Lost and Found in Cape Town: The Linguistic Construction of Coloured Identity

69 Chiappini Street Bo Kaap Cape Town

The Coloured racial identity, inextricably bound to language and performed in diverse political contexts, has taken many forms since its inception in South Africa in the 17th century. From its origins as the identity given to the illegitimate progeny of Dutch settlers and Khoisan women, to its designation of mixed-race (and therefore subordinate) citizenship under the apartheid system, to its modern-day acceptance as a recognized ethnicity native to South Africa, the Coloured identity has been complex and indeterminate. Against the shifting backdrop of South Africa’s racial politics, Coloured people have used language to navigate, self-determine and perform identity.

 In Zoe Wicomb’s semi-autobiographical collection of short stories You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town, we see the lead character, Frieda Shenton, use her command of the English language to elevate her social position and craft an anglicized identity that frees her from political oppression. In contrast, Jade Schuster’s academic work Afrikaans on the Cape Flats: Performing cultural linguistic identity in Afrikaaps presents an approach to Coloured identity that embraces Afrikaans as a creole language originating in Coloured communities, and by doing so repositions and legitimizes Coloured identity in post-apartheid South Africa.

Afrikaans has long been seen as the “language of oppression,” and historically was used to subjugate and marginalize non-white peoples in South Africa by disregarding native languages and enforcing Afrikaans as the medium of instruction. However, research reveals that Afrikaans as a language has been hugely influenced by the Cape Coloured people. While its roots are Dutch, the language was influenced so heavily by the Khoisan people of the Western Cape (who mixed with the Dutch settlers) that the language became known as Kombuistaal,” or “kitchen language,” and was eventually renamed Afrikaans. The progeny of the Dutch settlers and Khoisan peoples, who later became known as Coloured people, inherited Afrikaans as their native tongue — though in later years the Afrikaans population would take steps to distance the language from its non-white origins. Divorced from an “ethnic claim” to English, Afrikaans, or the Bantu languages, the Coloured identity appears ungrounded and “languageless.” While Wicomb’s collection demonstrates how members of the Coloured community have attempted to employ English as a means of upward social mobility, today others choose to trace the origin of Afrikaans to its Khoisan roots, and in doing so, reclaim it as a Coloured language.

The Coloured people of the Western Cape emerged as an ethnic group at the end of the 17th century as the result of the (generally non-consensual) sexual unions between male Dutch settlers and the native Khoisan and other African women whom they encountered and enslaved. Estimates judge that up to 75% of children born to slave women in South Africa at the end of the 17th century had a Dutch father.[1] These exploitative encounters were not legitimized by marriage, and as such, Coloured progeny by nature assumed a second-rate or bastardized status in the social hierarchy of the time; in the early Cape Colony, Coloured people were referred to as “Bastaards.” Consequently, the Coloured identity developed in the shadow of an ethnic origin steeped in sexual exploitation and violence against native Khoisan women – the “nasty, unspoken question of concupiscence which haunts Coloured identity,”[2] as Zoe Wicomb puts it in her essay Shame and Identity: The Case of the Coloured in South Africa.

The Dutch settling of the Cape in the 18th century quickly became a colonial project, and its economy developed as slave-dependent with a clear distinction between white settlers as “masters” and land-holders, and non-white natives in slave or servant roles.[3] The interdependency of the slave-master relationship resulted in the melding of Dutch and Khoi languages, which was termed “Kombuistaal” due to its prevalence within slave communities. The language was formalized in 1875 by the Genootskap vir Regte Afrikaanders (“Society for Real Afrikaners”), who issued a collection of dictionaries, grammars, and religious texts to cement its creation as an official language.

However, as a language it was claimed by the emerging Afrikaner community (the white descendants of the Dutch settlers) and was dominated by white discourse and white writing, with no reference to non-white influence or acknowledgement of the role Coloured and Khoisan people played in its creation. The white Afrikaner population slowly spread inland, and over time the Afrikaans spoken in white communities developed minor linguistic differences from the original Khoisan-Dutch hybrid. This slightly altered version of Afrikaans was called “Standard Afrikaans” by the white community. The minor difference between the Afrikaans spoken by white Afrikaners and the Afrikaans spoken by Cape Coloured people resulted in the Cape version being viewed as “uncouth” and “inferior,” thus furthering the racist narrative of Coloured identity as subordinate. Consequently, the Coloured people and the Afrikaans language, which had developed over the same time period and from the same origins, were divorced from one another, leaving the Coloured people with an ethnic tongue over which they had no legitimized ownership or continued influence.

The Anglo-Boer Wars and the concurrent flood of English settlers into the South African interior added another language to the mix. English was also made an official national tongue due to the dominant position the English held as victors of the two Anglo-Boer Wars and the influx of British settlers in the 20th century. English as a language also took on a cultural superiority within the colonial hierarchy, as English settlers were generally wealthier and better educated than their Afrikaaner Boer counterparts, and were seen as possessing closer ties to European “refinement.” Although a few Coloured families are of partial British descent, the majority of the Coloured population speaks Afrikaans as their mother tongue and are thus excluded from both national languages.

As a result of this linguistic exclusion, by the time the apartheid system was instigated in 1948, the Coloured people – ranked “somewhere between the polarities of ‘black’ and ‘white’”[4] – existed in multiple states of “identity limbo.” A Coloured person could “mistakenly” be classified as either white or black depending on their physical characteristics – classifications which pertained to very different sets of social privileges or deprivations. Similarly, they existed between linguistic lines, with no acknowledged claim to either of the two official languages, or to any of the native Bantu languages.[5][1] [2] 

It is this indeterminate identity that Frieda Shenton, the central character in You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town, inherits as a young Coloured girl in Namaqualand in the 1970s. A semi-factual portrayal of Zoe Wicomb’s own childhood, Frieda’s journey from young girl in a rural Coloured community to young writer living in Cape Town is overshadowed by this sense of “identity in limbo.” Her family claims an English ancestor, as denoted by their proudly held surname Shenton – “an Englishman whose memory must be kept sacred, must not be defiled by associating with those beneath us” (134), as Frieda is told. This tenuous connection to an English identity is cultivated by the family, which embraces its European roots – despite the unspoken knowledge that their exclusion from the “legitimate” Shenton lineage suggests that their English heritage was initiated through sexual exploitation and violence.

Throughout the work, the reader observes Frieda being jostled between her emphasized English heritage and her ethnic ties to Afrikaans, the native tongue of her people. While under apartheid rule, Frieda must take on an English identity in order to escape the restraints of the governmental system, leveraging her fair complexion and “good accent” to elevate her social position and access privilege traditionally held for white people. In Wicomb’s short story “Bowl like Hole,” the tensions and power dynamics between Coloured, English, Afrikaans, and Black identities are laid bare when Mr. Wheedon, a white, English mine owner, comes to assess the black labor force at work with Frieda’s father, who acts as intermediary between the two parties.

“Mr Weedon spoke not one word of Afrikaans. For people who were born in England, the g’s and r’s of the language were impossible, barbaric. ‘A gentleman, a true Englishman,’ Mamma said as she handed Father his best hat. For the Mercedes could be seen miles away, a shining disc spun in a cloud of dust. He did not blow a horn like the uncouth Boers from the dorp. There was no horn in the back seat. Neither did he roll down a window to rest a forearm on the door. Perhaps the chrome was too hot, even in autumn, and he did not wish to scorch the blond hairs on his arm. With the help of the person who occupied the driver’s seat, Mr Wheedon’s door was opened, and despite a light skirmish between the two men, he landed squarely on both feet.”[6]

Here we observe Wicomb’s ability to impart to the reader key aspects of her characters’ worlds without explicit reference to them – her use of the Afrikaans word “dorp” without definition or quotation marks emphasizes how Afrikaans is in fact Frieda’s modus operandi, the language of her birth, and therefore requires no translation. Throughout the collection, Afrikaans words are woven seamlessly into the text in a manner bewildering to anyone lacking intimate knowledge of Afrikaans, a stylistic choice that underlines the Afrikaans cultural heritage that Wicomb and Frieda share. Similarly, Wicomb writes that “there was no horn in the backseat” (25) and refers to “the person who occupied the driver’s seat” instead of explicitly stating that Wheedon employed a non-white chauffeur; through what is left unsaid, the reader is invited into an understanding of the implicit biases and power dynamics that governed Frieda’s world. Throughout the book, Wicomb withholds background knowledge, explanations, and characters’ history. This creates the effect of both simulating the disorienting nature of Coloured identity and creating a sense of the often “arbitrary” rules that governed social status and interactions under apartheid – an arbitrariness that the bizarre English-language convention of “Bowl like Hole” exemplifies.

In the interactions between the characters, the racial hierarchy is laid bare, with Mr. Wheedon, the “true Englishman,” occupying the position of power, while his non-white chauffeur is not even directly acknowledged, and Afrikaans is denigrated as a language that is “impossible, barbaric” (25). Frieda’s own family is also racially positioned within this scene, as the demand for her father’s “best hat” underscores the family’s desire to ingratiate themselves with their English visitor, towards whom they are near-reverential.

As Frieda grows up, she is motivated by her family to accentuate her English accent and is sent to an English school in the hopes that she will be able to leverage her anglicized identity to achieve a higher social status. She is even driven to adjust her appearance to seem more European; she takes pains to straighten her hair and is told by her father “You don’t want cheekbones that jut out like a hottentot” (45). Frieda attends an English high school called St. Mary’s, and she is the first Coloured person to do so. Her father, delighted that his daughter is receiving a chance to access the upper echelons of society that have been denied to Coloured people for decades, yells “The whole world is ours!” (53) while Frieda nervously contemplates the prospect of attending an all-white boarding school. However, Frieda manages to make good on the opportunity, completes her high school education, and pursues tertiary education in England, further deepening her European ties.

Another force driving Frieda’s desire to assume an English identity is the sexualization and objectification of Coloured women’s bodies. In her essay “Shame and Identity: The Case of the Coloured in South Africa,” Wicomb points to the infamous example of Saartjie Baartman, a Khoisan or Coloured woman (her identity is undetermined) who was “displayed” in Europe as the “Hottentot Venus” in the early 1800s. Baartman’s very name, Afrikaans in origin, indicates her “cultural hybridity.”[7] As one of the few Coloured woman mentioned in historical annals, she “exemplifies the body as a site of shame, a body bound up with the politics of location.” In apartheid South Africa, Coloured bodies represented both a history of violent miscegenation and a possible contravention of the laws that restricted sexual relations between the races. (It was possible, as Trevor Noah has observed, to be Born a Crime).

The sexual shame associated with Coloured origins and Coloured bodies manifests itself in the titular story “You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town”, in which Frieda decides to abort the child she has conceived with her white boyfriend Michael against his wishes. The birth of the baby would be illegal, evidence of their contravening of the segregational system of the time – and as a Coloured woman, Frieda is risking far more than Michael, a secure white man. Frieda expresses disgust at her pregnancy, referring to the fetus as a “tsafendas tapeworm” (97), representative of the dominant race’s hold over her body. While in the abortionist’s clinic, Frieda must leverage a “white persona” in order to bypass the nurse’s blatant racism, observing that her “educated voice, [her] accent has blinded [the nurse]” (98). In this scene, both shame and necessity play a role in Frieda’s decision to discard her Coloured identity in favor of an anglicized version.

 Later, returning home from her studies in England, Frieda finds herself unable to relate to her Afrikaans-speaking family and escapes to a nearby river where “[she] could be the child once more, young and genderless as [she] roamed the banks alone, belonging without question to this country, this world” (111). In an emotionally charged passage in the final story, “A Trip to the Gifberge,” Frieda’s mother expresses regret over the gulf that the English language has opened up between them:

“I swallow, and pressing my back against the cupboard for support I sneer, ‘Such a poor investment children are. No returns, no compound interest, not a cent’s worth of gratitude. You’d think gratitude were inversely proportionate to the sacrifice of parents. I can’t imagine why people have children’. She turns from the stove, her hands gripping the handles of a pot, and says slowly, at one with the steam pumping out the truth, ‘My mother said it was a mistake when I brought you up to speak English. Said people spoke English just to be disrespectful to their elders, to You and Your them about. And that is precisely what you do. Now you use the very language against me that I’ve stubbed my tongue trying to teach you it. No respect! Use your English as a catapult![8]’”

Through the language usage of the two characters, Wicomb demonstrates the fissure between mother and daughter; Frieda’s sardonic control over the English language is contrasted with her mother’s grammatical error and awkwardness. Wicomb simultaneously demonstrates this disparity in identity through their physical positioning in the scene. Frieda, back against the cupboard, is uncomfortable in what should be her home, while her mother grips the handles of a pot – a traditional Khoisan means of cooking. Propelled out of her native identity and into one of foreign privilege, Frieda suddenly discovers that she has become isolated from her family, told by her uncle that “here in the veld amongst the Griquas[9] is no place for an educated person” (104). Frieda’s inner turmoil illustrates how the internalization and forced presentation of an anglicized identity allowed Coloured individuals to escape from an oppressive system only through a severance of their Coloured community and heritage.

However, the year 1994 and the first democratic elections initiated a dramatic change in South Africa’s political and social climates; almost two decades later, in the year 2010, a group of artists and musicians decided to celebrate a cultural phenomenon that has been developing throughout the Western Cape, but especially in Cape Town itself. In the new “Rainbow Nation,” the Coloured people of the Cape are endeavoring to reposition Afrikaans as a creole language of mixed racial origin. The dialect of Afrikaans predominantly spoken in the Western Cape by Coloured communities, commonly known as “Afrikaaps” or “Kaaps,” has been growing in national prominence as an ethnic language of the Coloured people, and is the vehicle through which Coloured peoples are staking their claim to Afrikaans. In Afrikaans on the Cape Flats: Performing cultural linguistic identity in Afrikaaps, Jade Schuster, an academic at Stellenbosch University and member of the Cape Coloured community, narrates the reclamation of Afrikaans as a Coloured language with non-white origins. In his thesis, Schuster describes how the “Afrikaaps movement” is validating Coloured identity within South Africa’s demographic spectrum and complex racial history. Schuster’s work centers around how a redefining of Afrikaans as a Coloured language has enabled Coloured people to form a sense of legitimate national identity, arguing that “as language and identity are inseparable concepts, by embracing Kaaps and its origins, Coloured speakers of Kaaps can finally claim that they are truly South African.”[10]

The dominant medium used by Afrikaaps, a 2010 documentary film directed by Dylan Valley, is a hybridized blend of hip hop, jazz, and reggae that melds storytelling with rhythm and melody and is frequently accompanied by dance. The central refrain of the musical performance is the song “Ik is Afrikaaps (“I am Afrikaaps”), which directly implicates language in the formation of Coloured identity; the song reflects on the origin of the language with the words:

“I am a song with a story, old pal

Of how my people tell their feelings and secrets

I was born there in Europe with a different language

But in the Cape I was hijacked with a creole style.”[11]

The performance also bluntly addresses the shame associated with the Afrikaans language amongst Coloured communities due to its connotations of illegitimacy and social disempowerment. The Afrikaaps dialect, despite its cultural prominence (70% of the Coloured people in the Western Cape claim it as their first language[12]), has received very little national recognition, and its Coloured roots have never been officially recognized. Afrikaaps the performance is a loud, vibrant display, with musicians and dancers weaving in and out of the performance, at times involving “toyi toyi” dancing (commonly used in political protest) as well as banners and speeches calling for national recognition of the Afrikaaps dialect. The performance is protest as well as art, as evident in the lines:

“This language was bought in our sleep

Now we’re taking a step with Afrikaaps / to take it back”

This reference to sleep could be intended to denote the violent concupiscence of the Coloured people’s origins, or the fact that the Afrikaner community quietly monopolized all claims to the language without acknowledging Coloured influence; whatever the terms of the grievance, the second line is a clear gesture of defiance and a rallying cry around which the Coloured community can mobilize. Through a combination of political message and music, Afrikaaps popularizes a social movement aimed at cultivating consciousness and pride in the history of the Coloured people, as well as pride in an identity that has historically suffered denigration and shame.

The performance and assertion of Afrikaaps as a language in post-apartheid South Africa demonstrates how, loosed from the oppressive structures created by the state, Coloured people are crafting identity by examining their history and repossessing their ethnic tongue. As Schuster asserts, “Coloured identities are not simply Apartheid labels imposed by whites. They are made and re-made by Coloured people themselves in their attempts to giving meaning to their everyday lives.” In contrast, Wicomb utilizes her cast of characters in You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town to demonstrate how Coloured identity was externally defined and imposed by the government. Under apartheid conditions, the only options presented to Coloured people were the acceptance of subjugated racial status or a chameleon-like transition to another racial category by leveraging the English language, a “good” accent, and anglicized appearance – to the loss of one’s ethnic roots. Before 1994, Coloured identity was only self-governed in so far as an individual could (potentially) accept or reject it; after 1994, Coloured people have been empowered to embrace and redefine their identity, as demonstrated by Afrikaaps. In both cases, language acts as the fulcrum of identity creation. 

In both Afrikaaps and Wicomb’s short story collection, the performance of identity is a central facet of its creation. Wicomb’s fictional characters reflect a historic reality when they affect certain behaviors and appearances to access higher social status. Those who identified as Coloured had the unique ability to “perform” whiteness due to their partial European ancestry and lighter skin, and thus socially to elevate themselves – a phenomenon referred to as “play-white.”

The artists of Afrikaaps also perform their identities – on an actual stage. Here, musical performance is used as a means to retell the history of the Coloured people to a broad audience, thus disseminating a new, transformed cultural narrative. In his song “Kom Khoisan (Kry terug jou land),”[13] artist Emile XY? performs the redefining of Coloured identity as a distinctly African identity, and established its legitimacy in the family of other African “so-called” races[14]:

“The people will give themselves back to the land.
            Here every so-called race is mixed,
            old brother, friend but that’s alright.
            We are all from Africa …”[15]

Through this performance of identity, Emile XY? is able to negate past assumptions about Coloured identity, for example, that as mixed-race they have no claim to African identity, another aspect of the Coloured “identity in limbo” state. He is also able to instill pride in Khoisan heritage as the native people of the Western Cape, as referenced with the line “give themselves back to the land.” This anti-colonial, anti-apartheid rebranding is not limited to performers like Emile XY?; it reflects a changing approach to Coloured identity in communities throughout the Western Cape.[16] This leads one to hope that had Frieda been coming of age around the year 2010, she would have been afforded the ability to pursue higher education and the life her family wanted for her without needing to cast aside her ethnic heritage.

The performance of Afrikaaps on stage provides an analogy to the performance of linguistic identity in everyday life. In his thesis, Schuster references the work of philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler on performativity. Butler analyzes the impact of performance in the context of identity construction, describing “performativity” as “that reiterative power of discourse to produce the phenomena that it regulates and constrains.”[17] In other words, Butler theorizes that identity is brought to life through discourse, and that language has the power to produce, as well as constrain, identity. In the case of the Cape Coloured, both the discourse around their ethnicity (which has been historically derogatory) and the actual language in which that discourse is conducted is formative. Thus, under Butler’s view, the reiterative use of Afrikaaps as a language and the positive discourse around Afrikaaps the production both have agency in the construction of post-apartheid Coloured identity.

Throughout most of South Africa’s history, Coloured identity has been defined by external forces – first by the Dutch settlers, and later by the apartheid government. As evidenced by Wicomb’s semi-autobiographical You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town, the positioning of Coloured identity as “undesirable” and “second-rate” has historically led Coloured individuals to leverage English as a means of escaping oppression— despite the resultant loss of connection to family, community, and ethnic identity. However, in today’s democratic South Africa, Coloured people are using their language of origin, Afrikaans, to do just the opposite. Instead of escaping the Coloured identity, they have chosen to redefine it through a conscious reflection on their history and through the Cape dialect Afrikaaps. While Wicomb’s subtle use of Afrikaans throughout her work implicitly references her cultural roots, in Afrikaaps the cultural reference has become emphatically explicit. The power of language to aid in the construction, and the re-construction, of cultural identity is expressed in Coloured artist Emile XY?’s lyrics: “We are a dark mass of people who feel ‘No, this is our land’s freedom and we can count on our language to liberate our soul.’”

Works Cited:

Thomason, S.G. and Kaufman, T., (1988), Language Contact, Creolization, and Genetic Linguistics, University of California Press.

Wicomb, Z., (1995) Shame and Identity: The case of the Coloured in South Africa, Cambridge University Press

The Dutch and the Khoikhoi (2011) South African History online, https://www.sahistory.org.za/article/dutch-and-khoikhoi, Retrieved 4/05/2019

Wicomb, Z., (2000), You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town, The Feminist Press

Schuster, J., (2016), Afrikaans on the Cape Flats: Performing cultural linguistic identity in Afrikaaps, Stellenbosch University Press

Kaaps Afrikaans, Cape Flats Dictionary, Retrieved from http://capeafrikaans.blogspot.com/p/what-is-kaaps.html on 04/05/2019

Gaylard, R., (1996), Exile and Homecoming: Identity in Zoe Wicomb’s You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town, The Johns Hopkins University Press

Butler, J., (1993). Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”, New York: Routledge


[1] Thomason, S.G. and Kaufman, T., (1988), Language Contact, Creolization, and Genetic Linguistics, University of California Press  

[2] Wicomb, Z., (1995) Shame and Identity: The case of the Coloured in South Africa, Cambridge University Press

[3] The Dutch and the Khoikhoi (2011) South African History online, https://www.sahistory.org.za/article/dutch-and-khoikhoi, Retrieved 4/05/2019

[4] Gaylard, R., (1996), Exile and Homecoming: Identity in Zoe Wicomb’s You Can’t Get Lost in Cape

[5] The Bantu languages are a large family of languages spoken by the Bantu peoples throughout Sub-Saharan Africa.

[6] Wicomb, Z., (2000), You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town, The Feminist Press

[7] Wicomb, Z., (1995) Shame and Identity: The case of the Coloured in South Africa, Cambridge University Press

[8] A reference to Frieda’s use of English to ‘catapult’ herself into a higher class and status within the apartheid system.

[9] Another name for Cape Coloured people.

[10] Schuster, J., (2016), Afrikaans on the Cape Flats: Performing cultural linguistic identity in Afrikaaps, Stellenbosch University Press

[11] All the lyrics referenced were originally sung in Afrikaaps, and are translated here for convenience.

[12] Kaaps Afrikaans, Cape Flats Dictionary, Retrieved from http://capeafrikaans.blogspot.com/p/what-is-kaaps.html on 04/05/2019

[13] Meaning: ‘Come Khoisan, Take back your land again’.

[14] Schuster, J.

[15] Emile XY?, (2010) Kom Khoisan, Afrikaaps

[16] Schuster, J.

[17]Butler, J., (1993). Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”, New York: Routledge