#HeritageDay: Coloured identity coloured by outside influences

IT WAS after 9am on Monday and a small truck with a stage and sound equipment was standing on the sports field at Groote Schuur High school. The stage was to be used by a rapper from Wynberg, who goes by the name of YoungstaCPT, as part of a roadshow to inspire pupils.

The event, which was sponsored by a cellphone network, was supposed to start at 8.30am, but around 9.30am pupils and teachers started coming from all directions and walking towards the stage, which was at the far end of the sports field. Within minutes, excitement had developed with an introduction by Blake Williams, a former world champion hip hop freestyle dancer, who also grew up in the southern suburbs.

He told the story of how he had won the world title twice in succession, the first person to do this.

But the real excitement was reserved for YoungstaCPT, who had the crowd rapping along from the first to the last song with his self-penned songs in a mixture of English and Afrikaans.

The adulation displayed by the pupils was the kind normally reserved for overseas performers. I found it amazing and exciting the pupils were as enthusiastic about seeing a local artist perform as opposed to yet another American artist.

On Tuesday night, we went to a different event. It was the launch of Dr Ruben Richards’s new book, Bastaards or Humans: The Unspoken Heritage of Coloured People, which was hosted at the Castle of Good Hope. It started with a discussion among religious leaders, a ceremony in the infamous dungeon, known as Donker Gat, followed by the book launch proper.

While the two events had little in common, especially not the music (the book launch featured mainly cover versions of American music which went against the ritualistic and traditional feel of everything else, including the involvement of a group of Khoisan leaders), both represented parts of the Cape’s unique heritage. This is important in the week that we celebrate our heritage.

Yes, I know, Heritage Day has become nothing more than braai day to many, but that is something that needs to be addressed through proper education.

As I watched YoungstaCPT talking to the Groote Schuur pupil about the history of the Western Cape - or the "Wes-Kaap", as he calls it (it is the name of one of his most popular songs) - I thought about why this understanding of our history and our heritage does not filter through to the classrooms in a much more aggressive manner.

I thought the same thing as I listened to Richards reading excerpts from his book which dealt with the early history of the group of people known as coloureds or, in some circles, as so-called “coloureds”. Richards seemed to be determined to place “coloureds” in the rightful place in history.

I am one of those not entirely convinced of the need to define anyone as “coloured”. I’ve written about this a lot, in my book Race and in many subsequent columns. I started off dismissing this notion completely but, more recently, I have adopted the position that people should be welcome to identify themselves in whatever way they wish to.

I also believe that people can identify me in whatever way they wish, as long as they respect my right to identify myself in a way that makes me comfortable. I really don’t care if anyone wants to call me “coloured”, but that is not something I call myself.

The main basis for my rejection is you should not have a group identity based on what you are not. It should be based on what you are. A large part of the “coloured” group identity seems to be based on the fact this group is not white and not black.

But dismissing the group identity does not mean I dismiss many of the cultural attributes associated with this identity, rightly or wrongly.

It does not mean I cannot enjoy the food that “coloureds” are supposed to enjoy, or enjoy the music they are supposed to enjoy, to choose two obvious coloured markers.

My enjoyment of a particular kind of food or music does not mean I enjoy only that kind of food or music.

The joy of living in a country as deurmekaar as South Africa is that there are many aspects of different cultures and heritage that we can enjoy.

This Heritage Day weekend, I would implore everyone to step out of their comfort zones and explore something different.

You can still enjoy your braai (seeing how this has become cultural), but enjoy something from other cultures too.

Maybe while you are at it, enjoy more than the American music that is so popular among people who identify themselves as “coloureds” and many other South Africans, and listen to YoungstaCPT and the many other young people like him who are writing their own songs and charting a new, exciting direction for South African music.

Happy Heritage Day everyone.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 23 September 2017)