Raymond Suttner, The Problem of terminology in South Africa


When one talks about terminology that one prefers one risks being accused of being ‘precious’ or trying to be ‘politically correct’, a phrase which I understand to be a variant of imposing the ‘tyranny of the majority.’  Terminology is seldom neutral so that it is important to ask why some usages are adopted or disappear and what purpose using or not using one or other term serves.

It is striking that some terminology previously considered part of the gains in the anti-apartheid struggle and also in feminist struggle have been eroded.  Take the word black.   In the black consciousness movement (BCM) this term came to be used instead of non-white (previously non-European, signifying that whites did not identify being South African as their most significant identity).  The quality of not being white, a form of ‘othering’ had previously defined black people.  Instead of a negative identity, BC proudly affirmed blackness.

The adoption of the notion that Coloureds, Africans and Indians were simultaneously distinct peoples and also considered to have common characteristics under the overall category of ‘black people’ was a significant political statement of anti-apartheid unity at the time. 

Once the apartheid government started to move away from some of the terminology to which people objected, it also adopted the term black, but reserved this for Africans alone. Thus Africans were called Blacks in late apartheid and the Bantu Administration act became the Black administration act and the previous Native/Bantu Commissioners became Black Commissioners applying ‘Black law’, the colonial/apartheid version of African customary law.  This usage, calling Africans ‘Blacks’ is, incidentally in the official forms listing ‘race groups’ at University of Kwa-Zulu Natal now (which also has the ‘racial category’ of ‘foreigners’).

So, in late apartheid, contestation moved from being between contestation over alternative words to contestation over the meaning and scope of the same word.  The government’s adoption of black for Africans only was an attack on and attempt to disorganise unity of all black people. 

In the post-apartheid period the sense of wishing to belong has led many whites and other non-Africans to argue that they are being denied the right to call themselves Africans and believe that this should not be reserved for those who previously carried passes or were consigned to bantustans. 

While there is a worthy element in this concern, it also has problems.   In one sense we may all be Africans, belonging here in South Africa and nowhere else.   But if we claim this African identity without any clarification, as having the same character as other claims to the designation, we simultaneously erase the distinct features that have marked out the lives of Africans who carried passes, technically referred to as the Bantu-speaking peoples.  If we do not simultaneously recognise both commonality and difference, we do not acknowledge the experience that has shaped the very different ways in which we have become Africans.  What resolves this problem is to recognise that the word African has two meanings.  We are all Africans in the one sense of belonging here, but we cannot all be Africans in the sense applied to those people who carried passes and were supposed to owe allegiance to the Matanzimas, Mangope and other bantustan heads.

Another variant of this slippage is the introduction, I think mainly by scholars, of the term ‘black African’ to refer to Africans.  It has the problem of blurring two things.  One, the reality that the meaning of the word African now has been expanded to encompass all of us, but this usage (black Africans) simultaneously recognises the specific narrower meaning by the clumsy use of the word black, as an adjective qualifying African.  

If Africans are ‘black Africans’ what is the status of the word ‘black’ in relation to Coloureds, African and Indians?  Does that usage now disappear, sacrificed on the altar of a single concept of being African, which nevertheless has to be qualified when referring to different categories of Africans? 

This, as I have indicated is not purely personal preference.  The word African was uncontested amongst those resisting apartheid as the word to describe the Bantu-speaking people of Southern Africa, the former pass bearers.  The word black was introduced by BC and became broadly accepted amongst those opposing apartheid, as an inclusive term to cover all black people, i.e. those previously called non-whites.

That we all wish to claim our Africanness has to be covered by recognising that it must coexist with recognition that there is a distinct category of Africans, within the broad, inclusive concept that is important to assert, in building a united South Africa.

At some point in the distant future, it may be and I hope it is not too distant, that the significance of the historical factors I have referred to recede in importance in peoples’ minds as inequalities erode and other factors that stand in the way of a broader commonality.  It may be then that the word African can be unproblematically applied to all ‘who live in’ South Africa.  But we are not there yet.

There is another slippage, which, as with these others happened without discussion.  It is apparently minor but symptomatic of wider implications.  The term chairperson or chair used to be the accepted form of addressing or describing the chair of an organisation or the presiding officer of a meeting.  This signified a challenge to the notion of an office being masculine in character and that it was a male prerogative to lead.  Some people found it clumsy and newspaper ‘house styles’ generally prevented its use.  But it was the assertion of a feminist claim to leadership.  That has more or less disappeared from official discourse and that happened before the Zuma era.

There needs to be debate on these and other terms. There are other words like ‘tribe’, use of the word Coloured or racial categories in general that need discussion. Terminology inflames emotions.  Consequently we should not allow changes to simply slip in without discussion. 



2 thoughts on “Raymond Suttner, The Problem of terminology in South Africa

  1. Great article Raymond. It has been a major ptoblem in research. Yet the labour reltions and emplyment laws designate “Black” as all those who have been previously disadvantaged. Thus the Chinese community were able to cliam recognition as being Black in a landmark court decision. It may beceturies before we reach a stage where such categories disappear. Even in countries like Brazil the BC movement is alive and well despite its long history. Those who don;t accept this know it suits the privileged in the quest for primary accumulation of wealth in the new dispensation. After the American Civil war they were known as “carpertbaggers”!

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