What is African? Race and identity
Yesterday’s City Press had a bunch of articles on being African, sparked off by an earlier article We are not all Africans: only black people are: City Press: Columnists:
Henry Ford once said: “You can have any colour, as long as it is black.” Similarly, native inhabitants of Africa say: “You can be an African in any colour, as long as you are black.”There has been a sudden demand for an African to come in a variety of colours.
During the days of slavery, when an African was a commodity, there was never a demand for him in any colour but black.
There is now an attempt in the 21st century to redefine the colour scheme of an African.
Now whites want to be classified as African too.
Others take a different view, like White people are African too!: News24: Columnists: Khaya Dlanga:
Human beings are referred to as Earthlings because they live on the planet Earth. A person of any colour born in South Africa, for example, is called a South African. No one denies their South Africanness simply because of the colour of their skin. South Africa is on the African continent, and therefore a South African is an African regardless of colour. Unfortunately it is as simple as that. No great revelation here.
This country has been divided for too long. Those divisions didn’t work. To attempt to divide us again, even under the guise of creating debate, isn’t doing us any favours.
The truth is this debate is worn out and pointless because it doesn’t achieve anything but division.
This has led to quite a discussion in the blogosphere, for example here Becoming African | my contemplations.
Sentletse Diakanyo’s contention that only black people can be African takes me back to the political debates of the 1950s and 1960s.
Back in the 1950s, in South Africa, white people were called, in English, “Europeans”, and so in the apartheid labelling of the time various entrances were labelled “Europeans only” or “Non-Europeans only”. Someone, I forget who, pointed out how silly it was by introducing himself, “I’m a non-European, from non-Europe.” The English-language newspapers of the time referred to black people as “natives”, but this came to be thought derogatory and so some time around 1960 they switched to “African”. The government didn’t go for this, because if translated into Afrikaans, “African” would become “Afrikaner” and that clearly would not do, so the government adopted “Bantu” as a substitute for “native”. The government Department of Native Affairs became the Department of Bantu Affairs.
The confusion was apparent in an Afrikaans reader I had at school when I was about 10 years old. We had to take it in turns to read and I lost my place and the teacher kept yelling at me “die naturel” (the native). I couldn’t find it on the page because my book had “die kaffer”, and some of the newer editions had “die Bantoe”. So we learnt how political correctness was always moving the goalposts, although neither “political correctness” nor “moving the goal posts” were part of current idiom back then.
In opposition circles the African National Congress (ANC) only had black members, but it was part of the Congress Alliance, where the Congress of Democrats had white members and there were Indian and Coloured Congresses too. The ANC comprised a great variety of people with different views. Some were left and communist, some were centrist and liberal, wanting to establish a non-racial democracy. Some were African nationalist, and sometimes referred to themselves as Africanist. They objected to the influence of white communists on the ANC, and broke away in the late 1950s to form the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC). Their aim was to liberate Africa from white rule, and for them “African” had both colour and geographgical connotations. One of their aims, inherited from the Pan African movement of the 1920s, was to create a United States of Africa. Many in the PAC rejected the Congress Alliance kind of thinking, and said that whites, coloureds and Indians had no role to play in the liberation of South Africa; it was only for Africans.
This attitude of the PAC led some to accuse them of racism, which led some in the movement to adjust their definition of “African”. It did not mean only black people, they said. It could include white, coloured and Indian people as well, provided that they identified themselves as African, and did not regard themselves as having a “home” on another continent, like Europe or Asia.
So the term “African” could mean various different things. It could refer to people of a particular skin colour and ethnic origin. It could refer to those whose political thinking was continent-wide, rather than confined to one country. And it could mean those who, no matter what their colour, identified themselves as African. And things haven’t changed much from 50 years ago.
One thing that apartheid fostered was racial stereotypes, and the belief that cultures should not mix but that they should “develop separately along their own lines”. Their “own lines” were usually laid down by the National Party government.
In 1961 and 62 I was a bus conductor in the Johannesburg Transport Department, which had buses for “Europeans” “Non-Europeans” and “Asiatics and Coloureds”. The “European” buses weren’t labelled, but the others were, and while Asiatics and Coloureds could ride on the Non-European buses, Africans/Natives/Bantu/Blacks could not ride on the Asiatic and Coloured buses. When I was training as a bus conductor most of my fellow trainees were urbanising Afrikaners straight from the farm, and we were told that we must not call the black clients “kaffers”. The transport department staff referred to them as “Kadals” or “Kadallies” — I assume that that was a reference to Clements Kadalie, a prominent black trade unionist of the 1930s.
And from observing and interacting with passengers in these separate universes, I developed my own racial stereotypes. Whites were grumpy when sober and mildly uncooperative when drunk. Blacks were cheerful and chatty when sober and sullen and uncooperative when drunk. Indians were cold, aloof and icily polite and always sober. Coloureds (who travelled on the same buses as the Indians) were rarely sober but rude and uncooperative whether drunk or sober. These are gross generalisations, and there were, of course, exceptions. By “uncooperative” I mean that they did not pay their fares promptly. And of course the way people behaved when they were bus passengers did not determine the way they behaved in the rest of their lives. The white passengers also varied more depending on the bus routes. Those on the Dunkeld route were upper middle class, living in posh mansions with lots of servants. Those on the South Hills route were working class living in council houses. Blacks travelling to Dunkeld were usually servants to the white madams on the white buses. Blacks travelling on the Race Course route on weekdays were usually workers in factories in Booysens, Selby and Ophirton, while on Saturdays they were usually going to bet on the horses. It did give an observation point to see how the other half (or halves) lived.
So though I became a strong proponent of a non-racial society, and joined the Liberal Party, which advocated a non-racial democratic society, I never imagined that people of all cultures and ethnic groups were the same. But despite the obvious differences, I thought that all should have equal legal rights in society. and that if they were to develop along their own lines, they should be free to decide for themselves what those lines were and whether those lines cut across the boundaries of the various ethnic groups that apartheid insisted must be kept separate.
When I went to university I met students of different backgrounds, especially at student conferences, such as those of the Anglican Students Federation, because the universities themselves were segregated and becoming more so. One whom I met at such conferences was Stephen Gawe. He was also a member of the interdenominational Student Christian Association (SCA), which itself was being forced to become segregated under pressure from its Afrikaans section. In 1964 he was detained and eventually charged with being a member of the banned ANC, and sentenced to a year in jail. On being released he was banned. I was active in the Liberal Party, especially during my final year at university, and warned that I would be banned, and left for the UK just before getting a banning order.
I thought I’d feel at home in the UK. After all, they spoke English there, and so it should be easy to communicate. Most of the books I’d read when growing up, both fiction and non-fiction, had been published in the UK. The last thing I expected was culture shock, and because it was so unexpected, it probably hit me harder. I knew the names of London streets and landmarks from reading about them, and from playing Monopoly, though they turned out to be utterly different from what I had pictured when reading about them.
A few months later I was joined by by Stephen Gawe, who had a bursary to study at Oxford as I had at Durham. We compared notes, and found we had suffered almost exactly the same culture shock. For our first few months in Britain we both felt alien and alienated. And I then realised that in spite of apartheid, which had tried to separate us and say we were too different to associate with each other, we had in common that we were African and not European. We had grown up under the same sky. We had grown up under the same oppressive government, and struggled against it. Africa was my home. And when Stephen Gawe got married, I was both flattered and honoured when he asked me to be his best man.
As a student in Britain I made some British friends. But they could never share with me what Stephen Gawe shared with me. I could see and share to some extent the environment in which they grew up, but they never knew where I was coming from. To them I was, and would remain, a “wog”. I’d been to a wog college, had a wog degree, and wore a wog academic hood on formal occasions when we had to wear such things. As an alien I had to register with the police, and notify them of any change of address. When I went to Durham to the university, they told me at the police station that there was another South African student who had registered. He was in a different college, but we met. We was black and I was white, and though I had never met him before, there was a bond; we were homeboys. His name was Marcus Balintulo.
And then I think, there are lots of black people in Britain, British born, and their parents born in Britain too. Are they British, or will they forever be regarded as aliens, as second-class citizens. There are some, like English nationalists, who would say that black people in Britain may be British, but they are not and can never be English. It seems to work both ways.
People spoke about differences between European and African culturee, or between black and white culture. Some of these have been described as characteristically African. But I’ve discovered that most of them are not. What is described as “African” is actually premodern, and those characteristics were common in Europe before the premodern area. Europe has exported modernity to Africa, and it is something picked up through Western education and urbanisation.
As time has passed, I’ve become less aware of questions of identity. I’ve stopped bothering so much about whether I am African or whatever. Perhaps that is a result of encountering more different cultures, and discovering more points of contact between different cultures. I read Samuel Huntington’s book The clash of civilizations and the remaking of world order and realised that I am a walking clash of civilizations myself. I’m African by birth, Western by education, and Orthodox by religion. I’ve got a foot in three camps, and so don’t have a clearcut “identity”. But that has ceased to bother me.
So when Sentletse Diakanyo complains “Now whites want to be classified as African too” all I can say is that I’d rather not be classified at all. Classification into such groups was one of the features of apartheid, and it’s high time we stopped being obsessed by racial identity and wanting to be classified.
And when it comes to identity, the one thing I reject, utterly and completely, is any sense of concept of “white” identity. Perhaps that’s a hangover of my rejection of apartheid, but one thing I really hate is when people speak of “the white community”. There is no such thing, and even if there were, I would want no part in it. And there is no such thing as “white” culture or “white” values. And I’m not sure that one can speak of European culture or African culture either. How much common culture is there between Albania and France, or between Tunisia and Swaziland?
Fifteen years ago I spent a couple of weeks in the Orthodox seminary in Nairobi, doing research for my doctoral thesis. There were students from all over Africa. I found it interesting that the students from West Africa seemed to gravitate to me. They were suffering from culture shoch, and they couldn’t stand the East African food, and perhaps they thought that I, as a foreigner, would be equally alienated. But actually I felt quite at home in Kenyan culture. It seemed to have a lot of similarities with southern Africa, and far fewer with West Africa. One thing I did find strange about Kenyan culture, though, was their attitude to South Africa. When people heard I was from South Africa I expected them to ask about our (then fairly recent) transition to democracy. But no, the only thing they were interested in was the Mandela divorce and who would get the money.
One of the things that helped me to discover my primary identity, however, was the republican referendum of 1960. The referendum question was “Are you in favour of a republic for the union?” Were you a republican or a monarchist. I decided that I was a monarchist. My primary loyalty was to the kingdom of God, and the republic of South Africa came a very poor second, especially when the main criterion for citizenship was whiteness.
 One of those who falls into the category of “Black British” is Stephen Gawe’s daughter Nomtha, whom I have never met, but she got in touch with me after reading this, and made some interesting comments.