Learning to live together as new Africans

2011-02-19 13:22

Who is African?

Based on Keletso Thobega’s article (White Africans? I’m Afraid Not, January 30), Africans are “people of a darker hue whose history is entrenched in the Mother Continent”.

Their mind-set is “reflective of the diaspora” and they share similarities in custom, culture, tradition and language.

The extensive research by “African” academics on what the term “African” means converges on a common point: one cannot cram the term “African” into a single, neat definition.

According to distinguished author Chinua Achebe, to attempt to rework the diverse historical groups, each with their various heritage, cultures, practices, tribes and shades of colour into a single blanket term, is to overlook the complexities of the African scene.

In what way are the people of Egypt in any way uniformly similar to the Kenyan tribes, who are themselves unique from one another?

Why is there so much tension within our own South African government between individuals with various tribal loyalties?

Why the xenophobic attacks in 2008?

The article’s comment practises the same disregard for difference and individuality as colonialism did when it randomly and arbitrarily assigned many separate entities into single units for governance.

It creates an impenetrable, romanticised discourse that is resistant to growth and change.

It is understandable that the term “African” has come to stand for a positive, collective identity for previously persecuted groups.

Nowadays to be African is a source of pride.

It is to be a survivor, to identify with those who have struggled and died, those who sacrificed and have overcome.

The Black Consciousness Movement is an example, where black people had to redefine themselves and shake off the old political and colonial degradation associated with being black. In this movement, the exclusion of other races was deemed necessary.

At this stage in our country’s development, I believe that a certain amount of racial exclusivity is normal and unavoidable, and as Sabelo Ndlangisa points out in his article (Black is more than African, January 30), I too can understand the “need for racial identification in so far as it is used to correct historical injustices”.

So, in this country at least, it is only natural that previously persecuted, “darker-hued” individuals would want to defend this exclusive, positive identity of black pride, and react fiercely when “other hued” individuals claim that they are also “African”.

In this sense, I agree with Thobega that the “other hues” are not “African”.

However, generations growing up just outside the direct influence of apartheid and colonialism (although not immune to its long-lasting effects) are grappling with trying to belong – together – and are finding it in a re-appropriation of the term “African”.

The ongoing upset and debate around the issue of who is African, I believe, is coming from the fact that the term “African” is taking on another meaning in our transforming society.

Resistance to change is normal, and South Africa is no exception in wanting to hold on to “pure” forms of cultural identity.

But to reject outright the changes and advancements in our collective identity is to suggest that we should not be living together.

To say “You are not African” can carry the irrational implication that “other-hued” people don’t belong here and should go back to where they came from. Maybe some people believe this, and if you ask me, that’s where the real cause for concern lies.

All of us – “white, black, Asian and coloured” – are here to stay, so we’ve all got to suck it up and learn to deal with it.

Our mingling histories and everyday cultural intersections are forming a new identity.

If that means a new way of learning to live together, with a united collective identity despite our celebrated diversity, I’ll call it African.

Heck, I’ll call it anything you like.

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