This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 13th (it will be out in January 2020), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

What's Your Label? South African Style

Under apartheid in South Africa, the government (meaning, of course, government bureaucrats who looked at you) decided that a person belonged in one of four racial categories: black, coloured (yes, with the extra 'u' in there because this is British English), Indian/Asian, or white. The Economist reports that this four category system is still in operation, with the only difference that people now self-report (as is done in almost every other country in the world). But the wrinkle seems to be that the "coloured" category has slipped to the bottom of the hierarchy over time.

Given that coloureds were formerly regarded as racial misfits, once dismissed by the wife of former president F. W. de Klerk, Marike, as “non-persons…the leftovers”, one might have expected the number of South Africans wishing to describe themselves as such to plummet. But since the end of apartheid in 1994 the coloured population has in fact grown by almost a third, to 4.5m.
Most live in Cape Town and the Western Cape region, where they originated some 350 years ago after the arrival of the first Dutch settlers. Given the dearth of European women at the time, the Dutch—soon to be followed by French, German and English settlers—often took the pale-skinned indigenous Khoisan or, later, imported Asian and African slaves as their wives and mistresses.
But unlike in America, where a mixed-race president describes himself as an African-American, South Africa’s coloureds have tended to reject their African heritage, preferring to adopt the language, culture, religion and even family names of their former white persecutors. Most coloureds speak Afrikaans (a creolised Dutch) and worship in the Dutch Reformed Church.
Better educated and traditionally better treated than blacks, the coloureds worry about being disadvantaged under ANC rule—perhaps rightly.
Economic-empowerment and affirmative-action laws are supposed to benefit all previously disadvantaged groups, but coloureds claim that blacks often get priority. They also fret over their loss of status. Second from last in South Africa’s old racial pecking order, they now find themselves right at the bottom. Trevor Manuel, the country’s most senior coloured politician, recently complained that “worst-order racism” has “infiltrated the highest echelons of government”.

This is all a very sad reminder that whatever can be used against us (or that we can against others), will be, when it comes to social relations. Differences are so often not seen simply as differences, but rather as a sign of inferiority or superiority. The argument is often made that labels should be made illegal because having the labels reinforces their importance. The counter-argument, though, is that if you get rid of the labels, discrimination will still exist, but it will be harder to know about because the data won't exist on who's who.

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