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The problems with defining #African

By Jason van Niekerk

Sentletse Diakanyo is not a journalist, and tells his readers not to unreasonably expect balanced articles. He’s not a scientist either, so apparently we shouldn’t unreasonably expect his cherry-picked wikiscience to accurately reflect human evolution. What he is, though, is a stirrer, and his Thought Leader post “We are not all Africans, black people are!” is the chocolate spoon in a very stormy teacup. In the wake of his post, a number of thoughtful South Africans have responded, noting that his arguments are bad (they are), his account of evolution seems to suggest that black people aren’t Homo sapiens sapiens (own goal, that), and that he endorses Verwoed-era racial classifications (he does). Regardless of his arguments, however, his conclusion has generated some interesting reactions: at least some black South Africans are very sympathetic to his claim; at least some white South Africans are so affronted that their Africanness could even be questioned that they’ve called or written in to the press huffily threatening to wash their hands of the country entirely, and many are upset the issue has even been raised, either because racial divisiveness, like Voldemort, returns when discussed, or (as Diakanyo himself has disingenuously claimed) because it doesn’t much matter who gets to be African.

I think people who believe that last part are wrong, precisely because of the sorts of reactions the debate is provoking. Since I kinda have to justify the claims I make for a living, I should probably explain why I think they’re wrong. So, without going over what others have already said too much, here’s my take on the problems with Diakanyo’s argument, white people expecting to automatically be considered African, black people denying a white African identity, and the naive insistence that it doesn’t matter what others think of our identities.

Let’s start with what’s wrong with Diakanyo’s argument. There are a couple of problems here, but the essential one is that his argument rests on what’s called the fallacy of equivocation, a sleight-of-word trick that takes a word with multiple meanings, makes a point about one, then substitutes the other, like this: the rich are the enemy of the people. Cheesecake is rich. Therefore, cheesecake is the enemy of the people. In much the same way, Diakanyo shows that “African” has at least one accepted meaning, picking out black people, then insists that this should be its only meaning in all contexts. But, of course, we use the term in many contexts, and collapsing all of them to the racial one wouldn’t work (here’s the party-trick reason: African Penguins are black AND white, but African all over). As many of Diakanyo’s respondents have noted, the sense in which some white people contend that they are African seems to pick out some sort of relationship to Africa and Africans, rather than an insistence that they be considered black. What’s at stake is whether white people can properly be considered African in that hazily-defined context, and pointing out that white people cannot logically be “African” in the racial sense does no work one way or the other to resolve the issue.

Before too many mlungu start feeling smug, note that exactly the same fallacy shows up in the most common white whine generated in response to Diakanyo’s claim: “I’m South African, I was born in Africa, so I’m as African as anyone else born here.” See the trick? We can use “African” in a geographic sense, so that must settle the question of whether we’re African in all senses. That’s the same fallacy Diakanyo used. If you need a little more convincing, here’s the problem with that claim: white South Africans at the height of apartheid could’ve said exactly the same thing, truthfully, while living lives explicitly based on distancing themselves from Africa and Africans. So whatever the contentious sense of “African” is, we don’t settle it one way or the other simply by pointing to race, geography, or nationality.

The truth that Diakanyo and his knee-jerk respondents are trying to bluff away is that an “African” identity is a complicated thing, caught up in our relationships to the consensually understood ideas of Africa. And since that consensus itself changes, it’s a contentious thing, and the contending parties have different interests in it. Which is what this storm is really about.

However flawed Diakanyo’s arguments, many black South Africans are sympathetic to his claim precisely because some white South Africans insist on their default status as African. Here’s the problem with that: whatever an African identity is, it’s steeped in a persistent legacy of negative connotations. Where white identity is, still, a worn-in default simply assumed by a privileged few, a positive African identity (as Biko said) has to be created. Doing so is an achievement, the hard-won result of staring at distorted reflections of yourself and learning to find the true and the good in them. And the people who cannot avoid engaging with those distorted images of Africa are black (which is the grain of truth Diakanyo’s pearl of rhetoric so thoroughly coated). Now imagine undertaking all of that, as Diakanyo and any other black African in a white supremacist world has, only to have some pack of milkybars walk in and arrogate the same identity for themselves, like one more membership card slid into an overstuffed wallet. It’s a little insulting, frankly. The idea that African identity should be conferred automatically betrays a failure to recognise its nature and value.

Note that this doesn’t necessarily mean that white people can’t be African, any more than my being a man necessarily prevents my being a feminist. But however much I subscribe to the radical notion that women are human beings, however much Steinem and Sontag and Greer I read, being a man insulates me from the impact of women’s experience in a way that being a woman never could. Now, it may well be that I cannot, as a matter of principle, opt out of a commitment to feminism, even if it’s an option, but I’d be a bit of a whiny git to pretend I can’t see why being a man might make it harder to prove my commitment. And in the same way, many white South Africans want to claim an African identity not because they think they deserve it by default, but because they really do care about Africa and Africans, because they feel proud when this continent outperforms racist expectations, and deeply hurt when it seems to embody them. These people — and I’m one of them — really do feel that their identity is caught up with that of Africa, and don’t feel that they could authentically adopt another identity. But that doesn’t change that I could comfortably walk through London or Perth without needing to assert or defend myself as African. And as long as I am snuggled in white privilege (like Visa, accepted everywhere), I’d be one petulant, naive little snowdrop to complain that I don’t see why it’s harder for me to prove my commitment than for a black African. It’s unjust, sure, but as the lingering consequences of racial injustice go, it’s hardly the roughest end of the stick.

Wouldn’t it be easier, then, for white South Africans not to bother with pursuing an African identity, simply accepting the South African nationality that Diakanyo is happy to concede? Many white South Africans declare (loudly, in a somewhat hurt tone) that this is exactly their flippen’ plan, but they’re wrong to. As Sally Matthews has noted, what’s at stake for white South Africans is a non-racist post-apartheid identity. White identity under apartheid was premised on the ridiculous fiction that white South Africans were independent of Africa, and living out that lie, then and now, is unwittingly racist. For white people to continue to live in South Africa without finding a way to understand themselves as African is to perpetuate a way of being that has racism built into its foundations.

And here we come to the last suggestion this debate has spawned: a number of people have insisted that it doesn’t matter what mean meanie-heads like Diakanyo say; white people can know they’re African, deep down. This manifests either as the Mango Groovy belief that who we really are is a special star, no matter what others think, or the laager mentality of a robust, Steve-Hofmeyer-esque Afrikanerdom: screw you guys, we’re African no matter what you think. The problem with that is that it’s just not how group identity works. As the philosopher Thaddeus Metz has noted, being part of a group isn’t just about having feelings about that identity and wanting the best for the rest of its members; it’s also about other members of that group recognising me as one of them. As Metz puts it, “I can’t be Zulu simply by saying I am, if other people who call themselves Zulu disagree”. To be African, then isn’t just about how we relate to Africa and Africans, it’s about other Africans recognising us as such. This is, more or less, why LGBTI activists militate for recognition inside this society, not a secessionist enclave called Fuchsje: it matters to human beings to have our commonality accepted and recognised by others.

So where does this leave us? White South Africans can’t insist that they are automatically African, because that undermines the value of a hard-won identity. But when black South Africans deny the possibility of white Africans, they cut off the possibility of a non-racist post-apartheid identity that millions of white people want (so badly that they insist they already embody it). And nobody wins by insisting on what African means, while others who have a stake in that identity disagree, because this identity depends on mutual recognition.

The way out is for South Africans, black and white, to try to work out what our consensual understanding of “African” really is. We need to have public and private discussions, with one another, about whether there is room in the concept “African” for mlungu (and others, sidelined by almost everyone in this discussion), and what it would take for them to convince black South Africans to see them as such. Are white South Africans probationary Africans? If there’s something that can be done, must it be at the individual or societal level, or both? Is our society still so divided that there isn’t any practical way for white South Africans to convince their fellows that they’re as African as they feel they are?

I don’t know the answers, but I think it’s a debate worth having, despite the problems. Sentletse Diakanyo is not a philosopher, and we shouldn’t unreasonably expect sound arguments from him. But I’m really glad he’s raised this question, and I hope all Africans take it as seriously as they should.

Jason van Niekerk is a lecturer in the philosophy department at Wits, where he works on problems in ethics and African philosophy.

Follow him on Twitter @m_lungu