In 1893, legislation in the Cape Colony raised the age of consent to sexual intercourse from twelve to fourteen. Only twelve years later, however, did colonial administrators extend the law to the predominantly African districts in the eastern region of the colony. A reconstruction of the political debates surrounding the law, and its eventual extension, illuminates the relationship between understandings of childhood and race in the Cape. By the late 19th century, the comparison of Africans to children had become the governing metaphor for the “native question”; but this metaphor contained fundamental ambiguities. Debates over the age of consent forced Cape politicians to confront the racial and chronological boundaries of childhood innocence, and thus to articulate more precise theories of racial difference itself. Rural elites upheld a vision of hierarchy calibrated by wealth and social knowledge as well as race. Reformers sought to protect the innocence of white girls, in part to defend against racial degeneration, but disagreed over the inclusion of black girls. Meanwhile, even liberal social purity advocates hesitated to extend the law to the eastern districts, where “native law and custom” seemed not only to offer more protection but also to undermine claims of European superiority.