South Africa, and its founding city, Cape Town, have such a splendid array of people from so many corners of the world that sometimes, visitors here get more than a little confused about people’s ethnicity and the tricky problem of what to call people (for example, is ‘coloured’ offensive and what does ‘black’ actually mean?) At Parker Cottage, we have a very interesting mix of faces from all the racial backgrounds of South Africa.
The first people in the Cape, when the Portuguese made land here in the 15th century, where the Khoi khoi (and even they originally came from modern-day Botswana). These people did not look ‘black’, but looked closer to a mixture of Australian aboriginal and light-skinned African people. The Portuguese didn’t see the Cape as a place to settle, so the first Europeans to start to call this place ‘home’ were the Dutch, followed by the English and then the French. This was the beginning of the end for the Khoi khoi and the start of white people living in the Cape, but there was a great deal of intermarriage between the Khoi khoi and the Europeans, resulting in some very different looking people.
However, the Dutch and English also brought people from other parts of the world to live and work in the Cape under the same kind of terms that these days we would call human trafficking (not quite slavery but not much better than that either). Many Chinese and Indian people started to call South Africa home from around the early 19th century onwards and many people from modern-day Indonesia, then called ‘Malaya’, were brought here from the early 17th century. Of course, these populations look completely different from each other and intermarried, creating even more interesting looking people!
On top of this, many people assume that the black populations of South Africa, the largest of which in the Cape are the Xhosa, are the indigenous people. However, even this is untrue as the Xhosa only began to move West into the Cape very late, in the 19th century.
Apartheid put a temporary stop to interracial marriage but with its demise, the shapes, sizes and colours of people has changed again, especially with the most recent influx of people from other parts of the world that originally didn’t feature in the racial mix of Cape Town.
So where does this leave us all? Under apartheid, the government tried to categorise people into ‘White (European)’, ‘Indian’, ‘Coloured’, and ‘Black (Bantu)’. Unfortunately, because of attempts to redress past injustices, it’s still deemed necessary today for people to state their race when they have official business, so some of these names have survived. ‘Black’ has now changed, though, to include all non-white people, but Olga, our kitchen maid at Parker Cottage, would never describe herself as black (even though she’s non-white), but coloured (and ‘Coloured’ doesn’t mean mixed race: it’s a separate racial grouping of its own). Her son, Donovan, who interestingly bares a physical resemblance to the Khoi people, also describes himself as coloured because he’s not from the Western but the Eastern Cape. Thandeka, our senior housekeeper, describes herself as Xhosa first and black second. Tomas, our manager, says he’s South African, and doesn’t like to be referred to as white. Phil and Liz call themselves British South Africans and aren’t too bothered to be called white. Nompilo and Nombulelo call themselves black.
Apartheid may have tried (unsuccessfully) to categorise and separate us but, in the words of another great African leader: “We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.