By Hlawulani Mkhabela
The controversial Native Club, chaired by the president’s own advisor, Titus Mofolo, is an attempt to address the problem of black identity. Based in the African Institute of South Africa, the exclusive alliance is an effort to encourage dialogue within the black intelligentsia and nurture a distinctly African image in academia and social debate.
The Native Club claims to have a vision to promote a vibrant and critical consciousness among South African people. It includes prominent black intellectuals such as author Thandika Mkandawire.
The idea of a native club intuitively evokes images of a Chinua Achebestyle portrayal of the new African. But
this public initiative by the Department of Arts and Culture has fled the pages of African satire. The club’s mandate is to rid Africans of the mentality of colonialism and encourage social discourse, but it has sparked considerable and unexpected controversy: it runs the risk of being an orgy of backpatting and intellectual self-gratification for the black elite.
Those who subscribe to the “new groups” principle follow the theory that a primary facet of initiating social change in the country has to be the revitalisation of a distinctly South African and, more precisely, black
way of being and thinking. “South Africans seem to have an identity crisis. Through our dress, music, cuisine, role models and reference points, we seem to be clones of Americans and Europeans,“ says Mofolo.
Professor Peter Vale, head of the university’s Politics and International Studies department, warns against
this reasoning. He said,“the continued impoverishment of all our people and the continued appropriation of wealth to minorities whether black or white” is the real issue that may be overshadowed by racial determinism. The true crisis, according to Vale, is not of race determining economic condition, but of inappropriate and ineffective systems of wealth distribution in Africa’s foremost state. Further issues
surround the term “native”, which naturally elicits discomfort in Africans as a term used to delineate African populations as inferior.
The “new native” according to the club, uses the term to restore the dignity of those who were once stripped of their personhood by it. The paradoxical problem arising, however, is that a new cadre of elite seems to be created by the club’s exclusionary philosophy. Vale is critical of the association’s elevation of a particular ideal of black South Africa. He says this was against the ethos of non-racial ideals, which has been central to the beliefs of the ruling party and central to the liberation struggle. The club demands a cogent examination of what it means to be African and whether all those who consider themselves Africans can contribute to forming new ideas of African identity.
“The club implies that to be African one needs to be black,” which flies in the face of “rainbow nationism”, argues Vale. The parallel between Mbeki’s strong Africanist ideals and those of the Native Club cannot be missed. Though the president has not given public support for the club, it is chaired by his advisor and boasts numerous black ANC members. Vale further warns against placing a great deal of emphasis on the ability of the club to form a critical think tank.
“The club is in danger of becoming merely the president’s project, because one cannot be critical if one hesitates to be critical of authority,” he said. Amidst all this controversy, it remains to be seen whether genuine social change on the deeper issues of social inequalities can, or should, be inspired by such an apparently exclusionary ideology.