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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


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  1. Rod of Sydney Rod of Sydney 12 January 2011

    What matters is where your stake is at any particular moment. Today I have zero assets/time/well-being invested in Africa but I still have citizenship so am entitled to certain privileges in South Africa only. Today I am fully Australian with citizenship here too and economic stakes in this country. However, the relationships I enjoy and cultivate in North America and Europe have a huge bearing on my financial position. I may acquire assets there sometime so gaining a stake there too. I may even live there sometime. I already do sometimes.

    Get over it folks, these are only land masses. The world is opening up – you can be whatever you want, sequentially or all at the same time. This is a good thing.

    Go the Sharks, even though there are few “true” Natalians in the team (Just Joking!).

  2. lynda lynda 12 January 2011

    The more I read this article , the more the Diakanyo makes sense. First, It is not long ago that the Identity (term as you put it) Äfrican”had only one meaning ( Thabo, Andile, etc). It is therefore interesting that in the post apartheid South Africa “African” as an Identity would become so much complecated. Second, was there no philosophers such as Van Niekerk pre -1994? If there were surely we would not had had “Europeans only”in our public spaces. The fact that we had such postings proves that the majority of White people in South Africa appreciated the fact that identity has little to do with nationality otherwise National Party would have not ruled South Africa so long. It is therefore disingenuous for Van Niekerk to suggest that the identity African is a complicated one. Lastly, and more importantly (Diakanyo,) Africans do not need science to justify their identity and their ownership of this beautiful continent. we really do not need to look a thousand years ago but just 16 years ago.

  3. Sagi Tarius Sagi Tarius 12 January 2011

    Personally, I think the entire issue of “Africanness” is nothing more than a comfortable political tool to be used by the prejudiced whenever required, and has little to do with any kind of real identity. This makes it no different to other concepts (either racial or nationalistic) that has been used throughout human history to primarily discriminate against those who are un-(add undesirable characteristics here). The only reason why white people cannot seem to see through this strategy is because most of them are still blinded by their own condescending “white guilt” (in itself a very racist characteristic).

    But while were on the topic; so far, I have heard not one single good argument capable of supporting the idea that black people must automatically qualify as “African” either…

  4. P.S P.S 12 January 2011

    molemo please read your comments

  5. Hussein Hussein 12 January 2011

    Character marks the man – that means fairness, sharing and caring. Inner qualities marks the true human identity – every individual accounting for himself and his community with responsiblity.Its not in “names” that we accept each other,but in heart and practise.Oppressed of the earth seek sincerity,not words.

  6. Citizen Mntu Citizen Mntu 12 January 2011

    Interesting go, Jason, but academic Philosophy really doesn’t have a say in this …

    @Perry Curling-Hope – that’s essentially it – it is NOT Sentletse’s call – it is NOT academic “authority’s” call – it is nobody’s call – and it is anyone’s call.

    Because, when the shouting, theorising and positioning sputters out, anyone at all, anywhere in the silly world, can say “Ich Bien Eine Kleiner Berliner” – I am an American (wot’s that, huh?) – I am European (huh? Wot say?) – I am a local – I am a visitor – Je suis Francais – Innie Kaap Gebore, innie Kaap Verlore – I am an African – I am from Outer Space etc.

    SO WHAT? It seems we just luv labels. That’s all. At least the stupid things are not regulated, hey Sentletse and Jason? Why are Safricans so afraid of freedom?

    This morning I am a Capetonian; this arvie I am the Huns & Vandals; Tonight I am an African; Tomorrow I am Billy Bunter. (And no-one can regulate me :) Yaaay!

    Yep – it is simply OUR CALL – whatever it may be.
    OUR FREE CHOICE – OUR decision – and who cares?
    (Freedom! Yo, ho, ho, ho!)

  7. Robin Bownes Robin Bownes 12 January 2011

    @Sagi Tarius:
    I don’t usually respond directly to article comments, as opposed to the article. However, I find it hilarious that in one metaphorical breath you claim for yourself a completely external identity – Sagi Tarius, while at the same time denigrating the concept of external identity as a “comfortable political tool”.

    We all adopt various identities that we then ideally integrate into our personal identity. Criticising others for their choice of identities is really putting oneself on a hiding to nothing because we are all actually doing the same thing.

    Personal identity, made up of various identity components is a completely necessary aspect of a psychologically, well-balanced personality.

  8. Ullrich Ullrich 13 January 2011

    I love the point Molemo makes about the ancestors of Europeans and Asians as not being pure “homo sapiens” because of their admixture of Neanderthal genes (the fair and red hair legacy). It plays well on the Apartheid stereotypes of “purity”. Unfortunately “African” is claimed as some exclusive brand name for the cultural and genetic continuum spreading from Senegal to Kenya and southwards. The north African third of the continent is left out of the defintion. To equate “African” with black (in whichever sense) denies all of the other peoples of this continent any form of participation and shared identity in the “black culture”. Moreover it denies all other people who share cultural elements – and/or genetic ones – with black people their share in this “African” identity. Please take a look at Brasil: Even though just about 50 % of Brasilian claim some or mostly black African ancestry, most Brasilians will agree that what makes their culture unique and very different from the Portuguese is their strong Black African CULTURAL heritage, which is shared by all in many fields of culture, language, cuisine, music, religion, dance, styles of communication etc. Now strangely, in an historical situation where a shared cultural heritage is possible in a common South African culture – remember pres. Mbeki’s speech – ,people declare that whites who have decided to want to share and to acknowledge their share of “black” culture have no right to it. Strange indeed. Would blacks have to hand back the European elements they share in ?

  9. Jono Ferreira Jono Ferreira 14 January 2011

    Excellent article J-Brad.

    Although looking at some of the comments I really despair at the level of reading comprehension in our country. Many of the responses miss your point so badly one wonders if their authors read the article at all, or if they just saw the headline and jumped in fists flying. (My personal favourite is the idiot who thinks that academic philosophy doesn’t have any say in matters of argumentation and definition)


    being a black african(zimbabwean to be precise) i applaud the objectivity of your piece, i found myself aggreing and nodding my head

  11. Eunice Kamaara Eunice Kamaara 21 June 2013

    Racially, an African is black – no other colour will pass and there is nothing we can do for now to change this. Perhaps we need many generations of intermarriages but this won’t that soon As it is, people of mixed race between black and white people like President Obama are often identified as blacks.
    Nationally, an African is any person regardless of colour, language or creed who has citizenship of an African country, It doesn’t matter whether he was born there or whether he lives there. He is an African.
    Ideologically, an African is any human person who has the interest of Africa at heart and works towards Africa’s unity, peace and prosperity..
    While it makes sense to argue that one cannot be an African if Africans do not recognize him as African, it doesn’t make sense that any human should deny another self understanding. If I think am American, so be it as long as I don’t demand for an American passport because the Americans wont give it to me without due process!

  12. Tumo Tumo 20 February 2014

    In Australia, Australians are referred to as Aborigine by the Europeans and Europeans are calling themselves Australians.
    In America, Americans are referred to as Red or Red Indians by the Europeans and Europeans are calling themselves Americans.
    Now in Africa, Africans are referred to as Blacks by the Europeans (sadly so by Africans themselves) and Europeans want to be called Africans.

    Africans it is time to wake up and stop calling ourselves ‘Blacks’ but Africans that we are.

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