A Second Look
As tempting as it is, it would be a mistake to dismiss the current debate on who qualifies to be an African as simply a case of diversionary intellectual masturbation between black and white journalists, intellectuals and academics – as much as it has often come close to that.
That the debate, including the related one on the “African renaissance”, has been far removed from the brutal, degrading and worsening poverty of the African masses in this country and on the African continent is without a doubt. That these teeming millions have not had a word to say on the issues and are not interested is also without a doubt. That the integrity of both the debate and its proponents has been debased by deeply emotional rhetoric, rabid arrogance and bile-spewing is equally without a doubt.
However, below the surface of the vitriolic debate between Max du Preez, the Mda sisters and others, which The Star continued to give so much exposure, even when the debate was stuck in and debased by ugly vitriol (one can only wonder why), lies the important national question which our transformation since 1994 has left unresolved.
The national question is who constitutes and what defines the nation. However, the question and its resolution are inextricably linked to social transformation. Questions of national identity can never be divorced from socio- economic factors and the real levers of power in a changing society.
The negotiated settlement, which culminated in the 1994 elections, left many questions of our struggle unresolved. The capitalist economy, responsible for the exploitation of the African masses, was left untouched.
The marriage between non-racial democracy and the capitalist system, which puts profits before people, was bound to pose fundamental problems for our transformation, simply because apartheid was underpinned by capitalism and did not stand on its own as a system of racial oppression. Apartheid and capitalism worked hand in glove. All the changes to the laws of the country could not wipe away the legacy of deep-rooted racism and ethnicity in our country, which is why today it is still so prevalent. The national question should have been a basic aspect of our transformation from the start.
Turning to the debate itself, from a geographical point there is no doubt that we are Africans simply because we are born and live in the south of the African continent. That is why we are called South Africans. Can one be a South African but not an African?
The debate has lacked a balanced perspective which adequately takes into account the historical, material and class forces which have shaped South African history and that of the African continent. Thus far the debate has focused on preconceived racial perceptions and considerations.
If a true African identity means more than just geography and country of birth then let us spell out what these criteria are – whether it be cultural, social, ideological or historical aspects, which distinguishes real Africans from others who have lived on this continent for more than 300 years.
However, once these criteria are included, the participants to the debate must know that they begin to tread on slippery ground. Not only a love for this country and the African continent will be required. Questions of ideology, policies, class and leadership will quickly dispel the myth of a unified black African identity.
If we go this way then it is clear that many black people who think they are entitled to be Africans will find they are not and many white people, who some would argue are not, would be African.
Let’s take the related two-nation thesis asserted by President Thabo Mbeki, namely that in South Africa we have two nations: a white, prosperous nation and a black, poor nation. While in general terms this is true, it ignores the fact that there are many black people who are part of the rising black middle class and big business and, on the other hand, there are growing numbers of poor white people.
Instead of the two-nation thesis, what we are seeing is the manifestation of two classes: an increasingly non-racial ruling class and a working class. With more blacks becoming part of the capitalist class and more white workers joining hands with black workers in strikes, the class lines are becoming clearer.
The debates have been steeped in abstract and esoteric terms about African culture, pride and rights to define oneself, as if these magically weave, a priori, some suprahistorical powers that automatically confer an African identity on some and not on others. These sentiments are not only unscientific nonsense but reactionary and dangerous.
This middle-class, arrogant Africanist nationalism cannot be reconciled with the ethos of non-racialism or nation-building, which, however, will always be limited by growing social and class divisions and antagonisms within our society.
The basic causes of social ills are no different from the apartheid days. Not only is the capitalist system firmly in the saddle but the levels of poverty, unemployment and hardship has increased. To construct a united nation in this situation is impossible.
If the debate recycles itself within these self-serving, middle-class and narrowly Africanist parameters there will be no progress in both theoretical and practical terms towards what is objectively an important discourse for the future.
Let us raise the level of this debate on the national question in ways which take this country forward and not continue with racial and emotional obscurantism and platitudes, whether from black or white contributors.
Ebrahim Harvey is a former Congress of South African Trade Unions member and is now a freelance writer