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Don’t call me a ‘black African’

Thekiso Musi is the retired judge president of the Free State. File picture: African News Agency (ANA)

Thekiso Musi is the retired judge president of the Free State. File picture: African News Agency (ANA)

Published May 31, 2020


I have in recent weeks or months expressed concern about the new name by which some people are calling us: “black Africans”.

It is even more concerning when an African calls himself/herself “black African” and I recently read a newspaper report about a cricket body that goes by the name “Black African Cricket Association” or something to that effect.

I don’t know where this qualification of African comes from. It is a serious matter that needs to be debated. Moreover, such debate will be apposite seeing that we are presently celebrating the 57th Africa Day. In this article, I express my personal views in the hope of starting a genuine discussion of the issue.

From the days of colonialism through to the apartheid era, we were called different names by our rulers. Under colonialism, we were classified as Natives, falling under the Department of Native Affairs. This was changed after the Nationalists came to power in 1948; they did not like the idea of us being called Natives because they considered themselves to be also the natives of Africa (hence Afrikaners, which translates to Africans - they are now an established, distinct language community within the South African demographics).

They renamed us Bantu, and later, even attempted to bestow another name (Plurals) when they renamed the department that controlled our lives as the Department of Plural Affairs.

Throughout these years, we consistently insisted on calling ourselves Africans; hence, you have the African National Congress (ANC) which was formed by the oppressed Africans in 1912, followed later by the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC).

Now the black consciousness philosophy laid emphasis on “black”, but this did not detract from the fact that we remained known as Africans because the term black referred collectively to Africans, Indians and coloureds and it replaced the discredited name by which they had hitherto been collectively known, “non-Whites”.

The term “black” was used as a clarion call to unite all these disenfranchised South Africans in a common cause to liberate themselves. And, of course, they are all of a darker shade and fit the description, although some among those of a lighter pigmentation baulked at the notion of being called black, lest they be confused with Africans.

This is because Africans are also loosely referred to as Blacks or black people, and there can be no problem with this as long as it can clearly be assessed from the context whether one is using black in its composite form as including Indians and coloureds or as referring to Africans only. The distinction has a historical significance: under apartheid, the African majority were the real underdogs; they occupied the lowest level of the social ladder and were at the sharpest edge of the knife of oppression.

OR Tambo, who led the ANC throughout its difficult years of exile, is quoted by Emeka Anyaoku, former secretary-general of the Commonwealth, to have described the life of an African in the 1960s as follows in a speech to the United Nation’s Special Political Committee in 1963:

“No one can doubt any longer now that life for the African in South Africa is not life. If it is, it is worth nothing. But we promise in that event that no other life in South Africa is worth anything - white or non-white. Let the United Nations and the world, therefore save what it can - what it cannot, will either be destroyed or destroy itself.” (Oliver Tambo Remembered - edited by Z Pallo Jordan p264). It is noteworthy that OR Tambo did not say “black” African.

The name African refers to the native of Africa, the original inhabitants of Africa - the people who originated in Africa. People are identified by their country or continent of origin. A typical example is the USA. Although its citizens are all Americans, different components of the population are identified by their countries or continents of origin; hence Native Americans, Italian Americans, Hispanic American etc. “African” is the name by which the indigenous peoples of Africa are identified.

That is why black Americans call themselves African-Americans, meaning Americans of African descent, Americans who originally came from Africa. If we Africans in Africa are now to be called “black” Africans, what would the African-Americans call themselves? Black African-Americans? That would be absurd.

I suspect this “black African” concept arises from the fact we now have white people who have permanently settled in Africa and who for that reason consider themselves also African, leading to the notion of white Africans as distinct from black Africans.

This is probably why “African” is being qualified; and we Africans find it acceptable to dilute our identity in order to accommodate other people! It is an identity that distinguishes us from other groupings within the South African population. It is an identity that is common to all Africans across the continent and transcends the borders of the different African countries.

By way of analogy, an African who has permanently settled in Europe may acquire citizenship of whatever European country he/she has settled in, but he/she cannot be called a European.

If he/she has the citizenship of, say France, he/she is a French citizen and may be referred to as French, but that does not make him/her a European. And it will be ridiculous to refer to Europeans as white Europeans simply because they have black citizens amongst them.

In South Africa, we share a common citizenship with our white compatriots (and others) and we can, therefore, talk of white South Africans and black South Africans. But Africans should not get confused and call themselves “black” Africans. So you can call me a black South African or simply Black, but black African - NO!

* Thekiso Musi is the retired judge president of the Free State.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.

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