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The confusion about “black” and “African” is not only confined to City Press. We find it in most situations, says Abe Mokoena.
Johannesburg - I have always considered language an important medium of self-expression for all people. In fact, my personal experience has persuaded me to accept that our ability to reason and to argue logically and even our very ability to think, rests upon qualities that first evolved as part of our use of language.
Unfortunately, our use of language to define who we are and who others are has caused a lot of confusion and tension among us in South Africa and even on the continent as a whole.
Just last week I read a story in which “a group of black reporters” for City Press accused the editor-in-chief Ferial Haffajee of racism. They accuse her of failing to appoint “a senior black news editor” with political contacts to help tell stories from a “black perspective”.
Similarly, in the same story, Haffajee accuses the same “group of black reporters” of being racist. Haffajee is quoted as saying, in her own defence: “I object loudly to the racist view that a black editor can get political stories through calls from other African politicians. For one, I am black and African and will not live under your imposed identity.”
I find it strange that people have gathered in a meeting to discuss transformation issues and though all see themselves as “black” they can accuse each other of being racist. This tells us that they understand the words “black” and “African” outside the context of our country’s transformation imperatives.
The Employment Equity Act and the Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment (BBBEE) Act, among others, offer a clear direction on how an organisation should implement the transformation agenda.
I think the group of black reporters define “black” in a narrow fashion and outside the parameters of the definition provided by the above-mentioned transfor-mation acts. From a transformation perspective, Haffajee too, is inaccurate to call herself “African” if she is a person of Indian descent.
I say so because, for example, the BBBEE Act defines a black as a coloured, Indian and African person. In the light of this definition, if indeed Haffajee is Indian by descent as I presume, then she is black but not African. I also think that the group of black reporters had actually meant to say they want “a senior African news editor”.
The confusion about “black” and “African” is not only confined to City Press. We find it in most situations.
On May 8, 1996 in Cape Town, on the occasion of the adoption of the Constitutional Bill, then president Thabo Mbeki used an inclusive definition of an African in describing himself. He said, “I am an African. I come of those who were transported from India and China, whose being resided in the fact, solely, that they were able to provide physical labour, who taught me that we could be both at home and be foreign, who taught me that human existence itself demanded that freedom was a necessary condition for that human existence.”
It is in this inclusive definition of an African that Haffajee can fit very well. So, from this perspective she is correct to say that she is both black and African.
In his inauguration speech, Nelson Mandela, among others, quoted the revolutionary Afrikaner poet Ingrid Jonker. Most people listened with disbelief when he described her as both “an Afrikaner and an African” even if she was not “black” in the definition of our transformation dynamics.
Just like Mbeki, Mandela was being inclusive in his description of an African. Here too, Haffajee can fit very well as an African.
Frederik van Zyl Slabbert is still referred to as “an Afrikaner African” even if he was “not black” from the transformation perspective. He once said: “I am from Africa, therefore African, because I was born, grew up and live in South Africa and have a South African identity document.”
We can all see the difficulty of defining ourselves and other people from different perspectives. It was therefore expected that in expressing his challenges of defining the Afrikaner, poet and activist Breyten Breytenbach said: “We are struggling for the definition of the Afrikaner soul (which I, for my part, describe approvingly as a bastard product of many origins and a work in progress); we are absorbed by the disruptive potential to the ruling hegemony of our lurch for the jugular of Afrikaner self-definition.”
It is also of great significance to note that in July 2005, South Africa and other African states went on a lobbying mission for two permanent seats on the UN Security Council. The idea was that the two seats would rotate among the five regions into which the African Union is divided, namely, east Africa, west Africa, central Africa, north Africa and southern Africa.
It came as a complete shock to me when Nigeria protested that South Africa and Egypt were “too white” and as a result did not qualify. To me the implication was that, from Nigeria’s point of view on Africanness, our “too-white-ness”disqualified us from being real Africans.
Even today I have not yet understood what they meant by “too white”. I then looked at Tunisia, Algeria, Libya and Morocco and found that the citizens of these countries looked more white than black in colour but they are regarded as Africans. Moreover, Nigeria never complained about their whiteness. It complained only about us and Egypt.
In the weeks that have just passed, it was mentioned in the media that Helen Zille will, in the near future, step down as the leader of the DA. Two names were mentioned as possible successors – Lindiwe Mazibuko and Mmusi Maimane. Interestingly, there are some DA members who support Maimane to take over because they claim that Mazibuko is not “black enough”.
Maybe it is high time that we collectively agreed on the definition of “enough” and “too”. It is only then that we will have a common understanding when a person states that you are “not black enough” or “you are too white”.
* Abe Mokoena is an independent commentator based in Polokwane.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.