Hybridity part of SA's rich heritage

Nico Koopman

South Africans face many challenges and are concerned about many things in our land. 

The disappointments and challenges, however, do not quench the flame of gratitude and joy about the country in which we live. 

We have rich human and natural resources, and boast one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, with its emphasis on a life of inalienable dignity, healing reconciliation, embracing justice, responsible freedom, equality and equity for all. South Africa is a country of diversity and a very rich heritage.

One important aspect of this rich heritage is hybridity.

The concept of hybridity is used in contemporary social scientific discourses in the contexts of decolonisation and globalisation. 

The word, which literally means mixture, has its origins in the contexts of different plant species and different ethnic groups. It refers for instance to the mixing of ethnicities. In modern race discourses, these hybrid or mixed “races” were viewed as the most inferior “races”.

A more positive use of the concept of hybridity has developed during the last few decades. In racial discourses, the idea of a so-called pure race without any form of hybridity is increasingly rejected. 

In apartheid South Africa, the work of historian Hans Heese, Groep sonder grense: die rol en grense van die gemengde bevolking van die Kaap, 1652-1795, which traced the roots of some extremist white apartheid ideologists to amongst others the Khoi-San indigenous groups, caused quite a stir and paved the way for a revaluation of the notion of hybridity.

So, how should we think about the notion of hybridity in our current context given the criticism that it is too theoretical and used in questionable ways, e.g. with regard to sexuality?

Hybridity, it seems to me, does not advance a type of mixing that dissolves the entities that mix, and that brings forth a new uniform entity.

Hybridity rather refers to mingling with others, exposure to the other, proximity to the other, dialogue with the other, interaction with the other, participation in the life of the other, life together with the other, life in interdependence and interwovenness with others; life in sympathy, empathy and interpathy with the other.

In his book Pastoral counseling across cultures American theologian, David Augsberger, decades ago distinguished helpfully between sympathy, empathy and interpathy. 

He wrote, “Sympathy is a spontaneous affective reaction to another’s feelings experienced on the basis of perceived similarity between observer and observed. Empathy is an intentional affective response to another’s feelings experienced on the basis of perceived differences between the observer and observed. Interpathy is an intentional cognitive and affective envisioning of another’s thoughts and feelings from another culture, worldview and epistemology”.

Hybridity entails that you live with porose skins so that osmosis and mutual enrichment can take place. This intimate exposure to other people does not leave you unchanged; you have internalised something of the other. The hybridic life together with others, the interwovenness, the interpathic journey with each other, enable us to develop, what I want to call, maximalistic identities. 

Minimalistic identities are homogenous identities that fill you with threat and anxiety. They are defensive and need to be protected in a world where there is a plurality and diversity of identities. Maximalistic identities, on the other hand, are heterogenous, playful, joyous, unthreatened, anxiety-free and hospitable identities. Whereas minimalistic identities make me say: I am only and purely this, maximalistic identities make me say: I am specifically this, but I am simultaneously also much more than only this! 

Maximalistic identities are more-identities. I am the particular and the specific, but I am simultaneously also more than just my particular racial, gender, sexual, religious, cultural and national identity.

Some might describe me, for instance as a Coloured, Brown or Griqua person, but due to my interwoven, hybridic living with people from other ethnic groups, I am also more than Coloured. I am male, but due to my hybridic living with women/womxn, I strive to identify strongly with the plight and pain of women in patriarchal societies. I strive to live in solidarity with the quest of women for justice. 

I am heterosexual but I also strive for solidarity and identification with LGBTIQA+ (lesbi, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersexual, queer, asexual, plus) people in our joint quest for justice, which brings an end to sexual and gender discrimination and dehumanisation. In the same vein my hybridic living with people from other religious and secular faiths, as well as those from other countries in Africa and around the world, make me more than the particular. 

As we celebrate Heritage Day, we should remind ourselves that our diversity of people, ethnicities, cultures and languages position us so well to develop an ethic of hybridity that nurtures maximalistic identities. Hybridity is one of the outstanding features of our rich heritage and something that we can indeed pass on to next generations! 

- Prof Nico Koopman is Vice-Rector for Social Impact, Transformation and Personnel at Stellenbosch University.

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