In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Apartheid race categories: daring to question their continued use
  • Zimitri Erasmus (bio)

Why this volume?

The colloquium entitled ‘Revisiting Apartheid’s Race Categories’, held at the University of the Witwatersrand in October 2010, and from which this special issue emerged, was inspired by a debate1 ignited in 2007, at the University of Cape Town (UCT), in the process of a review of its admissions criteria (see SAJHE 24 (2) 2010). Among these, particular attention was given to the University’s use, as criteria for equitable admissions, of race categories legislated by apartheid’s Population Registration Act No 30 of 1950. At the time, these were ‘White’, ‘Native’ and ‘Coloured’ with ‘Indian’ a sub-category of the latter. From 1951 the National Party used ‘Bantu’ instead of the category ‘Native’. This became official policy from 1962 only to change again in 1978 from ‘Bantu’ to ‘Black’ (Horrell 1982). This use of the category ‘Black’ excluded people racially classified ‘Coloured’, referring only to those South Africans formerly classified ‘Native’ and ‘Bantu’ by apartheid law. In the 1970s the Black Consciousness Movement contested this narrow use of ‘Black’ defining it not as a race category or classification, but rather a global political identification premised on resistance to oppression in contexts of white supremacy. Post-1994 government policy and institutional practices in and out of government use various combinations of these conceptions of ‘Black’.

Contrary to popular perception that the categories are used to replace merit, the University of Cape Town uses the categories to situate the meaning of academic merit within the history of education under apartheid. Be that as it may, whether or not to continue using these categories remained a key question for the admissions review team in the context of the University’s commitment to both non-racialism and equitable admissions. [End Page 1]

Significantly, whether or not to continue using these categories is a question with purchase beyond both the narrow bounds of higher education admissions, and the wider realm of administration, for example implementing Employment Equity and counting in the population census (Maré 2001). The use of apartheid race categories in research practice and social analysis has been questioned before (Taylor and Orkin 1995, Ellison et al 1996, Ellison and De Wet 1997, Bowman et al 2006, Ncayiyana 2007). Similar debates ensue in North America where researchers funded by the National Institute of Health are required to use US census categories to differentiate participants in their studies (Braun et al 2007:1424). These debates generally address whether or not the use of race categories is scientifically justifiable, and/or whether class, understood as socio-economic status, is a more appropriate category of analysis. Some authors appeal to researchers and editors to avoid uncritical use of race categories (Ellison et al 1996, Ellison and De Wet 1997). Most conflate race categories with their social effects – a distinction I make later in this piece. Apart from a few exceptions (Franchi 2003, Braun et al 2007), suggestions for alternative means to account for the social effects of ‘race’ and racism in webs of disadvantage in SA, are rare. This volume attempts to expand these suggestions.

Given the absence of alternatives, UCT’s admissions review team proposed that use of the categories be retained considering that: a) the University’s commitment to non-racialism implies that continued long term use of apartheid race categories is undesirable; b) immediate requirements for redress were not best, but at least in the interim, practicably met by using these categories as a proxy for disadvantage; and c) devising indicators that capture both the complexities of historical disadvantage, and the effects of racism in the present, would require careful additional work (Soudien 2010: 222–3). In light of the relative marginalisation in contemporary SA of anti-apartheid debates that shaped principles of non-racialism (Alexander 1995, Taylor and Foster 1999) and of the paucity of alternatives (other than reducing ‘race’ to class) to the use of apartheid race categories, the colloquium sought to explore possible alternatives. As an outcome of its proceedings, this volume is by no means conclusive. Instead, it is a continuation of responses to this conceptual and practical challenge.

Framing the colloquium



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