Who is African?

Some might see this as a political or loaded question but it’s one that challenges me as an historian as much as a sociologist (dare I admit that it was one of my degree majors?) interested in identity, and personally as I see myself as African in a world which apparently struggles to do so.

Africa is not unique when it comes to complex identity issues around settlers and indiginous peoples. However, it does seem to be an area where identity and cultural orientation are assumed because of – let’s be frank here – colour.

A few examples have recently jarred in this respect, highlighting that we haven’t yet resolved the issue of identity and it is going to continue presenting a challenge for me as an historian, but also give me years of work on uncovering minority voices wherever they emerge.

Twice in a country in which I spend a fair amount of time, I was asked by two intelligent black men, one middle-aged with a solid ‘western’ education behind him and the other a young nursing student changing universities, that if they spent time in Europe, would they become white? The young man was astounded to hear that white people were born in South Africa regularly. His experience is of white people being transient visitors or immigrants to his country. Soon after this, it was implied very clearly by a much respected institution that I was too white to be able to build a raport with fellow Africans and answer questions concerning WW1 in Africa – a place I regard as home with all that term implies, and on a topic I am very familiar with.

Most recently, an Indian colleague in discussing the xenophobic attacks in South Africa passed a comment that after five generations of living in the country, her people were still seen as immigrants. What revelations and stimulants for reflection – all in 3 months in 2015!

My work on WW1 in Africa has brought to light that the issue of identity and who is African is complex and should not be taken at face value. In addition to all the black tribes involved in the Great War in East Africa (142 Tanzanian, 40+ Kenyan, 3 Zambian as a rough starting point), I identified 23 other ethnic groups which participated. Indians born in India, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa and Mozambique all have very different experiences and ways of looking at life, in the same way that whites, Arabs and people of mixed race do. Those born on the continent had different experiences and expectations compared to those who were born elsewhere and came onto the continent for a short while or who made it their home. And then, there are the different belief systems which various groups practised.

It is worth looking at the contributions of each to the campaigns in Africa but also to the whole. All worked (with varying degrees of willingness) towards a common goal, irrespective of which side they supported. What strikes me though is, that despite all these differences, on the whole they found a way to work together. Many were African (black, white, Indian, Arab and mixed race) and their contributions to the war effort and later development of Africa should not be forgotten.


2 thoughts on “Who is African?

  1. This is, as you say, a thorny question which is more a political matter than anything else. I remember once becoming irritated when a left-leaning, recently arrived American visitor persisted in talking of Afrikaners as “settlers”.

    I asked him what his nationality was. American, of course, he answered. Then I asked him how long his family had been in the USA. Since 1935, he said. Then how was it, I asked, that he was a full-fledged American – that is to say, a 100 percent legitimate inhabitant of the continental United States – whereas I was a “settler”, although my family had been at the Cape as long ago as 1696?

    He spluttered a bit and then changed the subject, saying that that was a different matter altogether. He did not have the intellectual courage to admit that I was a “settler” because I had been officially classified as “white” -by the present government, mark you. In other words, all that mattered was that I had been placed in a certain racial category which is based on a genetical falsehood.

    There is certainly a great difference between a transient expatriate and an ethno-cultural group whose ancestors turned their backs on their countries of origin three centuries ago and adopted for themselves the name “Africaanders” (“Afrikaners” in the modern spelling), their definition being someone who was born and bred in Africa.

    They even developed an indigenous language called Afrikaans which was based on Dutch but also incorporated words of other local languages and even some grammatical features which differ from the original root language.

    In other words, they gave their hearts to Africa, adopting its name at a time – the early 18th Century – when the black tribes called themselves by their tribal names because they had no concept of their greater African identity. This being the case, how could they possibly be anything except Africans?

    One has to bear in mind, too, that today’s Afrikaners – both the “official” ones and the unofficial ones who are classed as “coloureds” by the government – come from a distinctly mixed racial background because the Dutch East India Company, which ruled the Cape of Good Hope for almost 150 years, and its successor, the Batavian Republic, ran a non-racial open society – in fact, the Company positively encouraged its employees here to marry freed slave-women because this provided a more stable labour force.

    The fact is that the long-established “white” community – and the “coloured”one – actually constitute a distinct westernised tribe or two branches of such a tribe, which owes allegiance to no other country or continent.

    In my case I count among my ancestors were Dutch, German, French, Swedish, Flemish and Irish, not to mention a couple of Guinean slaves and possibly others I have not yet discovered. This is not unique; my “white” and “coloured” compatriots all have the same general genetic background. To that group must be added the great numbers of “white” and “coloured” people whose British, Scots and Irish ancestors have lived here for many generations and also see themselves as full-blooded Africans. If we and they are not Africans, what are we? Certainly not Europeans.

    The fact is that lumping us all together with transient sojourners as non-Africans is an insult to reason and a spurning of historical fact. If a nation like the BaSotho – formed by Moshoeshoe I as recently as the 1830s out of a grab-bag of refugees from the devastation wrought by Shaka and Mzilikase – is accepted as a legitimate African tribe, but not official “whites”, and especially Afrikaners, then what we are looking at is essentially an expression of simple racism.

    Nelson Mandela in his wisdom realised this, but his successors seem to have forgotten about that. So a tribe which numbers about 13 percent of the population, and whose language is one of the most idely spoken in South Africa, have become what the communists used to call “unpersons”.

    One might also add that a tribe chooses its own name; it does not wait for others to choose a name for it. So Afrikaners cling to their identity as Africans, regardless of what other labels people try to hang around their necks.

    It should added that Afrikaners are not the only occupants of the official limbo. “Coloureds” are obviously not Africans either because they have greater or lesser amounts of Caucasian-origin blood in their veins. As you pointed out, Indians, too, are not Africans, although some of them come from families which have been in the country since the 1850s.

    You make another good point which is often conveniently forgotten. South Africa’s wars have always involved everyone. During the first frontier wars of what is now the Eastern Cape, “white” farmers frequently fought in alliance with some Xhosa chiefs. During both British invasions of the Capeof Good Hope the invaders were opposed by multi-racial defending forces.

    At the Battle of Blood River, the people defending the Voortekker wagons against a large Zulu impi included a significant number of coloureds and several hundred blacks. During World War I men of all races served against the Germans (in fact a regiment of “coloured” men called the Cape Corps bested those very tough warriors the Turks at the Battle of Square Hill in Palestine). In World War II whites, blacks and coloureds, a total of about 330 000 volunteers, served against the Germans and Italians. Of course the social inequalities of the times were reflected in our armies in both world wars; yet they served together and often died for one another.

    There have been some sneers that the blacks and coloureds only joined up because they needed work, which is a terrible thing to say of brave men who were all volunteers. The British writer Philip Mason, writing about the Indian Army, once hit the nail squarely on the head when he remarked that men worked for pay in a factory but they would not die for the honour of the factory. My father was one of those 330 000 volunteers of World War II, and for all I know he only came home to us because of a deed performed by one of his comrades of colour.

    These racial labels are a lot of rubbish. When Barack Ombama was elected to lead the United States, he was hailed as “the first black president”. Which was rubbish, since he was the son of a white mother, so he could also have been hailed as a white president.

    Complete nonsense, of course, which proves my point. He was a man of mixed race. But – and this is the great difference – the Americans never thought of him as anything but an American, whether they liked him or not. For better or worse, he was one of them. That is a lesson many people in Africa who should know better have yet to learn.


  2. Pingback: From “there came a darkness” to “it saw the light” | Anne Samson - Historian

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s