An appalling "science"

Although segregation had been part of the South African social and political landscape since European colonisers arrived in the 17th century, it was only in 1950, with the introduction of the Population Registration Act, that the state attempted to classify the entire population into fixed groups based on the false notion of race.

Scientifically, there is no such thing as separate "races" - all human beings belong to the same race.

In South Africa, race classification determined people's voting rights, where they could reside, where they could buy or sell property, their social status, the jobs for which they could apply, the amount of their pension and the quality of their children's education.

When it was first passed in 1950, the Population Registration Act defined racial groups relatively loosely. A coloured person was defined as "a person who is not a white person nor generally accepted as a member of aboriginal race or tribe of Africa".

However, the Act was revised at least six times to tighten loopholes. "Race" was no longer judged only on appearance, but also according to line of descent. Amendments to the Act sub-divided coloured South Africans into further different categories such as Cape Coloured, Cape Malay, Griqua, Chinese and "other coloured".

After the Population Registration Act became law, the classification of whites and coloureds in Cape Town was carried out by the Electoral Officer. Later, in January 1958, a Population Registration Office was opened.

The Population Registration Act determined people's race classification, which in turn determined the implementation of many other racially based laws. For example, the Group Areas Act determined where people of different racial groups could live. It did not permit mixing of any groups.

Thus, any woman who married or lived with a member of someone from another "racial" group would, in terms of the Group Areas Act, be deemed to belong to the racial group of the man involved, except if the man were white. In that case, the man took on the racial group of the woman and would need to be re-classified before being allowed to live in that Group Area.

In February 1958 the Cape Times reported the Minister of the Interior as saying that the Population Registration Act was assisting people by removing uncertainty and unease and the "clouds which hovered over them".

However, at the end of 1961 the newspaper reported that there were at least 20 000 people in the Cape Peninsula who were still uncertain whether they were officially "white" or "coloured".

The first Race Classification Review Board was established in 1954. In September 1959 the minister announced that the board of review was to be replaced by special appeal boards to be set up in the Transvaal, Cape Province and possibly Natal.
At first, classification was based largely on 'general appearance' rather than any notion of racial purity, but by 1960 the criteria had become 'acceptance'

At first, classification was based largely on "general appearance" rather than any notion of racial purity, but by 1960 the criteria had become "acceptance". It created the conditions whereby "informers" could raise questions about an individual's classification and vendettas could be settled by casting doubt about a person's "acceptability" as a member of a particular racial group. In the 1960s, at a cost of R20, one could lodge an objection to a person's classification leading to an investigation of their background and social relationships.

Anecdotes abound of certain officials who, in return for various bribes or sexual favours, would issue a white identity document. In December 1971 a Lansdowne man was charged for paying R300 to secure a white identity card from a Department of the Interior official.

On February 18, 1958, the Cape Times reported a story of "Mr B" who fell in love with a European woman but could not marry her because his birth certificate was "not in order".

The only way he could get his birth certificate changed was through the Population Registration Office in Cape Town. The report said that the officials there scrutinised him and noted the colour of his hair, eyes and skin. They sent the details to Pretoria for a decision, but nothing happened. Mr B then went to Pretoria himself.

"I was desperate and humiliated and I can't tell you the misery I and my fiancée have been through," he said. "Finally I managed to get an affidavit from an influential man to the effect that I was a European. They changed my birth certificate and now we can get married. But I am afraid to say anything because something might happen. They told me that if any complaint was made against me they could reconsider my case and change their decision."

In 1958, Muriel Horrell of the South African Institute of Race Relations wrote: "The appearance of very many South Africans does not furnish conclusive evidence as to whether they are white or not. The question of general acceptance becomes of over-riding importance.

"Should a man who is initially classified white have a number of coloured friends and spend many of his leisure hours in their company, he stands to risk being re-classified as coloured. This is a method of preventing friendships across an arbitrarily determined colour line, which is one of the objectives of present policies" ("Race classification in South Africa: Its effects on human beings", Fact Paper published by the South African Institute of Race Relations, No. 2, 1958, p. 25).

The procedure at the Population Registration Office was confidential. No observers were allowed to attend. Although legal representation was permitted, the fact that an "inquiry" by the board was not the same as a lawsuit, ensured that the ordinary rules of court did not apply.

Officials could ask any question they wished and legal representatives were cautious about raising objections in case this raised doubt in an official's mind or antagonised him.

Horrell reported: "It is said that detailed questions are asked about the ancestry, friends and mode of living of the person concerned, the schools he attended and the jobs in which he has been employed.

"His complexion, eyes, hair, features and bone structure are examined. The official may summon any living relative, including grandparents, and question them in a similar way." ("Race classification in South Africa: Its effects on human beings", Fact Paper published by the South African Institute of Race Relations, No. 2, 1958, p. 32).

In the late 1960s, British journalist John Pilger bribed officials to allow him to sit in on a day's hearings of the Race Classification [Appeal] Board, which was laid out like a Magistrate's Court, on the second floor of the Old Training College in Queen Victoria Street.

In his book, Heroes (Jonathan Cape, 1986), Pilger describes the interaction between a "poor white" family and the board, in which the family was interrogated for more than an hour about their parents and grandparents in order to account for the particularly dark skin of one of their sons. Ultimately, the board upheld the family's appeal on the basis of being able to prove by descent that they were "white".

Pilger also documents the story of the Cape Town welterweight boxer, Ronnie van der Walt, who, in 1967, received a letter from the Ministry of the Interior informing him that in terms of the Population Registration Amendment Act he was classified as a "coloured" person.

Van der Walt had attended a "whites only" school and boxed on the more lucrative "whites only" circuit. However, the same letter had been sent to the Cape Boxing Control Board and on the day he was due to fight in a tournament at Green Point Stadium, Van der Walt's name was taken off the bill.
[Ronnie] van der Walt ran the risk that if he were able to prove his 'white' origins, his wife's 'coloured' origins would be revealed and he could have been accused of contravening the Immorality Act

He lodged an appeal with the Race Classification Board and set about preparing a case that would prove his "white" descent. However, the family knew that if investigated, his wife's coloured ancestry would be traced. Van der Walt ran the risk that if he were able to prove his "white" origins, his wife's "coloured" origins would be revealed and he could have been accused of contravening the Immorality Act for living with a woman classified "coloured".

Van der Walt did not wait for his appeal to be heard. Instead, like many other South Africans who were likely to be classified into a grouping other than "white", he left the country and moved to Britain with his family, his South African boxing career in ruins.

Each year, the official Government Gazette would register the number of people who had been re-classified on racial grounds. As late as 1984 there were still re-classifications.


  • 518 coloured people were defined as white. 
  • Two whites were classified Chinese. 
  • One white was reclassified Indian.
  • One white became coloured.
  • 89 coloured people became African.

In present-day South Africa, the Constitution specifies that there may be no discrimination on the basis of race and the new Identification Act passed in 1997 makes no mention of the notion of race.

Race classification anecdotes

Reported in Institute of Race Relations Fact Paper No. 2, 1958, as reported by The Star on February 5, 1958: "A man with a good job on the railways in Cape Town told a reporter that his life was in ruins because officials noticed that the word 'mixed' appeared on his birth certificate. He had not known this. He recounted his story: 'My parents were well-known and respected pioneers of Goodwood. My father held a high position in Freemasonry and my mother drew a European old-age pension. My three sisters, one brother and I were brought up and educated as Europeans.

"'In May 1928, I married the youngest daughter of a Piketberg wheat farmer, a staunch Nationalist. I had never taken any part in politics, but to avoid division in my home I became a Nationalist.

"'I was employed at the railway workshops at Salt River as a first-class machineman. My wife and I were devoted to each other. There was never an angry word between us.

"'One afternoon in February 1952, I returned from work to my home in Woodstock to find two men from the Railway Census Commission sitting there with bulging satchels. They said they had been told by Railway Headquarters to approach me in a tactful way about an error which had been overlooked at the time I joined the Railways in 1923. They said the regulations laid down that only Europeans could be on the artisan pay schedule. They said I could resign or be reduced to a Non-European grade.

"'I did not resign immediately because I was at first doubtful whether they were genuine. However, I found that my birth certificate read 'mixed'. So in March 1953, I resigned from the Railways.
The atmosphere of my home changed immediately from devotion to hatred

"'When my wife learned that my birth certificate described me as "mixed" she collapsed, crying and saying in Afrikaans, "You have brought shame on me. Go away from me." The atmosphere of my home changed immediately from devotion to hatred. My wife called me a hotnot (an abbreviation of Hottentot and a pejorative word for a coloured person). Eventually I had to get out of the house.

"'A little later my wife sued me for divorce. It was at this time that I decided I could stand it no longer. I took a bottle of aspirin to do away with myself. I was very ill and recovered, and went to court for the divorce case. At the end of the proceedings my wife collapsed. She remained bedridden until she died three years later in 1956.

"'I now had to walk into a new world, never to be a white man again. My own family feared and despised me. My youngest sister, the wife of a railway ticket inspector, never even told me of my mother's death.'"

In the paper on the effects of race classification on South Africans, Muriel Horrell notes that on "any Friday afternoon, if one goes to the docks when the mailboat sails, one can see, among the families embarking, some who have both light-skinned and darker skinned members. South Africa is losing many of the cream of its coloured and "near-white" folk - and it is they, far more than any other group, who can claim this as their mother-country" (p. 46).


Researched by Sue Valentine with acknowledgments and thanks to:

John Pilger, Heroes, (Jonathan Cape 1986) (p. 285 ff)
Race Relations Survey 1954-55 (pp. 32-33)
Race Relations Survey 1956-57 (p. 39 ff)
Race Relations Survey 1958-59
Muriel Horrell, Race Classification in South Africa: Its effects on human beings. A Fact Paper published by the SA Institute of Race Relations, No. 2, 1958
Vic Wilkinson - personal interview (May 19. 2006)
AL Venter, Coloured: A profile of two million South Africans (Human & Rousseau, 1974)
Arthur Suzman QC, Race Classification and definition in the legislation of the Union of South Africa 1910-1960. A Survey and Analysis SA Institute of Race Relations
Gavin Lewis, Between the wire and the wall (Citadel Roger Williams - personal interview (May 22, 2006)
Gordon Pirie, "Race zoning in South Africa: Board, court, parliament, public", Political Geography Quarterly, Vol. 3, No. 3, July 1984, pp. 207-221

back to the Race Classification Board memorial page

"Even the Cango Caves had a separate entrance for black people."
Vincent Kolbe on Race Classification
Apartheid signs, Mossel Bay
Picture: © Sunday Times


In this lesson plan, learners will have the chance to interact with information from clauses of the Population Registration Act of 1950 as well as from various legal records associated with two cases of people appealing for reclassification.

Lesson plan (1.09MB)
You′ll need the Adobe Acrobat PDF reader to view these lesson plans. Download it here.
Archive Photo Gallery
A selection of images of race classification’s victims, enforcers and signs.
Artwork Photo Gallery
Roderick Sauls’s installation is a stark reminder of how brutal human beings can be to one another.
Audio stories of the heartbreak caused
Listen to stories of the heartbreak caused by apartheid’s race classification laws.
A 360° tour of the memorial at the High Court Annex, Queen Victoria Street, Cape Town.
Race Classification Board Memorial
The Sunday Times Heritage Project memorial to the Race Classification Board – one of apartheid’s biggest absurdities – is attracting a lot of attention in Cape Town