The question of the threatened African identity again surfaced into the spotlight two weeks ago as President Jacob Zuma condemned the ownership of pets, among other things, dismissing them as ‘unAfrican.’
In his self-alleged attempt at "decolonizing the African mind’’, he ignited national outrage calling upon black people to stop attempting to be white, even revealing that, unbeknownst to them, they will never be white.
While I am in awe of his good intentions, if they are, I have to express disappointment at the president’s lack of understanding of the very African culture and identity he thinks he is standing up for, for downplaying the complexity of the concept of the African identity, shoving a setback into the goal of real psychological decolonization, for the embarrassing hypocrisy and for undermining social cohesion with his racially divisive obsession, cheaply used a political tool to keep previously oppressed indebted in emotional hostage.
Now that the mission to decolonize African minds is starting with simple negation and subtraction of cultural practices that are assumed to be un African by authorities of the time, I wonder how much of the president’s lavish lifestyle comprised of expensive western possessions would he be willing to hand over should he seriously go on a pursuit of Africanhood. Calling upon to masses to quit straightening of hair is one thing but the giving up of pets and all things western could see the president’s entire golden estate go to the dogs (yes I mentioned the D word).
If I had his wealth, and was part of a leading party that has the luxury to blow over R 100 million in Manguang in ostentatious displays of wealth in a country where nearly half live beneath the bread line, I might have the arrogance to throw around misguided lectures of what it means to be African.
From my understanding, what angers people the most is that the president who enjoys the highest glories of capitalism, owns more western possessions than most people living in the west has the audacity to stand up and tell people that their ownership of pets is not African enough in his super African view. The contradictions and hypocrisy behind much of what he dare says when he does say anything is nothing new, but this takes the cake. But for me the main concern lies in how his conception of the African identity indicates his lack of understanding of the concept itself.
Do African minds, whatever that means, need to be decolonized? Perhaps. Does decolonizing of minds constitute examining cultural practices individually such as ownership of pets and deciding whether they are African or not? A soul that so attempts to undertake this mission will soon discover that the term African is far more complex than the oversimplified version the president presented last week. The concept of culture itself is problematic, such that those who talk of culture as if it were more than an imagined entity need to revisit these oversimplified conceptions.
So then, should we go on a pursuit of the African identity, where do we begin? Let us begin at the ownership of pets as un African. The domestication of animals is intrinsic to the African culture and central to rituals involved in ancestral communion. So first of all, nothing is more African than the ownership of pets. A dog was name dropped so let us discuss the cultural significance of the dog within the African culture.
Like most domesticated animals, in various local cultures it is believed that dogs, once part of the family play a central role within the well-being and safety of the family, and are at times in co hoots with the ancestral communities themselves, such that when a dog is lost a family acknowledges this as a sign of a bad omen. Evidence of the spiritual relevance of dogs is through their symbolic significance in traditional dream analysis. Could this mean the ancestors have themselves betrayed the African essence, in assimilating dogs within their framework of safeguarding peace and well-being within their offspring (Now that the big revelation of their un Africanness has been made by the powers that be).
For Zuma this is a yes, since he asserts dogs are not African. But we will reject this assumption and assume the possibilities that dogs are either African, or the cultural framework complete with the ancestral universe have adopted dogs into the African identity.
Many will assert that the pursuit of the African identity means going “back to the roots”. Roots being the metaphor for the original. However, often this trip doesn't seem to go much further than a few centuries ago. This journey seems to stop by hut houses, African clothing like Amabeshu, Africanmeals, values and norms, religious beliefs and monarchies. Such highly sophisticated cultural elements that do not seem to be from any time further than a few centuries ago.
I have still to hear anything said about who we were in the 10thcentury. Or the 5th? The 3rd? How about two thousand years ago? This journey never gets pursued for shall we undertake, we might soon have to face some harsh questions that challenge the notion of African hood as we so often think we know. We might for example have to confess, possibly that such thing as hut houses, domestication of cattle, ancestral rituals and so forth are quite recent additions into the African framework. In no way are they part of the ‘root’.
The move from caves to hut houses, to the domestication of animals, religious and spiritual practices to organised monarchies indicates that the African identity has not only long been changing long before colonization, but also that the concept of culture, even the African culture, has been shifting and assimilating new practices long before colonization. It continues to undergo these inevitable changes as it should.
Whose job is it to dish out a guide of what changes are acceptable and those that are not. Is it a president who is able to stand up and declare such things as homosexuality as un African, without intellectually engaging with the with the concept? And we the citizens are supposed to sit and watch our leader continuously casts darkness on social cohesion and national progress in desperate attempts at shifting attention from the real issues that confront the country under his administration? We are being played!