“Are white South Africans African?” Five years ago I would have dismissed the question as dumb. The answer is in the query itself. And while the African identity of whites in this country is complicated, their bond and belonging then appeared indisputable. Most were born here and some can trace their family histories back hundreds of years.
Listening to white people speak of this country, their attachment to this tip of the continent is passionate in its sincerity. Yes, there is a panicked escape to Australia or New Zealand, but to most, South Africa cannot be defined as anything other than home.
In a political climate where race continues to loom hauntingly, questions about who is or isn’t African can appear as a divisive exercise in race-baiting. Nonetheless, recently I don’t feel at all confident calling whites of this country African. Let’s be clear, I don’t have any authority to grant or rip away another person’s identity. I don’t think anyone has the power or knowledge to unearth or construct an objective definition of what it means to be African.
To look across this continent and examine more than a billion people who inhabit hundreds of languages, dozens of religions and myriad cultures, and assemble a universal definition of what it means to be African would be a daunting task. Still, when I hear some white people claim the label of African as their own, a stinging frustration makes my headache and stomach twist. I can’t ignore this feeling, especially because now more than ever I see an increasing number of white people, sometimes in hysterical aggression, clinging onto that broad, malleable umbrella of “African”.
But why does any of this matter? Hasn’t the obsession with differentiating human beings on superficial lines of ethnicity and race nearly ruined this country? I’d like to argue that the categories we have invented are not as superficial as they seem. They are in fact rooted in history many have yet to unravel: an era in which “white” wasn’t a mere description of light skin and thin hair, but the genesis of a new category of human. A human whose very essence needed to be imbued with superiority, a superiority over other newly encountered humans. A superiority justified by the church, science and state.
British soldiers, French ministers, Dutch merchants and German missionaries needed to become white – why? To devour the Earth’s resources for themselves, wage war on indigenous populations who refused to be subjugated, own the bodies of other human beings for profit and create governments that maintained the political and economic supremacy of this new “kind” of human. The horrors of conquest needed to be masked by the newly-forged mythology of race.
Labels are unavoidable and identity indispensable. They serve us as existential tools: to profess our commitment to certain values, define our relationship to others, express our loyalties and help us create the sense of purpose we endlessly crave in our lives. It’s why I find the response of “I was born here” to be inadequate. It doesn’t deal with the complex meanings of identity. Sadly, the labels we have created in recent history have worked to stifle human freedom rather than enable its flourishing.
I’m closer to understanding the basis of my current frustrations: the Africa I know and the one romantically adored by some white people are almost radically different. Teasing at a very simple definition, one could argue that those who are African experience their identity as a relationship to certain languages, religious beliefs, moral values, traditions, artistic tastes and living memory of colonial subjugation; a moment of the past which permeates the African present.
I deem the love of Africa by some white people to be romantic because like the love you have for a high school crush, it’s produced by distance from the thing one supposedly loves. The object of love isn’t seen in its entirety but rather through a selective, idealistic lens – specifically from afar and above. How can some whites call themselves African when they do whatever is possible to distance themselves from their “fellow” Africans? I’m not referring to the state-imposed segregation of apartheid. Casual forms of apartheid still exist today.
We know what the social chasms among us look like. White parents who lament the swarming of private and former Model C schools with black faces. The braais where the sound of crackling fire mingles with grievances over the downward spiral of the neighbourhood as one more Indian or coloured family settles down the street.
Hundreds of years later and I still find myself having to explain common cultural practices to some white friends. Hundreds of years later and still many white citizens have a weak grasp of indigenous languages. It’s 25 years later, yet some white ears remain numb and a few willingly dead to calls for the economic justice that was deferred in 1994.
There are exceptions to this state of mutual alienation. Hearing Johnny Clegg being called a white African or white Zulu causes no dissonance in my mind. In his artistry and anthropological work, one sees engagement with Zulu culture that is intimate. It’s an engagement fuelled by a passion to know those denigrated as “Other” and see them as human – unlike the many culture vultures enamoured by the exotic natives.
There have been, and increasingly are today among younger generations, white people who interact with Africa and Africans from within rather than from afar or above. The gap between the Africa of whites and people of colour springs from economic conditions left largely untouched by our transition into democracy. It’s one thing to be told that you are a superior kind of human being; in itself, the illusion of supremacy is obviously absurd, but ultimately harmless. When delusions are corroborated by-laws and economic policy, the fantasy of supremacy can become lethal to a society.
The political dominance of whites in SA during apartheid and colonialism was grounded in economic systems that demanded cheap labour. This meant most people of colour existed as instruments, tools to expand the industry, grow profit and keep eternal the prosperity of white South Africa. The truth of another person’s humanity is veiled when people only see each other either as a servant or master.
Some of you may object: apartheid is over. We are all equal before the law. I partly agree, the political project of white supremacy is dead. Yet the uneven and unfair distribution of wealth, inextricably tied to the resources and opportunities that come with it, remains as a lively relic of the past, therefore the dynamics of master and servant continue.
Of course, it isn’t as clear-cut as it used to be. There are working-class and poor whites who will never know the riches gained by a gradually growing black elite. Nonetheless, white citizens largely remain in the upper brackets of socio-economic wellbeing. Most of the African faces they encounter exist to serve them food, clean their homes, sweep their streets, tend their gardens, mop their corporate floors and unearth precious minerals in their mines or assemble machines in their factories.
The point of questioning the battles over identity is to cast critical suspicion on categories we take for granted. I suspect that some white people latch on to the mantle of African to frantically paint over an uncomfortable element of their identity. Namely, that the majority are the descendants of colonial settlers. Discussing these origins isn’t an attempt to shame white people or extract from them some misplaced admission of guilt. Rather it’s an attempt to reconcile contradictions: If the economic blueprints that positioned people as “white” are still partly abided by, and if they result in whites being positioned as relatively privileged and socially segregated from those with whom they “share” the continent, then what substantiates their claims to being African?
Maybe the question is not who is or isn’t African. History has dropped us all onto this continent. Peaceful co-existence, at least as peaceful as humans can be, is a necessity now more than ever. We tried creating peace on foundations of hollow reconciliation, it failed. Indifference to the injustices of the past and present will not achieve the stability this country needs. It is worryingly clear that how wealth is currently massed and distributed in South Africa is unsustainable.
Perhaps reflection on how we exist in Africa, and how we relate to all its people, is a route to explore. Do we relate as those who subdue and exploit, or as free and equal citizens, deeply conscious of other’s humanity? DM
"We are surrounded by story." ~ Alice McDermott