On White Africans
By Chippla Vandu
Not too long ago, the South African president, Thabo Mbeki, visited the Western Cape province—the province that houses the South African legislative capital of Cape Town.
The reason for his visit was apparent: The ruling African National Congress (ANC) seemed to be having serious problems in the predominantly "coloured" Western Cape, and Mr. Mbeki, being president of the ANC, went there to heal the rift. According to a report in South Africa's Independent Online, Mr. Mbeki appeared worried by the fact that the Western Cape still retains one apartheid era characteristic. Of all provinces in South Africa, it remains "the only province where Africans were a minority".
Apartheid era South Africa gave rise to one of the most well documented discriminatory policies in the world. Blacks, whites, coloureds and Asians. Each knew its place in society. Interracial marriage—however that was defined—was banned, following in the tradition of nations like the Untied States and Germany, whose judicial systems once favoured and enforced racial segregation.
When Mr. Mbeki speaks of "Africans", he unmistakably refers to blacks. And that brings me to the main focus of this write-up? Aren't white South Africans, Africans?
He is from Suriname and could easily pass for someone from sub-Saharan Africa. He holds both Surinamese and Dutch passports, but in his heart, he is first and foremost an African, then a Surinamese. "You cannot be an African", was my reply. "You may trace your ancestry to the African continent but to be called African, you must come from a country on the African continent." "You're the one who's getting it all wrong" he said. "All black people the world over are Africans. It doesn't matter where they are. In Europe, South America, the United States, Asia. It doesn't matter."
"The only reason I happen to come from Suriname is because of the slave trade which occurred centuries ago. I come from a part of Suriname, which has remained black, because my grandparents fought against the whites. But I know that my family originally came from Africa. So, I am an African." "I understand what you're trying to say. But you are South American. No doubt your ancestry's African—as well as that of every human being on the planet. But Africans are people who come from countries on the African continent." In his eyes, I was way off the mark. Pele and Bob Marley were just as African as those who lived on the continent today. We agreed to disagree.
Now, it appears that white South Africans feel very comfortable and somewhat proud of the tag "South Africans". But how comfortable would they be when labelled "Africans"?
I have often heard some white South Africans refer to the blacks in South Africa as "the Africans", just as they often spoke of "the coloureds" and "the Asians (or Indians)". The first time I heard this reference to blacks, I objected. The fellow in question starred at me and said "so what should I call them." My response wasn't too polite: "if they are the Africans, then what are you?"
There lies the heart of a problem. Racial division in South Africa, and one in which the earlier inhabitants of the land—who were oppressed for almost half a century—are now described with a term, which to an outside like myself, makes them look like the bona fide inhabitants of the country.
The largest political party in South Africa is the African National Congress. If "African" means "black", then as a nation, South Africa has a long way to go in healing its racial wounds. Surprisingly and interestingly, the Western Cape province is controlled by the ANC despite its "African minority".
Ethnic composition of the Western Cape province according to Wikipedia:
Post-apartheid South Africa has been trying to assert itself in leadership positions and meditative roles on the African continent. However, in the words of Jonathan Clayton, Africa correspondent for The Times, who lives in Johannesburg:
"...most South Africans, black and white, know absolutely nothing about the continent they aspire to lead..."
As Mr. Clayton rightly says, issues of race cloud and prevent real debates, which are needed in South Africa. Debates on HIV/AIDS and crime. And maybe, someday, a debate on who should be called "African".
Chippla Vandu is a Nigerian writer and academic. He blogs as Chippla
Please e-mail comments to email@example.com