New Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene. Photo: GCIS

Race as a component of our identity will remain a part of the SA narrative for some time, writes Makhudu Sefara.

When Nhlanhla Nene was appointed finance minister, many commented about him being the first black finance minister, while others said he was the first black African finance minister.

In response to this, The Media Show, hosted by Ashraf Garda on SAfm, invited me to a debate on the racial categorisation of Nene last Sunday. As the invitation landed, my knee-jerk reaction was: What possibly could be complicated about this?

Garda also intended discussing the Primedia “poephols” – sorry, I mean, the infamous cartoon labelling of black people that it published and had to withdraw recently. This debate did not take place because of the heated discussions on Nene.

Ahead of the debate, I thought What preparations are to be made for a discussion on Nene’s identity?

More or less what he is, I am, and so why would I prepare to talk about my identity on a radio talk show?

Well, perhaps I should have.

On the show, which featured Pippa Green of the University of Pretoria and Ludene Brown of Media Tenor, Green said Trevor Manuel, about whom she wrote a book, was the first black African minister. Really?

My confusion set in. If he is, what is Nene? For, to my naked eye, they look and indeed are different.

Brown said the media, in general, had a fixation on race, and this detracted from the competence of those appointed to the cabinet. Well, race, as a component of our identity, will remain a feature of the South African conversation for a while as class issues gradually gravitate towards the centre. Much of what Nomvula Mokonyane must deal with as minister responsible for sanitation is a race issue because of the profile of those who were denied this basic right by the apartheid regime. Nothing complicated here.

So Nene’s appointment is important on two levels. It is significant to note that he is competent and has been an understudy for Manuel and his successor Pravin Gordhan.

Secondly, and relevant to this topic, his appointment carries historical significance. He is the first, I argue, black African to be appointed to this post.

When I said on SAfm that Nene was the first black African, the immediate reaction was whether I did not believe Manuel and Gordhan were Africans. By extension, the question was: What makes Nene any more African than his predecessors?

I deferred to the law. While the apartheid laws sought to accentuate people’s differences according to colour, tribes or ethnic groups, the Employment Equity (EEA) Act of 1998 has what is called the designated groups. These include blacks, women and people with disabilities.

More crucially, the law recognises three subcategories for blacks – black Africans, black coloureds and black Indians. And so, who are these black Africans, if I am not?

When Manuel became finance minister, he made history as the first black finance minister. Now that Nene is appointed, his appointment is historic because he is the first black African minister in that position.

As some friends reminded me this week, it was the ANC Youth League of Julius Malema that argued that President Jacob Zuma did not have the stomach to appoint “black Africans” in the economic cluster.

This is what he said in August 2009: “Minister of police, minister of intelligence, minister of justice – they are all Africans. But in the economic cluster, it’s minorities. We need to build confidence in the markets that Africans are also capable of handling strategic positions in the economic sector, otherwise black youths will not believe that one day they could work in the strategic economic positions. The youth will think, because (Reserve Bank governor Gill) Marcus is white, they (whites) are born like that; there’s no way I can be like that.”

Now that Zuma has affirmed Nene, why should there be confusion about the significance of the appointment?

There are indeed different shades of black. And to say that is not even to be original. The EEA also makes the distinction clear. Trite though it might appear, black African women suffered the most in the last 300 years of misrule in this country.

When the ANC says it is committed to the economic emancipation of black people in general, and Africans in particular, is this not an acknowledgement of the different shades of black?

When one looks at the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Act’s codes of good practice, published on October 11, 2013 by the Department of Trade and Industry, it was clear that the law makes provision for various categories, or shades of black, in terms of the different “weightings” available.

The codes of good practice also differentiate weightings in terms of ownership, management control, skills development, socio-economic development and so on.

Given the laws quoted, which are anchored ion the constitution, it is apparent that black coloureds and black Indians have their place in the sun.

The question about who is an African and who is not remains subject to interpretation. But it is, for me, more philosophical than legalistic.

Are there different shades of Africanness, as there are of blackness? Can black Africans claim sole ownership of Africanness? What about white people who know only Africa as their home – are they white Africans or just Africans? If the latter is correct, why should the reference to those who are black be explained? What of Chinese Africans?

Is Africanness determined according to geographical area of birth? Most African Americans know no home other than the US. Can they become American without a reference to their history of slavery?

Isn’t this the greatest ontological question of our time – our identity – and our place under the sun?

When Thabo Mbeki delivered his “I am an African” speech, was he saying to us that being of the glades, the mountains and rivers of Africa; being a descendant of Hintsa, Sekhukhune and Moshoeshoe, qualifies you more than others to the richness of our being, as Africans?

When Steve Biko spoke about the need for unity of the oppressed, or when he said being black is not a matter of pigmentation but a state of mind, he was focused on what it meant to associate with and support the struggle for freedom by blacks in general.

Did he clarify what it means to be African or, specifically, black African? I don’t think so.

As a descendant of Sekhukhune, with roots sprawling in Senwabarwana, ga-Molepo, ga-Mphahlele, I feel wished out of existence. Can I congratulate Nene as the first black African finance minister without having my being questioned?

Philosophically, all people in the world can argue that they are all Africans since all life began here, or that we are all citizens of the world, however understood. Or, as Oscar Wilde put it, most people are other people. Philosophically, you are what you want to be. Legally, though, in this, our country, just bloody who am I if not black African?


* Makhudu Sefara is editor of The Star. Follow him on Twitter @Sefara_Mak

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