Thursday, 29 September 2011

What the Hell am I?

by Tamsanqa Mashasha

I am an African!

I am formed of the migrants who left Europe to find a new home on our native land. Whatever their own actions, they remain still, part of me. In my veins courses the blood of the Malay slaves who came from the East. Their proud dignity informs my bearing, their culture a part of my essence. The stripes they bore on their bodies from the lash of the slave master are a reminder embossed on my consciousness of what should not be done… My mind and my knowledge of myself is formed by the victories that are the jewels in our African crown, the victories we earned from Isandhlwana to Khartoum, as Ethiopians and as the Ashanti of Ghana, as the Berbers of the desert….

These are words taken from former president Thabo Mbeki’s African renaissance speech I am an African. A speech in which all who grace the African continent are recognized as having contributed to it’s being. A speech in which all who grace the African continent with their being are recognized as African. A speech which acknowledges, accepts and incorporates the heritage of all. A speech which bears the pain of those formerly enslaved, oppressed and denied their own conscience.

Yet this speech, which invokes feelings of pride in both one’s nation and heritage, is gravely flawed. For whilst it in theory is revolutionary, in practice it is like a mirage seen by a disorientated lost desert explorer: we think we see something and rush towards it with feelings of exultation coursing through our veins, only to realize that we were deceived; those feelings of exultation are then replaced by feelings of despair, helplessness, and in many instances, anger.

At this point you might be wondering what in goodness’ name I am on about. Well, let me explain using the example of someone I know pretty well but am yet to fully discover and understand (that someone being me). I am willing to wager my first pay-cheque that those who coined the term ‘rainbow nation’ must have bumped into my family at a restaurant or something along those lines. Where else would you see a White grandmother with a coloured daughter, married to an Indian man, with a black step-son chiding his two mulatto siblings for teasing his very good Arabic friend? Yeah, I know hey, talk about incorporation! I have a strong dislike for sitting in the front passenger seat and as such would always be at the back when being dropped off at school. One day I just happened to hear other mothers praising my coloured mother for her generosity and kindness. 'I mean it’s hard enough to pay fees for ones’ own kids but to pay for the helpers son (me) too!' When still in pre-school my little sister mentioned that I must stop using the inside bathroom, for as like at her school, Blacks are to use the outdoor facilities, none else. When shopping the one day my siblings were at it again and as the dutiful older brother I was forced to intervene, only to be grabbed by an elderly White man who then proceeded to ask my siblings whether I was harassing them… I could go on and tell you about the many, and I mean many, more, shall we call them ‘informative’ experiences I suffered and continue to suffer when out with my robustly different family-such as me not being allowed into one dinner in one of those isolated hill-billy Afrikaans ‘dorpies’ where they have statues in honour to the ‘koeksister’, or when a lady ran out of her shop in a mall yelling “stop him” a guy standing closer to my brother rushed past him and grabbed me- but that would require more time than possessed, as well me seating myself in a comfortable armchair with a bottle of Johnnie Black and a box of tissues by my side in order to numb the pain and wipe away the tears…

You might still be wondering what I am getting at so I will put it more simply: as much as our folks taught us that we are family and tried to instill a feeling of ‘sameness’ in us, it was and always has been blatantly clear to myself and my siblings that we are not. As the Black I have always been viewed as the Other; not by my siblings and family but more so by those (teachers, friends, spouses) who influence them (siblings). Whilst we share the same heritage, were raised according to the same beliefs and had the same set of ethics and moral instilled within is it has always been clear that as the Black I was different, or rather, the Other. We were raised as ‘Africans’ but when filling out forms that require racial identification I would be the only one listed as ‘African’, my siblings being listed as Coloured or in some ironic instances as ‘Other’.

This then leads me to ask what exactly is an African? Is he who is born in Africa, irrespective of his race, not an African? Is it ones culture, vernacular or heritage which dictates whether he is an African or not? In order for one to state that they are an African, one must first acknowledge that there is something which is not ‘African’; that there is an Other. In order to fully understand what is meant by the Other, I am required to delve into the realm of academia, for it is only once the walls of the academic Archive-specifically the theory of Western Modernity- have been pierced that you will be able to gain a more comprehensive and concise meaning of what I mean when I refer to myself as the Other.

According to Hooker (1996), Western Modernity is “the sense or the idea that the present is discontinuous with the past: that through a process of social and cultural change (either through improvement, that is, progress, or through decline) life in the present is fundamentally different from life in the past”. To simplify, the term denotes the social processes and discourses consequent to the Age of Enlightenment, especially defined by 'rationalization' (Delanty, 2007). The way in which Modernity articulates itself is through binary constructions or, as Hooker (1996) articulates it, as a as a proliferation of alternatives i.e. black and white, rich and poor. Something like the Other is always supplement to configuration of the binary. There is always a silent acknowledgement of the Other, in the sense that whilst the rich might not discuss the poor, what it means to be rich is only known by virtue of what the poor is not; that is well off, comfortable and pampered. So, if we were all the same in my family my folks would never had had to instil a sense of ‘sameness’; it was due to our being recognizably different that my folks did that which they thought would serve to lessen the notion of disparity which shrouded our family.

According to Hooker (1996) Modernity has created a world view in us that is primarily ‘abstract’, that is, we experience the world as composed of discrete, fragmented, and separable units. Abstraction, is the notion that areas of existence and culture can be separated from, that is ‘abstracted out of’, other areas of existence and culture. This ties in with what has been stated above, in that we are then able, through ‘abstraction’s, to construct social groups such as religions, ethnicities and class. As a result, membership in social groups tends to be unstable and fluid, in that membership is not definitive and concrete, resulting in one being able to migrate between the different social groups. This fluidity serves to create a sense of anxiety or rather, a sense of tension amongst the different groups who wish to protect that which defines their members as belonging to it (the specific social group) only. In order to achieve this or, negate this fluidity, these social groups strive to define themselves as ‘real’, that is, ‘not abstract’ (Hooker,1996). Again, this ties in perfectly with my personal experiences: I would often ask my mom why our family consisted of so many different colours of people and whether we were normal. My mother would then equate our family to TV, asking me whether I preferred watching TV in black and white or multi-colour. After I replied in favour of the latter she would then exclaim “see! Now why would you want to live in a boring black and white family?”…

As I am sure that you are tired of hearing of me and my, shall we say ‘enlightening’ childhood, let us return to the focus of this piece: that being of trying to garner an answer to the question of what constitutes an African. Why was it such a big issue a few years back when a White South African whose family immigrated to America ran in his university elections as an ‘African-American’? Was his being born and bred on African soil not an automatic indication of his Africaness? Why is it that when filling out forms that require racial identification the Black box has been replaced by the ‘African’ box? Does being an African mean that you are a Black? Why is it that when India won the World Cup all the Indians this side were overjoyed? Why are Afrikaners more than happy to be South Africans (emphasis added) when the Bokke are playing but heaven forbid you referring to them as Africans after the full time whistle is blown…These are questions which I find highly vexing and as such require me to once again delve into the academic realm.

When transferring what has been stated above to the analogy of an individual claiming to be an African, the individual making such a statement is in essence acknowledging the existence of their Western counterpart; for it is only through there being a Western (Other) counterpart that the individual is able to refer to himself as African. If not, one would not know that such a binary existed and would simply refer to themselves as a ‘being’. To phrase this differently, one would not refer to himself or herself as a specific ‘something’ due to their being nothing for them to base their ‘differences’ on due to their being no differences. One would state that they ‘are’ instead of that they ‘are something’. To expand upon this, when an individual claims to be an African what he is doing is differentiating between what it means to be an African and or a Westerner, in a Western domain; in that the individual derives his Africanism not from himself but from that which the West has told him he is. 
If the individual understands this, then when he claims to be an African he is doing so with the purpose of negating Western Modernity; but as already mentioned, this is only achieved if the individual is knowledgeable of that fact that what he is saying and trying to achieve is bound or rather, is circumscribed by Western Modernity due to all that he (the individual) has been taught and knows is drawn from the Archive, which is a Western construct. Yes, whilst there are other academic Archives from which much of today’s knowledge is drawn, this pieces’ focus on the Western Archive is due to the fact that the African continent was colonized by the West, and as is well known history is written by the victorious and tends to be biased towards them. Put differently, all ‘African’ history is a Western construct in the sense that it was first captured in written word with the arrival of the colonizers. 

This is supplemented by Praeg (2008) when he advances the notion of the ‘un-thought’, in that all thinking is limited to that which one is able to think about. To illustrate what is meant by the above idea the example of madness and sanity is employed, in that for one to be able to think about madness one has to realise and be aware of the fact that one is sane, or rather, one must realise that one is different from those who are considered not to be sane. It is only through the acknowledgement of there being differences between oneself and those who are mad that one is able to determine that he himself is not mad. If we apply this idea to the notion of the thought and un-thought, we are able to see that when one thinks about the ‘un-thought’ it ceases to be the ‘un-thought’ and forms part of the ‘thought’ thereby rendering our thinking limited. 
But, according to Hooker (1996) “in distinction to modernity, traditional cultures tend to experience the world as whole and integrated with separate areas of existence and culture are seen as integrally related to other areas of existence and that social relations tend to be stable and permanent.”. When one attempts to define Africanism and finds oneself at the base of a seemingly bottomless, unbridgeable abyss, one must keep in mind that the reason he feels as though there is no solution to what he is attempting is due to the fact that the individual is trying to define something within a Western discourse which has no Western definition. To have a Western definition of Africanism means to give it a binary construct but, a ‘true’ definition of Africanism is complete; not biennial and inclusive of its negation, rendering it beyond the scope of the Western domain (Praeg, 2008).

Therefore, from all that has been stated above we are able to see that the word ‘African’ is one which is still viewed through a racial looking glass; when referring to an African we are not referring to that Man (humanity, not just the Male) whose forefathers came and settled here many years ago. We are not referring to that man who was born within the boundaries of this continent labelled Africa. We are not referring to that man who has witnessed the amalgamation of, in South Africa’s case, Western European, Indian, East Asian and Nguni traditions, languages, cultures and academia. We are not referring to that man who when on a different continent proudly acts as an ambassador, holding his head high and sticking out his chest. What we are referring to is the Black. It is only the Black who is considered to be ‘truly’ African. Why? Due to his Blackness. Africa was and still is referred to as the ‘dark continent’, not so much due to its dark people but because its dark people were seen to envelop all the characteristics related to darkness: stupidity, sickness, lack of wealth, lack of progression, ugliness, deformity, dark magic..the list goes on. With that in mind who in their right mind would want to be an African?

Today, as a country, we keep an audible silence about these ancestors of the generations that live, fearful to admit the horror of a former deed, seeking to obliterate from our memories a cruel occurrence which, in its remembering, should teach us not and never to be inhuman again…Whoever we may be, whatever our immediate interest, however much we carry baggage from our past, however much we have been caught by the fashion of cynicism and loss of faith in the capacity of the people, let us err today and say – nothing can stop us now!

Whilst we have come a long way in our quest for a more inclusive and understanding society, we are still faced with the burden of the ‘label’. For it is the label which constricts us from being that which we all strive for: dignified, respected human beings. As long as we keep on referring to each other as the White man or the Black woman we will never shrug the burden of the ‘label’ from our shoulders. We will never be truly free, truly happy and truly content. The Other will continue to make his presence felt and as history has proven innumerable times, this will only lead to more pain and suffering for all. This is why the statement “I am an African” no longer has any bearing on me. I prefer the more simplistic version, that being “I am”.