Sandile Memela
Sandile Memela

What does authentically African mean?

Over the last 20 years, self-appointed custodians of “authentic Africaness” have derogatively referred to fellow blacks as “coconuts”, that is, citizens with black skins but white souls or cultural tendencies.

Perhaps instead of feeling indignant and insulted, it is important to provide a context for what is meant by this label.

It may be long overdue for people to stop being defensive and apologetic and just accept that many bought completely into the notion of white supremacist cultural superiority and allowed themselves to be brainwashed to believe that to be somebody, they had to speak, dress, behave, and act and think like European people.

This is a simple admission that not only have Africans been conquered but many have allowed themselves to be co-opted into the western imperialism way of doing things.

Of course, the notion of white western imperialist culture is a social construct that will be a matter for another day.

What we need is to critically engage what constitutes the true identity of an authentic African person, if there is such a person.

But living in the 21st century, it is almost impossible to imagine or encounter an “authentic African”.

What Africans have done, largely, is bring together the prevalent western cultural experience and fuse it with what could pass for African.

Today’s circumstances and realities, largely, reveal the impossibility of true cultural integration.

When Africans do some soul searching, in no time, they are colliding — without quite knowing it — with the master language, culture, history and heritage of western life on African soil.

There is very little that is African about South Africa, for instance, except that it is located on the southern tip of the African continent. Even the name is just a geographical description.

Other significant factors to consider include the dominant languages, dress style, architecture, cuisine, mode of transport, education, religion, government and business systems and even culture and heritage, for that matter.

The ancestral African spirit has not only been emptied but those who call themselves Africans cannot speak with authority on what makes them so, especially in the metropolis.

In fact, the very idea of an African country or experience is just a romantic idea that only exists in the ideal, to be found among those in nostalgia.

Sadly, self-conscious Africans who hanker after what has vanished are the ones who come to recognise the disappearance of authentic Africaness. Maybe there was never such a thing considering what used to happen in Mapungubwe, for instance, which was a hub of international business exchange.

The indigenous citizens, especially those who are not fearful of change, will accept, however reluctantly, that since 1652 they have never lived in “authentic Africa”.

As early as the first few decades after the arrival of Europeans, Africans were inclined to be intuitively connected to Europe.

The assumption that South Africa is an African country simply because it is in Africa is wrong.

When engaged with the intellectuals of this country — including leaders, business people, musicians, writers, priests, artists, teachers, activists and other professionals — it soon emerges that Africa, to them, is what is beyond Limpopo.

Even fellow Africans who have settled here will tell you that to them South Africa is not an African country not just because of its economic success or its advancement but the soul of its character.

Once there was hope that the advent of President Jacob Zuma as leader would redirect the country’s energies but this has not happened because mostly his speeches are in English and his dress style is European suits.

The indigenous, who continue to call themselves African, are in deep trouble because they have thought themselves out of existence in the name of globalisation or progress.

It is for this reason that there is the advent of a new era that is defined as Afropolitan, where neither geographical location nor skin colour determines your identity, history or heritage. You are free to be what you want to call yourself.

Former president Thabo Mbeki, who spoke passionately about the “reversal of 400 years of colonialism” in pursuit of an African Renaissance dream, was a man who was silently dismissed by the Xhosa for having been too western-educated, growing up in Europe and quoting too much Shakespeare in his speeches.

Interestingly, two decades after the dawn of uhuru, South Africa has produced the first generation of children who don’t speak indigenous languages or have a clue about what Africa represents, if anything.

Instead, these children are intuitively connected to western culture, education and way of life because their parents believe that Africa has very little to offer their offspring.

Perhaps it’s time South Africans begin to acknowledge that despite their sentimental attachment to the African continent, they should resign themselves to the fact that they were always destined to be global citizens expected to transcend their identity, languages, heritage and history.

Even our world-renowned Constitution is not only minimal in its Africaness but embraces universal, human and global principles. There is no need to be pejorative that we are mistaken for a loyal satellite of Europe.

It is simply in the name of progress or globalisation.

It is unfortunate that Pan-Africanists like Ghanaian Kwame Nkrumah or Robert Sobukwe would not be delighted with what they would see. This is not the Africa that was envisioned by Steve Biko, for instance.

But there is no denying that we come out of a history that produced John Tengo Jabavu or Pixley ka Seme or which gave us many ancestors like seminal thinker WEB Du Bois, who was educated in the US and Europe.

The founding fathers of the oldest liberation movement in the continent, that is, the African National Congress were four lawyers who were educated in Europe and the US, for instance.

It is time to reconcile with the fact that, once upon a time, we were Africans. But now, we are just human beings who happen to be located in the southern tip of the Africa continent.

What gives anyone the right to decide who is an African and who is not?

Yes, we are what African-American blues singer Billie Holiday called a very “strange fruit”.

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