Max du Preez

Rewriting a definition

2007-05-02 09:28

Max du Preez

I'm a proud and enthusiastic African. I consider myself fortunate to belong to the continent where our species developed and where all spirituality, culture and civilisation have their roots.

I dislike South Africans who live in denial of their African roots and identity. I think it is driven by either prejudice or insecurity.

I find it irritating when South Africans behave as if they are Europeans or Americans. It annoys me when people regard European and American culture as the standard we have to aspire to.

These behaviour patterns mean that most of us still suffer from the mentality of the colonised.

Before the so-called Africanists among us start shouting "hurrah!" and "viva!", let me add my big "however". (In my experience, most "Africanists" are driven by insecurity, resentment, ethnic arrogance or the temptation to cover up Africa's failures through blaming "the West". Robert Mugabe is such an Africanist.)

We have to be clear what we're talking about when we refer to "Africa" and "Africans".

The dominant thinking in sub-Saharan Africa is that Africa and Africans really only refer to the descendants of a group of black Iron Age farmers who originated in the Benue Valley of eastern Nigeria and western Cameroon thousands of years ago.

During the last 5 000 years these very successful people dispersed all over Africa south of the Sahara desert. They shared one root language, called Bantu: -ntu meaning human being, Ba-ntu thus meaning "people". By 2 000 years ago, some of these groups were entering southern Africa.

The definition is all wrong

This definition of "African" is wrong. For one, it excludes the first peoples of the subcontinent, the San (Bushmen) and the Khoi who were already living (or rather, still living) in southern Africa when the black farmer-groups arrived.

It also excludes, especially in northern Africa, all Africans of Arabic origin.

The definition excludes the descendants of slaves who came to Africa from places like the East Indies; the indentured labourers and subsequent traders who came from the Indian subcontinent; and the descendants of Chinese workers and tradesmen who came to Africa generations ago.

Such a definition would also exclude me. My ancestors arrived in Africa in the latter part of the 17th century. Some of them, the French Huguenots, fled from religious prosecution, the others came as settlers from Germany and Holland.

Men on both sides of my family married slave and Khoi women on five occasions during the 18th century that I could trace. Because of this constant inter-marrying, my Du Preez and Kruger ancestors stopped associating with any other country outside Africa within two generations.

But that's not all. Run through a Who's Who of progressive pale-skinned South Africans and you'll soon encounter Joe Slovo and Helen Suzman, who are of Lithuanian Jewish descent, George Bizos, whose parents came from Greece and Maria Ramos, who is of Portuguese descent. And there will be a long list of people who can trace their ancestors back to the 1820 British Settlers.

This is our reality of Africa: a smorgasbord of ethnicities, colours, cultures and creeds. Yes, we were all heavily influenced by the dominant group of black Africans who also dominate in all the other countries in our region, but we have also heavily influenced them. And now we are at a point where we should stop talking about "them" and "the rest of us", and start talking only of "us".

A "Coloured" African, an "Indian" African or a "white" African should no longer be seen as "honorary" Africans and then only if they behave in a way acceptable to "black" Africans. We don't question the African-ness of a black South African who speaks with an American accent, wears baggy pants and a baseball cap and loves hip-hop music.

If this broader definition of African is applied, then I say: let's Africanise our society. Let's preserve and promote all our indigenous languages, including Afrikaans. Let's keep all our cultures alive. Let's be proud and keep our heads high in the company of all citizens of the world.

Send your comments to Max.

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