Who is an African?

Dr Wallace Amos Mgoqi

(City Manager, City of Cape Town)

paper presented at the Harold Wolpe Memorial Trust forum meeting

Centre for the Book, Cape Town, 29 June 2004




In this Seminar with its theme, I am an African, I have chosen to approach the subject from the perspective that history is still written and recorded from the dominant male perspective, and women are shadows, if not some appendages of their menfolk.

I have chosen to give it the title – They are Africans too – in contradiction to a piece, or a book written by an internationally renowned Jamaican barrister, Dudley Thompson, and illustrated by the paintings of Jamaica’s master painter Barrington Watson, entitled “They are Africans”.

Without in any way belittling the importance of this piece of work which chronicles the lives of seventeen Pan-African leaders, only two are women, fifteen are men and notable men like Fredireck Douglas, WEB Dubois, Marcus Garvey, George Padmore, Cyril Lionel James, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Jomo Kenyatta, Haile Selassie, Paul Robeson, Martin Luther King Jr, Muhammad Ali, Patrice Lumumba, Nelson Mandela. The women are Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks.

Indeed, they are Africans. We get a full sense of why it was important to document their lives from the foreword of this book by Kofi Anan, United Nations Secretary-General, when he says:

“I am pleased to introduce this remarkable collection of paintings and biographies of seventeen Pan-African leaders. Ranging from Frederick Douglas to Rosa Parks, from Martin Luther King to Nelson Mandela, from W.E.B. DuBois to Marcus Garvey, this extraordinary book reveals in image and word the contribution of these men and women to the lives of all people of African descent.

While all these leaders would have continued to struggle for Africa’s future, I believe they would have been prouder still of the efforts made by Africans today to lift their continent out of poverty and conflict and into a better future. They would have seen that beyond the Africa of deadly warfare and endemic poverty, there is an Africa that is rejecting the dogmas of the past and embracing pragmatic progress under the rule of law; an Africa that – in a growing number of cases - is making a genuine effort to reject violence, embrace democracy, endorse human rights and promote economic reform”. 1

The words of Mary McLeod Bethune, ring true when she said:

“For despite their achievements, the world has not been willing to accept the contributions that women have made”. 2

Whilst there is nothing wrong in highlighting the profiles of these men as Africans, there is something wrong when impression is given that they made it on their own. Each and every one of them would be the first to admit it is not so

They would be the first to admit and acknowledge that if it was not their own mother, there was a woman beside them who made it for them.

It is a strange curiosity of life that those whose backs were broken from time immemorial, through slavery days, to the present day, either themselves have to be something extra-ordinary or do something unorthodox in order to receive recognition. Their role and all the humiliations associated with it do not qualify women to receive the recognition accorded men as a matter of course.

This country’s history from the earliest arrivals of colonial people, the very earliest contacts made between the white settlers and indigenous people, women were at the centre of that conflict and carried the greatest portion of that burden. That is why Adam Miller says of this burden carried by women:

“Forced to accept an alien language, alien and hostile gods, and an alien view of the world, our imaginations were shackled to those of our rulers, with the result that we continued for a considerable time the work they had begun in their manner” 3

In the nine frontiers wars fought by AmaXhosa and the Khoisan in defence of their land, women like Sarah Baartman, the mother to Ngqika were powerful figures, who were the guardians and custodians of the nation, its culture and traditions. In the Great Trek across the Drakensberg Mountains into Zululand, across the Free State, into present day North West, Gauteng, Mpumalanga and Limpopo – Warriors like Retief, Shepstone, Shaka, Skhukhune, Makhado, Nkunkunyane had women whose names are not mentioned. They too are Africans.

Even today you only need to visit the far flung rural areas in traditional areas and watch how the elderly, gifted and talented women gather young girls and through traditional song and dance pass on the traditions of the tribe from the old to the new generation – this is universal throughout the world among indigenous people.

Throughout my travels, throughout the length and breadth of this country and visiting indigenous people or First Nations of Canada, one sees the same pattern of the central role played by women in perpetuating culture and tradition as the first teachers of all humankind. Throughout the Continent of Africa, women are the bearers of knowledge on the arts, music, education - they serve as conduits to pass it on the younger generations. They too, for this reason, are Africans.

Our definition of ourselves, of who we are in the world, will only be complete, when we give substance to womanhood. Hopefully, the African Renaissance of the 21 st Century, the African century, is going to help us to move closer and closer to this ideal. Our humanity is inextricably tied to theirs, not as objects, but as subjects, in their own right.

We cannot be free men in the World, when we do not recognize and work for the freedom of women. The German Philosopher Karl Jaspers, once said:

“No one is free, unless he or she works for the freedom of others”. 4

We must open our ears and listen to the cries of Sister Netifa in her poem Daughters of the Soil, where she says:

we are daughters of the soil.
look at us, feel our anger.

feel our pain
feel our sorrow,

eyes weeping blood, blood
flowing into rivers
staining the earth.
our nose breathes in the injustice
That hangs over the world
Like a cloud
Ears hearing abuse, so freely rendered.
Oh feel our anger

feel our pain
feel our sorrow.


What started as a whisper from our tongues
has become a shout
from every conscious mouth
you rape us
you abuse us
again again again ……..
shoot us! Shoot us! Death cannot kill the spirit,
our spirit, which will rise,
rise like a mist to smother the downpressor.
then fall like dew,
to nourish the land
that gave we birth.
we are daughters of the soil.
look at us.
see Africa.
feel our anger


i must be free. 5

The heroines who gathered the family when attacked by the first salvos of early settlers who turned hostile to the indigenous Khoi and San people, were women. The greed of the attackers was for land and all that the land represents-wealth, status, and identity.

The mothers who supported both sides, the combatants in the nine Xhosa Wars of Resistance in the Eastern Frontier. The women who were involved in the Anglo-Boer War sacrificed a great deal. The Women who were around and supported their men in all the conflicts that characterized the South African, Southern African and the African Continent including the two World Wars to this day. There is a long list of them – they too are Africans.

In modern times we can think of the brave and courageous women involved in rescuing lives on all sides of the internecine wars in Africa. The heroic women who received the tragic news of the sinking of the ship u-Mendi; the gallant efforts and endurance of the women of the leaders of the African National Congress, since its founding in 1912 – the wives of leaders of other progressive political formations which resisted colonialism and apartheid.

In public life as well as in private life – socialization has to embody these new values of life, human dignity and equality for all, regardless of race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth.

In the human tragedy of Rwanda, where 800,000 lives were claimed by that conflict, women were at the receiving end and they still are, long after the War was over. May, we all draw sustenance and a new inspiration from the free flowing, accessible, provocative rousing and often-persuasive words of Ben Okri, the Nigerian Poet, when he writes:

We must not think ourselves victims,
Disadvantaged, held back –
Because of race, colour, creed,
Education, class, gender,
Religion, height, or age.
The world is not made of labels.
The world, from now on,
Will be made through the mind.
Through great dreaming, great loving
And masterly application.
Those who transcend their apparent limitations
Are greater than those who apparently
Have little to transcend.
Our handicaps can be the seed of our glories.
We shouldn’t deny them.
We should embrace them,
Embrace our marginalization,
Our invisibility, our powerlessness.
Embrace our handicaps, and use them,
And go beyond them,
For they could well be the key
To some of the most beautiful energies
That we have been given.
Accept no limitations to our human potential.
We have the power of solar systems
In our minds.
Our rage is powerful.
Our love is mighty.
Our desire to survive is awesome.
Our quest for freedom is noble, and great.
And just as astonishing is the knowledge
That we are, more or less,
The makers of the future.
We create what time will frame.
And a beautiful dream, shaped
And realized by a beautiful mind,
Is one of the greatest gifts
We can make to our fellow beings. 6

More than a century ago, in 1881 to be exact, that great Afrikaner, Paul Kruger, uttered some prophetic words, when he said:

“Freedom shall rise in Africa, like the sun from the morning clounds”. 7

Eighty years later, this dream or prophecy was echoed in the last words of Patrice Lumumba, before his assassination, when he uttered the words:

“Africa will write her own history and it will be a glorious and dignified history” 8.

We have the monumental task to make this dream come true for all our people black and white, all of us in all our diversity as Africans in this 21 st Century, the African Century.

The challenge of placing manhood and womanhood on the same pedestal, on an equal footing, is a huge one. It is one which all of us must commit to and work for until it is realized.

In the rich language of our President Thabo Mbeki, on the occasion of returning land to the Khomani – San of the Kgalagadi – he said:

“We shall mend the broken strings of the distant past so that our dreams can take root for the stories of the Khoi and the San have told us that this dream is too big for one person to hold. It must be dreamed collectively, by all the people. It is by acting together, by that dreaming together – by mending the broken strings that tore us apart in the past – that we shall, all of us produce a better life for all ……..” 9

When this beautiful dream is realized, each one of us in this Continent, will be able to say proudly and unreservedly, “I am an African”.

I thank you

Dr Wallace Amos Mgoqi

City Manager, City of Cape Town

1 Kofi Anan, A Foreword, They are Africans, text by Dudley Thompson, paintings by Barrington Watson.
2 A speech given before the National Council of Negro Women 5 December 1935
3 Adam David Miller, Observations on a Black Aesthetic, in Gayle, ed. The Black Aesthetic 1971 .
4 Karl Japers, German Philosopher
5 Sister Netifa, Daughters of the Soil, Moving Beyond Boundaries, Volume 1. International Dimensions of Black Women’s Writing.
6 Ben Okri, Mental Fight, Aphoenix Paperback
7 Paul Kruger, Extract from Stephen Clingman’s book on the Life of Bram Fischer .
8 Patrice Lumumba, They are Africans, in 1 above
9 President Thabo Mbeki, Address Delivered on 21 March, 1999 at the Handover of Land in the Kalahari Gemsbok Park