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The Coloureds of Southern Africa

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Religion: Christianity, Islam

Population: 3,730,000 (South Africa); 125,000 (Namibia)

Status: 80% Christian, 5% Muslim

Location: The mixed-race people called Coloured, about 85% of them live in the Western Cape Province of the Republic of South Africa. The Cape Malay people are included in this group, though the Malay as a whole has maintained their Malay identity and features. They are found in Namibia also. In the 19th century, the Griqua Coloured established themselves in a homeland including the town of Kimberly, where gold was first found in South Africa. Griqualand was annexed by the British as a Crown Colony then assigned to the Cape Colony. The Rehoboth community in Namibia, about 80,000 people, are usually classified as Coloureds, but they consider themselves distinct, though of similar origin.

History: The various Coloured communities in southern Africa developed out by events of the Dutch colonization of South Africa. In 1652 a small company of employees of the Dutch East India Company were settled on the southern tip of Africa in order to establish a refreshment station for the Company’s ships en route to the Far East. As groups of settlers moved away from the Cape settlement to develop farms, they needed workers. The Dutch government forbade enslaving indigenous people of southern Africa. They did allow the importation of slaves or indentured servants from the Malay peoples of Indonesia and Malaysia, in the Dutch East Indies. The first Malay slaves arrived in 1657, the first of what became the Cape Malay.

There were some mixed offspring of Malay and Dutch, who were called Coloured. The settlers or soldiers also had mixed offspring with the indigenous people, the Khoikhoi, the San and later the Xhosa. An additional contribution to the gene pool were the slaves imported from West Africa. The various other Coloured peoples also intermarried with the Khoikhoi, the indigenous people of the cape, until they have largely been absorbed into the Coloureds. The term Coloured came to be applied to all mixed people. One group of Coloureds escaped to the bush and lived as an African tribe, but became fearsome warriors on horses. These were the Griqua, who are still an Afrikaans-speaking tribe today. (One group of less than 200 Griqua also speak a Khoikhoi language called Xiri.) After the introduction of Indians into South Africa, they contributed to the mix of Coloureds.

The form of Dutch spoken in the Cape gradually changed significantly from that spoken in Holland. The Cape dialect came to be called Afrikaans ("the African language"). In the church, the law courts, educational institutions and official government circles, the official language was Dutch. But the common language of the people was increasingly Afrikaans. The Coloureds share the same language and religion as the "white" Afrikaners, although separated from them by strong social and class distinctions. Today over half of the 7 million Afrikaans-speaking people in South Africa are "Coloured" people.

Identity: The "Coloured" peoples represent a wide range of genetic backgrounds. They commonly have lighter brown or yellow skin with somewhat Negroid features. But skin color and features vary considerably, showing the broad gene pool re presented. The Coloureds are usually involved in business, some in farming, but commonly work in domestic jobs in homes or hotels. The tribal or racial identity of Coloureds has been basically imposed upon them by the social attitude of Europeans, both British and Afrikaner, who have considered them inferior. Their rights were legally limited under apartheid, 1948-1990. The Cape Malay group of Coloureds number only about 200,000. Coloureds as a whole make up 9% of the population of South Africa.

Language: Most Coloureds speak Afrikaans. About half the Afrikaans speakers in the world are Coloured people. The rich cultural mix of the Coloureds has contributed to the development of Afrikaans as a distinct language.

Afrikaans is a language that developed from Dutch. Besides normal change, the Afrikaners borrowed words from the local people. Other changes were introduced be cause of the Malay and Khoikhoi. The language was legally suppressed by the British Empire. The movement to have Afrikaans recognized as an official language was strongly resisted by Dutch purists, and it was only in 1925 that Afrikaans was finally given official recognition and used formally in church, legal and government functions. Great efforts have been made in the development of Afrikaans. A considerable body of literature exists in the language including some fine poetry. It has great power of expression in the down-to-earth things of everyday life. Afrikaans textbooks have been produced in scientific and technical fields.

Some Coloured also speak English in the latter years of apartheid, many joined black South Africans in consciously fostering English as a protest against apartheid, the policy of the Afrikaners.

Political Situation: In 1795, the British took over the Cape from the Dutch. When the Boers (Afrikaans-speaking farmers) trekked north to escape British rule, this left the Coloureds more free socially and politically. They benefited under the more benevolent British rule. Socially the British also looked down on the Coloureds. Their social isolation grew as British settlers began to establish themselves in Cape Colony. As Afrikaans speakers, the Coloureds also suffered under British domination in the 1800s, when Afrikaans was made illegal for public use. The Coloureds have been aligned with the Afrikaners politically for most of their history.

After WW II, the Afrikaners gained control of South Africa in the victory of the Nationalist Party in 1948. The policy of apartheid was developed as an attempt to maintain white (Afrikaner) supremacy in South Africa. In 1949 racially mixed marriage was made illegal. Despite strenuous efforts, the policy of apartheid was unworkable and eventually collapsed in the face of increasing black resistance at home and international condemnation abroad, leading to the triumph of the African National Congress in 1994. The British South Africans were opponents of apartheid, but were a minority in the Nationalist-dominated parliament after the war.

Under apartheid they had an advantage over blacks because of their good Afrikaans, required for public or private employment and promotion. The Coloureds were given a privileged position under apartheid rule, though their rights were also limited. Even so, Coloureds were visible in political parties and social movements opposing apartheid.

Customs: Coloureds are involved in a wide range of society, sharing in the general modern culture of southern Africa. Many work as domestics or in the hotel industry. Some are farmers. The Cape Malay Coloureds are known for their crafts and woodworks, skills brought from Java and Malaysia and maintained in Africa. The Griqua were renowned as masters of the horse and herders. Coloureds in Namibia are involved in business.

Religion: The Cape Malay, a distinct group of peoples classified with the Coloured group, have retained the Islam of their Malay heritage. Most Malay are still Muslim. The Griqua and other Coloureds are mostly Christian, predominantly Dutch Reformed. 


Davis, N. E. A History of Southern Africa. Nairobi, Kenya: Longman Group Ltd., 1978.

Statistics in Brief: RSA. Cape Town: Central Statistical Service, 1995.

This is South Africa: Pretoria, South Africa: Central Statistical Service, 199 2, 1996.

Were, Gideon S. A History of South Africa. London: Evans Brothers Ltd., 197 4

Orville Boyd Jenkins

August 1996

For more on the Coloureds of South Africa check out this site