parliament, which was multiracialism of a sort — three separate houses of parliament for Whites, Coloureds and Asians; Blacks, of course, would have political rights in their “homelands” — “in a land I’ve never seen, in a place I’ve never been” as one song put it.

A National Party canvasser came to see me to find out if I would vote for this system. I said no, I wouldn’t, and he spent the whole afternoon trying to persuade me. It took him about two hours before he realised that I was actually in favour of what was unthinkable to him — nonracial democracy with one man, one vote on a common voter’s roll. When the penny finally dropped he exclaimed that that had never worked anywhere, and especially not anywhere in Africa. I said “Look West”.

Again, he failed to understand. I didn’t help him too much. I thought he would know enough about geography for “Look West” to be a huge hint. He still didn’t get it. He thought of the United States, or Western Europe, the ideological “West” of the Cold War, the “First World” — “but that has never worked in Africa,” he protested. Again, I said “Look West”, and pointed out of the window, where the sun was going down — “over there.” He still couldn’t grasp the hint.

Eventually I had to tell him: if you go West a few hundred kilometres, you will come to our neighbouring country of Botswana, which in 1983 was the freest and most democratic country in Africa. But such was the effect of the indoctrination of Christian National Education in our education system that an entire country, all 600 370 square kilomentres (231 803 square miles) of it, was quite invisible to him. He could not see it, he could not imagine that it counted, he could not imagine it was there, because it had a black majority government.

And the indoctrination persists.

In South Africa you hear people on the radio, on TV, every day, talking about “our people”.

Who are these people they have in mind when they talk about “our people”?

Are they talking about all the people of South Africa?

Or do they have in mind some some sub-section of the population defined by race, culture, language or ethnicity?

It shocked the National Party canvasser back in 1983 when he finally realised it that I really meant it when I said that I did not want, or even believe in “group rights”. I did not want to see myself as part of a group defined for me by the Population Registration Act. The “White” group defined in the Population Registration Act was not “my people” or “our people”, but it was something imposed on me by the government, and I was going to vote against it. If we were talking about political rights, “my people” were all the people of South Africa.

But sixteen years after the end of apartheid, people still talk about “our people” thinking of it in a sectional sense. And that shows that racism is still alive and flourishing in South Africa. The apartheid song has ended, but the malady lingers on.

And next year’s census, sixty years on, will probably still have a question about whether you are Black, White, Coloured or Asian, captialised, of course, because they are still as important as they were 60 years ago.

My hope is that they will drop the race question and keep the census returns for posterity, like the British ones. But the hope is a faint one.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. 15 April 2010 1:06 pm

    Can’t see them dropping the race question. It’s an issue that causes a small level of debate in the UK. Certain ‘groupings’ feel aggrieved because their ‘group’ isn’t on the census question but other ‘groups’ are. The government will always reply that it needs to have race as a metric to ensure services are delivered according to need.

  2. 16 April 2010 10:31 pm

    I was, in the 1980’s, a member of a group that sought to remove all references to race from the public space. This week, I was helping a young woman apply for college. They wanted race. My marriage forms (I am a marriage officer) also have race on them. In fact forms are invalidated now if one does not state race. Such dreams as we had can stop an education, a career. In apartheid days, I would not state the race of my son when registering his birth. They just ignored my eccentricity. I wholeheartedly support what you are saying.

    • 17 April 2010 7:24 am

      I wonder why they want it on marriage registers?

      Once the Mixed Marriages Act was repealed, racuial classification became altogether irrelevant to marriage certificates.

      Some symbols of apartheid are being changed, like place names, but some of the important ones, like racial classifications, remain.

  3. 17 April 2010 9:35 pm

    It’s a different kind of statement on marriage registers — I don’t have it before me now. It is required when Black partners are involved — perhaps to do with traditional law?

  4. Maria Guzenko permalink
    23 April 2010 12:07 am

    Steve, you’ve raised quite a relevant issue for many places in the world. In the USSR, your ethnicity was a required field in your national ID. Not even race! So a White Jewish person could be treated differently from, say, a White Belorussian person.
    That field is now gone from the ID docs, but there is still an optional question in the census. Advocates say it helps monitor demographics etc, but I think it could be fertile ground for stereotyping and discrimination.


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