For some South Africans, to speak of black people in SA today is to speak of a discrete, exclusive and fixed category of persons.   It is to speak of an identity that is both natural and immutable.   Nowhere in this cementing of identities and ethnicisation of blackness is there acknowledgment that the term “black people” has been subject to debate and disputation for more than a century.

But this is not a problem that affects only people of colour.   Asked by a white judge why he insisted on calling himself black when he was clearly brown, Steve Biko responded: why do you insist on calling yourself white when you are clearly pink?

Business Day was the first to publish an interesting article by Jacob Dlamini, a freelance writer, Term ‘black people’ was debated a century ago mentioning Magema Fuze and the debate about the meaning of a black person.

The entire article should be read but Business Day has kindly consented to me providing these extracts and a link to the article.

For more information about the famous song by Procol Harum (lyrics by Keith Reid) click on A Whiter Shade of Pale by Procol Harum.

IN SEPTEMBER 1890, Magema Fuze wrote a letter to Inkanyiso, a Zulu-medium newspaper founded by missionaries in Natal in the late 1800s, objecting to the use of the term abantu abamnyama (black people) to refer to Africans.   Fuze, a mission-educated Christian convert, preferred the term “abantu abantsundu” (brown people).   He said the term black people was descriptively inaccurate and that its use was nothing but a historical quirk born out of habitual sayings.

According to Fuze’s biographer Hlonipha Mokoena, Fuze claimed that his argument in favour of the term brown people was grounded in historical fact.   He said the term black people came from salutations to kings but had been appropriated by common folks to refer to people in general.   Fuze wrote the following in his 1890 letter: “Whenever a king is saluted it is said, ‘Hail, you are black’, whatever the appearance of the face [complexion]” of the king.

In the letter, translated from the original Zulu and quoted at length by Mokoena in her excellent book Magema Fuze: the Making of a Kholwa Intellectual, Fuze said that Dingane, who became Zulu king after assassinating his brother Shaka, was actually light-skinned.   But he was referred to as a black person when his subjects saluted him.   Fuze wrote: “If a person had said, ‘you are red [light-skinned], he would have been killed instantly because it would be said that he was insulting the king.   It is said that a red [light- skinned] person has no gravitas, he is weak [lightweight], and is not like a black person.   That is why this expression ‘black person’ is so appealing … to our people.”

Fuze and his intellectual sparring partners are no more, but the debate they started towards the end of the 19th century never really has died or been settled.   In the 1980s, for example, Mangosuthu Buthelezi objected to the use of the term black people and, as I recall, even Fuze’s preferred brown people.   Buthelezi used the term “abantu abampisholo” and “abantu bohlanga”, which translate loosely as people of the soil.   But, like Fuze’s brown people , Buthelezi’s preferred people of the soil never really caught on.

Buthelezi’s preference was probably inspired by the black consciousness movement, which offered such an expansive political definition of the term black people that anyone subjected to oppression (even a blonde and blue-eyed Slav) could be referred to as black.   For the black consciousness movement, blackness was the marker of a person’s relationship to political power.   That is why Indian and coloured South Africans were also referred to as black people.