The post-1994 era has lead to a radical re-evaluation of racial identities in South Africa. One possible question one can pose in this regard is: Are Afrikaners "black" or "white"?
The question may seem moot, as post-1994 racial classification in South Africa is performed through self-identification. However, self-identification must surely have some arguable basis in order to gain acceptance by society.
Any answer to this question must rely on (1) an appreciation of what it means to be black and (2) an appreciation of the origin and history of Afrikaners.
Peter Tosh famously said: "If you're a black man, you're an African." However, the converse is not necessarily true - an African does not have to be black nor male.
Moreover, the concept of race has no scientific basis. For all forms of life, objectively recognisable morphological and genetic characteristics exist at the species level only. Therefore, alternative definitions of race are required. In the South African context, black may be defined best as being of Nguni and/or Khoisan descent.
"Pure" Nguni/Khoisan descent is an impossible requirement, given the large extent of racial mixing that has occurred in South Africa. Most South Africans who consider themselves to be black are likely to have white ancestry. For example, many ships were wrecked off the Eastern Cape coast during early colonial days, and the survivors were rapidly assimilated into the local Xhosa population.
Any amount of black ancestry thus empowers one to self-identify as black. For example, Barrack Obama is widely considered to be America's first "black" president, even though one of his parents is white.
Afrikaners are typically taken to be South Africans whose first language is Afrikaans, were defined as white during Apartheid, and who claim descent from the early Dutch settlers at the Cape.
The early Dutch settlement of the Cape has, however, been misrepresented for three and a half centuries by the colonial hegemony. A frequently regurgitated myth is one of wholesome pioneering families emigrating from Europe in search of adventure and a better life. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The Cape was considered a God-forsaken backwater that existed only for supplying fresh produce and water to passing ships, and few sane people moved there willingly. The journey from Europe alone was extremely dangerous and unpleasant, and if you didn't die of disease or drown before you got here, your chances of returning to civilization were slim to none.
Most settlers were in fact press-ganged into migrating, or moved to escape convictions for petty crimes. In short, the Cape was little better than a penal colony, as were many early European colonies. However, unlike Australia, which has embraced its convict past, South Africa has long suffered from collective amnesia in this regard. Why?
Birth of a nation
Early Dutch settlers at the Cape were largely criminals and unfortunates - and were overwhelmingly male. However, the colony grew rapidly, and Afrikaners trace their roots back to this time. How then did they manage to reproduce?
There were, in fact, many women at the Cape, but they were not Dutch. They were Khoisan and Nguni, and there were also slaves from elsewhere in Africa and Madgascar. Although the Dutch settlers clearly had a colonial mindset, they were not monks. Nature always trumps Prejudice, and it was not long before the first Afrikaners were born.
The fruit of such unions included the likes of Simon van der Stel, whose mother was a slave, and was therefore black in the same way that Barrack Obama is black. Arguably, Simon van der Stel pre-dates Nelson Mandela as colonial South Africa's first black leader by some 300 years. How ironic that Stellenbosch - named after him - should become a bastion of white supremacist ideology during the Apartheid era.
From black to white
Why, then, are Afrikaners frequently considered white today? During Apartheid, Afrikaners actually employed artificial morphological classification criteria to distinguish themselves from other Afrikaans speaking black South Africans (e.g. the infamous "pencil test") in order to monopolise various resources. This classification scheme was so ridiculous that even siblings were divided between "white" and "black".
No such diagnostic characteristics exist, however, allowing those in denial of their black status to claim mythical "Portuguese" or "Italian" ancestry to explain their curly hair or dark skin, as such characteristics are also widespread amongst southern European populations. Indeed, morphological characteristics typical of Khoisan and Nguni poulations are common amongst Afrikaners, despite the existence of probable European features also.
Afrikaners may be considered to be black South Africans by any reasonable definition, with the Afrikaner identity crisis having its origins in the conflict between the sexual desires and political aspirations of the early Dutch colonists.
This raises a number of challenging questions:
- Do "coloureds" exist?- Was Apartheid white supremacy or black-on-black oppression?- Can Afrikaners claim indigenous land rights, BEE status, and a get-out-of-jail-free card to absolve them of Apartheid guilt?
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