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Opinionista

British writer Afua Hirsch’s misguided search for African purity would be welcome in SA’s fascist movement

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Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

When the British writer Afua Hirsch, in her book ‘Brit(ish)’, came for white people I said nothing because I was not white. Now she is coming for those of us who are of ‘mixed race’ — and in a single sweep she has made herself an authority on who may speak.

In 2018, the British barrister-turned-writer Afua Hirsch delved into a search for her African identity and the origins of her family in her excellent book Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging. This was a relatively harmless endeavour, notwithstanding the fact that identity politics have historically been used as a precursor to the worst atrocities against people, from Nazi Germany to Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia and more recently across India and Myanmar.

When I first read Brit(ish), I enjoyed it, though I found very little in the book that was shocking. Having lived through the horrors of apartheid and knowing well the constant need to have to explain what I was, or where I was from as a “person of colour” with green eyes and fair skin, and the micro-aggressions we face daily, I found nothing revelatory in the book.

What was insightful was the story of Hirsch’s journeys to West Africa in search of her maternal “roots”. I was intrigued by her experiences and encounters. I was also impressed by the acknowledgement of her own privileged upbringing in a comfortable middle-class family in one of London’s better suburbs.

When my publisher finally got me to sit down and write a memoir at the beginning of last year, I remembered Hirsch’s book. I should say, though, that I was encouraged in my project mainly by the work of Eric Hobsbawm — a white man nogal. Having had tea with Hobsbawm in North London in 2001 and having read almost all his work, it was natural that I would find him one of the great inspirations of my intellectual life. That said, I have always been averse to writing a book about myself. Now I tremble at the fact that my memoir will hit the shelves later this month…

Since the publication of Brit(ish), Hirsch has embarked on what seems to be some kind of crusade in search of African purity. It’s like the old canard: give a child a hammer and everything is a nail. This is not to say that the two focuses of her criticism — racism and patriarchy — have receded. On the contrary. But, when Hirsch came for white people I said nothing because I was not white. Now she is coming for those of us who are of “mixed race”. In a single sweep, Afua Hirsch has become an authority on who may speak — as one of her Instagram posts suggests.

This post really stripped my moer. Firstly, some of us mixed-race people in South Africa lived in poverty and misery; my life and times were spent mainly between the deep south of Soweto, in Eldorado Park, with family and friends in District Six, in Noordgesig, Newclare and Western Coloured Township. I went to only “non-white” schools and cinemas and sports events at Orlando Stadium. I played on dusty rugby fields and cricket pitches in “coloured” and African townships. I interacted formally and intimately with white people only in my twenties — although there was that one incident in my teens… As for privilege, my family home had hot water only when I installed a geyser in the mid-1980s when my mother was about 65. 

Others of us who are old enough to remember apartheid met white people, became close and established bonds of trust that have lasted longer than any trust I would ever share with the likes of Condoleezza Rice, or Colin Powell, who are known for their roles in the invasions of dark-skinned societies on the back of the US and British war machines. Apparently, Rice is not on Hirsch’s purity radar — presumably because she is not of “mixed race”. It’s okay to be a warmonger against dark-skinned others while you’re part of the (highly privileged) establishment, but mixed-race people should watch what they say and do because, you know, they are a little bit white themselves. Such bollocks.

When I first saw Hirsch’s post I watched a video clip about violence in “my” community. It reminded me of the difficulties of growing up in misery and poverty as a mixed-race person during apartheid, and the pathologies that persist — as the video clip shows.

Of course, I do not expect Hirsch to understand, much less respond. There are people who so love throwing down statements and not waiting around for responses or replies. By gaslighting “mixed-race” people and their alleged proximity to whiteness, Hirsch slips effortlessly into the slipstream of South Africa’s own populists who refer to some of us as “non-African blacks,” or who scapegoat us on the basis of real or imagined “foreign” heritage and “impurity”. Or, tell us to “go back to Asia” even though my forebears were brought to the Cape from the Nusantara world as slaves more than 300 years ago.

For what it’s worth, Hirsch’s father’s lineage is deeply rooted in (white) European history. I can’t find a single white person in my family going back more than five generations… Yet she would have me believe that I need to look at my proximity to whiteness. I don’t deny that I am treated differently because I “look” white, but to take on the entire world of mixed-race people seems a mite arrogant, if not downright self-righteous.

Her post was also patronising. Some of us have fought white oppression and injustice, patriarchy and racism for most of our adult lives. Millions of people around the world, from deep within the most remote kampongs in Borneo to Manaus in Brazil, fall into Hirsch’s sights. Indigenous people interacted with European settlers three or four centuries ago, leaving traces of what Hirsch may refer to as “whiteness”. I came across a matriarch in her nineties in Sabah, on the island of Borneo, who had fair skin and green eyes. She had never seen a white person. Her family made fun of the matriarch and me because of our appearance.

It’s terribly arrogant for a person born in Stavanger, Norway, and who grew up in London to gaslight the millions of people who may not be “pure” black — whatever that may mean.

Additionally, there are people in southeastern Europe where the Ottoman Empire conquered vast numbers of people across vast tracts of land who may themselves be “mixed-race”: Serbs, Croats, Bosnians — who were “a thorn in the eye” of nationalism that would lead to “ethnic cleansing” — and the Roma (who I imagine, are not quite black enough in Hirsch’s reckoning). These are the most persecuted people in Europe.

A close examination of the aftermath of the collapse of Yugoslavia shows the extent of the ties that bind and connect people of the region (and across the Arab world). Spiteful narratives of “ancient hatreds” based on race or ethnicity come mainly from the West, especially through the toxic tales of writers like Robert Kaplan. Hirsch’s diatribe against “mixed-race” people feeds into an odious trend: the search for purity that is so poisonous, from Pakistan to the British National Party. 

Back home in South Africa, some of us “mixed-race” or “impure” Africans were imprisoned and tortured for our fight against racial injustice. Many of us still bear those scars (as do I, as it happens.) Along comes a British person who tells us how to be black, how to behave, how to speak and even how to think as “mixed-race” people. Hirsch would be welcome in the fascist movement in South Africa which wants to purify the country and drive “non-African blacks” back to where they came from. Hau! Baphambene bonke abo bantu baseBrithani! (Those British people are crazy!) DM

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  • Johan Buys says:

    We should ALL be less obsessed by race in all matters. judge people only by their actions and for the rest ignore the static as static only adds to the charge in the atmosphere

  • Bob Marsden says:

    Excellent exposition.

    Hirsch, or any racial propagandist like her, is factually wrong and morally bereft to assign personal responsibility for the accidents of a person’s birth. Nor is it fair or justifiable to hold a person accountable for the social privileges or deprivations they inherit from the community they were raised in. What they subsequently do about those social endowments is a different issue, as South Africans have observed in the transition from apartheid, through the brief Mandela window, and into the era of governance capture.

    All current humans are mixed species – genetically mongrel, hybrid. The racial roots are Neanderthal + Denisovan + unknown, unidentified others + homo sapiens. Or in many cases pseudosapiens.

  • Hugh Corder says:

    Yet another wonderful piece. Thank you. I look forward to reading your book.

  • Lesley Athol says:

    Cannot wait to read your book……!

  • Mike Linden says:

    It urgently needed saying and you’ve said it brilliantly.

  • Rod H MacLeod says:

    Well written, but you stopped short of calling her a racist. Why?
    “Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior” – that’s the short form definition, and the shoe definitely fits.

  • Miles Japhet says:

    You do her too much credit by even commenting on her writing. Best ignored along with all others who use race as an excuse for their own inadequacies.
    Good article nevertheless.

  • Theresa Avenant says:

    Just when I told myself I was not buying any more books this year……..Ismail writes his memoirs. I have to read it and will be first in line when it comes out. You are one of my favourite DM writers. Thank you for the wonderful stories.

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