Becoming African

January 13, 2011

I had a Hashtag search running in Tweetdeck last week on #African. At it’s height three tweets was generated a minute in the ongoing debate on whether white people can be called African, embedded within the question of what “African” mean, and who is allowed the label. It was started by Sentletse Diakanyo’s statement that “We are not all Africans, black people are!“. The critique against Diakanyo has been fierce, from all across the racial as well as intellectual spectrum in South Africa. The reaction that seems to be considered the most thoughtful is Khaya Dlanga’s “White people are African too!“, at least judging to the ReTweets and discussion in my small sphere of influencers, although, that might be because they are mostly (though not exclusively) white.

A response such as that by Marius Redelinghuys (I do hope I’m not publicly criticizing my wifes family now, although I don’t think he is) in “Africans are humans too” received little more than a yawn from my side. We’ve heard it before (and technically he is completely right): that “under the skin we are all the same” according the geneticists. But genetic arguments stating that we are all the same is just helpful in refuting genetic arguments which state that there is some fundamental difference between different races which give us the ability to rank different races into some kind of hierarchy. Thus, if Marius was responding to right-wing whites attempting to argue for the ultimate superiority of white people, it would have been an helpful argument, but in this case it was less so.

Now Jason van Niekerk’s response “The problems with defining #African” is worth a closer read. Hard words, but he unpacks the complexity of the question. “So where does this leave us? White South Africans can’t insist that they are automatically African, because that undermines the value of a hard-won identity. But when black South Africans deny the possibility of white Africans, they cut off the possibility of a non-racist post-apartheid identity that millions of white people want”. Although I really like Khaya Dlanga’s response, I guess mainly since he solves the problem by just calling me an African like I’d like to be, I have to agree that it’s not that easy.

My own approach would continue previous reflections on space and spaciality, this time using it to define whether we are African in the various spaces we inhabit.

The one problem with Dlanga’s argument is that we then need to start asking questions about African-Americans. Should they be rid of the name African? Continuing simply as Americans? Although this is a debate for my American friends, I’m quite uncomfortable when those of us born on the African continent deny this identity to those who were forcibly removed from this space. The other problem is obviously the fact that we deny those who came to this space to dominate it their colonial roots as well.

But isn’t Diakanyo ultimately doing the same? If only black people (and I guess then all black people) are African, isn’t black voices included which has long left the African space, hasn’t been formed by it any longer, and isn’t indebted to it any longer? My friend Frederick Marais once brilliantly told of a conversation he had with a third generation French speaking ex-slave in France, that hasn’t ever sat foot on the African continent, but denied him the right to call himself African, since he was white. And Frederick’s obvious question: who is more African?

However, the answer is not that obvious. And I guess the debate proof that this is indeed both an important, but also a complicated argument.

Of the arguments quoted above Van Niekerk was the only one who really took account of the social construction of race. So let my give the one-liner history lesson: Race is not fixed in your genetic makeup (thank you Marius, we have that), but was socially constructed through 5 centuries of colonialism. Following Garner and others I’ll say that it starts with the freeing of white slaves in the early colonial era, when suddenly white people had the right to freedom and black people were slaves (before you could be a slave regardless of colour, and a trader in the global economy regardless of colour). Van Niekerk then continues “many white South Africans want to claim an African identity not because they think they deserve it by default, but because they really do care about Africa and Africans”.

But of course, even this somewhat more difficult route to self-redemption is not that easy, since we remain caught within the cushion of white privilege (“like Visa, accepted everywhere” – I’m going to use that one again Jason) described by both Van Niekerk as well as Dlanga (in a later article).

And with this I’ve already touched upon three spaces which I inhabit.

Yes, I was born on the African continent. Like St. Paul, I could go even further in defending my identity. I was not only born here, I was brought up on the African continent. I owe my life to the African continent. I know no other home, and I’ve never been to any other place. But this is just one part of the story.

When we mention white privilege (and the Visa joke might be deeper than you think), then we need to talk about the economic world of which I am part. African economics is colonial and post-colonial economics. African economics is wholly colonized economics. It is the continent which was divided up among various western nations, which fed and became rich and fat by salvaging the African soil, while the people of Africa suffered. But the reality is that this is not the economic space I inhabit. In the economic world in which I move, the mark of the colonizers still rule. Apartheid South Africa was just another white nation, although situated on the Southern-tip of Africa, which colonized the people of the country, in spite of the fact that the government which ruled over them did not sit across the ocean. I owe my Visa, my income, my privilege to the colonizers, not the colonized. I have not struggled for economic freedom, rather, economic freedom was found through fighting, sometimes to death, with my ancestors. White privilege is much more than economic, but that is an important part.

And their is the space of history. And let my call this for the moment (although I do not deny the material reality of history) an intellectual space. In it’s most simple forms it came out in the history classes of our schools. The revolution they taught me about was the French Revolution, the American Revolution, not the African Revolutions. I knew more about that random day when the bunch of Americans through a ship full of tea into the sea to make the English a big cup for tea-time, than I did about Sharpeville. African history was shared only in so far as it could legitimate Apartheid (so we knew about the story of Dingaan murdering Piet Retief, and we knew what savages the tribes of Africa was before the white man came). My thought-space consisted of the story of white South Africans, North America and Europe. It was a version of history written by whites, legitimating white privilege. And as this continue the idea that I am called African remain suspicious.

Fact is that I had to agree with Diakanyo at many points (in spite of the obvious flaws which many pointed out). My biggest difference would obviously be with the idea that it is impossible for white people to be called African. The possibility exist (and, although it is an argument which I don’t feel intellectually fit to make, I believe even be called Black), and denying it throw us into an endless and hopeless future of eternal tension. However, whether this white persons can be called African is not so certain, and is something which white people should be slow to judge. At best, I can say that I am Becoming African.

Being born here was the first step in Becoming African. However, it is an intentional choice, with actions which require hard work, as I focus on recognizing the privilege of being white, and face the difficult questions of what it would mean for those privileged by centuries of colonialism and decades of Apartheid to become part of the economic history of Africa. To become part of the post-colonial reality outside of the bubble in which I live. I an Becoming African as I work intellectually to reinterpret my own history, and focus on history as total, through an African lens. When the events in Uganda, Nigeria and South Africa become that which form my thoughts, more than in which British politics form my thoughts. When the story of Zimbabwe become that of a whole nation under oppression, rather than of only farmers being removed from their farms.

It’s a long journey, Becoming African. Is this not our Long Walk to Freedom? Freedom from our identity as oppressors. I’ll insist that I’m on this journey, but I’ll be slow to state that I’ve completed the journey.

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4 Responses to “Becoming African”

  1. idelette Says:

    This question of this African identity is so deep & so critical. Thank you for weaving the many different thoughts through this post. Somehow I didn’t see the hashtag on Twitter; fascinating discussion.

    Ironically, last year, at Amahoro in Kenya, I was “baptized,” so to speak, in my identity as African. It’s been part of my Long Walk to Freedom, out of my identity as “oppressor.” I absolutely look at the world from an African perspective. I may not live in Africa (one of the consequences, I believe, of the sin of Apartheid/injustice, but that’s another story and I am living with it), but Africa definitely lives in me. The matter-of-factness with which my Kenyan & other African friends said, “Oh, so you are African,”–as if it were the most obvious thing in the world–clothed me in something unbelievably sacred at the core of my personhood. Also, no one could have denied who the Africans were on the dance floor, or even in worship. That’s when I REALLY knew I was African.

    I am still untying the cords of injustice–eg. the economic privilege, as well as even the gross colonialistic embedded sense of entitlement that shows its ugly head sometimes. It is such a journey. Thank you for this, Cobus. So much food for thought.

  2. GerhardvR Says:

    I wanted to say that it is almost the same as saying that because you were born in a christian home you are a christian! Obviously that is not so.Likewise being born in Africa doesn’t automatically make you an African.Somewhere along the way you will have to start learning to be an African .(Could I use the metaphor that you must be born again?)Identifying with the african culture,speaking an african language(not afrikaans!)and maybe going to live amongst african people in say Mamelodi,would that be some of the things we should do? I am only asking? Otherwise we use our western mindset to live in a country which we dont really identify with?


  3. […] This has led to quite a discussion in the blogosphere, for example here Becoming African | my contemplations. […]


  4. […] Jason Van Niekerk. There are also two thoughtful responses from Theologian, Cobus Van Wyngaard “Becoming African” as well as Steve Hayes here What is African? Race and […]


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