Racial Classification Under Apartheid

Man Sitting on 'Europeans Only' Bench
Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

In the Apartheid state of South Africa (1949-1994), your racial classification was everything. It determined where you could live, who you could marry, the types of jobs you could get, and so many other aspects of your life. The whole legal infrastructure of Apartheid rested on racial classifications, but the determination of a person's race often fell to census takers and other bureaucrats. The arbitrary ways in which they classified race are astounding, especially when one considers that people's whole lives hinged on the result.

Defining Race

The 1950 Population Registration Act declared that all South Africans be classified into one of three races: white, "native" (Black African), or colored (neither white nor 'native'). The legislators realized that trying to classify people scientifically or by some set biological standards would never work. So instead they defined race in terms of two measures: appearance and public perception.

According to the law, a person was white if they were “obviously...[or] generally accepted as White." The definition of 'native' was even more revealing: "a person who in fact is or is generally accepted as a member of any aboriginal race or tribe of Africa." People who could prove that they were 'accepted' as another race, could actually petition to change their racial classification. One day you could be 'native' and the next 'colored'. This was not about 'fact' but perception.

Perceptions of Race

For many people, there was little question of how they would be classified. Their appearance aligned with preconceptions of one race or another, and they associated only with people of that race. There were other individuals, though, who did not fit neatly into these categories, and their experiences highlighted the absurd and arbitrary nature of racial classifications. 

In the initial round of racial classification in the 1950s, census takers quizzed those whose classification they were unsure about. They asked people on the language(s) they spoke, their occupation, whether they had paid 'native' taxes in the past, who they associated with, and even what they ate and drank. All of these factors were seen as indicators of race. Race in this respect was based on economic and lifestyle differences - the very distinctions Apartheid laws set out to 'protect'. 

Testing Race

Over the years, certain unofficial tests were also set up to determine the race of individuals who either appealed their classification or whose classification was challenged by others. The most infamous of these was the “pencil test”, which said that if a pencil placed in one's hair fell out, he or she was white. If it fell out with shaking, ' colored', and if it stayed put, he or she was 'Black'. Individuals could also be subjected to humiliating examinations of the color of their genitals, or any other body part that the determining official felt was a clear marker of race.

Again, though, these tests had to be about appearance and public perceptions, and in the racially stratified and segregated society of South Africa, appearance determined public perception. The clearest example of this is the sad case of Sandra Laing. Ms. Laing was born to white parents, but her appearance resembled that of a light-skin colored person. After her racial classification was challenged at school, she was re-classified as colored and expelled. Her father took a paternity test, and eventually, her family got her re-classified as white. She was still ostracized by the white community, however, and she ended up marrying a Black man. In order to remain with her children, she petitioned to be re-classified again as colored. To this day, over twenty years after the end of Apartheid, her brothers refuse to speak to her.


Posel, Deborah. "Race as Common Sense: Racial Classification in Twentieth-Century South Africa," African Studies Review 44.2 (Sept 2001): 87-113.

Posel, Deborah, "What's in a Name?: Racial categorisations under Apartheid and their afterlife," Transformation (2001).

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Thompsell, Angela. "Racial Classification Under Apartheid." ThoughtCo, Dec. 21, 2020, thoughtco.com/racial-classification-under-apartheid-43430. Thompsell, Angela. (2020, December 21). Racial Classification Under Apartheid. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/racial-classification-under-apartheid-43430 Thompsell, Angela. "Racial Classification Under Apartheid." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/racial-classification-under-apartheid-43430 (accessed March 27, 2023).