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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Going on to three years ago I wrote a post titles “my Afrikaner myth of meaning“. It was births from an experience in explaining the wall images from the Voortrekker monument to a visiting lecturer. This paragraph says something of what happened:

But something happened while I was explaining this to this international theologian. I got to see the story anew. Everything I ever learned about myth suddenly seemed to fit my own history, even though it only happened 150 years ago. This was the Afrikaner myth of origin. This was how we became the Afrikaner volk, how we differentiated ourselves from the Netherlands, also from France, Germany, and especially from Britian. It was by moving.

In the above mentioned post I tried to find positive implications from the Afrikaner myth which I could use in my own self-understanding. In the months and years after this post, my talk about the Afrikaner myth and the vow focused more on how the vow was part of the myth which explained why Apartheid was to be accepted, since God chose the white people over-and-above the black people of South Africa. I became less positive about this Afrikaner myth of meaning. Although I have continued my talk of being Afrikaner, maybe bet summarized in a recent post titled “I’ll just be that other white African, an Afrikaner“.

My reason for writing this post, however, is simply to point you to words by Christi van der Westhuizen concerning Afrikaner Mythology. In White Power she writes:

Malan, the first NP leader to become prime minister under apartheid, leaned strongly on his background as a dominee (clergyman) to alchemise Afrikaner nationalism into a civil religion. This was encapsulated in his slogan ‘Believe in your God, Believe in your Country, Believe in Yourself’, compelling enough for Afrikaner nationalists for it to remain the NP’s motto until the 1960s. Malan was a consummate ideologue who conjured up heady visions of the future in his rhetorical mix of religion, history and nationalism. Afrikaner nationalist mythology reinterpreted the motley groups of families that had left the Cape colony as a coherent nationalist action, the Great Trek, by ethnically similar people. Figures such as Piet Retief, Andries Pretorius and Sarel Cilliers were exhumed from the depths of history and paraded as leaders inspired by Afrikaner nationalism. To them, the Great Trek was more than a conquest of territory, proselytised Malan – it was ‘an act of faith, and the acceptance of a God-given task’. The Voortrekker victory over Zulu forces at the Battle of Blood River was immortalised in the Day of the Vow on 16 December, when Afrikaners were called upon to remember their promise to God to remain Afrikaner nationalists. The Afrikaner were ‘a volk with a calling … behind our South African volk existence and history sits a purpose. We as volk should be aware of it, and live it to the best of our ability.

White power & the Rise and Fall of the National Party page 23-24

A few weeks ago a group of church leaders from the Congo visited our congregation. They could speak only French, so we had to work through an interpreted. Over lunch I shared the table with about 8 of them and the interpreted, and we started asking each other questions concerning church and theology. At one point one of the Congolese pastors said that he noted that our church was only white, and wanted to know how that was. I started my answer with the first phrase: “I am sorry, we are wrong”. I stopped so that the interpreted could translate, and would then have gone on to explain some of the complexities I experienced around race in South Africa, and why I think our church, as a white church, is still struggling to live that which I firmly believe is part of the heart of the gospel.

The interpreter had a doctorate in theology, although he has left the field of theology for business. He was also from the Congo, but has been in South Africa for about 20 years or so now. He refused to translate my answer. He reprimanded me, saying that I should say that I’m sorry, and went on to explain, and from what I could hear, justify the white congregation which I pastor. I felt betrayed. I didn’t want him to tell me  not to say sorry. I don’t experience deep feelings of guilt over pastoring a white congregation, but I need the space to acknowledge that this is not the will of God, and the space to honestly struggle with working through our past, and creating  a new world through this congregation (really a long term task I know, but one that we need to be busy with).

Then yesterday I read Eusebius McKaiser’s article on Antjie Krog and Rian Malan. He talks about an “embarrassing Krog-like yearning to be black”, critiquing Krog’s use of “begging”. Although he appreciates Krog’s acknowledgement of the continued privilege of being white, in contrast to Krog’s attempt to rather make blackness a stronger part of her identity, he seem to prefer the strong sense of “unqualified entitlement to speak” found in the likes of Malan. I realized today that I had a similar experience from McKaizer that I had with the interpreted. They both would seem to be very forgiving of our past, and both call for strong white perspectives to be raised withour the “sorry” and the serious quest to become part of an inter-racial community where we not only participate in the public of our democracy, but also in the private world of inter-racial relationships, and developing a culture more in sync with Africa. I know many white people crave this kind of legitimizing of being white from a black voice, and I also know that it could be seen as taking the moral high ground in racial relations, but still it doesn’t seem to be helping me along on my own quest.

What does however help me is black colleagues opening their hearts and homes to me in a space where I can be honest and be friends. Where I can talk about my perceptions about black people (and I experience them to also appreciate that they can talk about how they experience white people), where I can honestly say that I’m sorry, and these words can lie on the table without me needing to feel guilty, but where they know that my honest struggle with my own past require that I need to verbalize the fact that I am sorry. This is the space where I can be white, and acknowledge being white, while at the same time seriously taking on Krog’s struggle to decenter some of the white constructions in myself, and one way of doing this is by learning from black constructions. The words of the interpreter, and that of McKaizer, feels like they are taking away my chance of deconstructing my own whiteness. And if they take away the opportunity to say sorry from me, and take away the change to decenter my whiteness, to become African, I feel like they are in a way telling me that I’m not allowed to work through the emotions and thoughts that I currently experience as a white man in Africa working to become a white African.

This reflection flows from the debate on Antjie Krog’s Begging to be Black, organized by the Centre for Public Theology at the University of Pretoria, in which Jurie le Roux, Klippies Kritzenger and Rodney Chaka participated. Tom Smith wrote a brilliant critical overview of the debate, which I’m not even going to try and repeat. However, I’ve been journeying with my own being Afrikaner since July last year, and would like to continue this journey with reference to the current conversation.

The responses at the above mentioned debate again made me realize how much more thorough I still need to think about my own being, my own Afrikanernes. The detailed and critical analyses of Krog’s book, pointing out some of her own indebtedness to being an Afrikaner, as well as some naiveties in her approach forced me to think about by own almost naively positive reaction to Krog’s work.

One thing I think we have almost consensus about. Krog’s use of Black wasn’t the best choice of words. We might differ on our reason for saying this, but maybe Begging to be African would have been a better choice. For me, however, this quest has found words over the past year in becoming an Afrikaner. I, the naive reader of Krog and Jansen, want’s nothing more than to reclaim being Afrikaner. I want to claim being Afrikaner, being born from Afrika, wanting to be from Afrika, while being white and Afrikaans speaking, but I want to be that other white African, not the Afrikaner from the Voortrekker monument pictures, not the Afrikaner from the April 2010 letters to daily papers in South Africa,but the new kind of Afrikaner, the one who has no identity other from being part of a democratic South Africa.

And yes, Krog help me with this. I have called Jurie le Roux “one of the unsung heroes of my life” in the past, and I’ll stick to this, althouh I have realized years ago that we differ when it comes to how we understand our own being part of Africa. As a brilliant philosopher and exegete, he was able to point our some of the problems in Krog’s approach. Using French philosophers one could say he, and others, is able to “break” Krog’s work. But just because it’s broken, doesn’t mean it’s broken. Somehow Krog seem to fail the deconstructionists, whom I love – the little I understand about them, and then in my eyes get up and become helpful in spite of messy formulations, lack of philosophical depth, and lack of theological understanding.

And I think it’s something on a more emotional level that really get’s me into Krog’s work. The way in which she attempts to deny her own European heritage at some stages, but then have to admit her comfort in Germany, they way in which she are uncomfortable with her white Afrikaner tradition, but at times are forced by others to admit her own being advantaged by exactly this which she fights against, and the way in which she simply goes out there, and attempt to live relationally with a broader South Africa.

Through messy formulations and all, I find in Krog’s work something which missiologists called interculturation, an exchange of concepts, ideas. Krog might make it sound as if her attempt is simply to become more African, but in her person she really learn from different cultures, and in her story also give of what she is back to those black’s whom she so easily identify with Africa. Maybe I’ll not beg to be black, not even beg to be African, as if there are some ideal form of African out there which I should strive to become. But please let me be that different Afrikaner.

I want to be the interculturated Afrikaner, the Afrikaner that are actually able to listen to my fellow Africans, to allow them to deconstruct who I am, to deconstruct my own whiteness, to help me become more Afrikaner. No, I cannot deny that I also feel this connection with European and white thoughts, that is part of me. But I want to see that part of me through the eyes of my fellow South Africans. I don’t simply want to continue existence as an Afrikaner, but I want to understand my own being white and being Afrikaner, and understand it in relation to other around me, and through this become more of a white African.

Krog would call this something different. She’ll call this becoming black, maybe. She will sound different when she speak about this than I do. But I see in her work how she finds a reinterpretation of her own identity in relationships with black, colored, indian South Africans, South Africans of different languages and backgrounds. She struggles, she’s critical, and yes, in the end we’ll agree that she remain a white Afrikaner, but she’s more and more of a white Afrikaner that finds identity in relationship to others, and in spite of brilliant critique against her work, in spite of the fact that her work could be broken, it’s not broken for me, because on an emotional level, and in spite of critique also on an intellectual level, she helps me along this journey of becoming that white African, that Afrikaner that’s not the Afrikaner that we know.

Apartheid ended in 1994. Yes, I know. And the voices who reminded me in the past that I must remember that things were much worse under Apartheid, and not downplay this by making as if nothing has changed have a point. But to say we are post-Apartheid, fails to recognize that neither our hearts nor our systems have gotten rid of this legacy completely. Much has changed, and we can thank God for that. But much didn’t change for many South Africans.

I am white. Sibitiwe might have complimented me with a black heart. But I remain a white theologian in Africa. Less and less European as the months go by. More and more being baptized in the water of Africa as transformative experience after transformative experience, as relationship after relationthips, and relationships over time, is deepening my experience of this country, this continent. With all it’s problems and questions. I don’t want to be anywhere else. This is my home. I am from Africa.

My church may be irrelevent, in spite of the examples of really good works of development being done, for which we also thank God, and should not consider futile. I know that for the bigger part of South Africa we won’t be missed when we are gone. They might miss our help, but in very few circumstances will they miss our friendship. There are exceptions, but they are exactly that: exceptions.

The journey that Dutch Reformed congregations will have to go on is a long journey I know, it’s a difficult journey, and we will require a lot of help. But it is a journey which some of us are willing to commit to with everything we have.

This was the transformative experience that gave rise to the writing of this story. It’s controversial I know. And I somewhat fear for writing this.

I have never approved of the segregated church I am part of. I cannot remember a day in my life that I both knew about Belhar and rejected Belhar. Everywhere I went I always made the more pro-unification choice that was on the table. Sometimes I even attempted to stretch the table a bit, to put options on the table that weren’t considered. I remember attending an URCSA meeting in 2007 that NG students were invited to, but being the only one who went. I remember the setting up of the meeting of URCSA theological students leadership and NG theological students leadership in the same year, and we actually organized a visit of both groups to a worship session of the other. Few students attended, but the experience was positive. I guess I didn’t change the face of the faculty at UP in the process, but at least I made some friends.

At times I have been extremely critical of my own church, and the process of unity. I guess taking things a few notches further than most of the “open” voices in the church. I’ve been uncomfortable with the idea that we become one church structurally, without local congregations actually reflecting this. What I dream of and hope for has been for true unity in worship and action for many years now.

Deconstruction makes you mad, I sometimes think. Once you start down that rabbit hole, realize why you are doing what you are doing, what you are actually saying, how this is being heard by other voices, and how far away from “justice”, “mercy” and “truth” your one life really is, it becomes almost unbearable. But Africa has taught me that I can never fully deconstruct myself. I need the other to deconstruct me. I need to be open to the voice of an other, a different perspective, to help me interpret my own life and actions, to understand what it is that I am actually doing.

I don’t want to make a hero out of someone, and most of my transformative experiences was with voices that you have never heard of. And this one was only possible because of these voices, and others, who have helped me to make me open to hear the different perspective this post is about.

It was at the opening of the South African Missiological Society of 2010 when Jonathan Jansen spoke, and he dared to say that the Dutch Reformed Church is irrelevant (and this in front of a mainly white crowd). The way I heard him was that the Dutch Reformed Church was teaching their members week by week that it is OK not to ask : “Who is my neighbour”, by allowing them to sit in all white churches in South Africa. This might not have been what he said, but this is what I heard.

Deconstruction makes me mad. My thoughts went on to think in the line of liturgy. What was this liturgy of white worship communicating week by week, whatever we might be preaching? I saw it as communicating that the white ghetto was OK, that the lack of friendships with people of all races and colours was OK. That the distance we kept between ourselves and black people was OK. My thoughts went on to the idea that we might be doing a hell of a lot of development work in South Africa, but we will never be able to contribute to the transformation and reconciliation of a country if we keep this liturgy of whiteness.

The next transformative experience is quite well documented. Don’t get me wrong, I have been transformed to see black people as equal. I have been transformed to form friendships, true, deep friendships. But I am learning more and more about how deep the transformation is that is needed in my life. So the story continued, and will continue.

The experience I am referring to was at Amahoro Africa close to Krugersdorp in 2009. It was the experience of telling my story, the Afrikaner story, to my new Kenyan friends, and how they made me free to become an African in a way that truly changed me. You can read about it at the following places:

can’t speak about Amahoro

How one Afrikaner became an African theologian