By Busani Ngcaweni and Dumisani Hlophe
It is a severe nervous condition when Africans living on the most southern tip of the African continent debate “what is an African?” – even more so in a newspaper that prides itself as being “Distinctly African”. Frantz Fanon predicted that in a post-colonial society, Africans would voluntarily entrench colonial identity pathologies. Given the current debate of Africanness in South Africa, one could swear that Fanon was writing about post-apartheid South Africa.Sixteen years into a liberated South Africa, and about 10 years since former president Thabo Mbeki committed this country to an African Renaissance, a debate is raging about who/what is African. Perhaps the question posed by Afro-rock pop group Stimela is re-levant: “Where did we go wrong?” The debate symptomises the following aspects of our history and trajectory:
» First, the black educated elite are alienated from their cultural and traditional bases.It is a soul-searching exercise for an African identity by people who suddenly realise there is a widening gap between them and their cultural roots. What is the likelihood that a Chauke in Bhungeni, a Mabhengu in Nkandla, a Gebashe in Ndwedwe and a Kgoroeadira in Taung would pontificate about what/who is an African? This is a preoccupation of those who have rapidly climbed the economic ladder in post-colonial South Africa.
» Second, within the broader elite across races, there is fear of exclusion from gains associated with an African identity. In the past, Africanness was politically associated with socioeconomic exclusion. However, in post-apartheid South Africa, Africanness helps you access socioeconomic benefits. It is for this reason that many companies use phrases such as “100% black owned” or “black women-owned company” in their profiles. Once a definition of African is based on skin colour, those who fall outside feel the need to broaden the definition so that they are not sidelined from the gains associated with the windfall of post-apartheid Africanness. Anecdotally, there is now a trend for Africans to replace their European surnames with their original African surnames. After all, one wouldn’t want to be seen as anything other than African.
» Third, the “African” debate symptomises the ugly fact that for centuries, the African identity was crafted by people other than Africans. Thus, when Africans begin to define – not just describe – themselves in the manner that affirms who they are, they disturb the original manipulative agenda of the external codification of Africans and Africanness. There is no identity debate where Africans have crafted their identities and, for centuries, practised their defined cultural traits, languages and forms of interaction. In fact, most of the black educated elite who debate Africanness do not debate their own ethnic belonging. They enthusiastically find comfort in asserting being Venda, Tswana or Xhosa. They find these forms of identities self-affirming rather than debatable. Hence, we offer the following working definition of an African: An African is one who has no alternative to be anything else but African. Africans are a people who do not have the option of being English, French, Portuguese and so on. Therefore, those who have the option to choose to be African or not at any given time are just identity opportunists! »
The authors are public servants writing in their personal capacities. They blog at: www.kunjalo.co.za