University of Cape Town: ‘Coloured’ men are more than a violent stereotype

In her recently completed doctoral thesis “Researching Race, Space and Masculinities in Bishop Lavis: A critical ethnographic study”, University of Cape Town (UCT) PhD graduate Simone Peters aimed to showcase more holistic and alternative narratives about Bishop Lavis, its community and ‘coloured’ identities. This has opened a conversation about the complexities of race and place in post-apartheid South Africa, the legacy of colonial and apartheid history on such communities, and the resilience of men and their communities to persevere despite the massive challenges they face.

People come to identify with where they live; they are shaped by these places and spaces, and in turn they also shape those places and spaces. Simone’s research encourages readers and scholars to think carefully about how they talk and write about race, and the consequences of their work on these communities. She shared how she decided on her research topic.

“My granny was forcibly displaced by the apartheid government – from Goodwood Akkers to Bishop Lavis. Her whole life was disrupted; but despite that, she raised her four children in the community. They all still reside there, except for my mother.

“I wanted to share the story of my granny, and many others like hers, that often go unheard; a story of pain, of loss, of resilience, of community and hope. I wanted to show how colourful this community is – to show that crime is but one story. There are so many more that are ignored.

“I wanted to share the stories of ‘coloured’ men who I often interacted with who were not the stereotypes. I wanted to write alternative narratives about my people.”

Stereotyping ‘coloured’ men

The pervasiveness of existing stereotypes about ‘colouredness’ continues to segregate the Cape Flats, where many ‘coloureds’ reside, from more affluent spaces.

As research by Simone’s supervisor, Professor Floretta Boonzaier, points out, most studies have painted historically disadvantaged areas – particularly where black people (specifically the poor and unemployed) were relocated to during apartheid – as dangerous, and to be avoided. Such research creates the perception that these are the only spaces where social problems occur. This reduces the importance of the lives of the inhabitants of these spaces, and further stigmatises them.

“They shared how other races viewed all ‘coloured’ men as thieves, murderers and kidnappers. This evokes feelings of shame and regret.”

Simone argues that in academia more holistic narratives must be made available; narratives that take how participants talk about their communities seriously, subjectivities and lived experiences.

Research involving ‘coloured’ men and communities has always painted these men as negative stereotypes: at-risk, dangerous, gangsters, criminals … And yet ‘coloured’ communities and the men that navigate these spaces are much more than that.

During her research she found that the men of Bishop Lavis are aware that they are characterised as a homogeneous group and perceived in a negative way by other racial groups.

“They shared how other races viewed all ‘coloured’ men as thieves, murderers and kidnappers. This evokes feelings of shame and regret and has caused some of the men to experience ambivalence about being ‘coloured’,” said Simone.

“This ambivalence may have its origin in their constructed position of being ‘in between’, and in their social positioning. In their narratives, therefore, many men made an active effort to rid themselves of the prevailing stigma associated with ‘colouredness’.”

In their collective narrative, the men constructed a good and a bad ‘coloured’; and locating themselves on that spectrum, they stated that they were good ‘coloured’ men, relating stories of how they do not do the things others accuse them of doing. The men therefore positioned themselves as respectable ‘coloureds’, distancing themselves from the bad ‘coloureds’ who do all those negative things.

Traits of a ‘real’ man

Simone’s research was intergenerational: she interviewed young and middle-aged men, as well as those over 65. She found that all three generations considered being a provider for one’s family to be an important trait of being a man. Not being able to provide makes one less than a man, they said.

“Social consensus about men’s duties was clear in my interviews, taken from both the focus groups and the individual interviews. For all the men in my research, the role of provider made men responsible for the economic welfare of their families. These men all constructed their ideas of being a man in relation to a wife or in relation to a family or their role within that, which I argue comes down to the fundamental aspect of discursive studies of masculinity and how societies are constructed through binaries, with little room for the spaces in between.

“Having employment and performing the breadwinner role, therefore, was an integral part of masculine expression for these men, to perform this identity,” said Simone.

She highlighted how researchers working with black men have argued that unemployment undermines men’s access to successful forms of masculinity, which may lead to men using violence to ‘do’ gender.

But research by Siphiwe Dube has questioned where the research is on white masculinities and violence, since there has been a loss of power experienced by white men, which could propel them to be violent as well. This is the reason given for the increase in the numbers of violent acts perpetrated against black domestic workers and black students by Afrikaner men. It is thus important to note that violence is not only perpetrated by the poor, black and unemployed.


A common thread throughout the research was the men’s feeling of being unprotected and unsafe in their area. The men who were interviewed spoke about the high rates of unemployment and drug and alcohol use in Bishop Lavis; thus, as a way to cope in such an area, they need to embody certain violent masculine traits, such as owning a gun or using substances, in order to “stand up and defend themselves”.

Many participants acknowledged that gangsterism is a problem that disrupts their lives; and yet they also acknowledged that the transition into manhood is through a ritual of initiation – such as going to prison or becoming a gangster. Research shows that gangs on the Cape Flats are the result of groups of young men attempting to recreate social networks or ‘brotherhoods’ after the Group Areas Act tore communities apart.

“Many young men turn to their gangs for not only approval but acceptance, and will do whatever they are told to do to earn this from their gang.”

“Many of the older participants who were aged 40 and above joined gangs as a way of connecting with other young men. In [their] narrative, the gangs of [their] time were young men from the same neighbourhoods or same roads hanging together, which in another context would be seen as just that; however, in [their] context of a poor township, those friendships are constructed as gangs to the outside world, and even to the men who tell these narratives. Many young men turn to their gangs for not only approval but acceptance, and will do whatever they are told to do to earn this from their gang.”

Many young men who are marginalised by class and race are unable to ‘do gender’ through formal means of employment or the attainment of wealth; so going to jail or joining a gang and displaying violence and bravery are ways for these young men to ‘do gender’ and be seen as ‘grown’, Simone explained.

Shifting narratives

Her research findings contradict other research done with young ‘coloured’ men, in which gangsterism was glorified. The participants in her research all constructed gangsterism and violence as cowardly, and men who did either were constructed as bad men.

“The men continually distanced themselves from anything bad and deviant, and constructed themselves as respectable men. In [their] doing so, we can see how hegemony is fluid and changing within local contexts.”

Many young ‘coloured’ men refer to gangsterism as “the easy way out” and “the wrong path”, knowing that nothing good can come from taking that journey. This suggests that being a gangster in Bishop Lavis appears to be losing its popularity, as men negotiate ‘doing’ their gender in their local contexts.

“Research has tended to continually only feed existing dominant narratives, instead of creating opportunities for alternative narratives to come forth through disruptive narratives, which were made possible through my methodology and questioning,” said Simone.

PhD journey

“My PhD journey has been great,” she said. “Getting to work in this community, having their support, [and] incorporating my family into academia was a really wonderful experience. I think that is why I finished my PhD in two years and six months because of the immense support and love showed to me by the community.”

Simone has led a “colourful” life. She was just five years old when her parents divorced because her father drank a lot and was extremely abusive.

“At times I was mocked because of my race and the way I spoke.”

“My mother ended up raising four children on her own on a police salary. So our lives were anything but easy,” she said.

“At times we went to bed hungry; we were evicted from homes; we were homeless; we lived in homes without water and electricity. At times I was mocked because of my race and the way I spoke.”

Through her schooling journey Simone continued to be discriminated against; and while at high school and later at UCT, she had her academic capabilities questioned. Being the only student of colour in a majority-white class throughout her postgraduate studies was also a challenge.

“It was not an easy journey; but I share this with people as an inspiration … we are not our circumstances. We owe it to ourselves to dream bigger. In my family I defied the odds by getting a degree, and now my PhD. I am thankful to my extremely supportive supervisors, Professor Boonzaier and Associate Professor Shose Kessi, who have been beyond amazing; my supportive family, partner and friends; and God almighty, who carried me through this process.”

Simone’s research has contributed to providing ways of doing research that open up possibilities for different narratives to emerge, instead of using our own questions to steer the research. This is important not only for the discipline of psychology, but for society at large; because the narratives we tell about black bodies and communities – as inherently at-risk, problem-filled and dangerous – help to fuel racism.

“If we are to progress into an anti-racist world, we need to change the narratives we tell. As researchers, we need to create platforms for multiple narratives to surface.”