There has not been a time in the history of racial identity in this country when the number of people who describe or define themselves in terms of their race or language group or tribe has been so low.

Far too few people continue to see themselves as black (or white even) (8.8%) compared to those who simply define themselves as South African citizens (52%).

Thus the question of so-called blackness is, largely, based on assumptions. There is an urgent need for a critical re-examination of what it means to be black, if anything.

Just like the question of whiteness, black identity is based on phrenology, that is, physical features like skin colour, hair texture, lip size or nose shape. This is what makes it a myth. In reality, people do not identify with one another, like or dislike each other because of race or what they look like. Human relations are more about interpersonal chemistry or shared values.

A serious examination of the tendency to perpetuate the definition of black or white identity based on what people look like needs to be undertaken.

The last 20 years has seen many classes or groups of black identity, for instance, based on language, religion, regionalism, origin, class, educational status, material accumulation, geographical location and many other attributes.

What we need to acknowledge and recognise is that we have always had a variety of different black identities. This blackness, if it exists, is different, diverse and multiple.

The existing forms or identities of blackness are not exhaustive. But they are an example of the diversity and complexity of blackness. There is not one but many black identities.

In the last two decades, this diversity has multiplied and become more complex because of challenges and shortcomings of putting blacks into a single box.

The present day definition of black is not simply the general and blanket definition of what the founder of Black Consciousness, Steve Bantu Biko, said it was: “A reflection of a mental attitude.” It is different, diversified, multiple and more complicated than what was happening in the 1960s where the disadvantaged had a common enemy in the political system.

To put it more strongly, there is no single individual who can tell us what blackness is or how it is to be represented. In fact, blackness has ceased to exist. Or, at least, it has splintered into diverse categories that do not necessarily meet.

For the most part, the last two decades have witnessed the integration of so-called blacks into the establishment where they have adopted what could be perceived or mistaken for global lifestyles, outlooks and values that discourage the determination of blackness based on race or skin colour.

Needless to say, in a non-racial country it is backward and primitive to hold on to and promote identity based on race or ethnicity. Yet much of the inability of blacks to take their rightful place in a non-racial society, that which prevents them from cultivating and promoting human identity is this misguided importance place on racial or ethnic identity.

Significantly, the 2012 Development Indicators of The Presidency have revealed that a mere 8.8% of South Africans describe themselves by race group while only 4.1% describe themselves by language group or tribe. Over the years there has been a fluctuation in the number of people who hold onto their identity based on race or tribe. Instead, at 52%, more and more people consistently see themselves as South African citizens, first. In fact, race and tribe are not part of the South African identity.

The development indicators have revealed that people are less inclined to make a big deal about their race or tribe. Thus it is important to note that obsession with blackness or whiteness, for that matter, will soon be a thing of the past. After all, holding on to racial or ethnic identities tends to be a stumbling block towards efforts to build a solid and united nation with a common identity.

The last two decades have opened opportunities and choices for blacks to be anything that they want to be. And for the most part, it is increasingly difficult for anyone to assume, based on skin colour that someone speaks your language, is from the same region or background and subscribes to the same values.

Like in any other country, achieving democracy and freedom simply means that no one individual or specific group has the right to determine what blackness means or is. For example, blacks who do not speak any of the indigenous languages or have no connections with the rural areas are neither incomplete nor deficient.

It is time we acknowledge, recognise and reassert that blacks — just like whites — are not and have never been a homogeneous group. This was merely Biko’s convenient political strategy to organise the disadvantaged against a common enemy that deprived them of their political and economic rights.

Presently, blacks have splintered into diverse and multiple groups that do not necessarily have a common cause or vision. In this way, the use of skin colour to determine black identity, solidarity or allegiance has been thrown into turmoil or existential meaninglessness.

In fact, who gives anyone the right and authority to determine who is black and who is not?

Blacks — just like whites — are now free to choose to be black or not and anything else they want to be.

But they will always be human beings, first.


Sandile Memela

Sandile Memela

Sandile Memela is a journalist, writer, cultural critic, columnist and civil servant. He lives in Midrand.

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