The Racist South African Traveller

by Rezeen Daniels

Yes, I am inherently a racist.

I’ve been travelling outside of South Africa since 2011 and since then I’ve learnt a lot about the topic, not just from my point of view but from others too.

Let’s start with the term ‘coloured’. I’ve come to hate this term and have openly shared that over the past few years, I’ve been met with much criticism for it but I think it’s time I explain myself, as clearly as possible.

My first time leaving South Africa was in August of 2011, myself and a few colleagues attended a conference in Kampala, Uganda. A dear friend, Mark and I decided to extend our stay exploring this beautiful country.

A few days into our exploration, we found ourselves sitting at a dinner table in Jinja, a town at the source of the Nile overlooking this majestic river.

Now, South Africans are obsessed with skin colour and make judgments accordingly. So naturally, we introduced the topic to our new friends:

Cole, a local Ugandan, and Kia, a volunteer from Europe.

She is white European and he’s a black African. We, however, turned out to be quite the mystery to them. We are and would be deemed as coloured back home but when we tried explaining this we struggled to express how we were the same race.

Mark, under visual assessment looks Middle Eastern: fair skin with green eyes and dark features and I look more South American with darker brown skin and dark brown features with brown eyes.

Kia and Cole struggled to somehow grasp that we were classified as the same race, and after 45mins of trying to explain that we were, I began to struggle too.

This was the very first time someone had not considered me coloured.

Maybe I should go back to my younger years for some context.

I started primary school in 1994, which was an interesting year (our first democratic election) and attended Pinelands Primary, a former Model C school or a whites only school.

I was one of four people of colour in my class but this didn’t matter. I had learnt nothing of race at this time and school was school.

My parents of course knew better and I can only surmise that I was sent to such a school because we were now allowed to and it was common knowledge that the model C schools had a superior curriculum, and it did.

There was a problem that they could never have anticipated though, my identity.

As I said, I knew nothing of race at the time and got on with everyone just fine and made friends with just about everyone. The only difference between the kids, that I could tell, was where we lived. I lived over an hour away from the school and was used to the 1 hour in each direction commute to and from school. However, the majority of my friends lived within walking distance.

As I settled in I begin to get used to my new surroundings and way of life and what this meant for me was picking up a little bit of an accent and new jargons or slang which is fine for school but became a problem for friends back home. They’d tease that I speak like a white boy.

This didn’t bother me much at the time as I spent most of the day at school anyway. My first real racist encounter was the following year in grade 2.

His name was Wesley, a bunch of us were playing handball and he pushed me over and called me a kaffir.

At this age (7) I had heard it but never knew what it meant personally. I hit the tar and bled from my left elbow. I still have the 2-inch scar today.

Things changed a bit after that. I wasn’t quite white, and at the same time I was ridiculed back home for not being coloured enough.

My next trip overseas was to Rio De Janeiro, Brazil in 2012. A vibrant part of the world where I seemingly fit in rather well. All races seemed to live in harmony.

South Africa is known as the rainbow nation but I had never seen such a mix of people in my life. The favelas were filled with all races: blacks, whites and coloureds, it was amazing.

About 2 weeks into my trip my limited Portuguese often got the better of me and I’d drift off in thought as the conversation got away from me. At this particular time I noticed a gentleman trip and fall in the distance and, naturally, I giggled. This caught the table’s attention and they enquired to my sudden outburst.

I began to explain that the “BLACK gentleman across the road” had tripped and fallen at which point I heard gasps and through my teary laughing eyes I saw disappointment and disgust. I immediately changed my tune and asked what was wrong and someone simply replied, why do you call him “black”?

To me it was obvious, the man was black, but he went on by asking: why couldn’t you describe him by the clothes he was wearing? The orange T-shirt, the guy with the blue jeans?

He was of course wearing those things but it never occurred to me, that I was being offensive or worse, racist.

The conversation moved on, but I felt embarrassed. Why did I do that? It was so instinctive for me, I didn’t think I was being racist, I mean how could I be?

I’m a coloured from South Africa! Mandela destroyed racism over 15 years ago!

I thought long and hard after that day. I came home and became harsher toward our unknowing racism. I wasn’t oblivious to hate crime and the difficult circumstances people live in, but I focused more on the unspoken racism, the one people don’t address. The internal instinctive racist within us all.

I have friends of all colours and races, nationalities and genders and so the natural thought would be that I couldn’t possibly be racist, but I now realise this wasn’t necessarily true.

It’s now a few years later and I live in Shanghai, China. Apparently, Southern and Eastern Asians have a prejudice that Africans are inferior to them, but I haven’t come across this personally just yet.

What I have come across though are my fellow countrymen. My brothers and sisters from my home country. We might not share similar ancestry but we do share a familiar lifestyle and the notion of Ubuntu.

When I meet foreigners they never seem to be able to place me, which makes sense. For all my years of travel I’ve never been accurately described as being a South African. But then again, how could you? We are a rainbow nation after all with no one typical feature.

There is one group of people who can place me though, and they share it with me as soon as they meet me. South Africans.

We are fixated with race, and before I’ve introduced myself I’d already be told, ‘you must be a coloured from Cape Town’ which is closely followed by “Aweh mybru” in an impersonated coloured accent.

I don’t get visually upset but I do tend to not entertain conversations the same after that. But if I have to, I bring it up a little later and try my best to explain why I find it a problem.

It goes something like this.

Coloured or ‘people of colour’ from South Africa have more of a mixed heritage than most people on the planet! I, for example, can trace routes from Holland, Germany, India and Saint Helena.

But there’s a problem with our ancestry too. You see, if a European was in a relationship with a non-white it was considered against the law and of course was largely unpopular to own up to. The knock on effect of all this, is that coloureds cannot easily trace their routes.

All we know in some cases is that we are some part European and tend to hold onto this. We will often claim our surnames and proudly proclaim our European heritage, and for me this is so sad. The law of the time literally changed the way we view ourselves. Instead of being proudly African, or South African, we rather boast to be 1/8th European.

But what does this mean? In the days of the ships it more than likely meant the European would sleep (with or without consent) with a local African woman, which he would never own up to.

Or in more recent generations the European would sleep (with or without consent) with a local African woman but this was against the law and would be considered a crime in which case it often wasn’t owned up to.

The legacy of all this? Multiple generations of mixed children with no history or traditions to follow, as well as no father. What is left though is the all-important surname (family name)

As a coloured South African traveller I try my best not to get onto the topic of race, some people aren’t ready to confront racism or outright deny it, and who am I to judge. Just a few years ago I shared the very same thoughts. I do, however, have some new views.

I no longer identify with the term ‘coloured’. I see myself as mixed race. I feel it’s a far better summary to explain a person with such a mixed ethnic background.

I am not disowning my local history or people but I have moved on from the generalised stigma.

I don’t have a solution to this problem, but imagine acknowledgement and moving on is a great start.

That doesn’t mean ignore, it means accepting first and then moving on.


I really dislike those damn ballad cards that ask what race I am.


Rezeen Daniels is a photographer and blogger currently based out of Shanghai, China. If you want to check out his photography and writing, you can go to his website at,


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