Who is an African?

Article for the Cape Times
by Leslie Liddell
June 2004

The adoption of the South African Constitution Bill in 1996, is indelibly memorable to many South Africans as it marked a new beginning enshrined in legal terms, which aims at, inter alia, bringing about equality, dignity and humanity to all who live in our land. The occasion was however, poignantly unforgettable in that it was on that day, that the then Deputy President, Thabo Mbeki, made his powerful, poetic speech entitled "I am an African". His speech drew on metaphors of nature, ancestral history, our country and the continent's painful and violent history in developing his portrayal of what constitutes an African. He identified himself, in stating that he was an African, with all of the race groups and cultures in our country.

In 1971, Steve Biko, in writing for the South African Student's Organisation leadership defined what it meant to be black in South Africa. In his writings, Biko said, "Being black is not a matter of pigmentation -being black is a reflection of a mental attitude." Biko spoke of the consciousness of being black as all important. For him, consciousness and identity were intertwined. Similarly and more recently Minister Lekota, spoke in parliament about the need for South Africans to reach the stage of being referred to as South Africans and not as whites, blacks, Indians etc. He too, saw the link between consciousness and identity.

In the late 1980's I spent some years living in the USA. What was notable was the fact that Americans identify themselves by their heritage which is sometimes centuries old and rather blurred in their consciousness and values. This means that they are Italian/Americans, Polish/Americans, Irish/ Americans, Hispanic/ Americans, African/Americans etc etc but they speak the same language, adopt the dominant American culture and give their primary allegiance to their country, the United States of America. Some of the African/Americans whom I met didn't have much of a clue as to the names of African countries and the geographical location of the African continent. To some Africa was a country but they identified themselves as African/Americans.

The above references all raise issues of identity and what forms our identity. Culture, religion, family, the roles we fulfill, class, race, gender, nationality, our names, our history, our allegiances and our consciousness are key factors which influence and ultimately determine our identity which is not necessarily a static but a dynamic aspect of our lives. In addition, there are sometimes discrepancies between how one identifies oneself and how others identify one. This means that ultimately issues of consciousness and values are of paramount importance in the identity of individuals and nations.

Are all South Africans, Africans and are all citizens of South Africa who are racially classified as Africans indeed Africans or even sometimes, South Africans? The issues of identity and of who is an African are vitally important to us as a nation and our efforts at nation building.

Dr. Wallace Mgoqi, the Manager of the City of Cape Town will be speaking on "Who is an African?" at the Harold Wolpe Memorial Trust monthly forum discussion on Tuesday, 29 June 2004, 6pm for 6.30pm at the Centre for the Book, 62 Queen Victoria Street, Cape Town. The forum meeting ends at 8pm. If you wish to attend, please call Leslie Liddell on 686 9312 or 073 307 8873.

Leslie Liddell is the National Coordinator of the Harold Wolpe Memorial Trust