In response to the National Question, ‘blacks in general and Africans in particular’!
It is in the period since 1994 that we have the collective task of giving content to the non-racial social paradigm; therefore perhaps the time has come to remythologise the identifiers for the collective SA citizenry.
It is said if we are going to appreciate our collective future we must attempt looking at the past that shaped our present. Yet the looking at the past will quickly unearth a past in pasts and a past understood in a more recent past. That recent past spans the democratic era.
This musing argues for an opportunity for the South African citizenry to articulate a self-defined identity in democracy; such a self-concept for identity is anchored with the intent of living a meaning-filled life.
I shall argue the first step in remythologising the current identity markers of the South African societal expression is for human agents who embody its content and structure to claim and demand the opportunity to construct their identity. Equally such self-concept must be freed from the overwhelmingly uncritical acceptance of race as its primary premise.
Equally the markers for identity in democracy have been uncritically appropriated and internalised as permeating all spheres of our societal expression. Thus the identity markers are drawn as constructed from an unequal SA past.
I light my proverbial candle from the flame of Anton Gramsci as we begin this conversation on race immanent in ‘black’ and ‘African’ as a nation in transitioning from the toxic combination of colonialism and apartheid.
Gramsci on the subject of societal transitioning reminds us that transitions are the most painful and dangerous periods in the life of a nation because the old is not yet dead and the new has not yet been born. In South Africa the transition from an earlier colonial and more recent apartheid State(s) sees the espoused non-racial reality and race-free identity of a Democratic State as pregnant, yet not born. The old race rhetoric for identity formulation and configuration proves terminal yet refuses to die.
In order to appreciate my wrestling with the efficacy of interpretation of what constitutes political identities evidenced in ‘black and African’ as articulated in the **Umrabulo** on the National Question, 23, 2005, I am consciously compelled by way of introduction first to relook at the notion of ‘black’ as used in description of “general”. The cultural studies scholar Barker notes, “Identity is best understood not as a fixed entity but as an emotionally charged discursive description of ourselves that is subject to change”.
A promise to my late father
Let me therefore put my disclaimer upfront, I irrevocably remain to a greater degree eternally indebted to my late father who when I was merely 16 years old chose to introduce me to the subject of self-define. He took the liberty to engage me in a conversation which at the time I did not fully understand nor had the appetite for. His words were simple but poignant: “I won’t tell you who you are, all I request is when you do find out who you are, afford no one the luxury of ever attempting to define you”. These words over time gained intensity and relevance as I continued to journey through life.
True to the educator he was, with his astute mind he had me commit to this when I had no true comprehension of what he was saying. From that moment I have taken exception to anyone who remotely attempted to define me. It became my lifelong pursuit to self-define. If I understood my dad correctly, he had the foresight and understanding to distinguish that whilst I am a product of his loins that did not afford him an inalienable right to deny me the opportunity and right to self-define.
This first seedling became the premise for my later academic research work on the current challenges of the National Question in this time.
I am consciously not black!
My conscious dissonance and incongruence with ‘black’ for an identity marker for myself has very little to do with a superfluous denial of how mixed my blood protests. It equally has nothing to do with a form of shame as some ANC and even fellow African intellectuals or leaders have pontificated that for example ‘Coloureds’ must embrace their blackness. (Interesting enough this confirmed demand is never made of Indians, as if Indians have remained pure since they arrived in SA, but that is a topic for another day). It equally is not a denial of the role Black Consciousness and its twin Black Power from across the Atlantic Divide played in the liberation narrative of South Africa in a particular period.
Neville Alexander assists us when he in arguably his last published work in 2013 asserts “…societies and the global village have changed so radically that to continue to analyse and describe things as though we were still in 1848 or 1948 or even 1984 is to be woefully blind and self-defeating”. When Alexander remonstrates for a new vocabulary, it is more than prophetic since we appear stuck in the quagmire and paradigm of analysing and describing things not cognisant how much has changed. In the same vein we analyse and describe people with markers for their identity configured with the unscientific race-based notion more than seventy years after eugenics was declared defunct.
Nina Jablonski helps us to appreciate the evolution of race as a formal construct when she articulates the following: “the first person to formally define races was the noted philosopher Immanuel Kant who in 1785 classified people into four fixed races, which were arrayed in a hierarchy according to colour and talent. Kant had scant personal knowledge of human diversity but opined freely about the tastes and finer feelings of groups about which he knew nothing”.
Jablonski continues to assert that “for Kant and his many followers, the rank-ordering of races by skin color and character created a self-evident order of nature that implied that light- colored races were superior and destined to be served by the innately inferior, darker–colored ones”.
My research entitled “Black Identity and experience in Black Theology: A critical assessment” is a rational attempt at questioning the usage of the epithet ‘black’ from a socio-historical and theological perspective. In such I have made the case that the marker black for a people’s identity is plausibly not originating from those who are today black. In such research I have postulated that there appears a conflation of identity and experience with the adoption of black for a denotation for a people’s humanity.
I further argue that perhaps people were subjected to a black experience at the hand of those who wanted their false white supreme identity to count, until people became what they were subjected to.
Having attempted to deal with the borrowed identity marker of ‘black’ in comfort of exchange between the USA and South Africa in a particular season and time captured as 1960s to late 1970s, I have concluded that the construct as used in black theology remains one uncritically borrowed from that experience. I have further contended that when Stokeley Carmichael stood up at Berkeley California in 1969 and declared with a clenched fist BLACK POWER he was not defining black, but attempting to define a responsive power. The construct black already existed and those for whom this identity marker became their being, had very little to do with the origin of the construct.
…Black in general and African in particular… conundrum
In **Umrabulo** 23 of 2005, a cardinal aspect of the National Question is articulated as “the liberation of black people in general and Africans in particular”. This articulation, later policy and ultimately law, has shaped the ANC in philosophy, governance, resource allocation/distribution, attention to detail for a mandate of governance and attitude.
Perhaps we must also at this stage in an adumbrated sense allude to the linkage between the National Question and what has been termed the “developmental state”. The notion of a developmental state advances a “National Democratic Revolution” which in turn must answer the following identified 5 key aspects as articulated in **Umrabulo** 23: Page 34:
- To firstly liberate black people in general, and Africans in particular.
- The struggle to evidence and bring about a non-racial, non-sexist, democratic and united South Africa.
- To search and work for the unitary South African Nation with a common overarching identity.
- To work for the eradication and resolve of antagonistic contradictions between black and white.
- To deal with ethnic oriented, race-filled feelings of any form of ethnic chauvinism.
We equally must not shy away from admitting that the diaphragm for that theoretical platform in prevalence is an accepted Marxist dialect in custodianship. One may therefore ask what happened when the famous Berlin wall collapsed in 1989. It appears that more than the constructed wall came down and the residue of that destruction still envelopes the ANC, because of the influence of Marxism-Leninism that has over a long period been the backbone of the ANC’s ideological identity architecture. Hence we now attest in this season an opaqueness of ideological presence and direction.
It would appear at the heart of what is deemed the National Question must be the search for a coherence of social and political realities and life out of a history of colonial and apartheid rule, in a confined geographic space regardless of persuasion or preference if we understand politics to confirm the organising of a society.
In his definition of an ideology of Black Nationalism Dexter B Gordon asserts, “the ideology of black nationalism emphasizes black self definition and self-determination in contrast to the continuing efforts of white Anglo America to define blacks and determine their role in the debate about race.”
The Democratic State’s uncritical adoption of the National Question.
Perhaps this uncritical adoption of a National Question has us looking at our collective future through the limited review mirror of our past. When one asserts a limited review it is in recognition of the fact that the 1910 Segregation / Colonial State and the 1948 Apartheid State identified their respective clients. Following a serious of commissions the obnoxious 1913 Native Land Act entrenched that political identity determined for a people by the 1910 Segregation/ Colonial State. In a similar vein Act 30 of 1950 Section C, defined a people that always existed as ‘Coloured’.
Deborah Posel reminded us, “The architects of apartheid racial classification policies recognised explicitly that racial categories were constructs, rather than descriptions of essences”. It would appear whilst apartheid’s architects of racial classification explicitly recognised racial categories as constructs, the democratic state with its policies appear to be attaching a description of essence though directly eked out of these apartheid constructs. If racial policy categorisation constituted mere constructs then they can be subjected to question and their relevance can be challenged, particularly in a different time and space.
Not only was their choice of ‘Coloured’ to identify a people ambivalent, but equally the very filling of that content is anchored in otherness. Thus the construct ‘Coloured’ remains dubious and laced in ulterior motive. It attests an otherness from those who thought themselves ‘white’ and superior, yet it also was an otherness that separated those they defined as ‘Coloured’ from those the Colonial State in 1913 defined as ‘Natives’.
Thus a systematic and careful analysis of the apartheid mind on what is a ‘Coloured’ is laid bare whilst a false identity is created, propped up by the claims of otherness. This otherness later will mature in the very group when they too become blinded into acceptance of filling the content of their identity with an otherness.
It is thus troublesome that the Democratic State accepts an identity marker for this group. We must still find out what the aim of the Democratic State is with embracing these notions of ‘Coloured’, ‘black’, ‘Indian’ and ‘white’ beyond the coagulum of a claim of redress. It cannot be that the Democratic State shares the epicentre and circumference congruent to the apartheid state.
Alexander extrapolates further on the back of what Posel concludes: “that, because of the life-and-death seriousness with which the apartheid strategists and ideologues viewed the issue of race, their attention to detail brought them face to face with the anomalies and idiosyncrasies of racial identities”.
Even if one understands the logic of the Democratic State of 1994, to identify its constituents in a moribund and mellifluous sense, we nevertheless did expect the Democratic State to afford an opportunity to self-define. The Democratic State thus could have lit its candle from the same vein of my late father’s foresight to recognise my inalienable right as a 16 year old to self-define, and in equally in line with Alexander’s call for a new vocabulary.
We thus find the Democratic State in harmony and sanguinity with both the Segregation and Apartheid States for its identity configurations of its citizenry. This is a clear contradiction from where I stand.
As South Africans we must utilise the right to engage in an open and transparent conversation to develop the much-needed new vocabulary, freed from constricted and lame constructed colonial and apartheid racist ideology premises.
It has to be cause for great concern that the Democratic State, even if it justifies it on the grounds that it is necessary to measure and ascertain the quantitative index for change and transformation have continued in that same trajectory as its predecessors.
I have elsewhere contended that the Democratic State should stand by the principle and tradition of the 1955 Freedom Charter (our Magna Carta) that articulates unequivocally ‘we the people’ in the context of hosting conflated groups.
It is therefore perhaps time to begin to ask how plausible, widely canvassed, honest in pensive reflection, practical in sustainability is the National Question in its articulated form? Also can a leading political party with a mandate to govern continue along this uncritical embrace of a National Question?
Mbeki’s speech and the ANC’s National Question in dialectic tension
There is an undeniable dialectic tension between what the ANC articulates as the National Question and the progressive humanitarian values embodied in Mbeki’s “I am an African” speech.
The former contradicts the notion of a constitutionality of what makes for an African and equally reduces the identity of African to a specific group. We thus stand before the reality of either rejecting “I am an African” as at best a mythical poetic expression if we are going to honestly reflect on and critique the national question in the South African revolution. We can no longer continue the attempt to make both stand.
Slabbert comments that in the book **Africa Define Yourself**, a compilation of Mbeki’s speeches edited by Essop Pahad and Willie Esterhuyse, Mbeki fails to in a serious sense address the challenges he raises on the African identity.
I concur with Slabbert when he asserts that as soon as one uses the term ‘Africa’ or ‘African’ for more than just uncomplicated geographic references, one enters a world of value-loaded and ideological agendas where arguments can become so convoluted that one may choke on one’s own assumptions.
Another challenge we are confronted with is the uncertainty as to who defines the identity of ‘African’. We are simply not clear if this is directly borrowed from a constricted history in which apartheid minds declared this identity and exacted a suffering measurable to the degree it determined.
Furthermore it appears the challenge with upholding the binary distinction of general and in particular is its ontology of racist practice leading to a form of eschatology of racist practice. Regardless of whether the idea of ‘Africans’ is used as an exclusive or inclusive term, it fundamentally informs societal interaction at all levels as a trapped identity in a scripted history of colonialism and more so apartheid.
I am not alone in holding this stance. To quote Van Zyl Slabbert, “of die regering die begrip ‘Afrikaan’ in ‘n ekslusiewe of inklusiewe sin gebruik, het egter wel ‘n regstreekse impak op beleid and help vorm die interaksie tussen die verskillende gemeenskappe”. Loosely translated, Slabbert asserts, irrespective of the State’s usage of the construct ‘African’ in an exclusive or inclusive sense it has direct impact on legislation and assists in defining interaction between communities.
It thus cannot be that the term ‘African’ in a postmodern democratic state is used as a means to justify opportunity, chance and moment exclusive to those who do not share the determined African claim for an identity marker, when we have not engaged the construct ‘African’ in calmness and honesty of mind and heart.
If we earlier asked who determined the African identity, we now must ask what informed the content for an African identity in the National Question?
Fundamental errors in relation to the National Question.
It would appear to me that the National Question as articulated by the ANC commits at least five immediate and perhaps fundamental errors.
Firstly it uncritically gives credence and veracity to the false race informed identity markers for people who are South Africans however culturally, socially and politically defined. If read in concert with the struggle for a non-racial society, it uncritically continues with the debunked and unscientific notion of race as the anchor tenant for identity configuration, albeit in using race as a social construct. One would hope the burden is on us as a collective to challenge the veracity of the notion of a ‘social construct’ usage at this time in our history.
Secondly, it conveniently engages in what is called a form of exceptionalism if not separatism. Exceptionalism, because in the National Question the term ‘African’ is rendered an apartheid convenient exclusive identity. Separatism, because the black is separated from the African with exacted pain as the premise. One who suffered under that brutality of an apartheid regime can never be accused of making light of the exacted pain, yet to uncritically accept and adopt apartheid’s myopic classification of an African identity as the yardstick to define a people in exclusion of others in a democracy regardless of exacted pain for the measurement of progress must militate against the known inclusivity of an Africa in geographic setting.
Thirdly, it continues in the trajectory of the exacted pain in configuring people’s group and individual identities out of the entitled residue of an Apartheid state.
Fourthly, it is devoid of careful analysis and of objective scrutiny; thus it narrowly promotes the excluding of people in the ‘African’ identity definition, when the African identity warrants a thorough and not an emotional unpacking.
And finally, it inadvertently engages in what I have termed identity- doublespeak when it espouses a yet to be filled non – racial reality whilst it denies firstly the opportunity to engage in public facilitated sense the subject identity construction. It as a by-product of the denial of a state facilitated initiative for self-define, a critical aspect of our collective liberation narrative to be buoyant in a democratic atmosphere and space.
We thus raise questions relating in particular to the use of the term ‘African’ in the ANC’s understanding of the National Question. These questions emanate from its origin, and its ethnographic loadedness.
Perhaps we have a right to know from the propagators of the National Question in whose interest is the assumed and veiled need for a form of intellectual hegemony for a precise understanding on the National Question.
Can we establish who and what determines the African identity as articulated in the National Question? When Umrabulo gives us the National Question we are compelled to ask, exactly who determined the description, term and construct?
We must also ask when the ANC excludes others from identifying as Africans, what is the yardstick used to come to that conclusion? To put it bluntly, is it different from Apartheid?
We need to know is the statement of an African identity as used in the National Question, a statement of ideology advanced as a statement of fact? If an ideology from where, if a statement of fact how?
We want to know if blackness is only defined by or in relationship to whiteness, and whether African-ness is only defined by our counter to European-ness?
We also must ask is this African identity espoused in the National Question as articulated assuming a geographic or ethnographic context? If it is geographic how then can others however defined be excluded?
If it is ethnographic how does that make sense of fellow Africans who have made their way from as far as Libya, Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria into South Africa’s borders? If these our fellow Africans who clearly have definite links with Italy and France as a form of claimed origin and home are Africans how are the ‘blacks’ from the Southland in the National Question denied an equal African Identity?
Are we to assume our brothers and sisters from the aforementioned Africans States and those from Ethiopia, Gambia, Nigeria, Ghana, and Senegal are also Africans in the same myopic sense as apartheid defined a people when it thought it correct to exact a suffering exemplified in the debasing of others because it wanted its false ‘white’ superior identity to count?
In conclusion, if we understand the key tenets for a developmental state and the essence of the National Question as understood within the 5 pillars that make up the National Question; and if we appreciate its historically known Marxist dialect of engaging a past with the hope of eking out a tomorrow; then we cannot but accept its relevance in claim for redress.
Yet whilst we may acknowledge the relevance of such we are compelled to ask in this season how sustainable is the national question with its black in general and African in particular notion when it therefore excludes one from claiming an African identity of being, which one rightfully identifies with from an uncomplicated birth-right geographic reference disposition.
Is it not then fair to ask has the National Question in 2016 not divided us in apartheid anthropology, thought life practice and perhaps unwittingly doomed us to a future of a confirmed race-laden and thus by extension racist SA?
I do not purport to have the answers, yet I am compelled to give expression to these my musings in the hope of finding the path that will let the ideals of my full humanity count, devoid of my history in which colonialism and apartheid states took the liberty and latitude to define me. This would be distinct from my current situation in which a democratic state refuses to break with the same racist labels of my common humanity. I dream of making my full humanity count in harmony of my self-defined identity and a future emancipated from the burden of a race label.
If I have overstated anything it is purely due to the fact that I carry an immense burden placed upon me as committed to my late father not to permit anyone to attempt to define me, once I have discovered who I am. I am further more persuaded that I too have to let my three growing sons have that right to self define as sacrosanct, thus I am obligated to challenge us all to engage the subject of identity as articulated in an ANC National Question.
It would appear we must rise beyond the proverbial picket fences of romanticising about an uncritical black identity, and less so in a lyrical soliloquy of an African identity when the latter is seldom engaged honestly and with definite intent to give content to the non-racial identity notion. It is here I dare caution that we run the risk of what McWhorter calls victimology, where we deem it our inalienable right to red flag ‘whites’ on their hardening racist attitudes when we in doublespeak refuse to honestly engage our own anomalies of identity construction and re-configuration in post-apartheid society.
Whilst I portend to have found my seminal voice on the rejection of ‘black’ configuration for my identity, I am now in pursuit to test the efficacy of how I am denied my claim to be an African. It appears the road to this end for the latter must needs go through the proverbial biblical Samaria where I am denied to claim it at least in the National Question because someone unilaterally has declared me ‘black’ without my permission and equally in exclusion of being African without my consultation, at the hand of apartheid anthropology and identity construction.
I must therefore ask beyond the poetic expression, and license Mbeki took in 1996 to attempt defining the African identity he understood it to be, why I am not an African if the exacted claim of degree of suffering under a brutal system of apartheid is not the yardstick?
The obligation to afford South Africans an opportunity to self-define is upon us less in romantic claim but in seriousness of the hour to give content to the non-racial identity and reality so easily claimed. Self-define is a right and that right must count particularly in democracy.
Was Mbeki’s cry purely poetic never to be filled with content? Is the non-racial notion also a mirage that remains opaque and bereft of content? Furthermore in whose interest is this uphold of racist identity markers for our collective human agency of ‘black’, ‘coloured’, ‘Indian’ and ‘white’? For these regardless of viewed from what side intrinsically remain relational terms that carry racist loadedness because in south they mean more than cultural distinctiveness but attests economic value.
We then must hear Alexander when he warns us against analysing and describing things and may I add people as if we are still in 1848, 1948 or 1984.
For how long can we consciously continue with the malfunctioning out-dated race-based configurations for identity markers and classifications for a common South African citizenry? How much longer can we engage in what I labelled identity doublespeak in which we espouse a non-racial reality when we live in all aspects of societal a race-infested South African life in democracy?
Let it be known today, as always I am African!
Clyde Nicholas Stephen Ramalaine
October 31, 2016
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