Ironically, modern conceptions of blackness – or a return to pre-colonial identity – is keeping black identities static in a living museum of sorts, without recognition for its potential for development.
“Imagine for a moment what life would be like in South Africa if the evil white man hadn’t come to disturb the rustic idyll of the early black settlers.”
This, if it no longer sounds familiar, was the opening of the last column David Bullard would write for the Sunday Times.
That sentiment has been echoed in various forms as black or African identity faces its heaviest contestations. What does it mean to be African? How does it look? And how is it evident in the practices and being of those who claim to be African?
One of the consistent messages, especially as we grapple with challenges imposed on Africa, is that we ought to look back and take lessons and solutions from who and what we once were. Some even say we ought to reinstate the practices of old – our cultures and customs.
In a letter to black people published by the Sowetan, the open, free and vocal Ntsiki Mazwai is pictured in what could be a purely incidental depiction, although it is quite ironic in itself. Ms Mazwai looks beautiful by any account. The hair on her head is braided, although one gets the sense that it has been extended or supplemented. She is in a finely knitted grey sweater, on which a pair of fashionable sunglasses hangs.
In our day, should it have been hand knitted? What right does she have to extend and braid instead of cutting her hair? Would dreadlocks be more appropriate, and could she not have considered an imported weave? Should she be bare breasted as an unmarried woman, rather than covered in a garment produced in white industry, under, in all probability, cheap labour or black exploitation?
Yet who am I to presume that she ought to be represented in a way that could be the result of a twisted procession of history – playing only to patriarchy rather than a legitimate course of historical progress and fair representation of truth and its recollection?
Should I be satisfied that she is a true African only if she is adorned in beads and leather garments?
In her letter, Ms Mazwai speaks with regret about blacks wearing, amongst other things, suits. She finds that they have given up their Africanism for the symbols of Europe and whiteness.
Twenty years after Nelson Mandela sounded the words of freedom, being black, and being free to be, is still highly contested territory.
What does it mean to be black? Here, in a world defined by “post” everything – from post-colonialism to post-modernism?
To be black, it seems, is about the yearning to be pre-everything.
We have to be defined by what was or would have been, in a world where our colonisers had not imposed their ways of being, or sold us perspectives of value and beauty.
In his deeply offensive letter, Bullard went on to define what that would be like – modern Africa free from European influence.
Bullard speculates as follows about that Africa, “There are no roads because no roads are needed, because there are no cars.
“Their children don’t watch television because there is no television to watch. Instead they listen to their grandparents telling stories around a fire. They live in single-storey huts arranged to catch most of the day’s sunshine and their animals are kept nearby.
“…There are no newspapers or magazines carrying articles comparing the relative merits of ladies’ handbags.
“Whisky, the curse of the white man, isn’t known in this undeveloped land and neither are cigars…Every so often a child goes missing from the village, eaten either by a hungry lion or a crocodile. The family mourn for a week or so and then have another child.”
However insulting this may sound, there are many who agree with Bullard, including Ms Mazwai.
In their argument, they contend that we ought to pursue blackness in ways that would have been before the crime and shame of colonialism and subjugation.
But it’s worth asking whether, in the absence of the outrage of colonialism, we would not have invented braids as we know them now commercially? Would sangomas have been our only source of medicine, with no hope of developing refining umhlonyane , ikhala nenqwebeba? Was penicillin too far and impossible to reach on our own as indigenous knowledge and methods advanced with the passing of time and the advancing of a people? Did we have no science or art? Is all of our civilisation stunted and stuck in the “pre”, waiting for us to go back to find and live it today? Could we have not developed and distilled whiskey or its equivalent?
Can a black woman not choose her own beauty? Can a weave not be a legitimate expression of her identity, beauty and expression? Can she not choose pink cheeks, high heels and long nails without signalling insecurity and being brainwashed?
In our world, what is blackness or authentic Africanism? Is it a yearning for what we were, or a desire and effort for what we could be?
For now, it seems to be defined purely by the rejection of colonialism rather than a definition of future and civilisation that wishes to develop from where it finds itself, and not where it once was – as if time, ideas and thoughts stood still.
The African story is not yet told. It remains in museums, distorted by historians and in abstract and obscure forms that bear little resemblance to a historical reality. And somehow we want to keep it that way, including any chance we may have to define a new civilisation. DM
While we have your attention...
An increasingly rare commodity, quality independent journalism costs money - though not nearly as much as its absence.
Every article, every day, is our contribution to Defending Truth in South Africa. If you would like to join us on this mission, you could do much worse than support Daily Maverick's quest by becoming a Maverick Insider.
Click here to become a Maverick Insider and get a closer look at the Truth.
Xhanti Payi is a writer short of a few best selling books and a Nobel Prize. He works as an economist, researcher and advisor to various institutions. A staunch believer in clever blacks and would-be clever blacks short of opportunity. Proper pronunciation of the click is optional.
Iceland is the only country without mosquitoes.