History - 'The Pencil Test'

By Kavuli Nyali - Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The “pencil test” refers to the old apartheid custom of confirming the ethnic identity of an individual by inserting a pencil into an individuals hair. During the order of apartheid in South Africa, one drop of sub-Saharan blood was not enough to be considered black. At the time, South African law maintained a strict distinction between those that were black and those that were coloured. You were generally considered coloured if you possessed some sub-Saharan ancestry mixed with a substantial ancestry from Europe, Indonesia, Madagascar, Malaya, Mozambique, Mauritius, Saint Helena and Southern Africa (Afrikaans). 

A pencil was embedded into the hair of the individual of questionable race. Since indigenous Africans were known to have hair that was tightly curled, if the pencil got stuck in the hair, you were considered black or coloured depending on complexion, facial features and even your accent. If the pencil fell through the hair, 
you were considered white or coloured depending on other classifications. God forbid you and your siblings have different hair textures. You could all be classified completely different causing dissension among family members.

So where would you fall in the pencil test? Would you be identified correctly?

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