The ‘passing’ of Ernest Cole

Information on famed South African photographer Ernest Cole’s decision to ‘pass’ from ‘African’  to ‘coloured’ in Apartheid South Africa’s kafkaesque “race classification system” is not readily available beyond the ready-made theories and rationalizations repeated in museum catalogues or on websites. From those sources we get glimpses of his anxiety or the stress the decision brought on his family in short scenes from the only documentary film on Cole’s life, that by the photographer Jürgen Schadeberg. But even then, Schadeberg’s film neatly sidesteps the issue of passing 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 they don’t exist [anymore].” Continue reading