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Incensed by the census: Has classification gone too far?

So the census has come and gone. Now the government knows where I live, that I am a white foreigner and own a DVD player, but no DStv (thanks, freelance journalist salary!) Though I certainly felt guilty ticking the box for “2 bedroom flat” when the first option said “shack”, it felt strangely anticlimactic to see my life summed up in a few parameters, none of which determined anything of the least consequence.

It’s a bit like that line in The Little Prince about grown-ups: “When you tell them you made a new friend, they never ask you any questions about essential matters. They never say to you, ‘What does his voice sound like? What games does he love best? Does he collect butterflies?’ Instead, they demand: ‘How old is he? How many brothers has he got? How much does he weigh? How much money does his father make?’ Only from these figures do they think they have learned anything about him.”

Of course, perhaps it would be technically impossible to survey all of SA’s citizens without making generalisations and cramming them into oversimplified boxes, such as race. Besides, the census might even improve the lives of poor and vulnerable South Africans by helping the state better identify need and address it. It’s also true that despite some legitimate reservations about privacy, at least a few of the 16 000 who refused to answer the questions did so for racist reasons, not wanting to share their details with a black government they resent. Yet, once the census worker left and I got back to my computer, I began to wonder if such categorisation was as isolated and innocuous as this well-meaning but reductionist government questionnaire.

On my screen flashed a familiar Friend Request on Facebook, but this time, I had to instantly determine whether they were my “Close Friends”, “Family” or “Acquaintances”. It was a feature I hadn’t seen before; probably something Facebook stole from Google Plus. Then I went to open an article I had been writing about the Soviet Union, and couldn’t remember whether it was filed under My Documents, Article Drafts, Russia or the name of the magazine I’d pitched it to. Folders within subfolders. And there’s more: before pushing “Submit for Review”, I will need to tag this blog post either “News & Politics” or “Perspective” (“Russian Rant” is not currently an option). There seems to be no escaping categories.

It’s not surprising that classification should so thoroughly underpin our digital age. After all, naming things and grouping them into discrete categories helped create Western civilisation in the first place. The Enlightenment’s crusade to quantify, rationalise and order the world has brought untold material progress. From dividing animals into species, minerals into periodic table elements, matter into particles and crimes into varying degrees of badness, the resulting leaps in science, technology, agriculture, medicine and law have allowed us to live unimaginably longer, healthier and less violent lives than even our most recent ancestors.

At the same time, so many of the positive legacies of this rationalism, which we all use to achieve, empower, uplift and develop, have very dubious origins. Take standardised testing in schools — a technique that has done much to empower traditionally disadvantaged groups by reducing race, gender and class discrimination by biased teachers. But it was originally developed by American eugenics to scientifically establish the intellectual inferiority of black and working-class pupils.

Or the IBM computer I’m typing on: one of the company’s early clients were none other than the Nazis, who saw the tremendous possibilities of computers for classifying and recording the relocation and execution of Jewish concentration camp prisoners. In fact, according to philosopher Zygmunt Bauman, it was the very rationalising impulse at the heart of European modernity that made the Holocaust possible, by categorising Jews as sub-human and turning mass killing into an impersonal and bureaucratic, rather than moral, act.

It’s no coincidence that imperialists, eugenics and Nazis were such fans of categorisation: separating and classifying almost always implies wielding power and control. Few countries, peoples, animals or plants that were subjected to the rigours of Western analysis over the centuries have managed to escape exploitation and subjugation by the very powers that had studied them.

Perhaps it might be theoretically possible to categorise without constructing hierarchies, to be “separate but equal”, but South Africa’s own history suggests otherwise. As philosopher Neville Alexander has written opposing the inclusion of race descriptions in the census: categorisation is never a neutral act. It affects the outlooks, perceptions and outcomes of both classifier and classified.

In the age of the algorithm, the big worry is that Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter and smartphones will destroy privacy. But the real threat is the classification and rationalisation of even those areas of our lives that have been previously out of bounds, such as love and friendship. What effect this might have on our relationships is not clear. In the short run, it might even make us feel more liberated, empowered and connected. After all, haven’t those two most notorious categories of subjugation — “black” and “gay” — managed to become refashioned as liberating, positive and proud labels of self-identification?

Certainly, there is a world of difference between the ends to which race classification was used under apartheid and today. One was to keep the disadvantaged down, while the other is to help uplift them. Yet fundamentally, both entail the reduction of human beings to mere categories — benign, technocratic dehumanisation, but dehumanisation nonetheless.

It may be that the ends justify the means, and if such categorisation makes it easier to quickly identify and address persistent social iniquities, is that a problem? Perhaps not, but what if the means also condition the ends? What if, for example, the apartheid legacy of race categorisation continues to influence the moral character of the outcomes?

Trying to achieve progress using tools designed for oppression can be a dangerous game. Maybe rather than thinking outside the box, it’s time to imagine a world without boxes.


  • Journalist Vadim Nikitin claims to be working on a book about nostalgia. He blames his poor judgement and unhealthy obsession with the past on having been born perilously close to the Soviet Union's largest nuclear submarine base.


  1. Robard Robard 3 November 2011

    “Take standardised testing in schools — a technique that has done much to empower traditionally disadvantaged groups by reducing race, gender and class discrimination by biased teachers. ”

    I dunno about that. SAT effectively serves to keep blacks and Hispanics out of universities, while a university qualification in turn has become a formal prerequisite for almost all white collar jobs. This came about after intelligence testing for jobs was declared to have disparate impact and was thus outlawed by congress.

    “Certainly, there is a world of difference between the ends to which race classification was used under apartheid and today. One was to keep the disadvantaged down, while the other is to help uplift them. ”

    According to the noted historian, Herman Giliomee, Verwoerd, during his time as sociologist at Stellenbosch, rejected the eugenicist explanation for black under-performance in favour of a developmental one. He felt it was only a matter of time before blacks would catch up with whites and, also due to their larger numbers, would then be in a dominant position. You are quite right, therefore, to suppose that the motive behind apartheid was to keep black people down. However, it implies a belief in the potential equality of the races as opposed to biologically determined supremacy.

  2. Peter Joffe Peter Joffe 4 November 2011

    Anyone who was foolish enough to answer all the questions about what they own, may now find that the details will be sold to the highest bidder so that time is not wasted in burgling a house that contains little booty. This was supposed to be a census but instead it turned into an assets record.
    What a wonderful tool for the crooks and now they can choose where and when they will burgle or rob a home and get the best returns.

  3. Reasonable Reasonable 4 November 2011

    The reason we are colour coded is so that when the results of the census come out, Malema and the other white haters will have reason to spew their racist rantings at white people who still make a little too much money or have property and possessions!

    Of course they conveniently forget about the David Mabilus of the world! it’s a sin for a white person to make an honest living, but it’s more than OK for a black dude to swindle his way into wealth.

    Sorry, back to topic: Poverty knows no colour so I have no idea why the government needs to know the colour of the people they intend helping.

  4. Rank Rank 4 November 2011

    They dont need a census form to know most households will have a tv, fridge, etc.

  5. MLH MLH 4 November 2011

    My biggest disappointment was in the total lack of questions about transport issues. Our public transport has an impossible task to achieve, now that CBDs are not populated by the majority of businesses. If the state really wanted to get driver-only cars off the roads, it would not have missed this opportunity to find out how we travel, how often and where to and from. Durban’s public transport is an absolute mess: people mover buses trawl up and down the beachfront a few minutes apart in and out of season, from an almost bankrupt UShaka to the new stadium, but in the suburbs, no viable system exists anymore. And they wonder why people need to use cars to get to work? Admittedly, they don’t need a national census to get these answers; a form included with our Metro bills would serve as well. But no one is asking and no one asking equates no oe providing.
    And if I seem ratty, I am. Metro blew up my electricity board for the second time in a week. Virtually every home in the area has an electrician’s truck parked outside it. How is it possible that state organisations feel entitled to take no responsibility for what happens in this country?

  6. Vicky Vicky 4 November 2011

    The most offensive part of the census for me was having to choose the head of my household: somehow it didn’t seem to be an option that there is no head in my household. My household consists of my husband and I, and we run it by consensus. If you come right down to it, I contribute more financially, but the census specified that if we couldn’t decide who was the head of the household, we should choose the elder of the two of us: him, by 4 months! By putting either of us as the household head, the situation was misrepresented. And you can imagine the question is geared toward coming up with a statistic about households headed by women in this country. Therefore, if I am the head of the household, I contribute toward a statistic that is often construed as representing vulnerable households. If he is the head of the household, it creates the impression that he is the proverbial patriarch (which is certainly not the case).

  7. Nguni Nguni 5 November 2011

    Putting people into categories was certainly not limited to ‘imperialists, Eugenics and Nazis’. Stalin, an early soviet leader whom you may have heard of also excelled at it:
    ‘A December 1930 decree designated more than thirty different categories of citizens to be deprived of their civil rights, housing rights, access to health care, and ration cards. Among these were “ex-landowners,” “ex-shopkeepers,” “ex-nobles,” ex-policemen,” “ex-tsarist civil servants,” “ex-kulaks,” “ex-employees or owners of private companies,” ex-White [Army] officers, “ex-members of political parties,” and ex-clergy. These drastic measures against so many groups resulted in a nation overrun with homeless, unemployed vagabonds.’
    Seeing that most of our ruling cadres learnt their stuff in the USSR or one of it’s satellite states, it’s quite feasable to expect misuse of the census stats.

  8. Bernard K Hellberg Bernard K Hellberg 5 November 2011

    Fortunately, our complex in Wapadrand, Pretoria was “serviced” by an idiot whose list indicated only 3 units (we have 37). Therefore, we remain ‘uncounted’ and all the better for it.
    Another great ANC attempt at job creation! – even if you have to use unemployable street dwellers who cannot even read or write.

    Peter is right – it’s an asset inventory by the ruling clique – headed by a man who hardly can remember how many children he has. We are the laughing stock of the world.

  9. chris2 chris2 5 November 2011

    @ ROBARD

    Thanks for the reference to Verwoerd’s insight, as he is probably often maligned for the wrong reasons. In egalitarian circles he was deemed a Nazi, which he was obviously not, and in reactionalry circles he was seen as a ‘liberal’. Unfortunately he played his political cards very close to his chest, so the true man may never be revealed.

  10. sino sino 5 November 2011

    Quite difficult to satisfy white people in this country, or is it just me ?

  11. sino sino 5 November 2011

    I must say I like the way you state your census experience – I wish everything was about humour and laughter in this world. You can’t change history no matter how powerful you might be – so instead of stirring hatred or sympathy for jews, nazis, rascists, colonialists, nationalists, malema-sm etc, talk about the postives and good things things this world and country can offer. And then pray or do whatever ritual (including drinking or braai or watching TV) that makes you feel at peace with yourself

  12. Chico Chico 6 November 2011

    @Vicky: I very much agreed with you about the “head of household”. I was totally floored by the question and did not know how to answer, or why it was asked in the first place. Perhaps it is to make some sort of inference about households run by children or Gogos because of the AIDS epidemic? Crazy!

    I know many people who now answer “other” when asked about race.

  13. MLH MLH 6 November 2011

    Peter Joffe: and we’ve now had enumerators refusing to hand the forms back in KZN, because they believe their earnings no compensation for the work they contracted to do. That makes me feel really unsafe. It’s quite possible the forms will be sold to the highest bidder!

  14. Bernard K Hellberg Bernard K Hellberg 7 November 2011

    Apparently – under dependants – 2-million Zimbabweans and 750 members of Parliament is NOT the right answer.

  15. The Critical Cynic The Critical Cynic 7 November 2011

    I was working on my car when the census worker arrived, so I answered the few basic questions she posed and she left. Only now, on reading articles like this and the subsequent comments have I become aware of how many questions I wasn’t asked!
    The census didn’t record that I own a TV, but then again why should it be asking that kind of question? The SABC should be able to provide those statistics (and besides, how many non-licensed TV owners responded that they own a TV anyway?), Multichoice how many DSTV subscribers thay have (as well as other demographic information), the municipality how many vehicles each household owns and surely SARS can provide a host of demographic and statistical information.
    Most governments, and the SA government in particular, could learn a great deal by taking the time to learn from the past instead of dogmatically trying to reinvent everything from toll road systems, means of reducing road death toll, and census taking. Two topical examples of the wise words of Benjamin Disraeli:
    1. There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.
    2. As a general rule the most successful man in life is the man who has the best information.
    Of course, having poor information could lead us into all sorts of trouble! But perhaps the ANC government would be better served by two other Disraeli gems:
    No government can be long secure without formidable opposition
    Great services are not canceled by one act or by one single error

  16. chantelle chantelle 8 November 2011

    On Sunday 6th, an Afrikaans newspaper carried a story of a census worker sitting in a guard’s hut rubbing out answers and “correcting” them. It was accompanied by a photo of him sitting with these forms on his lap, and an eraser in his hand. He told the journalists that they were told to “correct” the forms, but did not know why. He refused to elaborate on exactly what information needed to be “corrected”.

  17. Mysterious Mysterious 8 November 2011

    As far as I am concerned black or white or whatever, we have a issue at hand and let’s try out outmost to solve it and not point fingers. We dont need to go into affluent areas to conduct census we all know they pay their TV licence and have a fridge or two, But what is important is to supply electricity, sanitation, and job and educational opportunities to millions of people that are stranded and living out of cartboard boxes.!

    Let’s show people an example and have give incentives why they sholdn’t do crime!! What’s wrong with this idea? Yes it seems that the previously historically advanced people are always complaining and vice versa, stop blaming and you are in charge of your life and fortune.

  18. Southeaster Southeaster 9 November 2011

    it was the very rationalising impulse at the heart of European modernity that made the Holocaust possible, by categorising Jews as sub-human and turning mass killing into an impersonal and bureaucratic, rather than moral, act.

    I think you put too many sins at the doorstep of European reason. The technology of reason simply provided a better card index for systems of rule that had appeared many times in history – believers and dhimmis under Sharia, the mediaeval feudal system, and the Indian caste sytem with its Aryan Brahmins, untouchables, and huge range of people trapped in the categories inbetween.

    On the other hand the European enlightenment produced concepts of individual rights, equality, and democracy that have arisen in no other culture.

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