The new Africanness

2012-06-02 08:40

There are many ways of being African in South Africa

Recently, the secretary general of the ANC, Gwede Mantashe, complained about alleged “white” domination and subjugation expressed by The Spear (16N), and conveniently failed to assert that it was black males who were in power.

He was addressing a crowd of supporters after the South Gauteng High Court postponed the interdict hearing on the painting to a date still to be announced.

But what intrigued me is what he perhaps defines as the homogeneity of so-called African culture.

“We have a way of seeing things, our culture is not inferior, we all have to fight and protect that culture. We must protect our being, we must protect our Africanness,” said Mantashe.

In a post-colonial, post-apartheid and postmodern society, this Africanness is not only complex and confusing, but accessible to everyone who lives on the continent, whoever you are – creatively, intellectually, philosophically and, of course, politically.

It is not just intuitively connected to descendants of Inkosi yama Xhosa u-Sandile or Shaka Zulu, but of Jan van Riebeeck too. This is what former President Thabo Mbeki defined it to be in his seminal speech, I am an African.

As things stands now, this Africanness is a fusion of the Asian, Indian, European and, of course, African, including the Chinese, German, French, English, Zulu, Sotho, Nigerian, Zimbabwean.

In fact, our world-renowned Constitution says: “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.”

Thus in this Africanness you even find people who question its certainty and authenticity like writer Zakes Mda, who not only questions Africanness but seeks to broaden its understanding.

“Today of course you hear black people say naked bodies in art are against African culture. Which of the many African cultures?

“The shamefulness over the naked body is something that came with our Victorian colonisers,” said Mda.

There are millions of Afrikaners and people of Indian descent, for instance, whose ancestors have lived in South Africa for centuries.

But there are also descendants of the Khoisan, amaZulu and amaXhosa, among others, who have been around for centuries before the arrival of the white man.

The South Africa we all inhabit today comprises people from all over the world, bringing not only other languages and cultures, but values and lifestyles.

And while Mantashe comes from the Eastern Cape – the melting pot of the first encounter between Africa and Europe – he should be ready to accept that Africans come from a wider variety of places than just those who are considered natives of this beautiful land.

I don’t know if there is any single person who has the authority and power to tell us what constitutes Africanness.

But even if this elusive and essential African identity exists, it cannot be something static. It is dynamic, forward-moving, and undergoing constant change and transformation.

This Africanness has not only connected the cultural preservationists who want to freeze culture into an unchanging precolonial mode, but integrates progressives who want to push its boundaries to the limits of
postmodernism to absorb global influences and their elements.

And this Africanness is not about the amount of melanin in your skin.

If by Africanness you have something homogeneous, exclusive and impenetrable, it is a phenomenon that can no longer be found in South Africa.

The eclectic combination of the people, languages, complexions, cultures and values found in this country are not the result of any particular Africanness.

This country has become a big, diverse and intercultural melting pot where no culture or values are more important than the other, except ideals, principles and values enshrined in the Constitution.

In fact, the Constitution is the premier document that should influence and shape the new thinking, behaviour and attitude of all people, including their cultures.

If you open your eyes to the emerging new South Africa, you can safely conclude that this is not the same country that we lived in in 1985, where the battle lines were not only clear, but simple and predictable.

In the past 22 years since the release of Nelson Mandela from prison, the return of exiles who were scattered throughout the world and the unbanning of the liberation movement, South Africa has not only unleashed diverse cultures but exploded into many parts that are greater than the whole.

Perhaps when those who have roots in the rural areas go back “home” for Easter or festive season breaks, they find communities that are relatively homogenous.

There may still be a few communities or corners of the country where families and clans are bound by some homogeneous way of life based on language and cultural dictates, whatever that is.

But when people like Mantashe talk about “protecting our Africanness”, they must be aware that people in those areas also tune into SAfm, have DStv, listen to hip-hop, and may have read Russian books and political posters.

If this happens, much as what they know is grounded in their local way of doing things, they are open to global influences which, inevitably, redefines Africanness.

As the Constitution stipulates, these people have freedom of choice and association. And their choices may not necessarily be with the narrow, monotonous and predictable view of what constitutes Africanness.

In the South Africa that celebrates two decades of freedom and democracy in 2014, all people must be encouraged to embrace the motto in our Coat of Arms: diverse people unite!

Those who want to protect and preserve homogeneity need to retain what they value with neither prescription nor discrimination.

Well, yes, they will always be those who think their Africanness is holier-than-thou. But we should expect maturity and open-mindedness in how they practise that.

Africanness, whatever that is, now is open and accessible to everyone who believes that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity”.

In fact, it has gone global.

Where it is portrayed or projected as homogenous and exclusive, as cultural preservationists are likely to do, they need to not only be warned against dictatorial tendencies, but to be deplored and discouraged in the strongest terms.

What this new world needs is love, peace, unity and harmonious nonracial living.

Nobody should tell us that Africanness or the culture that expresses it should be locked and ring-fenced into some form of backwardness and primitiveness that does not change with the times.

Those who feel that their Africanness is threatened must accept that it was destined to, inevitably, change because it is part of human progress in a changing world.

Nothing is permanent except change.

The push towards a new Africanness is, rightly, from within.

Much as it is an unsettling thought, it will come from the creative tension that marks the fusion of the Khoisan, European, Indian and, of course, African.

Some will like it and embrace it. Others will not.

But the people must continue to be in the forefront of bringing a “human face” to the world.

It is what has to happen.

» Memela is the chief director of social cohesion in the department of arts and culture. He writes in his personal capacity

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