LEBO MASHILE: Live, love, belong

2009-10-17 11:05

DIVERSITY is not new, and it most certainly isn’t unique to South Africa. Nations break up and regroup with new names all the time as people travel, marry, create wars, trade, and continue with the very human business of interacting across physical, spiritual, psychological and cultural borders. This is the very stuff of ­humanity. It’s what people have always done. In that regard, for many of us for whom travel and movement are elemental, the fear of losing what appears to be a pure identity seems very juvenile and antiquated.

However, in a society where so many people had their cultures ­demeaned, devalued and rendered invisible in the national imagination for a prolonged period of time, having the right to assert one’s cultural identity goes hand in hand with the very insular process of consolidating who you are and where you belong.

South Africa has been grappling with figuring out who it is as a nation for the past 15 years. We are a nation made up of many nations and a few centuries of cross-pollination have blessed us with many chances to make indelible marks on each other. Every individual living in South Africa needs to have an intercultural dialogue, first and foremost with themselves, to make sense of who we are and where we come from.

There is an obvious tension between nationalism and cultural identity. The South Africa state was the biggest enemy of many of its inhabitants for a long time. One of the core objectives of the nation-building project has been to bind this society together beyond fear, blame, inequality and our complex history by creating a sense of ­belonging to this place called South Africa.

For some, belonging to South Africa means compromising part of another identity. If I am Sotho, meaning that I am a member of the Basotho nation, which group do I belong to first: the group called South Africans or the group called Basotho?

South Africanness is a cocky teenager battling to understand itself. It is a hodgepodge identity, a mixed masala stew, a hybrid animal that excludes some as quickly and as easily as it includes others. Why would I want to belong to that confusion when “my people” make me feel at home? Plus, I don’t need a birth certificate or a green bar-coded ID to be an African or a Sotho, but I do need to legitimately belong to the system in order to be a South ­African.

We saw aspects of this tension play itself out recently during the build-up to our last elections. For more than a decade there was talk about the centralisation of power within the ANC and the alleged hegemony of a group of Xhosa leaders within that. Our first two democratically elected presidents happened to be Xhosa, as did some of the most revered elder statesmen and women of the ANC like the Sisulus and the Tambos. Add to that a few Xhosa ministers of Parliament, some nouveau riche Xhosa black economic empowerment business people and it creates a scary and dangerous recipe for tribalism.

The phrase “Xhosa-nostra” became a part of popular culture, likening the perceived elite grouping of Xhosa politicians and business people to a mafia-style organisation.

President Jacob Zuma’s fans showed their support for their leader by wearing T-shirts with the words “100% Zulu”. There was a perception that part of the reason why Zuma was being “sidelined and persecuted” was because he is a proud and unashamedly Zulu man. Whether we agree, or disagree, it is clear that this helped to establish President Zuma as an underdog, and it gave millions of people who also feel marginalised and excluded from power a figure that they could identify with.

There is also a tension between the way culture and identity evolves organically and the way that it is supposed to evolve. For example, the Mashiles are Bapulane, a small nation who are deeply rooted in an area of Limpopo called Bushbuckridge. During the Mfecane wars the Bapulane people assimilated into the bigger Pedi nation. Though many of the Bapulane have held on to their distinct language, most of them are fluent in Sepedi and some are very comfortable referring to themselves as both Pedi and Bapulane.

Notions of cultural identification are often passed down through a patriarchal lineage, and in this post-modern, post-apartheid society we live in, I find myself as a daughter of an urban Sotho single mother and I happen to be a feminist. By default, the African language that I have the best understanding of is “Joburg Sotho” which is very different to the Sotho that is spoken in Lesotho. Moreover, my sense of identification with my mother’s language, customs and culture can be seen as very unAfrican, because I should take on my father’s heritage in the same way that my sister and I bear his surname. The Constitution says that there is a place in this society for my headspace and beliefs, but these very beliefs erode the ways that cultures have been passed down for centuries in our little corner of the earth.

And if we extend this further, is there a place in South African identity for the half-Nigerian, half-South African who is growing up in Sandton right now? What about the half-Jamaican, half-Senegalese child being raised in Killarney with a British passport? Is there a place for the child of Zimbabwean refugees who only knows this country as home? Is there a place for the offspring of the Polish immigrant and the third-generation Portuguese African who was born in Mozambique?

Can I live? Can I love? Can I work? This is what people ask themselves when they leave one place in order to create a home elsewhere. Will my way of living be accepted? Will I be able to create meaningful relationships? Can I earn a living with the skills that I have and will my ­environment present me with new opportunities for self-development and growth?

The xenophobic attacks of last year were the confluence of many issues. As South Africans, certain discourses dominate the public ­domain, particularly the race and power discourse.

We see everything through the lens of black and white, so anything outside of or in between sadly becomes secondary, if it is discussed at all.

Ownership and belonging are ­major issues. 1994 presumably gave all of us the right to finally belong and to have a sense of ownership, even if it is tenuous, over this thing called South Africa.

Furthermore, the human rights culture that is enshrined in the Constitution gave everyone the right to belong. How can a people share what has been denied to them for so long with people they don’t know? How can they do so when they are only just beginning to learn to love and accept themselves? How is it fair to ask people who are poor and marginalised in their own home to allow foreigners access to the ­minuscule resources that the state is able to provide?

South Africa avoided this conversation and the silence erupted in a fury of violence and hatred – hatred of the other and hatred of the self.

We struggle to create a sense of ­national pride and identity without resorting to nationalism. Most African families have clan names and praise poems which document the movement and trajectory of a family. They enable us to find pride in what we are by understanding the many places, people and stories that make up our identities. The inclusive philosophy behind this African sense of defining identity has yet to be unpacked and included in the ­evolution of the notion of South ­African identity.

Africans have always understood that we are travellers, but in South Africa our point of departure is centred on a site and time-specific destination, the here and now, instead of the all-encompassing journey. This philosophical and spiritual conversation has yet to happen.

In many ways, one of the unifying aspects of South African identity is the fact that it excludes just about everyone. If you are poor, you don’t have access to resources. If you are white, you can’t be a real African. If you are rural, you don’t have ­access to infrastructure. If you are coloured, you don’t have a culture. If you spent time in exile, you don’t have an understanding of the ­authentic South African experience. If you are Indian, you already have another culture that you belong to. If you are an African foreigner, then you need to go back and fix your country. If you are gay, then you are an abomination anyway, you don’t belong to God, so you can’t belong to us.

No one belongs so in that way ­everyone belongs – to a sense of isolation.

In a situation where everyone feels like they are floating through their own personal no-man’s land, there is an enormous opportunity for the exploitation of people’s wounds and fears.

This is an edited version of a speech to the recent world summit on arts and culture

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