Opinion

Africanness goes deeper than the skin

Rhulani Thembi Siweya

The definition of an African has become a burden for women, some of whom are required to portray their Africanness in hairstyle and skin colour.

African women are often made to feel ashamed if they alter their natural hair by wearing a weave or dyeing it. (Getty)

Are race and territory the correct terms for defining an African? It would seem that as Africans, we are still preoccupied with the debate of who is more African than the other, using race, language, hair and skin colour as criteria. Some among us have appointed themselves custodians of the true African image.

If you look at race as an example of defining an African, a question remains: How do we then define white South Africans, who have never known any other country but South Africa? If we define an African as a black man with certain Bantu features, what then becomes of Moroccans, Egyptians and other Arab Africans?

Some have tried to use geography in their definition. This option, however, is equally problematic. For example, if we choose to call all who have African ancestry Africans, how far back in time should we go?

This perspective also wrongly assumes that all who are citizens of the countries that make up the continent of Africa accept that they are Africans. Even within sub-Saharan Africa, some people in countries such as Somalia, Niger and Sudan would prefer to be called Arabs, not Africans.

It is also disconcerting the way in which the definition of an African has become a burden for African women, some of whom are required to portray their Africanness in hairstyle and skin colour, isolating those with Brazilian and Indian weaves and accepting those with Afros and dreadlocks as “more African”.

Our history dictates that we must accept that Arabs arrived in Africa as slaves and black Africans left the continent as slaves. This in itself indicates that there must be a modern and logical way of defining an African.

If the young people of the continent are to be able to see each other as one, beyond their physical features and historical relations in terms of how they came to the continent, perhaps we can move a step forward and develop this argument further.

If we can accept that technology allows people to alter themselves and that it is a personal choice, then maybe we can talk about education and empowerment beyond our physical looks. Maybe then we can accept that white South Africans represent a sad history that we cannot change.

Moving away from ancient definitions of an African will help us to move away from being tribalist and racist. It will assist us to accept that Africa is not for the darker-looking people alone; we are a rainbow continent.

We are a people who originate from various historical orientations, a people who have found each other to be settlers on this rich continent – and the responsibility for its development is on all of us, blacks, Indians, Arabs … This is our only home.

Rhulani Thembi Siweya is an independent political analyst. She writes for africaunmasked.co.za

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