African / Blacks / Whites

We Are Not Black Africans

I am an African too

I am an African too

Black people should rebel against being forced to tick the so-called ‘Black African’ box the post-apartheid government and its agencies like Statistics South Africa use to identify them.

We are not Black Africans. We are Africans. Period. Black African is an insult. There is an important distinction.

I was reminded of this by Percy Mabandu’s City Press columns of September 15 and September 22. He too writes: “I’m African. Period.” 

Apparently that caused pain in many quarters. I dont know why.

But I do know that the main problem with this new categorisation of blacks as black Africans is that the post-apartheid government is unconsciously or knowingly trying to please some party at our expenses. The unnamed party is whites. That is just bad, ‘self-othering thinking’. It betrays elements of ongoing ‘thinking-from-elsewhere’ in our rulers.

A self-othering or thinking-from-others’ perspective indicates thinking about ourselves and cultures from the position of ‘the other’. We other ourselves. Even before we begin to think of ourselves, we think of what others will think of us. That is a road to nowhere identity.

When discussions of identity, land, historical injustice are broached, Mabandu maintains, make white South African jittery. According to the logic of ‘othered thinking’, when whites are nervous, we are must get nervous. “The whites think your next logical step is to make a call for the Night of the Long Knives… On other other darkies fear the economic calamity and suffering that might result from white people being offended”.

It doesn’t have to be so. Identities do not have to be a zero-sum game. I can be proudly black. And it doesn’t preclude you from calling yourself black if you feel like it. You can call yourself white Zulu, or simply Zulu, and I can be still be Zulu. 

Apparently, the assumption underlying the new unarticulated identity discourse from the South Africa government and their advisers is that we are all Africans. On this basis the government is trying to make room in Africa house for white South Africans. I do not think there is any problem with that. Reconcialition is a good idea. Indeed it is good when white South Africans identify with Africa.

But it becomes a problem for me when how whites define themselves or are defined must mean blacks are forced to change their self-definition. As Mabandu wrote on September 22, if by calling oneself an African “others may feel excluded, it is they who have to negotiate their identity to reflect their arrival into my native context”. They must do the identity work. They shouldn’t force me to change my identity to suit them. And government is doing this very nonsense.

It does seem like that many white people do feel tortured when black people call themselves Africans. One of the letters sent to the City Press following the first column by Mabandu said: “As a white African, I take exception to the author’s narrow-minded and illogical arguments on what consitutes  an African. Mabandu does not disclose why he is more African than I… I have never encountered an official form where you have a choice to mark yourself ‘white African’ or ‘black African'”.” (Martin Labuschagne, I too, am an African, CIty Press, September 22, 2013).

There is a betrayal of insecurity and sense of exclusion here. More light than heat is needed. 

It is correct that the journalist contended that “If all of us are Africans, then no one is African”. He fell into an binary trap.

It is false that official forms do not ask whether one is black African. Government forms do not ask for white African, of course not. They do however ask whether you are black African. For instance Census 2011 asked the question: How would [name] describe himself/herself in terms of population group? The choices given were: black African, Coloured, Indian or Asian, white, and other. 

My own argument is that it does not matter what others call themselves. What they call themselves is their business. They have all the right to name themselves however they feel.

However I urge black people not to accept being referred to as black African. It is not just unwise. It is demeaning. 

The fundamental point here is that what we call ourselves is absolutely vital for the health of our own identity and sense of belonging. This takes even more significance when what we name ourselves is at odds, as it has been in this country, with how others call us.

Your identity is ultimately all you have. By calling oneself and understanding that you are an African man, woman or child, what you are engaging in is more than simple semantics. You are taking charge of your own self-definition. You are talking to yourself about who you are.  You are at the centre of your world, and you are not being forced to recognise others before you even get  chance to think of yourself.

Our names, whether for instance we call ourselves coloured or black, black African as opposed to Afican, are a key to our inner lives, our view of the world, our sense of belonging.   

This is the same argument made by the black consciousness movement activists when they arrived at the view of blackness (as opposed to non-Europeans, non-white or other names and categorical identities given to us by colonial and apartheid government) as a mental attitude. It is. It is the beginning of the development a politically-informed and culturally-congruent outlook onto the world.   

I know not then why a majority black government is forced to retreat from the gains we have made in finding and naming ourselves. If white people want to refer to themselves as white Africans, that’s their choice. However, that should not be conflated with what black people might prefer to be called.

So, whoever wants to talk about, categorise, empower, or affirm African women and men, please stop using the label black African. Please. It’s ugly.

More crucially, it is also a denial of our hard-won right to be called as we would like to be called. We are African. Some of us prefer to be called Black. That too is quite acceptable.


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