Opinionista David Masondo 20 October 2020

Are Indian, coloured and white people really African in post-apartheid South Africa?

Our aspirational definition of who is an African cannot be reduced to race or ethnicity because it would be tantamount to the colonial racist classification that we seek to correct. Identifying Africans in racial terms excludes white South Africans who have never known any other country except South Africa. Most – but not all – Africans are black.

The question of who is an African has once again arisen in a recently reported incident in which a Western Cape teacher, Glen Snyman, was accused of committing a “crime” for stating in a job application that he is an African, instead of classifying himself as coloured.

This is one of the indicators of widening chasms between the non-racial aspirations espoused in the Constitution and the continued reality of racialised colonial, class and gender inequalities. Increasingly, these raise an important question of how we should build a non-racial South Africa, in which being an African will not be defined by skin colour.

There have been two main competing conceptions of who is an African: One identifies Africans by race and genealogical origin; the other, what Ali Mazrui referred to as “Africans of the soil”, identifies Africans by geographical location in Africa regardless of race – akin to the Freedom Charter.

Colonialism defined Africans in racial and ethnic terms to encompass what it considered pre-colonial indigenous Africans. Asians (largely Indians) and coloureds were excluded from being Africans but classified as black. These classifications were indexes to determine and justify allocation not only of political rights, but economic resources such as access to land, social welfare and employment. Black people were differentially incorporated in the colonial power structure, with Africans at the bottom of the ladder. Africans (as colonially defined) were not only denied supervisory or senior managerial roles but were also subjected to Bantu education – the most inferior and underfunded education. In that racialised class structure, Indian South Africans could operate businesses on the outskirts of towns and cities.

Except for a few organisations such as the SACP and Unity Movement, black people organised themselves separately according to colonial classification. Africans were organised under the ANC, coloureds under the South African Coloured People’s Organisation and Indians under the South African Indian Congress. It was only in 1969 that both black and white South Africans could become members of the ANC; and in 1985 that all ANC members could occupy leadership positions.

Some among the colonisers and colonised adopted exclusive nationalist visions of who belongs to South Africa and who is an African. Narrow African nationalism defined Africanness to the exclusion of white South Africans, captured in the slogan, “Africa for Africans”. Because of the continuation of racialised class inequalities, exclusive African nationalism is still appealing to the historical victims of colonialism and apartheid. By the same token, exclusive white nationalism still appeals to some white African compatriots, who rationalise and defend colonially accumulated power and privilege.

Colonialism further divided Africans into ethnic groups and later placed them under Bantustan administrations that promoted and reinforced narrow ethnic consciousness and pre-colonial and colonial patriarchy. The mono-ethnic spatial spaces remain in post-apartheid South Africa, which continue to set the material basis for political ethnic consciousness and mobilisation.

Hendrik Biebouw, a white settler, is the first to identify himself as an African, in 1707. Others followed suit, and the African language that they spoke developed into Afrikaans.

Due to its colonial legacy, colour remains a proxy for inequality, poverty and unemployment in today’s South Africa. These inequalities cannot be solved solely through market mechanisms. It is in this context that the state has had to introduce black economic empowerment and affirmative action to correct historical injustices. As part of nation-building, proficiency in at least two African languages should also be part of Affirmative Action requirements for employment for all South Africans.

Among the oppressed, an inclusive notion of an African is captured in the Freedom Charter statement: “South Africa belongs to all who live in it…”. The charter identifies anyone born and bred within South Africa’s geographical boundaries as an African, regardless of race, gender and creed. It is worth noting that the Freedom Charter’s vision remains aspirational and not yet fully realised.

For instance, expressions of a common South African identity and patriotism in post-apartheid South Africa seem easier when we celebrate international sports victories such as the rugby World Cup. As soon as the sports events pass, the fragile non-racial national unity breaks into smithereens. But the material reality is that black people, particularly Africans (as colonially defined), still suffer the brunt of poverty, unemployment and inequality.  

There is, on the other end, a mistaken argument that only having black Africans in the state machinery is correct because the private sector is white-dominated. This thinking is fundamentally flawed, because it would rob the ANC of its leadership role in society. In whatever we do, including organisational composition of the ANC, we must prefigure the non-racial and non-sexist South Africa that we seek to build. Otherwise, there would be no difference between the non-racialists and narrow nationalists who define Africans by their colour. 

Being non-racial is not to ignore racial inequalities.

Our aspirational definition of who is an African cannot be reduced to race or ethnicity because it would be tantamount to the self-same colonial racist classification that we seek to correct. Identifying Africans in racial terms excludes white South Africans who have never known any other country except South Africa. Most Africans in South Africa and on the continent are black, but not all Africans are black. 

Furthermore, since Africa is the cradle of humankind – the birthplace of Homo sapiens – how far back in time do you go to determine ancestry?

Aspirational and colonial definitions should be used for different purposes. The colonially inherited definition should help us to recognise the current reality of colonial divisions of the past and how to restore justice. How else do we know who suffered under political forms of racial domination and continue to do so, without using colonial classification?  

Due to its colonial legacy, colour remains a proxy for inequality, poverty and unemployment in today’s South Africa. These inequalities cannot be solved solely through market mechanisms. It is in this context that the state has had to introduce black economic empowerment and affirmative action to correct historical injustices. As part of nation-building, proficiency in at least two African languages should also be part of Affirmative Action requirements for employment for all South Africans.

The inclusive and non-racial definition of who is an African should be used to reimagine a non-racial South Africa we seek to build here and now, without ignoring the past. Economic growth and transformation are essential in building a truly non-racial South Africa in which both black and white Africans will be Africans, in real terms. DM

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All Comments 19

  • Dr Masondo, your own political party’s integrity commission has recommended that you step down from both your roles in government and in the party. This for using the Hawks to arrest your mistress after she accepted a bag of cash you sent her. The fact that you head the ANC school of leadership tells us all we need to know about the ANC.

  • Dr Masondo I do agree with you on one very important point. All Homo sapiens did originate in Africa. So, technically all of us have African ancestry. The different branches simply evolved differently over time.

  • After 26 years of ANC rule it is simply bizarre that the ANC insists on using skintone as a measure of economic wellbeing. Are there no wealthy “black” and no poor “white” South Africans? Poverty can be measured without reference to the apartheid race categories.

  • I agree totally with the argument and the sentiments expressed in your article. Can we not get rid of the political Party driven divisions and just start working together as South Africans for our common good? I identify as African and no political party is part of my identity.

  • Certainly agree with the principles of this article, most notably this: “As part of nation-building, proficiency in at least two African languages should also be part of Affirmative Action requirements for employment for all South Africans”…..

    What baffles me is that 26 years after the first democratic elections, most of our children are still being taught English and Afrikaans in schools, as their main languages. Surely logic dictates that we should be learning English (because it is a key language in international business and politics) alongside Zulu or Xhosa. Imagine if all our children – black, white, Indian, coloured – could communicate with one another in multiple languages? That is how you truly break down bigotry and discrimination – through language and communication, and having all our youth being able to speak to one another in their fellows’ home languages would go a long way towards enabling our disparate communities and social strata to come together. I only wish that I had been afforded the opportunity to learn Zulu or Xhosa – rather than Afrikaans – at school during the 80s!

    • I fully agree with you. The Xhosa taught to my children at school was a poor standard and truly an opportunity lost. The other opportunity lost was the failure of post-apartheid South Africa to elevate levels of education to the same standard across the board.

  • Can someone please tell me whether albinos are really ‘blacks’ or ‘whites’? Are they eligible to participate in BBBEE empowerment deals and would Julius Malema allow them to be members of the EFF?

  • I’m an African, my grandfather, father and me were all born in Africa, as have my kids been.
    If you want to racially classify me, I’m an umlungu-muntu!

    • Agree 100%. Although the misconception about who is an African or not isn’t confined to South Africa.

      While working in Nigeria some years ago, this bone of contention was raised when a couple of Nigerian colleagues could not accept the fact that a white person (me) born in Africa is an African. When I asked them what the nationality of children born of Nigerians living in UK would be, their instant answer was “British of course!”

      It took them a little while to realise their dilemma.

  • Turn the question to any jurisdiction and ask the same question:
    Does race determine whether you are ‘Columbian’, ‘English’, ‘American’ or ‘Nigerian’?

  • The classification system has been abused and continue to be abused. Why is the term ‘African’ used when trying to classify a person? Surely in South Africa the term should be ‘South African’ and that should denoted all people born and bred in South Africa with South African citizenship. The ANC and others cannot scream colonist or whatever, whenever it suits them. They have been given the opportunity to change things and should have learnt from the past injustices. However, they have actually used the exact same system that they decry. The intentions of BEE etc. may have been well meant but in practice it failed. The Covid virus should have been an opportunity for everyone to come together but it just highlighted the contempt a number of people have for their fellow countrymen and communities.
    Dr Masondo, you are in a position of power AND trust. Direct your attention to helping the country get back on it’s feet, help recoup the stolen futures of the people, and help get rid of the corruption and ineptitude.
    The ANC have ruled for over a generation now. The poverty in the country is enormous and getting worse and doesn’t distinguish the colour of anyone’s skin.

    • Brilliant response. I am deeply proud to be South African. I know that I am outwardly and culturally different to fellow South Africans of African descent, but we are all South Africans and the sooner we embrace that fact, respect our differences and the contributions we make to the country we love, the better.

  • EVERY ATOM in my body, apart from a few that might have entered via some imported foods, comes from the soil of South Africa! HOW can I be classified as ANYTHING other than African???? The reason why black South Africans still represent the majority of the poor and underprivileged after 26 years of “freedom” has less to do with colonialism, apartheid, etc., and more to do with the fact that the ANC has made a conscious effort to keep the masses uneducated ( less than 50% of pupils get to matric, less than 40% of pupils are literate [can understand the written word and express themselves on paper], as they do not want ‘clever blacks’ who can see through their inadequacies and corruption, and vote them out of power!!!

  • “As part of nation-building, proficiency in at least two African languages should also be part of Affirmative Action requirements for employment for all South Africans”. Oh deary dreary dreary! After all that trouble to de-racialise Africanness, Masondo’s Freudian slip nails his colours (😂😂😂😥😪😥😪😴😴😴😴😴) to the mast.

    Nice try though Boet (Bhuti ? Bro? Bra? ‘mfowethu?)

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