The Complexity of the Coloured Identity in Southern Africa

Gerson Uaripi Tjihenuna

In this article, southern Africa is used to refer to South Africa and Namibia because of the two countries’ intertwined histories.

Racial and ethnic categorisation took specific patterns in both countries because of the apartheid policy of racial segregation.

These patterns were unique and specific in both countries and, over time, came to inform racial and ethnic identifications in both countries.
Coloured people, with more or less the same cultural background, are found in both countries.

In December 2023, the BBC reported online that “South Africa’s hottest music sensation, Tyla, was caught in a culture of war or in the crossfire of an online debate over the word she uses to describe her racial identity as ‘Coloured’.”

Tyla’s racial identity seems to have stoked fires on social media, especially in the US.

In the US, the word goes back to the Jim Crow era in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when racial laws were instituted in the southern states to oppress African Americans after slavery was abolished.

In South Africa, however, Coloured people, to which Tyla proudly belongs, have a distinct identity that is officially recognised.


Unfortunately, the approach by some Americans threatening to boycott her performances, etc, borders on cultural hegemony or cultural imperialism.

Cultural hegemony refers to domination through ideological or cultural means.

It is usually achieved through social institutions, which allow those in power to strongly influence the values, norms, ideas, expectations, world view, and behaviour of the rest of society or, in this case, the rest of the world.

The fact that some Americans, notably African Americans in this case, take it for granted that the rest of the world should accept their paradigm or frame of reference when it comes to defining certain race concepts or racial classifications, boils down to one thing: cultural hegemony.

I recently spoke to a young upcoming Namibian scholar and she put it this way: “The global dominance of American cultural life is like a big screen where the Americans themselves are the main actors and the rest of the world is the audience. Sadly, the main actors do not bother to gauge the feelings of the members of the audience to try to find out what the latter group thinks about the play.”

And this is where the “main actors” seem to have lost the plot.

The cultural hegemony of the US is reflected in many ways – through ideas, values, norms, entertainment, religion, consumerism and so on.

African Americans have their own unique subculture within mainstream American culture.

However, their unique subculture is still part of the main hegemonic or expansionist American culture. This is a culture based on the notion of American “exceptionalism”.


The point I’m trying to make is that as much as we should allow African Americans to define themselves, they should equally allow room for other people to define themselves.

If Tyla is a South African Coloured and that group is recognised as a distinct group in South Africa, should she then call herself something else when she performs in the US?

In apartheid South Africa, the Population Registration Act of 1950 required people to be registered in one of four racial categories – White, Black, Indian or Coloured.

Another law designated residential areas according to race.

The history of the Coloured community in South Africa and Namibia is complex, but quintessentially southern African. 

The community has disparate origins, being a mixture of Black, White, and Asian but was brought together under apartheid rules.

It was forged in the southern African geography in a way that no other group can claim.

This was how the Coloured community has evolved over the years as a distinct group.

The Coloureds can be described as an eclectic mix of appearance, language, accents and heritage.


Out of this complicated history people like Tyla, who identify as Coloured, have woven a rich cultural tapestry.

Tyla’s meteoric rise to fame may therefore be seen as a cultural statement or imagery representation that affirms the unique identity of the Coloured community – many of them may want to use the Tyla sensation as a cultural tool for self-definition and pride.

I listened to a TV debate a while ago where some South African Coloured intellectuals argued that it was wrong for the ANC government to exclude Coloureds from the definition of who is ‘African’ because the Coloureds were also African.

This goes to show the complexity of the Coloured identity referred to above.

  • * Gerson Uaripi Tjihenuna is a commissioner of elections. The views expressed here are his own and not those of the ECN.

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