The South African government has previously used racial classification as a tool in its official state policies to control its population. In this essay, we examine the role racial classification and stratification has played in South Africa’s modern censuses. We define the modern period as between 1911 and 1996. We show how racial identity is part of the collective identity in South Africa. Racial identity is part of the government’s sense of what it means to be a South African, and, the population transfigured and imagined in this racialised context is what appears as race. The modern South African census illustrates how important race can be in a political context.