Not too long ago, I used to call some black people, especially of African descent, “coconuts”. Also, I have espoused thoughts and ideas that claim to represent “black authenticity”.
And, of course, this got me into trouble with people who not only felt indignant and insulted by this label, but questioned this kind of thinking.
It suggested that they were, essentially, white people inside who were trapped in black skins outside.
In practical terms, it meant that they had bought completely into the notion of white supremacist cultural superiority and allowed themselves to be brainwashed to believe that to be somebody, they had to speak, dress, behave, and act and think like white people.
Of course, the notion of a white race does not exist except as a social construct, but this will be a matter for another day.
For the past 20 years or so I have been critically examining the way of life of so-called black African people, especially in the urban areas.
In some way, I have been privileged to gain access into the heart and soul of the rising black middle class, that is, people who have a bit of money, position and power and who have been able to move up the social and economic ladder because of government connections or corporate success.
Again, the notion of the black African middle class is yet another misleading social construct to make us believe that Africans own property and means of production when they are, largely, just white-collar workers.
But that, too, is a matter for another day.
For a very long time now, I have found myself thinking hard about what constitutes the true identity of an authentic black African person, if there is such a person in a diverse society.
What I have tried to do is to bring together the prevalent Western cultural experience around me and fuse it with what could pass for African.
But my circumstances and realities have made me realise the impossibility of this little effort or experiment in true cultural integration.
Of course, in no time, I was in some kind of collision without quite knowing it with the master language, culture, history and heritage of Western life on African soil.
There is little that is African about this African country located on the southern edge of the African continent. It would have been a truly meaningful and inspirational experience for me, as an African, to find the spirit of the African continent in my new democratic country, but it does not exist. It is not in government or pervasive in business and general society.
Perhaps the very idea of an African country or experience is just a romantic idea that exists only in the ideal; to be found among those in nostalgia. In reality it does not exist. At least, not here and now, especially when you use the successful as a measurement of African achievement.
This is something I have come to recognise without knowing that I recognise it or what it means.
Many years ago, I was on sabbaticals in Washington DC, New York and London that provided me with an opportunity to really examine what it meant to be African.
It was way back in the 1990s when, for the first time, I realised that I had not lived in Africa, although my country, South Africa, was geographically located there.
Instead, my intuitive connection to America was almost natural.
The assumption that South Africa is an African country simply because it is in Africa is wrong.
But this was an assumption of people I was surrounded with, including leaders, business people, musicians, writers, priests, artists, teachers, activists and other professionals whom I looked up to.
I have, at an unconscious level, come to accept that black South Africans, especially the privileged, are the New Negroes outside of America. We can identify and relate to Barack and Michelle Obama and their family more than we identify with President Gedleyihlekisa Zuma.
Black South Africans are a fatally different breed of dark-skinned people who are in deep trouble because they continually have thought themselves out of existence in the name of globalisation or progress. Presumably, this is the post-black age where your skin colour does not determine your identity, history or heritage.
For the past three and a half centuries, not only have the privileged black Africans allowed themselves to be alienated from their own history, heritage, culture and languages, but have collaborated in wiping out their identity.
Obviously, the conquering of African people by Westerners has not completely defeated the former, but there is no way that any African who lived before 1652 could still recognise this country as an African country.
If they were to visit this country which is now supposedly under black African majority rule, they would wonder about the way I am and think what I am thinking which is, obviously, a dangerous kind of thinking.
But South Africans are the New Negroes outside of America because when you critically examine their identity, languages, heritage and history, there is little – except for small pockets in the rural areas – that says they are Africans.
In fact, we are… er, not just Americanised, but too Western. We have become a loyal satellite of Europe. Again, all this is in the name of progress or globalisation.
Obviously, we now live in what is popularly known as the global village and are expected to do as… er, the Americans do.
But I have looked at the historical mirror of my people and what I have seen looking back at me are ancestors with eyes radiating great wonder and great contempt (sic), at the same time.
They, too, are confused and bewildered by this diversity.
I do not imagine Pan-Africanists like Kwame Nkrumah or Robert Sobukwe would be delighted with what they would see.
This is not the Africa they envisioned.
And I got scared because I could see that I could not exactly relate or identify with them because neither do I uphold and promote their languages or politics, but have not done much to protect and preserve their culture, history and heritage, even in terms of ideological thinking and orientation.
Instead, I speak, write and, above all, think in English like the increasing number of other progressive South Africans. Many of our children are beginning to understand and speak English not just like white people (sic), but better than indigenous languages.
Of course, we come out of a history that produced John Tengo Jabavu or Pixley ka Seme or which gave us many ancestors, like seminal thinker WEB du Bois, who were educated in America and Europe.
A kind of reconciliation which saw us sacrifice and abandon whatever is our history and heritage happened to make it easier to disconnect with Africa in the name of modernity.
It is a strange kind of advancement and progress that we have attained.
But I think in one way it explains a lot about South Africa’s disconnection with its indigenous linkages.
As a result, there are two kinds of Africans: the kind of respectable and powerful ones who, essentially, are coconuts who do everything as Western culture dictates and those who really try to keep an intuitive connection with Africa’s past and heritage in the rural areas.
But many of us live more in the Western world and culture than in Africa. In a sense, we have lived up to the ideal that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, but more white than black.
In a sense, we have only recreated ourselves, out of conquest to, for the first time, become African people who are proud of their Western identity, heritage and culture.
Our constitutional democracy, for instance, is the most renowned in the whole world. We have, to a large extent, recreated ourselves in the white European image.
It is for this reason that we are what American blues singer Billie Holiday called a “strange fruit”.
Kwenziwe njani? What is to be done?
- Memela is a writer and public servant. He writes in his personal capacity.