The Passing of Ernest Cole

We don’t know why the South African photographer decided to apply to become "coloured" under Apartheid's racial classification laws.

The segregated stands of a sports arena in Bloemfontein, South Africa, in May 1969. (UN Photo, CC Licensed).

Little information is known about the decision by the famed South African photographer Ernest Cole to “pass” from “African” to “coloured” (I’ll explain these uniquely South African categories in a minute). Passing refers to  the practice to officially change your “race.” There’s a long history of passing in South Africa, especially of coloured South Africans (people often identified under the catch-all of mixed race, though it is a more complex identity) to white. We don’t know why Cole wanted to beat Apartheid South Africa’s Kafkaesque “race classification” system, beyond the ready-made theories and rationalizations repeated in museum catalogues or on websites. Through the latter, we only get glimpses of Cole’s anxiety or the stress the decision brought on his family. In the only documentary film on Cole’s life, “Ernest Cole,” by the photographer Jürgen Schadeberg, the issue of passing is neatly sidestepped by not probing Cole’s motives. Like with “play-whites” (coloureds who passed for whites), we won’t know how many “play-coloureds” there were. What the writer Zoe Wicomb has said of play-whites applies: “We don’t even know how many of them there are. There’s no discourse, nothing in the library, because officially [after Apartheid] they don’t exist [anymore].”

Ernest Levi Tsoloane Kole successfully applied to be reclassified from African to Coloured in 1966. He was 26 years old. A few months after he successfully applied to become coloured, Cole left for the United States, where he died in 1990 as a black man.

Catherine Dilokweng Hlongwane (Cole’s sister) tells Schadeburg in “Ernest Cole:

[My brother, Ernest] did a funny thing. He started stretching his hair … My mother [Martha Kole] was worried. He did not want to tell the truth …  [Finally] he said, ‘I don’t want this pass. I want to be a coloured’.

In the same film, Struan Robertson, a photographer and an associate of Cole, adds:

Other friends [of Cole] had been [through the experience before] him.

The apartheid government’s census defined the races thus:

(1) Asiatic means a person of whose parents are or were members of a race or tribe whose national or ethnical home is Asia, and shall include a person partly of Asiatic origin living as an Asiatic family, but shall not include any Jew, Syrian or Cape Malay; (2) Bantu means a person both of whose parents are or were members of an aboriginal tribe of Africa, and shall include a person of mixed race living as a member of the Bantu community, tribe, kraal or location, but shall not include any Bushman, Griqua, Hottentot or Koranna; (3) Coloured means any person who is not a white person, Asiatic, Bantu or Cape Malay as defined, and shall include any Bushmen, Griqua, Hottentot or Koranna; and (4) a white person means a person both of whose parents are or were members of a race whose national or ethnical home is Europe, and shall include any Jew, Syrian or other person who is in appearance obviously a white person unless and until the contrary is proven.

We don’t know why Cole decided to become coloured. One reason touted: a coloured ID card would mean less harassment when photographing Apartheid; it would make it easy to obtain a passport.

But there are other questions we have:

Who helped Cole’s prepare for his question to become coloured?

After he passed, did he “look” or “sound” like a coloured? What do coloureds look and sound like? Like “A Pretoria coloured”? What do Pretoria coloureds sound or look like?

Did Cole ‘act coloured’ around his mother and sisters after he passed?

Did some members of his family see him as a ‘race traitor’? Did they admire his decision?

What kind of coloured did he become? ‘Other Coloured’? ‘Malay’? ‘Cape Coloured’?

In the 1950s at least 10 percent of whites were coloureds passing for whites. How many ‘Africans’ passed for ‘coloureds’?

What about Cole’s anxieties? There are too many problems with the certainty attached to his motives (mentioned at the outset here).

How does becoming coloured make it easier to leave 1960s South Africa? Are there reports or other instances of this? Were there laws or procedures that made it easier for coloureds to leave?

How does being a South African coloured figure or play into this new world he enters in the United States? What privileges come with being a South African coloured in America?

Why was he so focused on becoming coloured when his work was more interested in the apparent certainties of Apartheid black and white binaries?

It seems strange that Cole decided to apply to be reclassified for coloured so soon before he left South Africa for the United States (a country where such distinctions among black people did not have the same currency or legal status). When he arrived in the US, he settled in Harlem—where black nationalism was growing and differences among black people, i.e. class and color prejudices, were played down or actively resisted and collusion with official categories or discourses are frowned upon. Politically and culturally his neighbors in Harlem were and wanted to be black (this is after all the time when Negroes become Black and later African American).

There are only questions.

  • This is an edited version of a piece originally written for the exhibition “PASS-AGES: References & Footnotes” (curated by Gabi Ngcobo) held in the offices of a former Pass Office in Johannesburg.

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