Identity Construction and (Mis) Perceptions on Being Black in South Africa

Unpacking Socio-Economic, Spatial, and Political Dimensions in the South Durban Basin

by Urmilla Bob (Author) Munashe Furusa (Author) William A. Little (Author)
©2016 Monographs VIII, 182 Pages
Series: American University Studies , Volume 68


Identity Construction and (Mis) Perceptions on Being Black in South Africa: Unpacking Socio-Economic, Spatial, and Political Dimensions in the South Durban Basin presents the research findings of a two-year empirically based study on the politics of race, ethnicity, and identity in Durban, South Africa, among Black or non-White groups, specifically the historical racial categories of African, Indian, and Colored. Research on race and identity politics tends to focus on Black-White relations. Thus, there is a gap in our understanding of ethnic and racial interactions among Blacks. This study challenges the tendency to reduce race to a Black-White binary. The research also recognizes that the examination of differences within and between groups is necessary to understand the complexity of the issues. Its key contributions are in relation to examining the question of identity politics (in terms of nationality, ethnicity, race, class, and gender); unpacking hierarchical and spatial relationships and interactions among and between communities and groups in the home, work places, social arenas, and other public spaces; and highlighting points of conflict/contestation. The main focus is on differential experiences, realities, and perceptions among and between groups.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Chapter 1. Introduction
  • Chapter 2. Methodology and Background to Case Study
  • Chapter 3. The Politics of Identity (Re)construction
  • Chapter 4. Social Interaction: Nature, Type and Context
  • Chapter 5. The Spatial Dimensions of Race Relations and Perceptions
  • Chapter 6. Confronting (Mis)perceptions and Stereotypes
  • Chapter 7. Politics, Power and Future Challenges
  • Chapter 8. Conclusion
  • References
  • Index

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Given the social, economic and political dissonance that exists in the world today and in South African society in particular, it is important to understand how people see the world, themselves and others. It is equally important to understand and acknowledge how these perceptions of self and others determine social relations and interactions. The primary objective of this research project is to discern the historical, socio-economic and political interactions and relationships between and among Black (historical race categories of African, Indian, and Colored) people in Durban, South Africa. Although these populations have their individual histories, they have, however, also shared a common experience as South Africans. The interplay between African, Indian and Colored populations presents an interesting set of human dynamics between the political, social and economic realities of post-apartheid Durban society. The dynamics between the various ethnic population groups in Durban in the social, economic and political arenas are complex and fraught with tensions. There exists a history of simmering hostilities between the various Black groups in Durban. However, these groups have managed to maintain a delicate balance that has allowed Durban to prosper and be ← 1 | 2 → recognized as an emerging world-class city. For example, over the past two years, Durban has hosted several international conferences, including the International World Conference on AIDS, and the International Conference on Racism. However, if racial hostilities are left unresolved, several social, economic and political problems are likely to emerge or be worsened.

This book presents the research findings of a two-year study on the politics of race and ethnicity in the Durban Metropolitan Area. The focus of the study was specifically on the following in relation to historically oppressed Black groups in the South Durban Basin (SDB) area:

The questions examined in this study are: What are the main factors influencing identity constructions among African, Indian and Colored populations? What is the basis of racial and ethnic identities? What are the reasons for continued overt and covert racial and ethnic conflicts in communities? How do different ethnic groups perceive themselves and each other? What types of problems characterize race relations among historically disadvantaged groups in South Africa? What factors can contribute to greater understanding and respect? How does a sense of place influence interactions and identity construction? What are the political manifestations of racialized worldviews? The book also addresses the question of how to use conceptual methods in relation to empirical research aimed at unpacking the political, economic and social dynamics of historically oppressed groups in democratic societies throughout the world.

To answer these questions adequately requires that we provide a historical contextualization of the study, including a brief examination of key historical processes and legislations. This includes undertaking a conceptual and definitional review of race and ethnicity. This section thus includes a ← 2 | 3 → discussion and presentation of some South African population statistics and a discussion of Africans (especially Zulus), Indians and Coloreds followed by the conclusion that underscores the importance of the study. It ends with a presentation of outline of the book outline.

Historical Context of the Study

The history of South Africa has been shaped by apartheid and is being shaped by its socio-economic and spatial legacies. Apartheid was based primarily on legitimizing and institutionalizing racial separation and discrimination. Race and ethnicity were intertwined under apartheid and the social categories of groups defined by apartheid utilized crude measures (Clark-Ekong, 2003). Social categories were largely defined by phenotype. The history of apartheid in South Africa and its concurrent social, economic and political implications have been well documented. The harsh historical experiences of African, Colored and Indian populations (both nationals and continentally) have set the stage for complex dynamics and interactions between various Black groups.

The Indian and the European communities for the most part have maintained political, economic and social relationship with their mother country. Both the European and Indian diaspora-to-homeland relationship has played and continues to play an important role in the life of Durban political and socio-economic realities.

Numerous authors assert that South Africa is reflective of the ethnic and racial dynamics facing the world (Clark-Ekong, 2003). Wiley (1999) indicates that in many countries, colonial authorities exploited and exacerbated ethnic differences for their own ends and the White regimes of Southern Africa pursued an aggressive policy of retribalization. In fact, South Africa has the largest White population in sub-Saharan Africa and has the highest concentration of Indians outside South Asia. A brief summary of key historical processes, which is well documented in the literature, that has defined race relations is undertaken below.

Key Historical Processes

In the late 1830s Afrikaner settlers crossed over the Drakensburg Mountains into what they then ‘Natalia’ – a Voortrekker republic (currently KwaZulu- Natal). Their attempts to secure administration over the region were largely unsuccessful, involving constant resistance from the existing indigenous ← 3 | 4 → African population and the British. The British colonists, eager to prevent Voortrekker access to the sea, gained control from the Afrikaners in 1842, and established ‘Natal’, the area south of the Thukela River, as a British colony. The area north of the Thukela remained intact under the control of the indigenous Nguni people. Andrew (2005) asserts that while there was limited trade between the colonists and the Nguni people, the Nguni economy remained sufficiently robust to withstand attempts by the British colonists to attract the labor of Nguni people in the establishment of sugar cane farming. For this reason, the British introduced indentured Indian labor for sugar cane farming in the 1860s. The British colonists drew a sharp distinction between indigenous Nguni people living north of the Thukela, at this stage accepting their rights over this land, and the people who occupied what had been proclaimed as a British colony.

The 1913 and 1936 Land Acts demarcated land for the occupation of specified racial groups, vastly increasing population densities in designated African communal areas. While the first forced removals took place with the 1913 Native Land Act, forced removals during apartheid were of immense proportions. Together, the 1913 and 1936 Land Acts laid the basis for the forced removals of some 5 million African people during apartheid.

When the National Party came to power in 1948, earlier principles and policies of racial segregation and White supremacy were consolidated and developed into systematic exclusion and control of Black people. The introduction of influx control in 1952 made it compulsory for all African people over the age of 18 years to carry ‘pass books’. In addition, legislation stipulated the criteria one must fulfill to be allowed access to urban areas, especially the demarcated ‘White’ areas. African people over the age of 18 years who had been born in the urban area they resided in, or who had worked for the same employer for 10 years, or who had lived lawfully in the urban area for 15 years, were allowed to remain. The wives, unmarried daughters and sons younger than 18 years of these people, were allowed to remain, so long as they met these criteria. Migrant African workers were allowed to stay only on the conditions of their employment and could reside in specific areas, the African townships. Even those few, who fulfilled these conditions for urban residence, were always under the threat of removal – if they were found “idle or undesirable” (Platzky and Walker, 1985: 105). This resulted in the forced removal of hundreds and thousands of African people who had been a part of the urban economy. ← 4 | 5 →

Controls on the movement of African people out of the Bantustans became steadily more severe. By 1968, labor bureaux were set up in the Bantustans to ensure that legal urban entry of African people was dependant on authorized and documented employment needs of urban areas, and to ensure that urban workers returned to the specified Bantustan in order to renew authorization to enter and work in urban areas (Platzky and Walker, 1985). Platzky and Walker (1985) further indicate that in 1967, legislation was passed preventing African women, who were clearly essential for the growth of an urban African population and were legal residents of urban areas, from accessing housing in their own right. They were required to stay in existing registered households (Platzky and Walker, 1985). Influx control and pass laws continued a long history of utilizing the African labor as ‘migrants’.

The growing strength of political resistance to White minority rule in urban and rural areas heightened the political need to restrict African urbanization, and to prop up the remains of the economy in Bantustans, especially if the re-location of African people to Bantustans was to continue to meet the political and economic needs of the White economy. The Bantu Authority Act of 1951 laid the basis for systematizing the administration of the Bantustans, providing for the establishment of Tribal, Regional and Territorial Authority structures.

The Tomlinson Commission in 1955 recommended consolidating the African reserves into seven pockets, however, this suggestion was not explored further or taken seriously until the possibility of declaring ‘independent’ Bantu states gained currency in the late 1960s (Surplus People Project, SPP, 1983). Isolated pockets of land scheduled for African occupation by the 1913 Land Act, or released for African occupation by the 1936 Land Act, were then referred to as ‘badly situated’, and targeted for forced removal. The apartheid government planned far more extensive removals for ‘homeland consolidation’ than they were able to achieve. Additional forced removals took place for the purposes of infrastructural ‘developments’ (affecting more than 15 000 people in Natal) and for strategic installations (affecting more than 3 500 people in Natal) (SPP, 1983). Tager (2001) asserts that one of the Land Act’s key effects was that although millions of Blacks lived in urban areas, they could not own land in them.


VIII, 182
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (September)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2016. VII, 181 pp.

Biographical notes

Urmilla Bob (Author) Munashe Furusa (Author) William A. Little (Author)

Urmilla Bob (Ph.D., geography, West Virginia University) is Professor of Geography in the School of Agriculture, Earth, and Environmental Sciences at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, in South Africa. Munashe Furusa (D. Phil., African literature and critical theory, University of Zimbabwe) is Full Professor and Vice Chancellor/President of Africa University in Zimbabwe. The late William A. Little (Ph.D., political science, University of Washington) was Professor and Chair of Africana Studies at California State University, Dominguez Hills, and the former president of National Council for Black Studies (NCBS).


Title: Identity Construction and (Mis) Perceptions on Being Black in South Africa
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192 pages