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[Opinion] Simple solution to African identity crisis By Sandile Memela

August 10, 2013

It is impossible to integrate European culture with traditional Africanness – it’s time for a new paradigm, writes Sandile Memela.

 Over the past 20 years, self-appointed custodians of “authentic Africanness” have derogatorily referred to fellow blacks as “coconuts” – citizens with black skins but harbouring white souls or cultural tendencies.

Perhaps, instead of feeling indignant and insulted, it is important to provide a context for what is meant by this label.

It may be long overdue for people to stop being defensive and apologetic and accept that many bought into the notion of white cultural superiority and allowed themselves to be brainwashed into believing that to be somebody, they had to speak, dress, behave, and think like whites.

This is a simple admission that not only have Africans been conquered, but many have allowed themselves to be co-opted into the Western way of doing things.

 What we need to do is to critically engage with what constitutes the true identity of an authentic African person.

But living in the 21st century, it is almost impossible to imagine or encounter an “authentic African”.

What Africans have done, by and large, is to fuse the prevalent Western cultural experience with what could pass for African.

Today’s circumstances and realities suggest the impossibility of true cultural integration.

When Africans do some soul searching, they find themselves in no time in collision, without quite knowing it, with the master language, culture, history and heritage of Western life in African soil.

There is very little that is African about South Africa, except that it is located at the southern edge of the African continent.

 Other significant factors to consider include the dominant languages, dress style, architecture, cuisine, mode of transport, education, religion, government and business systems – and even culture and heritage.

The ancestral African spirit has not only been emptied but those who call themselves Africans cannot speak with authority on what makes them so, especially in cities.

In fact, the very idea of an African country or experience is just a romantic idea found among those immured in nostalgia.

Sadly, self-conscious Africans who hanker after what has vanished are the ones who come to recognise the disappearance of authentic Africanness.

Maybe there was never such a thing, considering what used to happen in Mapungubwe, for instance, which was a hub of international business exchange.

Indigenous citizens, especially those who are not fearful of change, will accept, however reluctantly, that since 1652 they have never lived in “authentic Africa”.

As early as the first few decades after the arrival of Europeans, Africans were inclined to seek or live by an intuitive connection to Europe.

The assumption that South Africa is an African country simply because it is in Africa is wrong.

When engaging with the intellectuals of this country, it soon emerges that Africa, to them, is what is beyond Limpopo.

Even fellow Africans who have settled here will tell you that, to them, South Africa is not an African country, not just because of its economic success or its advancement but due to the soul of its character.

Once there was hope that the ascendancy of President Jacob Zuma as leader would redirect the country’s energies, but this has not happened because, mostly, his speeches are in English and his dress style is European suits.

The indigenous populace that calls itself African is in deep trouble because they have thought themselves out of existence in the name of globalisation or progress.

It is for this reason that there has arisen a new era that is defined as the Afropolitan age, where neither geographical location nor skin colour determines your identity, history or heritage. You are free to be what you want to call “yourself”.

There have been many self-delusional leaders, like former president Thabo Mbeki, for instance, who spoke passionately about the “reversal of 400 years of colonialism” in pursuit of an African Renaissance dream. This was a man who was silently dismissed by the Xhosa for being too Western.

Interestingly, two decades after the dawn of uhuru, South Africa has produced the first generation of children who neither speak indigenous languages nor have a clue about what Africa represents.

Instead, these children are intuitively connected to the culture, education and way of life of the West because their parents believe that Africa is not only a basket case but has very little to offer them.

Perhaps it is time that South Africans begin to acknowledge that despite their sentimental attachment to the African continent, they were always destined to be global citizens who will be expected to transcend their identity, languages, heritage and history. Even the constitution is not only minimal in its Africanness but embraces universal human principles.

Doubtless, Pan-Africanists like Ghanaian Kwame Nkrumah or Robert Sobukwe would not, if they could see us today, be delighted with what they saw.

This is not the Africa that was envisioned by Steve Biko, either.

But there is no denying that we come out of a history that produced John Tengo Jabavu or Pixley ka Seme – or America’s seminal thinker WEB Du Bois – who were educated in America and Europe.

The founding fathers of the oldest liberation movement in the continent, the African National Congress, were four lawyers who were educated in Europe and America, for instance.

It is time to reconcile with the fact that, once upon a time, we were Africans. But now, we are just human beings who happen to live on the southern tip of Africa.

 * Sandile Memela is chief director for social cohesion in the Department of Arts and Culture.

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