One of the strangest legal mechanisms in Apartheid legislation was that an individual of colour could apply and reclassify ones Race. This presented itself as some sort of a golden ticket to those of colour whom could “pass” as white with the opportunity to gain in the unearned privileges which came with being white in the Apartheid era. Provided you passed certain tests in this regard of course. The most infamous of these tests was that of the famous Pencil test.
The ability of a person of colour to reclassify themselves as white reached my consciousness at a very young age. This was largely due to the fact that one distant relative and their husband (who was previously classified as coloured ) had found themselves in the fortunate position in which they were granted this Golden Ticket by the Apartheid government, granting them access to Willie Wonkas Chocolate Factory of whiteness.
They were able to do this due to two main factors; they were both very fair skinned and secondly had the hair texture which allowed them to pass the aforementioned pencil test. So as a child one can imagine the confusion that emanated from me finding out that I had a white Uncle and Aunt. This confusion was later explained away by my parents who said that after they had children, they decided to reclassify in order to “provide a better life for themselves and their children”.
The funny thing about this was that even though we would frequently see these relatives (and continue to see them to this day) the big elephant in the room is yet to be addressed. It is almost as if everyone collectively agreed to hold a vow of silence on the matter and just carry on as if nothing is peculiar. As I grew older, I began to realise that the individuals in question did not associate or pop around to have coffee and with other members of my family like they did with my parents. I always wondered why this was the case, only once I reached my teenage years did I realise why.
This was because my coloured parents were the first individuals in their respective families to attend university and therefore were “educated coloureds” whom had professions. The fact that they had two children who attended previously model C Schools and whom both loved to play Cricket and Hockey respectively definitely also counted in their favour.
My parents had (through their sheer hard work and determination) made themselves individual with which my “white “relatives could associate themselves with, even though they are coloured. In their eyes, my parents should probably be so proud of themselves, that they had reached this achievement in life. This utterly patronizing nature of this has resulted in the fact that whenever the doorbell rings and I hear that these relatives are at our home I quickly rush upstairs and retreat to my bedroom.
I have on numerous occasions jokingly threatened my mother that the next time they come over for tea I will address the elephant in the room as I have a deep yearning to see the sheer look of embarrassment which will come to their faces when I question them on the issue. But my amazing mother is a peaceful woman and I love her way to much to disobey her kind request to maintain the status-quo.
However if we are truly build an society build on reconciliation which is inclusive in nature we need to have these conversations. Addressing the elephant is crucial in this process. Even though they will create great discomfort. Because from this discomfort comes greater understanding. This understanding in turn will open the door for sustained dialogue. A type of dialogue which our society so desperately needs if it is to move forward and the goal of an inclusive South Africa is to be achieved.
Mikhail Petersen holds a Bachelors of Social Science degree in Politics and Economic History as well as an LLB from UCT. Mikhail is an intern within the Sustained Dialogue Programme at the institute for Justice and Reconciliation, based in Cape Town.