A vote to save their identity: Coloureds

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AN OPINION poll just published before this month's South African general election confirms a remarkable trend. Although the African National Congress is almost certain to win a clear victory in the country as a whole, President F W de Klerk's National Party looks like winning one province, the Western Cape. And the Nats - the old ruling party of apartheid - will win there thanks to the support of those who used to be classified as 'Coloureds', who comprise 55 per cent of the Western Cape population.

This seems astonishing. Shouldn't the Coloureds, who were once so badly treated by the National Party, be voting for Nelson Mandela and liberation? To understand why they are not doing so, you have to look not only at South Africa but also at Ireland and its equivalent of the Cape Coloureds, the Ulster Presbyterians.

In the ANC's language, all South Africans who aren't white are black, and should be united in their opposition to white rule. That includes not only the African peoples, Xhosa, Zulu or Sotho, but the Coloureds of the Cape and indeed the Indians of Natal.

Nowadays, the term 'mixed- race' is preferred to 'Coloured'. At least it accurately describes these people. They are descended partly from the original (African, but not Bantu) inhabitants of the Cape, partly from the slaves (many of them Malay) whom the Dutch settlers imported in the 17th and 18th centuries, and partly from the Boers themselves through sexual unions of master and slave.

Coloureds and Afrikaners are closely related. The Coloureds speak Afrikaans, they belong to the Dutch Reformed Church, and almost all have some Boer blood. But then most true Afrikaners - who can trace their ancestry back to the first century of settlement - have some Coloured blood, as many are now pleased to admit. Distinction or 'classification' between the two groups was almost random. In the days of apartheid you could stand in Cape Town between a ruddy, brown-eyed, crinkly-haired 'white' Afrikaner, and a paler, blue-eyed 'Coloured'.

And this is what makes the Coloureds' support for the National Party all the more remarkable. They have perhaps more reason to hate apartheid than anybody else, because 'apartness' was originally aimed at them more than any others. Before 1948, no Africans were enfranchised but most Coloureds were, and they could hold the electoral balance. In order to entrench their rule, the Nats disenfranchised the Coloureds, and segregated them. They were forcibly removed from their homes - notably the Bohemian District Six of Cape Town. Once, there was easy social intercourse across the Western Cape's colour line; after 1948, the Coloureds were spurned.

So how can they possibly be voting today for their oppressors of yesterday? For the answer, turn from the Cape to Ulster. Just as the ANC embraces - or pretends to embrace - the Coloureds, Irish republicans embrace the Ulster Protestants. To Eamon de Valera (in the fatuous paraphrase of his hagiographer Lord Longford) they were 'all Irishmen and equally dear accordingly'. Only the other day Gerry Adams parroted the old republican slogan about 'Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter' opposing English rule together.

This is characteristic of the fustian quality of Irish republicanism. There have been no 'Dissenters' in Ireland for 125 years. Before then, there were three groups. 'Protestants' were members of the Anglican or episcopalian Church of Ireland, an established church with a monopoly of office and political power. 'Catholics' owed allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church. 'Dissenters' were non-episcopalian Protestants, principally the Presbyterian descendants of the 17th- century colonisation of Ulster from Scotland. These 'Scotch-Irish' could look across the sea from Antrim or Down to Scotland where their kirk was by law established. In Ireland they were second-class citizens; in the 1798 risings, the rebels against English rule included the Presbyterians of eastern Ulster, a hotbed of radical and Jacobinic unrest.

But they were only second-class citizens. Beneath them were the great mass of Catholics, the third- class citizens whose position in 18th-century Ireland was comparable to the black Africans' under apartheid. As long as they were both oppressed (though in different degrees), Dissenter and Catholic could find common cause against the Ascendancy.

Within a century of 1798, the case was entirely altered. Gladstone had disestablished the Church of Ireland so that the Dissenters had nothing left to dissent from. Home Rule had become an imminent reality. Freed from their old disabilities, the Ulster Presbyterians saw instead only the prospect of being submerged under the Catholics who made up three- quarters of the Irish population. So their conversion from rebellion to Unionism is not as surprising as republicans seem to find it.

Nor is the Coloureds' about- turn. Only a few years ago, when I interviewed several Coloured leaders in the Cape, they spoke the ANC's language of black solidarity. But deep down they, and the Indians, were apprehensive about black majority rule. The apprehensions have only increased with the imminence of an ANC government, itself challenged by the Pan African Congress and its more extreme black triumphalism.

There is a fashion to say that the Coloureds and the Ulster Protestants have got it all wrong, that they should sink their differences in a 'unitary South Africa' and a united Irish republic. I wonder. Apart from the impertinence of denying any group the right to define themselves subjectively - by telling the Coloureds that they are 'really' black, or the Ulstermen that they are really Irish - couldn't it just be that, in either case, they may have a shrewder sense of their objective interests?