How to be a South African

The mind boggles at the sometimes extra- ordinary advice South Africa’s so-called whites are being given about how to make it in the New South Africa. There have been caring suggestions even from a highly paid senior academic (well, he is employed at a university) from KwaZulu-Natal. He recommends, for example, that whites should learn to dance like Johnny Clegg, the entertainer, and come to relish delicacies like walkie-talkies — the feet and heads of dead chickens.

More recently, the Mail & Guardian also devoted space to the perceived problem of how whites can become Africans so that they could then get along fine with blacks and live here happily.

Some of this is actually absolute nonsense, of course, and it suffers from a serious lack of definition.

For a start, physiologically there is as much chance of a white becoming an African as there is of a hyena changing into a hound dog (or Elvis Presley).

So it is a mental thing, something cultural that we are supposed to be talking about. Well, right on and straight away, many people will applaud the Pan Africanist Congress’s Themba Godi’s recent M&G quote (“How to be a white African”, December 14 2005) from Mangaliso Sobukwe, the PAC founder, that “there is only one race to which we all belong — the human race”. Hooray. And more cheers when Godi reminds his readers that the PAC has refused to identify people in terms of colour “since its inception”. (So different from the racist bile put out by some of the congress’s later leaders, one must say.)

But then things go off the rails, and “indigenous people” and “Africans” crop up, and “whites”, and we start to particularise and then generalise — like “everyone in Africa should become an African, identify with Africa … and respect and embrace its values and norms”.

Sounds really great but, ahem: Just which values and norms?

Are we talking Tutsis and Hutus here, for example, and genocide?

So, apart from Clegg and some bits of chicken, what are we really talking about when we want whites, or any others, to become “African”?

In fact, it is some idealistic but unrealistic notion for South Africa that is not concrete enough to have practical application.

Is there another way to go?

It comes back to particulars and to definition.

South Africa has nearly always had problems with definitions. I was born to be an “English-speaking white South African” and I found this weird creature impossible to define. I concluded I was merely South African.

Many Afrikaners, especially at the height of Afrikaner Nationalist domination, regarded themselves as simply — Afrikaners. Maybe some conceded they might be “South Africans” also, as a remote second, but many were certain that the only real South African had to be Afrikaans. English-speakers hardly came into the picture. Blacks didn’t come into it at all. Nor Jews. Nor lots of others who had every right.

And even today there are Zulus who are just Zulus. They live in KwaZulu-Natal and they have a king and that is that.

But we can get somewhere constructive very quickly if, instead of talking about whites becoming “Africans”, we talk about their acknowledging that already they are not just whites at all but actually a very separate breed: South Africans. Then get Zulus to do the same, and all the rest of us, and then get everybody thinking about what that could mean. And, of course, the responsibilities this entails.

Whatever our colour, being South African is stamped on us somewhere.

It is like the American writer, James Baldwin, a negro, who exiled himself from the United States to Paris to avoid racist humiliation. He found to his astonishment in those strange surroundings that he couldn’t escape his Americanness.

“I proved to my astonishment that I was as American as a Texas GI,” he wrote.

It would cost a lot to ship us all to Europe so we could find out we are South Africans, but we can start at home.

As a start, we need to acknowledge, then get to relish, our indelible common South Africanness, and build on it, admit our interdependence and to stick up, individually and collectively, for the values we can contribute, values that built this country (and sometimes maybe nearly destroyed it) and which our common society desperately needs. It needs ramrods up its spine. Blacks are right to assert themselves right now. It is a twist of history. Go for it. But whites (and others) are doing nobody a favour if they fail to assert their own values and importance and rights as well.

They are stupid when they go belly up to some perceived “black domination”, when they try to “be black” or just chuck up their hands and “let the blacks get on with it”. That is the worst kind of racism — the arrogance of low expectations.

This is a great African country. But no one group now can keep South Africa going all by itself. Good luck to Clegg with his dancing. He is part of us anyway. But I am not so sure about the dead chickens’ feet.

Humphrey Tyler is the author of Life in the Time of Sharpeville, he was a Drum staffer and edited the magazine for a while and was editorial director of the World (now the Sowetan)

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