Dashiki Dialogues: Of bad language and truth

2013-09-24 10:00

It’s OK and logical to be a full and unquestionable South African citizen and not be an African.

This has suddenly become an important statement to premise any discussion of identity and politics in the land of the troubled rand and potjiekos.

I learnt this after being inundated with tweets and calls from friends, colleagues and strangers. This after my insistence or threat, depending how you stand on the patois parlance soapbox.

I had said that I’ll moer anyone who called me a “black-African”. The idea was simple: I believe that, as a son of the soil, my identity should not be hyphenated.

I’m African. Period. If by that declaration others may feel excluded, it is they who have to negotiate their identity to reflect their arrival into my native context.

You see, we don’t speak of “white-Europeans” when discussing that northern continent. But it is considered acceptable to speak of “noir de France” or “black France”.

This is natural because people of African descent have to negotiate themselves into the already existing sociopolitical and cultural paradigm.

Immigrants, even as they are welcomed, have the burden to find their space and be accommodated into an existing culture, not change that culture to suit themselves, regardless of native presences.

This discussion opened me up to a complex system of ideas that affect public discourse in our world, and in most cases, make it impossible to debate hard topics soberly.

For instance, I learnt that many white South Africans are suspicious of any discussions of our colonial baggage – especially where there’s an emphasis on the European descent of the conquerors and the Africanness of historical victims.

The same goes for many black South Africans. The subject works like a Pavlovian bell where its mention conjures up all manner of fears.

The whites think your next logical step is to make a call for the Night of the Long Knives. This even though I believe this country is long past that type of politics.

On the other hand, darkies fear the economic calamity and suffering that might result from white people being offended. They look at the suffering that followed anticolonial revolutions across Africa as a sign that they shouldn’t ask hard questions.

So any public talk of land redistribution, identity and historical justice is spoilt by the baggage of poisoned language.

The long-term effect is a ­censorship regime where truth is lost to politeness.

But some infected wounds require us to scratch their scabs to encourage proper healing. We must have a tough dialogue about ill-gotten gains and losses, and bad language of classification suffered by Africans in order to cleanse ourselves of brand-new dashikis.

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