South African Election: Van Riebeeck's descendants rush to embrace their brown kin: F W de Klerk's party finds it expedient to woo the people it once treated like outcasts, Raymond Whitaker writes from Cape Town

AN OLD crack has it that the first people of mixed race in South Africa appeared nine months after Jan van Riebeeck's Dutch settlers landed in Table Bay in 1652. Van Riebeeck's Afrikaner descendants have treated them like illegitimate children ever since: half with affection, half with shame, but never as equals.

Apartheid called them Coloureds; for want of anything better, some have taken to saying 'so-called Coloureds'. Others have described them as 'brown Afrikaners', and the political demands of the new South Africa have made white Afrikaners rush to acknowledge the relationship.

There are 3.4 million South Africans of mixed blood, nearly 9 per cent of the population. In two of the nine new provinces, Western Cape and the Northern Cape, they are in the majority, and their former oppressors are wooing their votes with such success that these are the only two areas of the country where F W de Klerk's National Party is expected to win.

'I can understand why they are going to vote for De Klerk, although I will not do so myself,' said Adam Small, a leading Coloured academic and Afrikaans poet who has endorsed the Democratic Party. 'They are afraid of ANC policies of affirmative action, which they see as being aimed only at blacks. The Afrikaners are offering them reconciliation, and they are eager to forget the past.'

The earliest Coloureds were the product of liaisons between the Dutch and the yellow-skinned nomads once called Hottentots and Bushmen, but now referred to as Khoi. Some people of mixed blood rose to high position in the pioneering days - Simon van der Stel, one of Van Riebeeck's successors as governor of the colony and the founder of the Afrikaner intellectual capital of Stellenbosch, was born to a Dutchman who had lived on Mauritius and 'a daughter of the island', as school histories once put it.

Discrimination began to grow, however, both with the importation of Malay slaves to supply the Cape's need for artisans and with the settlers' push into the interior, where the encounter with black tribes began to create a new racial mix. While the Malays adopted the language which became Afrikaans, and contributed such words to it as piesang (banana), blatjang (chutney) and pondok (shack), they retained their Muslim faith.

The whitewashed mosques of Cape Town's Malay quarter, among the oldest buildings in the country, testify to the group's continuing distinctiveness.

But Islam is just one element in South Africa's most diverse community. Khoi origins are obvious among many Coloureds, while others are purely or mainly Malay in appearance. Some can pass for white if they choose (those who cut themselves off from friends and family, and moved to another area in search of more privileged status, were said to be 'trying for white'), while others again are indistinguishable from blacks, but speak a mainly Afrikaans dialect and worship in the Dutch Reformed church.

There are Coloured Rastafarians, and Islamic fundamentalists who wear Arab robes and keffiyehs.

When apartheid sundered the symbiotic relationship between whites and Coloureds in the Cape, splitting families and forcing those deemed to be the wrong colour to move out of their homes, it made absurd attempts to classify this diversity. Coloureds were divided into Cape Coloured, Cape Malay, Griqua (in the Northern Cape), Indian, Chinese and, in desperation, 'other Asiatic' and 'other Coloured'. Crude racial tests were applied, such as pushing a pencil into a person's hair to see whether it fell out, to determine whether he or she was white or Coloured.

'We have always been in between,' said Prof Small. 'Our tongue is Afrikaans, by and large (the first language of more than four-fifths of Coloureds, according to official figures), and our religion is mainly Calvinist, even though the Islamic component had had an influence out of proportion to its numbers. There is still a search for identity.'

Prof Small believes the Coloureds' uncertain status accounts for their savage humour. 'We are the satirists of South Africa. We are cynical about leadership, which is one reason why we have never been able to organise on a large scale.' The darker side of being 'in between' manifests itself in social problems such as alcholism, drug addiction and gang violence. Coloured males have the lowest life expectancy of any group: 57.6 years, compared with 57.8 for blacks and 69.4 for whites.

Rejection by the whites united Coloureds and blacks against apartheid, but, as Prof Small put it, 'oppression is not culture'. The cultural influences on Coloureds have been Western and Eastern, not African, and that is proving to be the key factor in how they are choosing to vote. In doing so they will belatedly be fulfilling a key element of National Party strategy since the early 1980s: shifting South Africa's racial divide from whites versus non-whites to blacks versus non- blacks. It failed as a means of denying blacks their rights, but it will play a vital role in enabling the Nationalists to cling to as much power as possible after the election.

(Map omitted)