Henry Ford once said, “You can have any colour as long as it is black”. Similarly, native inhabitants of Africa say, “You can be an African in any colour as long as he is black.” There has been a sudden demand for an African to come in a variety of colours. During days of slavery when an African was a commodity traded over the counter, there was never a demand for him in any colour but black. There is now an attempt in the 21st century to redefine the colour scheme of an African. Whites want to be classified as African.
Whites have been relentless in their attempts at historical revisionism in respect of the definition of “African” since the 1994 democratic dispensation, and their efforts appeared to have intensified after the collective hoorah of reconciliation had dissipated. Historical revisionism is generally a legitimate re-evaluation of existing understanding and knowledge of particular historical aspects in order to correct any distortions; but there are also those with deliberate motives to revise history in order to mislead or reflect them in favourable light.
Historically, the term “African” never had any ambiguous meaning. To Africans today it still does not have any ambiguous meaning. Africans across the continent and in the diaspora have long understood its meaning to refer to them as black people. African leaders from all walks of life who waged a relentless struggle against the thuggery of colonialism in the continent, were of one mind with regard to who Africans were. The fight against colonialism was to liberate Africans from the thuggery visited upon them by Europeans who had arrogated to themselves the power to rule with brute force and dominate vast territories of the African continent.
When both Arabs and Europeans enslaved Africans and traded them as disposable commodities there was never any misunderstanding with regard to who Africans were. These were native inhabitants of Africa who were regarded as sub-human, and even “savages and barbarians”, as the British warlord Winston Churchill perceived them. These are people who in historical texts have been described as “African slaves”. Neither Arabs nor European slave-masters ever imagined themselves as Africans. When an order for an African slave arrived, it was clear that it was a commoditised black person who needed to be captured and a price put on his head.
On the occasion of Nelson Mandela’s inauguration as the first democratically elected president of the Republic of South Africa, he said: “The South Africa we have struggled for, in which all our people, be they African, coloured, Indian or white, regard themselves as citizens of one nation is at hand.”
Mandela, too, understood the true meaning of the term “African”. He knew that the term “African” referred to black people of this continent; that black South Africans were the Africans.
When Thabo Mbeki stood before the National Assembly on the adoption of the Constitution of South Africa and proclaimed himself an African during his seminal speech, he said: “I am formed of the migrants who left Europe to find a new home on our native land. Whatever their own actions, they remain still, part of me. In my veins courses the blood of the Malay slaves who came from the East. Their proud dignity informs my bearing, their culture a part of my essence. The stripes they bore on their bodies from the lash of the slave master are a reminder embossed on my consciousness of what should not be done.”
Mbeki recognised and acknowledged that other cultures and the acquired knowledge of the history of various races had shaped his being and person as an African. The speech has been misinterpreted for social expediency by some to mean that all who live on the continent are Africans.
“The African is conditioned, by cultural and social institutions of centuries, to a freedom of which Europe has little conception, and it is not in his nature to accept serfdom forever.” These are the words of Jomo Kenyatta, first president of Kenya, from the conclusion to his book Facing Mount Kenya in 1938. Kenyatta, too, does not appear to have suffered from the illusion that the term “African” referred to anybody else other than native inhabitants of Africa — the black people.
The rise of Pan-Africanism in the 1920s was a consequence of the need by African intellectuals to challenge white supremacy, to defeat the absurd notion that Africans were inferior to whites and to agitate the African diaspora towards unity with the rest of Africans. The fifth Pan-African Congress that was held in Manchester in 1945 was meant to galvanise Africans against colonial rule and promote self-pride among Africans.
It was in all probability this congress, which was attended by Kenyatta, WEB Du Bois, George Padmore, Kwame Nkrumah, among others, that set the wheels of decolonialisation of Africa and the British West Indies in motion. There was a determination of purpose and single-mindedness of who an African was within the context of Pan-Africanism. Progenitors of colonialisation and their descendants were never seen or imagined as African. They themselves did not imagine themselves as African.
Marcus Garvey famously agitated the conscience of the African diaspora when he advocated for the return of Africans to Africa. Garvey was not inviting the mass exodus of Europeans to Africa. Each understood that by African, Garvey was making an impassioned plea to black people to return home to Africa and rebuild it into what it should be for themselves. Ironically, Du Bois was one of those Africans in the diaspora who opposed Garvey’s plan for the return of all Africans to Africa; but in his old-age he relocated to Ghana on the invitation of Nkrumah, were he died.
Our historical revisionists who want to be reclassified as Africans and no longer as Europeans or white, tend to look north at Arab countries and claim, in their state of bewilderment, that Arabs are Africans, therefore, they too have the right to proclaim themselves African. Perhaps it is the lack of historical knowledge that leads some to conclude that Arabs are Africans. The term “Arab” denote the racial identity of people from the Arabian Peninsula who conquered Egypt (then part of the Byzantine Empire) and Libya in the AD 600s and ended up controlling much of the northern part of Africa, including Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. Therefore, Arabs are not Africans.
The historical revisionism by whites becomes even more troubled given the recent archaeological evidence that appear to challenge long-held view that Africa is the cradle of mankind. Palaeontologists have recently unearthed the oldest human fossil in China, which is said to be 60 000 years older than the next oldest Homo Sapiens remains. According to these palaeontologists, their discovery suggests that anatomically modern humans had arrived in China long before the species began acting human.
Popular theory among whites has been that their ancient ancestors came from Africa. However, palaeontologists after an analysis of more than 5 000 ancient teeth, concluded that first Europeans were from Asia, not Africa. This discovery reconciles with the discovery of the oldest human fossil in China, that whites have no direct ancestral lineage to Africa. Even when we disregard the pattern of migration of hominids from Africa to Europe and Asia; we can conclude that there was no species of mankind that evolved in Africa from hominids into whites, who then migrated and settled in Europe. The true origin of whites according to archaeology was elsewhere, not in Africa. Given this history, it would make much more sense for whites to want to be reclassified as Chinese.
While ancient and recent history confirms that whites are not Africans; the notion that they are persists, primarily born from the lack of distinction between racial and national identity. Europeans who migrated and settled Africa through naturalisation assumed the national identity of countries in which they adopted as their own. Their descendants in later generations through birth assumed the national identity of those countries, not the racial identity as Africans. They remained whites or Europeans, as oppressors of Africans saw themselves. No white person can either through birth or naturalisation assume an identity of African. African is not and has never been a national identity. Nowhere does a country called Africa exist.
Whites who had lived in South Africa for countless generations, now after many years of considering themselves Europeans during the apartheid years, proclaim themselves Africans. When white Afrikaner supremacists had signs saying “Europeans” and “Non-Europeans” to enforce segregation between Africans and Europeans, there was never any ambiguity around the term “European”. Almost all whites understood themselves to be Europeans, other than the few who stood on the side of Africans to fight for the abolishment of segregation laws and emancipation of the oppressed people.
It is puzzling that whites readily accept African languages to be exclusively those commonly known as black languages; yet they cannot accept that the description “African” exclusively refers to Black people. The notion that Afrikaans is an African language is as ridiculous as any claim to Africanism by the progeny of European settlers. Afrikaans by its origin is bastardised Dutch and as some say, “another form of Fanagalo”. It is not an African language in the same manner that Arabic-dialect in Egypt is not an African language.
If this historical revisionism is to continue, soon whites would find the racial identity as African not enough, and proclaim themselves “black” and accuse those who refuse to recognise them as such to be racist and intolerant. Hopefully sense will prevail with regard to the contested description of African and we would never reach such point of racial absurdity. I have generally understood whites in South Africa to be opposed to name-changes. They have lambasted the ANC when it embarked on a name-changing adventure. It seems a bit hypocritical of them that they want to change their racial description and assume a new identity. This quest for blackness can be readily achieved through simple process of sun-tanning; though perfect results cannot be guaranteed. There is an increased risk of turning orange than black, as Debora Patta has learned.
The need for belonging is well understood and appreciated. Africans embrace other races as their fellow countrymen, whether white, Indian or Chinese; in the hope for unity under one flag, for the betterment of the country we all live in and embrace as our own. Africa is for all who live in it, African, Indian, Chinese, Arab, etc. Perhaps Africans should embark on a countrywide hug-giving exercise to reassure their white compatriots that they too belong in Africa, in any colour but black.