Here is my problem with the Angus covenant episode: Christians don’t apologise for heresy. An apology is simply not the appropriate response to heretical theology.

And we should for no moment underestimate this: that the Jew and Afrikaner presents the only two ‘nations’ with whom God has made a covenant is indeed heresy. The problem is not with the ‘only’. You don’t solve this through including more ‘nations’ into this covenant. The problem is with the ethnic delineation of the idea of a covenantal relation, and with how racial ideology is sustained through a Christian believe in the church, or worse in this case, the ‘Afrikaner nation’ taking the place of Israel in the hearts and mind of God.

And it’s not a slip of the tongue. It’s not just a brief hyperbole. Buchan’s ‘Afrikaner nation’ indeed mediates God’s salvation. The good missionary, Buchan obviously believes that God wants to save South Africa. But God’s salvation will come through this covenantal people – the ‘Afrikaner nation’. It is a gathering of this covenantal people that will bring about the salvation of another national group – the mythic ‘South African nation’.

Beyers Naudé addressed the matter in the following words:

The first – and to my mind the strongest – factor in moulding the attitude of the Afrikaner has been his explicable but nevertheless unacceptable identification of his people as “a chosen people” with Israel, the chosen people of God of the Old Testament…

This view of the Afrikaner people as a chosen nation called to a special God-given mission and manifest destiny as ordained by God was born out of a totally wrong interpretation of the Old Testament which led to a distortion of God’s purpose. Afrikaners saw themselves as a chosen people, planted by God in the southernmost part of a vast continent, for the special purpose of bemg the torchbearers of the Gospel to the millions of heathens in dark Africa…

The comparisons between the vicissitudes of the chosen people, Israel, and those of his own nation were so striking and so manifold that he fell prey to the natural temptation of a false identification of himself and his people with that of Israel…

(The African and Race Relations, 1967)

Naudé probably didn’t yet have the theological language to get to the even deeper heart of the problem. In recent years Willie Jennings and Kameron Carter argued these points most forcefully in the two books that came to be called to the “Duke School of Race and Theology”. Whiteness is built on the earlier conviction that the Christianity takes over the place of Israel in the heart and mind of God. But not simply the church, rather, building on and contributing to a Christian theology and white racial anthropology, it is the Christian Europe in particular (and it’s white extension in the colonies) that exists as the people through whom God’s salvation will come. Not Israel, but white Europe.

Making multiple conceptual jumps, in brief: it is not the mere aesthetic of a white Jesus that is at play, but an even deeper white Christ. Christ here is the prototype of whiteness, that towards which all the world should be drawn, represented by those racially marked as white.

Now, Buchan draws on a more particular version of this general white heresy, that being that the Afrikaner has a particular claim to being God’s new covenantal people. Afrikaners were not alone in this, others have made this claim over the centuries as well. But this particular version of the heresy has done immeasurable damage and underpinned immense violence in this part of the world.

So perhaps we must be clear on the problem with Buchan’s apology. First of all, we don’t apologize for heresy. And if this ethnic and racial reading of God’s covenantal work constitutes heresy – and I think we must take that charge seriously, then something different is necessary. I mean, apology is all good, but that’s not really what we do when confronted with our own heretical theologies. In these cases we listen to the One Holy Catholic Church. We search ourselves, discerning how our own heretical understanding of God’s salvation may have pervaded our lives. We repent and grow together with the Church into a more faithful understanding of God.

Secondly, the apology does not actually respond to the problem at all. By adding to his racial reading of covenant that also those who have “given their life to Jesus Christ” are in such a covenantal relation, he seems to strengthen the idea that there are certain ‘nations’ who by virtue of some ethnic-racial identity are in covenantal relation, and then there are also others as individuals added to such a covenant. The response to this heretical covenantal theology requires a conscious rejection of the heresy, but the apology does not seem to venture there.

Lastly, the problem is perhaps not that the statement brought division (oh how many times will Christians believe that this is the main problem with our racism), but rather that the statement reinforces hierarchy. At the heart of whiteness are deeply held convictions of an anthropological hierarchy where that which is white is more firmly positioned close to God, having a higher salvific possibility, and its opposite being firmly lodged outside or at the fringes of God’s work of salvation – and if drawn in then mediated through whiteness.

Both the initial comment and the response seem to fit quite easily with the racial theology underpinning centuries of conquest: that a particular group, racially marked, was divinely called to act as conduit for God’s work of salvation in the southern part of Africa, that faith is in a special way mediated by those ethnically marked, and that God covenantal relations are ethnic and racial choices.

I have no intention of trying to take the moral high ground here. I’m a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church, and I am quite clear that while my own church may have done a lot of work in trying to live an apology for apartheid, we have not dealt with the charge of heresy brought against us in 1982. We have a long way to go in working through the implications of heresy. But this incident should make it clear to us: our heretical theologies of whiteness remain very much alive, and we cannot shy away from opening up the wound and allowing the painful work of cleaning things out to happen.


We need to talk about whiteness and space.

We need to talk about Penny Sparrow and Adam Katzavelos. But the South African Human Rights Commission can probably do most of the talking on what to do with their individual acts. But both those incidents that went viral happened within the context of a particular racial and racist imagination of space which does not require an overly racist rant to become manifest, and in fact seldom manifest itself in an overtly racist rant while determining almost every hour of our lives. Condemning the rant is easy. Transforming the space that gave rise to the rant is the work that concerns us all.

Let’s start with the basics. Apartheid was many things.

Yes, it was a form of settler colonialism – meaning that those who colonised this space connected our identity more to this space than to Europe – one reason why the call to “go back” sounds to strange to many white South Africans, and also why waves of racially motivated white immigration was not to Europe (some kind of “original homeland”) but to whichever white space will allow a continuation of existence in white space.

Yes, it was a form of racial capitalism, politically and racially structuring society so that those who are white will form the elite within a capitalist economy, and occupy the vast majority of professional positions within that economy, while being able to rely on dirt-cheap black labour.

But apartheid was also an imagination of separation fundamentally restructuring South African space according to race. We know this. You can take all the laws away, but we intimately know exactly where the line between “white” and “black”, “black” and “Indian”, is found in every little town. Even if the lines change, we know where the new lines are informally being drawn. Every square meter of South Africa was formally or informally marked as “black” of “white”. Most of it still is.

And let’s be very clear about this: we did not change things that much in the last 24 years. Not only does the same racial patterning persist in the same places, but we’ve reconstructed vast sections of urban space into gated community or RDP development in ways which quite simply perpetuate the very same racial imagination of space.

I’m not going to argue that disrupting this spatial imagination will in itself undo the myriad of legacies of apartheid, colonialism and white racism. It won’t. I’m not going to argue that white people are the only ones today maintaining this spatial organization. We’re not, but we do play a very particular role in doing that work, and need to take very particular individual and corporate responsibility for undoing it. I’m not going to say that it will resolve economic inequality, and particularly the racial nature of this, overnight. It won’t, but it is actually key to disrupting this. Oh, and no, this cannot be reduced to questions of land ownership, but it is probably impossible to change this in any meaningful way without changing patterns of land ownership.

Also, I’m not going to be blind to the risks of attempts at resolving the racial patterning of space in South Africa. White people have historically related to the spaced we occupy within this racialized world in two ways: either imagining space as exclusively (or at least clearly predominantly) white, or as spaces which we can control regardless of the demographics. Most white South Africans of the latter half of the 20th century was part of the former, but the exceptions usually of the latter – think of missionaries who did indeed learn to live in places which is not exclusively or predominantly white, but only on condition that they controlled those spaces. Undoing this spatial imagination will require (at least) undoing both these things: the actual demographic of white spaces, and the implicit or explicit control of all space. White people moving into black neighbourhoods in attempts to save (in whichever way) these neighbourhoods will most probably perpetuate, not disrupt, this imagination.

The point is really quite simple: the question being put to white South Africa through numerous things bubbling onto the surface is (at least in part) this: are we willing to live within this country as humans with other humans. Are we willing to live as white people in space without the ongoing process of remaking and retaining spaces as exclusively or predominantly white, or as spaces clearly controlled by white people? Or perhaps more importantly: are we willing to commit to the active work of disrupting this spatial imagination, of undoing the racial and racist organizing of space in South Africa, and to live with humans as humans.

Obviously this is a question about national policy. It involved questions around urban planning and rural planning. It involved questions of land reform. It will impact on and will be impacted upon by policies on education and economic empowerment. And let’s be clear, the way in which attempts at introducing policies which will change this spatial reality has been repeatedly blocked is something that require some scrutiny. But it is also quite specifically personal and individual. It involves the millions of choices made on where to live and where to send my kids to school. Where to live and where to send me kids to school. No, that’s not a typing error or accidental repetition. We need to say to that repeatedly, because these two choices will have a profound impact on whether our children will be able to live comfortably and without tension in the country of their birth, or whether they will also feel the need to lock themselves up in ever-shrinking white enclaves, gated communities, or Perth. Will we raise another generation of white kids who remain convinced that the level of melanin or lack thereof in bodies on beaches determine their own presence on that beach, and their own experience of that beach?

Yes, I know you get afraid, sometimes terrified, when the number of black people in a particular area exceeds a certain percentage, or simply when you find yourself in a space which in your own imagination is marked as “black”. If not afraid, then deeply uncomfortable. I’m not denying what we white people often feel. I am saying that there is a particular history behind these feelings, that we risk reproducing these experiences if we continue to invest huge amounts of energy and money in retaining certain spaces as white (whether in number of bodies or in the bodies that control), and that these experience is not in any way inevitable, but can and does change if we commit to and learn how to live in local spaces which reflect the demographics of this country.

And yes, I know that you can choose not to do this. I suspect that you will continue to be able to make that choice for many years to come. I am saying that raising voices about racist rants or attacks in Spur restaurants which draw from a particular spatial imagination cannot happen without the deeply personal commitments to change that imagination and the very concrete and material organizing of space that allows this to be perpetuated. I’m saying that we need to do the active work of resisting the ongoing formation of white enclaves of whatever kind.

Let me be quite clear on this however: we are not hero’s or a radical if we commit to moving our white bodies in a different space, or moving your bodies through space in a different way. As a friend one day uttered in ultimate wisdom: “you do not get points for living with people!” You do not get points if your community, the school you or your children attend (and its teachers), the church you are part of, the holiday resort you relax at or the shopping centre you buy food at reflect the demographics of the country. Don’t post a photo on Instagram. It’s called being human. Being human with other humans. But given the amount of energy and resources that has gone into teaching us how to destroy our own humanity and the humanity of others, being human actually takes some work and commitment.

The idea that the “right thing to do” is to refuse to indicate race on a census form isn’t new, and it isn’t exclusive to white people either. But in the preamble to the 2011 census it was discussed anew by some, so it deserves some reflection upon. More particularly, I want to respond to a recent article by Brent Meersman in which he argued for defining himself as “other” in the census. A kind of disclaimer need to be made first however. I agree with most of the individual arguments Brent made. I don’t consider his stance to be in some sense inherently problematic, although I do think using apartheid style categories has a use in South Africa which need to be recognized. To some extent I want to share Samantha Vice’s stance that I’m writing for those whites who see there own selves as problematic, because we recognize our own habits, thought patterns and relations to be constituted by the socialized location of whiteness which we find ourselves in. I do not think that it is impossible to break with my own whiteness, and indeed I believe that South African society provide important opportunities for doing exactly this, however I don’t think a easy refusal to admit my own embeddedness within a process of white racialisation will bring about breaking with these habits.

I think Brent’s introduction is important. Indeed we have in South Africa came to the conviction that racism is wrong. Well at least, white South Africans as a group has come to the conviction that racism is wrong, I doubt whether there is a long history of a black consensus that racism is morally defensible. But still, this “we”, white South Africans, who actually came to this conviction along with the rest of our country it important. Secondly, it remain important to remind ourselves that the whole enterprise of scientific racism, the attempt to defend a racist casting of the world on scientific grounds, has failed completely.

It’s however somewhat more complex to apply these two convictions to an actual public debate in South Africa. First of, we don’t agree on what exactly the racism is that we all agree on that it is wrong. Even if we take an Oxford definition (which is not a bad definition, but being a dictionary, can’t be expected to completely agree with the various sociological definitions of the word ‘racism’), we will differ on when exactly examples fit the definition. To provide a practical example: I don’t think Tim du Plessis consider his recent column to be racist, but read that in a diverse group, and see the difference of opinion on the question. Secondly, although we have a scientific consensus on the non-existence of race, public opinion is not formed by scientific consensus, and it is debatable how many of the ideas from a previous white scientific consensus still hold in the minds of people. Furthermore, to draw these two together, we don’t really agree on when our attitudes actually reflect a continuation of scientific racism rather than breaking with it. For example, if someone make the comment that black people don’t own businesses because of a particular “communal culture”, is that racism or not? It seems to rejects the biological foundation, yet it might very well again assume an essentialised identity which can easily be identified by a visible marker.

Brent is furthermore correct that there exist many instances where the census question is degrading, and where is simply doesn’t work. This is to be assumed, since the categories created by the apartheid system (and similar systems all over the world) cannot be connected to any essential marker and in spite of a whole generations of academics (well, actually a few generations) attempting to find a final solution on exactly how the various races supposedly fit together, nothing was produced. You cannot easily divide the South African society into 4 meaningful groups by using some kind of biological marker. On the other hand, if you want to divide South Africa into groups according to biological markers, you’ll end up with an endless list of divisions, all equally valid. On the other hand, we are stuck with the problem that the fourfold division of apartheid works.

And this is where I want to argue why I said “white” on that census form.

I am aware that many doesn’t fit into the fourfold division of apartheid. For example, a kid born in 1996 from a mother who was called White during apartheid and a father that was called Black has nothing to do with the particular communities which arose in the areas designated for those Coloured. This person’s identity would most probably not be formed by grandparents and parents that shared a social location formed by a particular relation to those who were White and in power, her/his opportunities are not determined by the historic developments and infrastructure in the areas where Coloured people were supposed to live. So it become very difficult to make any kind of argument that it would be helpful for a census to count one more person as Coloured. On the other hand, this young person, even when born in 1996, would be confronted with internalized ideas about those born out of sexual relations which involve persons from different racial groups (yes, these non-existing contructs which is the leftover from a dominant time and which we can’t find consensus on whether the category should still be used). This child will enter a school sometime, and people will treat this person while drawing on deeply held believes. Sometimes they will break with what has been carried over from their parents and the communities in which they grew up (and indeed, I do believe that every new group of grade 1 kids in South Africa provide more examples of children breaking the patterns handed over to them), but the fact that there is a norm for how relations form and examples of those breaking with them reminds that we have a way to go.

But I was born from parents both from communities that were White. Although I can trace my ancestry to an Malayan slave from the 1700’s, this had little effect on the process of social formation happened. Even though our neighbours on all sides were black when I was a kid, I still grew up within a community which treated me as white, and day after day entrenched the identities which grew out of the European engagement with the world and decades of development of false ideas about race. Both white Afrikaner people and black Swazi’s reaffirmed these notions day after day. Yes, attempts were made to provide an alternative. My parents were very particular in emphasizing to us that all people are equal and created by God. We had black people eating lunch with us as if they were family. My father cried when a black friend died. These events was important. They are still important. They break the patterns. But they way in which I was treated, the teachers that taught me, the family that I spent holidays with (all of them with tertiary qualifications), the contacts I built up through friendships, these continue to show the patterns set out by a long history of racialisation of society (of which apartheid was a very particular extreme example).

I think Brent is correct that we won’t change a society by merely transforming statistics on how the elite classes of society look. Indeed, such a process of transformation can indeed become a “perverse legitimization of neoliberalism”, an insight which we need in our public debate in South Africa. On the other hand, we might find that challenging the same neoliberalism (without going into the debate on exactly what this neoliberalism is or whether this is indeed the system followed in South Africa today), or maybe more particularly the inequalities in society, without looking at issues of race. To point out that the growth in inequality among black South Africans was primarily responsible for the growth in our gini-coefficient is not sufficient reason to ignore the continued spread of capital. In other words, it is true that we have an emerging black economic elite which are gathering wealth in ways which is in no way morally defensible (yes, this do open up a new can of worms for another day, but that is indeed what I believe), but that does not take away that access to capital continue to be largely determined by race: if you were born white in 1994 you still have a much larger change to join that elite, be it the 1% of Occupy Wall Street or the 15% which get access to a tertiary institution.

That is why I said “white”. I don’t think South Africa can be fully understood by looking at race, but neither can it be folly understood by ignoring race. And I want to know how things have changed in the past 18 years, and how they continue to change in the coming 50. I want to know whether Black kids are getting the same opportunities as white kids (not whether a few elites are getting the, but whether the average kid is), but I also want to know whether all kids, regardless of what the apartheid system and Western racial thought wanted to classify them as, have better opportunities than they had 30 years ago. I want to know whether traditionally Black and Coloured areas continue to be excessively plagued by violent crime. I know my knowledge open the possibility that it will be misused the entrench old stereotypes that “black kids are lazy and therefore cannot go to university” or that “Coloured men don’t want to live and therefore kill each other”. This need to be fought as well. But since I’m firmly convinced that scientific racism got it wrong, I cannot connect “black” and “lazy” (since that would imply that this biological marker is somehow connected to a particular character).

If I notice that these Apartheid categories still “work”, if they still provide a pattern for who goes to university, who get’s jobs, who get access to money, who are treated how at airports and by the police, I have a responsibility to ask how this pattern is connected to our history. The history before, during and after apartheid. The relations might be complex, or very obvious, but they set the agenda for those who believe that the inequalities lessened. This will not give all the answer, it will not illuminate every fault line in society, but it will help us to tract our development along fixing one of them.

Therefore, I said “white”, because I want every government member, every activist and every researcher, to know that what the situation is that one person who was born out of a community which treated according the the rules and laws and cultural norms set for those who are “white” find himself in.

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a white now, but never gotten around to it (and since in a hurry at the moment, I’ll probably not do the topic justice at the moment, but what the hell), but since Verashni Pillay wrote a few very good comments about white liberals (white liberals should really watch out, since they are the topic of discussion in many books on racism, yes research into racism usually find the AWB a bit boring and obvious, but those who have never thought of themselves as racist is so very interesting to research), I’ll just latch onto what she has written.

I’ll skip the obvious examples such as “white people believing that race is no longer an issue”, since others have done this before, but I want to add a few things. I’ll also talk about “good white people” rather than “white liberals”, since many of those who fit these examples have already worked through some of the critique presented.

White people will bring the best solutions for South Africa

Contrary to what the letter comment section of certain Afrikaans newspapers might suggest, many white people are quite positive about South Africa. They will work hard to make this country work, they will sacrifice a bit (maybe more than a bit, but at least a bit) to make this a good place for all to live, and they are not in the process of saying that the “poor whites are our problem, and the poor blacks are your problem”. Still, they continue to belief that white people have the best answers for this post-Apartheid South Africa. Maybe it’s a remnant of those who believed that the NP will win 1994 and will then fix the problems they have created.

Around the time of the local elections I was in a conversation with a number of good white people. They were not the white liberals that Verashni was speaking about (actually they were quite critical about these liberals), they were the kind of people who would fit the first part of the previous paragraph. And then one of them mentioned that since 1994 he has struggled with who to vote for, since he firmly believe that you don’t vote for the majority party, and you don’t vote for a white party (DA). So he has voted UDF at times, and a few others options at other times. There was a silence among this group of really good white people (the kind of white people that I firmly believe the country would be a better place if more people followed their examples).

White people are the best at fighting racism

This is probably one of my favorites. White people who acknowledge the continued problem of racism, yet when you listen to them for but a short while, you realise that the experts in anit-racism that they follow are all white. Racism is a bad thing, but those best at fighting it seem to be white people if you listen to some good whites (except for Mandela and Tutu obviously). Don’t get me wrong they (we? I think I’m often guilty of this one) will read and work with the complex aspects of racism such as institutional racism, we will move beyond a mere “racism is saying nasty things about black people”, yet, when you look deeply, it will be white voices pointing out how the anti-racist agenda look like.

White people study whiteness

Maybe I write this one as a reminder to myself. But as more and more white voices start grappling with the implication of whiteness, this seems to become a strategy of keeping white superiority in place. This is going beyond some of the points Verashni make (although not all), engaging the critique of self, being able to identify the privileges of being white. Yet, when we are challenged to start contributing towards rectifying past injustices, some kind of mumbling follow about how you cannot fight the system, and that it is bigger then one person, and finally that you already know all this, so someone else isn’t allowed to point it out to you. So again, you find youself in the place where the expert on whiteness is… white. Strange? Or a reminder that this is deeper than you might think.

So what to do?

A basic argument runs that white privilege is kept in place through intellectual and economic means. In short, the question of who is allowed to determine what is “good knowledge” and who has the money keeps certain racial privileges in place. I guess I’m just starting to get this feeling that the anti-racist agenda is not free from racism, and not in the typical sense others would say this (“talking about the problem of racism just keeps racism in place”), but rather that intellectual and economic means (who can pay for conferences, and who has access to editors, and finally for this post, who do we decide to read) continue to entrench a system of privilege and power based on race also within the debate on fighting racism. So for all the good whites out there, the challenge is not only continuing to work against all the complex variations of racism found today, but to let go of the right we gave ourselves to determine the agenda and rules of the conversation. IF we can’t do that, then we remain stuck in just another, more nuances and better hidden, system of white superiority.

OK, so challenge me, better the argument, cause it was written in a hurry. But I gotta go, enjoy the weekend.

A few nights ago my wife had “the talk” with me. Now, I put this in parenthesis, since I assume that I’m not the only one who gets “the talk”, but since I’m new to the whole conversation on kids I might be wrong. It was the talk about our bad habits, and how we need to think about them, since we don’t want them to rub off onto our children. Well, I guess I already changes the meaning of “the talk” by using the plural “our” – yes, this was not the wife-nagging-the-husband kind of thing, but a truly heart to heart about our own lives.

She’s quite tactful, this wife of mine. She started out with the things she believe we will be quite able to transmit to our children (I will not list these, since I believe that every experienced parent will laugh at our naive idea that we might achieve some form of success at this thing called parenting). After the list of nice things, kind of stroking the ego of this future father, the hit me with the bomb: “I fear about the ideas concerning race our kid(s) might grow up with”…

Now, my more conservative friends following my thoughts over the past year or two might hope that my wife has finally made me see into my foolish ways of always talking about racism, and that becoming a father will now knock me to my senses, so that I will become a good liberal (yes, I do think conservatives sometimes want us to become liberals, if ever these definitions is still helpful), stop talking about this pestering problem, and quite down. But if this is what you hoped for, then I have sad news: it was exactly the opposite which she had in mind.

Now, we’ve put some thought into issues concerning race in the past. We “have black friends” (I have a coloured friend who always laughingly refer to the people who say that they aren’t racists since they have a black friend). We spent some time thinking through this intellectually. We’ve made some choices in our life to specifically change the spaces in which we live in order to embrace our position as a white minority in a place where we don’t hold power (knowing that we stand the chance of actually confirming the power we have as wealthy white people, since we are in a position to choose to change these things). Yet still she knew, and I knew she was right, 500 years of racialization is so deeply embedded within us, that raising kids not bound to this ideology is almost impossible.

Now, we both come from families whom have been considered “liberal” concerning issues of race at various times. We both are the second or third generation in our family attempting to work anti-racism. And although our parents might disagree with us on this point, we both believe that we’ve been able to build on what we found in our parents attempts at working for a post-racial South Africa, and that we have taken this quest to a deeper level. We both think (although this might just be the delusion of delayed adolescence striving to be rebellious) that we have sometimes frustrated our parents because we weren’t willing to settle for their attempts, but insisted on our own attempts.

So, we continued our conversation, emphasizing how important it will be that our children live in spaces where they know that not only white people, but also black people (when I refer to black I imply all those who was subjected being dehumanized in the way we constructed the ideas surrounding who was valued and important – thus everyone not finding themselves in the position of being white), are teachers. Not only white people, but also black people are managers, decision makers, and family friends. On an even more complex level is the question of whether we also want our children to live in a world where (should the social hierarchy of class continue) they know that not only black people, but also white people at times occupy the position of the worker (and then we still need to think how we want to help them to learn that the ideas concerning class need to be deconstructed). But when all was said and done we had to face one thing:

Our children will come to us one day asking how we could have taken part in the continued racism which we are trying to fight. And that is what we hope for. Maybe that is the best white parents can do. We won’t be raising colour-blind children, we should get rid of that myth. But hopefully we will raise colour-conscious children. This do not imply children hating their own skin, but children knowing the history of being white, in all it’s harsh realities. Remembering so that they can be a voice to say that this might never happen again. We hope that our children will be able to move even further along the road which we are traversing, coming back to their parents and calling us to take the next step towards a place which we cannot yet imagine. Or maybe they will just frustrate us, frustrate us because they won’t be willing to settle for the choices we have made. Might this not be part of what parenting is about in this racialized world?

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.

A few months ago I was involved with a project installing solar panels in a squatter camp near our church. It involved standing on ladders, hammering stuff to wooded squatter wall pillars, screwing in light-holders, and sometimes walking on roofs to fasten solar panels (squatter roofs are stronger than you might think, and it’s quite a few seeing a squatter camp from the rooftops). It also involved a lot of time spent with the people in the community, especially the two young guys we worked with in the installation process.

I’ve had a lot of discomfort with the project all along as well, which I’ll not dwell on in detail here, except for one aspect I’ve been reflecting on: On a typical day we would get to the settlement, get out our tools, and start at a point and work. In the houses, on the houses. We tried to be real civil, always asking permission, sometimes offering to come back later, trying to respect those whose property we were stepping onto, but we couldn’t rid ourselves of the reality that we kind of had this right to walk right past someones front door, right next to their houses, into their houses. Coming and going. Yes, they could tell us that we are not welcome, that we should go, but their is this kind of social consensus that we white people walking in-between the shacks has the right to do this.

But picture what happens when a black man walks down the road in the suburb. Picture what would happen if he decide to take a short-cut (corner) over someones lawn! Immediately the assumption would be that he is in the wrong, that this is not allowed! And ever though I was the guy coming in the stuff, I know that more than the stuff was at play when I was allowed free reign within the community. And I’m troubled by this reality.

As a white person I have the right to be skeptical of  a black person wandering around near my house.

However, as a white person I have the right to assume that wandering around in a poor black neighborhood is my right.

Shannon Sullivan helped me a lot, when she made the point that even white people who decide to move out of white neighborhoods because they want to fight their own racism, can very easily just be strengthening their privileged white self-understanding by this decision. The very fact that a white person can make the choice to live in a white suburban area, some of which has brilliant methods of keeping it rich and white, or make the choice to live in an inner-city environment, in a block of flats which is predominantly black people, or even in a squatter camp, is already an indebtedness to the privileged way in which the so-called “white race” has been constructed.

It’s a difficult journey then. Moving into a space, but also doing it and attempting to not come in as the white person who can determine how this space is ruled. More than that, allowing this space to make me uncomfortable, challenging my understanding of what the normalized space should look like. If I cannot open myself to the critique of  others, then maybe I’d better stay in my white suburb, rather than trying to extend my white space to again dominate those places where white people left so that others could now determine the rules.

It’s attempting to be changed by the space which I am not quite comfortable with, rather than coming in to change that space into something I am comfortable with.