A while ago I was speaking to an African-American friend who was visiting South Africa. He told me that he found it strange that when he is in the United States, he is considered an African-American, but when he is in Africa, he is only an American.

I thought about this comment last week when I presented a lecture to journalism students at Stellenbosch University and one of the students asked me why only certain people could be called “Africans” in South Africa when all of us are Africans and should be allowed to use that title.

I must admit I used an expletive in my response, because the racial categorisation of South African society is driving me crazy, to put it mildly.
I had to agree with the student that the term “African”, as we use it in South Africa, is really confusing, especially to non-South Africans and more especially to people from other African countries.

I have been fortunate to interact with many people on the continent in the past few months and I still don’t know how to explain our racial categories or identities to them.

“So, you mean the term African refers to people who were born in South Africa and who would normally be called black. However, you can’t call them black because legally blacks include coloureds and Indians and now even Chinese? So how do you guys refer to us, people who come from other African countries?” is a response I’ve had a couple of times.

Of course, I had to tell them that some people refer to people from other African countries by the derogatory term “amakwerekwere” but then I also said we sometimes use the term “Africans from other African countries” or “foreign African”. And sometimes we refer to people who would normally be considered black by the term “African black” or “black African”. In the same way we sometimes refer to other people as “coloured black” or “Indian black”.

The term “African” is one that should be urgently reviewed by government or whoever reviews these things. All people born on the African continent can legitimately call themselves Africans, no matter what their colour or complexion.

Maybe there is a need for a commission or a national discussion on how we define our national identities.

Of course, the term “Indian” could also be problematic. How can you attach a foreign national identity to people who have lived in South Africa for generations? Surely, when South Africans of Indian descent visit India, they probably also encounter what my African-American friend discovered: that in India, they are considered to be South Africans.

In fact, I have been amazed when I travel overseas and we are all just considered to be South Africans, because that is where we come from. However, as soon as we return home, we again attach our various identities. So then we become African or African black or black African, coloured or so-called coloured, Indian, Chinese (or black), white or in the minds of some people who would like to perpetuate apartheid, European.

We disintegrate into Xhosas and Zulus, Tswanas and Pedis, Vendas or Sothos. We become Tamils or Hindus, Muslims or Christians or Jews. I am not saying that there is something wrong with all these multiple identities but when we use our identities as a weapon against others, as we tend to do in South Africa, then I think there is a problem.

Apparently, in Namibia, they deal with this issue by saying someone is a Herero-speaking Namibian or a Nama-speaking Namibian. Ultimately, I believe that we need to move to a situation where racial categories no longer apply in South Africa and all of us just become South Africans.

Of course, what then happens to the redress and the reparations that have to happen in our society? That still needs to happen but is essentially a separate issue.

I sincerely believe if we create an environment in which we acknowledge each other as South Africans and not by strange racial categories, we might be able to unite our nation in an unprecedented manner and develop a sense of patriotism that is sorely lacking throughout society.


  • Ryland Fisher is former editor of the Cape Times and author of the book Race. This is his second book, following on Making the Media Work for You, which was published in 2002. He is executive chairperson of the Cape Town Festival, which he initiated while editor of the Cape Times in 1999 as part of the One City Many Cultures project. He received an international media award for this project in New York in October 2006. His personal motto is "bringing people together", which was the theme of One City Many Cultures. It remains the theme of the Cape Town Festival and is the theme of Race. Ryland has worked in and with government, in the media for more than 25 years, in the corporate sector, in NGOs and in academia. Ultimately, however, he describes himself as "just a souped-up writer".


Ryland Fisher

Ryland Fisher is former editor of the Cape Times and author of the book Race. This is his second book, following on Making the Media Work for You, which was published in 2002. He is...

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