What can we learn about the meaning of race from the classification of population groups during apartheid?

Erasmus, Yvonne; Ellison, George T. H.
November 2008
South African Journal of Science;Nov/Dec2008, Vol. 104 Issue 11/12, p450
Academic Journal
THIS PAPER EXAMINES WHAT MIGHT BE learnt about the meaning of race from the formalization of racial classification and reclassification under apartheid, generated by the 1950 Population Registration Act. It draws on 69 (re)classification appeals heard by the South African Supreme Court between 1950 and 1991, and in-depth interviews with a civil servant, expert witness and scientist involved in the (re)classification process. The Supreme Court data indicate that the three classificatory criteria set out in the act (appearance, descent, and acceptance) were ambiguous and subject to substantial debate and reinterpretation by the courts, which principally relied on acceptance. This is supported by the interviewees, who lamented the 'unscientific' classifications they were obliged to perform, yet accepted these as the inevitable consequence of the role social practices play in determining and accepting the classification applied. These findings suggest that there was not a single concrete definition of race during apartheid. Instead, race was whatever people understood or wanted it to be, and racial classification could be attained through 'performing' an identity with sufficient proficiency to 'get away with it'. This provides a crucial insight into the meaning of race elsewhere-as simply a flexible, yet pragmatic and 'acceptable' social classification of group identity.


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