A word with shades of meaning

SUN JOURNAL

African: In a more than semantic debate, South Africa struggles with the question of whether a person with white skin, born on the continent, can call himself an African.

September 19, 1999|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Can a white be an African?

The question is at the heart of a national debate here over what makes an African. Is it color of the skin, place of birth, or history and cultural background?

The furor, filtered through newspaper columns and radio talk shows for the past three months, started when a prominent white journalist, Max du Preez, a white Afrikaner by birth, declared himself an African.

He objected to the way politicians, including Nelson Mandela and his successor as president, Thabo Mbeki, talked of "whites, coloreds, Indians and Africans" in a context in which "Africans" was synonymous with "blacks."

Du Preez reasoned in his column in the Star newspaper that, born and bred on the African continent, he had the right to regard himself as an African as well as an Afrikaner.

"So why does Mbeki and so many other black South Africans define African in such a way that a little detail such as my lack of pigmentation excludes me?" he wrote.

Black academic Thobeka Mda rejected Du Preez' complaint in a published response, arguing that no white had the necessary characteristics of a true African.

"By taking that identity I include my history, my nation, my culture, my traditions, my customs and religion," she informed Star readers. "I also take the baggage of drought-stricken, war-torn, cannibalistic, superstitious nations. For me and others like me, there has not been anything before African.

"Europeans and their descendants have been deciding for centuries on what peoples of the world should be called, in the process taking and giving nationalities and identities. It is called the `culture of power.'

"In South Africa immigrant Europeans called us kaffirs, then Natives, then non-Europeans, then bantus, then plurals and then blacks.

"White people who are unhappy when we call ourselves Africans without including them, are not saying `We are like you, we share your experiences, your traditions, your language. "

"They are not insisting on being Africans to claim closeness or nationality with us. They are saying so to claim a piece (huge pieces in fact) of land in this country, and therefore this continent."

Since the opening salvos, the argument has taken many twists and turns, arousing high emotion in a country where racism is still a force to be reckoned with five years after white supremacy was replaced by black-majority rule.

The Pan Africanist Congress, founded in 1959 to protest the influence of whites, Indians and communists in the then-outlawed but now-ruling African National Congress, is the only political party to have a formal definition of an African.

Its "Basic Document" says: "An African is an indigenous person of Africa, and all those who pay their only loyalty to Africa and accept the democratic majority rule of the African people are Africans."

The party penned that definition to dispel the notion that it was racially motivated and wanted to drive whites into the sea.

"There is only one race -- the human race," says Wonder Masombuka, the party's spokesman in Pretoria. "The issue of skin color is as irrelevant as the shape of one's ears."

The current argument, he says, found little resonance inside the Pan Africanist Congress. "The debate can't actually outwit what we have put forth as early as 1959."

At the other end of the political spectrum, the Afrikanerbond -- post-apartheid successor to the secretive and sinister "Broederbond," which fostered racial segregation -- also now eschews race as a basis for national or cultural identity.

Once restricted to white male by-invitation-only members, the organization now accepts applications from blacks, people of mixed race and women, as long as they embrace Christianity and are committed to development of the Afrikaans community. Of its 14,000 members today, 200 are nonwhite and 700 female.

"We have agreed in the Afrikanerbond that we will not define other people," says Tom De Beer, chairman of the organization. "We know who we are Afrikaner-speaking South Africans, living in Africa, so we are also Africans."

Mbeki, who has inherited Mandela's challenge of creating the so-called "rainbow nation" out of this previously racially divided society, endorses this notion.

"Afrikaners are Africans," he recently told members of the Afrikanerbond, mutely contradicting his use of the word "African" as synonymous with "black" while appealing for Afrikaner involvement in creating the new, nonracist South Africa.

It is ironic that Mbeki should find himself accused of putting too narrow a definition on who is an African.

Perhaps the most renowned of his many impressive speeches was his 1996 address on behalf of the African National Congress to the assembly drafting this country's new constitution.

The speech was titled "I am an African." In it, Mbeki said: "I owe my being to the Khoi and the San whose desolate souls haunt the great expanses of the beautiful Cape.

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