This study investigates the notion of ‘colouredness’ in South Africa by thinking through representation and
attendant ideas of shame and respectability. The family photograph offers a lens through which we may view
what it meant to live through apartheid, occupying an intermediate space in terms of race, colour, language,
religion and social and cultural status, and how these impact on a sense of belonging in a post-apartheid South
Africa, in particular, Cape Town. As such, the study responds to a need to understand what it means to be part
of this diverse group of South Africans who continue to occupy peripheral spaces in the larger South African
landscape and is an attempt to provide insight into the long reach of an oppressive past.
The issue of representation and history is central to the research and the thesis suggests that the very act of
dressing up – performance – and sitting for photographs was a site of resistance against the way ‘coloured’
people were portrayed through the continuum of slavery, colonialism and apartheid. Family photographs serve
as memory aids and help us to access stories, revealing a way of life that disturbs the conventional representation
that oppression dictated (Hirsch, 1999). The question of self-representation, cultural and social practices
is understood to be deeply political and has particular meaning in a contemporary South Africa that still bears
the scars of a past where ‘black’ bodies were legislated as being less than human.
As a creative writer, I frame my research in terms of narrative in order to better understand how the stories
are structured, who produces them, and how they are consumed. Narrative research focuses on the lives of
individuals as told through their own stories, giving them the opportunity to define who they are and where
they come from. The stories of those who have been marginalised or oppressed bear witness to a life under
apartheid. I acknowledge the difficulty of being an objective researcher while examining these photographs,
stories, and memories which I filter through the lens which I am using. This is therefore, in part, an auto-ethnographic
study; my own attempt to find meaning for what it means to be named and understood as ‘coloured’
in a democratic South Africa.
Shame is a principal source of identity for minorities, and the idea of respectability is a historically important
mode of structuring unequal social relations in the African and ‘coloured’ worlds (Kaufman, 1996; Ross,
2015). The desire to prove respectability, I argue, is central to the experience of ‘colouredness’, tightly bound
to a legacy of slavery and the ‘civilising’ mission of the church and Christian National Education. This study
therefore starts with an examination of the genealogy of ‘coloured’ and examines the lived experiences of ordinary
people against a background of dehumanising legislation and narratives of subjugation.
The thesis re-presents the lives of ‘coloured’ people by offering a platform for the expression of multiple
narratives through which the past may be acknowledged and legitimised, leading to the dismantling of racial
identities. I hope that it may serve both a cathartic and a restorative function and ultimately contribute to further
dialogue which will assist in the healing and integration of our society so that we may transcend race and
view each other as human.