By Brett Petzer
Here’s a pop quiz. Who’s more African: the first-generation Polish-South African medical student, the San shepherd or the Gauteng shebeen-owner? I think we need to set up a continuum of Africanness.
Given the damage done to the world by certain neat and strident schools of thought on the apartness of race, it is right, even necessary, to speak idealistically and to conceive of white people as Africans and as the same. In this ideal space, the yearnings to be rare and their accompanying landscape of hyphenated nationalities such as Irish-American, Chinese-South African, Indian- South African and the like would disappear.
Yet, the replacement of our continental tapestry of cultures and peoples with a one-size-fits-all label is not the obvious step forward. Faced with the singular diversity of this continent, and especially this country, the term African must be reduced to a geographical one, free of cultural and historical content. That is, if we are all African then ‘African’ becomes fuzzy and no one can be more African than anyone else.
The conundrum is whether Africanness is a privilege or a birthright that can also be enjoyed by whites of European descent that have enjoyed privilege from their position on the continent. Am I an African if I claim that this country is going to the dogs, sing God Save the Queen and wave the old South African flag at ruby games? Afro-pessimism must affect one’s membership in the African Club. Few continents are defined by their challenges to the extent that Africa is. Even in the current climate of renewed focus on our continent, Africans themselves risk coming to see their homeland in terms of its ‘eternal victimhood’. However, Megan White, a second year journalism student said “Pessimism happens in all countries, even in the first world, it doesn’t make you less of a citizen if you criticize how the country is working.”
Do White Africans like to have it both ways? They manage to maintain family and cultural links of convenience with the First World, while invoking their ‘equal’ Africanness at such expedient junctures as the debate on Affirmative Action quotas or Land Reform. It is plausible to question whether their Africanness is of a meaningful kind and if the heritage of these and other groups is an importation. I recall the last line of Isobel Dixon’s poem, “Thirst”, which begins, “They’re pruning the pines around Grahamstown, I’m told” and finishes, as the poet laments the Settler city, now ringed by indigenous bush, the invader species gone, with the lines “and puzzling how to answer ‘Who was first?’”
Günter Rust, a German-Afrikaans Namibian BCom student said “Though I acknowledge that my identity must be at least a little plural, since my traditions and mother tongue are not common to other Namibians, I cannot associate with Europeans and Namibia is where I grew up, the country I feel loyal to, and consider it home.”