Black is more than African

2011-02-03 15:01

The issue of who can call themselves an African is obviously not as simplistic in a post-apartheid South Africa as either of the opposing sides make it out to be.

During apartheid, it was generally a truism that African in South Africa referred to the indigenous people and not to coloured or Indian people.

But now there seems to be an ­increasing number of people who feel excluded when descendants of indigenous people claim to be the ­only Africans.

I identify my specific population group as African, and my general population group as black.

I haven’t given much thought to the reason for this, but I can now put it down to the fact that ever since I became politically conscious, I’ve always seen blackness as a political construct that covers the previously oppressed cultural groups in this country.

I continue to refer to myself as an African, and not because I feel the need to exclude those who have ­historically not identified themselves as African or because I believe that human beings are divided into immutable racial groups.

On the contrary, I believe in the idea of a ­single universal human race (even as I acknowledge that there are visible physical differences between human beings, within and outside cultural groups).

I identify with the term African ­because it is the only description that my people have appropriated and used positively to identify themselves – unlike Bantu, Plurals and other more overtly racist terms.

So, like columnist Khaya Dlanga, I believe in one human race.

Unlike him, though, I do believe that there is a need for racial identification in so far as it is used to correct historical injustices.

As a society that is still structured around racial dominance, we cannot wish away the effects of a long ­history merely by invoking scientifically and philosophically progressive ideas about race.

To do so is to bury our heads in the sand.

To identify oneself as African need not mean that you subscribe to some essentialist ideas about identity.

If I were to go to China on a business trip with a bunch of Saffers of different hues, I’d have no problem identifying with that group as African.

That’s because in that context, the term would be used to denote the geographic origins of the group.

To refer only to Africans as black would be absurd in the context of ­historical redress when we consider the fact that the term was used to ­refer to such a diverse group of people, including Indians, coloureds and local Chinese people.

In fact, to do so would be to invest the term with a racial meaning it did not have in its historical evolution in this country.

So for me, black will always be broader than African.

As for the claim that those in the African diaspora should not be called Africans, the less said the ­better.

Save to say transatlantic ­slavery was not voluntary.

Just like South Africans of Indian descent – who are proud of their cultural and geographic origins, and are the descendants of slaves – also have a right to ­identify themselves as African.

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