The Book of Life: The South African Population Register and the Invention of Racial Descent, 1950–1980

TitleThe Book of Life: The South African Population Register and the Invention of Racial Descent, 1950–1980
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2014
AuthorsBreckenridge, Keith
JournalKronos
Volume40
Pagination225 – 240
AbstractThis article examines the project of racial classification under Apartheid through the operations of the population register. It follows, in particular, a shift in the determina- tion of race from the criterion of ‘community acceptance’ in the early 1950s to a pure- ly administrative and bureaucratic matter of descent derived from the paperwork in the late 1960s. The study shows that the project Eben Dönges called the ‘Book of Life’ was at the heart of the planning and practice of the Apartheid state, but that it took two contrasting forms. The first, associated with the green identity cards issued dur- ing the 1950s and early 1960s, derived identities and races for six million people, with surprising success, on the basis of the returns to the 1951 census.  The second, associ- ated with the inconvenient 50-page Book of Life that was issued after 1970, was a pure case of unrestrained panopticism and a simple failure, failing even to re-register the original population captured by the green identity cards.

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