About this site

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

The 'native' question

In a perceptive essay, 'Resolving the 'native question' Business Day 25 May 2005, Professor Sipho Seepe, one of SA's leading intellectuals addresses the question of African Identity. Go to [] maharaj/documents and reports/other/endnote 60 chapter22   '[for] many South African whites… '[for] many South African whites… blacks do not exist except to be at their beck and call. In this case [the anecdote he was discussing] the French mattered, Africans did not.' This remains the case with for most white South Africans today.' Apartheid, he rightfully observes, created labels, white (superior) black (useless). Hence he asks, 'Should we therefore [my itals] be surprised that the assertion of an African identity has become a post 1994 political, cultural and national imperative? This assertion and the attendant cultural reclamation should be seen as a corrective step should be seen as a corrective step following centuries of denigration, dehumanization and oppression.' He quotes one of Africa's most esteemed writers, Es'kia Mphahlele: 'I cannot help but support the concept of black consciousness in SA. How else?  We have been shut up in an enclave for 300 years so that we can never that forget that we are , so what is so startling when we let it be known that blackness is our anchor, our source of strength, the reason for our survival?' Seepe further writes that "Understandably Mbeki, in his role as president, is easily irritated by what some may consider mild expressions of racism. If anything, tolerance of such remarks is indicative of failure by sections of white South Africans to reciprocate the reconciliatory spirit displayed by Africans. For black people no racial incident, racial remark, or expression in behavior is remote, mild or inconsequence.' Thus '[the] assertion of an African identity is part of the problem of resolving a native problem created by apartheid colonialism. To the extent that the oppressed are their own liberators, it is incumbent on the natives to resolve this problem … to turn their identity into a positive force.' And he notes, 'Not surprisingly, the African National Congress and the liberation movements are unwavering in declaring that the struggle and challenge remain that of the 'upliftment of blacks in general and Africans' in particular. This definition of an African or black does not include whites. [all itals. mine]

Thus the words 'African' and 'black' are juxtaposed, yet blackness in not itself being African. Africans are a subset of blacks, but the most important subset. Yet, 'African' identity does not refer only to the identity of Africans but is broader. Yet whites, who are neither African ( South African Africans) nor black ( South African blacks) are still African in a broader sense, once they can come to terms with their having denied Africans their identity or contributing to the negative African identity they forced on blacks. The mind boggles, yet only SA itself can in time make sense of their own confusing and sometimes seemingly contradictory senses of self.

In the Western Cape, where the colored population outnumbered the African population for some years post 1994, racial tensions between two disadvantaged groups, once the numbers in both approached proximity and then swung in favor of Africans, manifest themselves in competition for jobs, houses and other resources. Coloreds complain bitterly about being displaced by Africans in municipal structures and the ANC has struggled to contain internal race-based faction fighting that has created deep divides between the' Africanists', who ousted the premier, Ebrahim Rasool  as Western Cape provincial chairperson in favor of James Ngculu in 2005. Rasool is colored; Ngculu African. The constant flow of Africans from the Eastern Cape, especially from the old Transkei, to the Cape Town metro is putting a huge strain on the metro's resources and aggravates the adds to the strains between Africans and Coloureds.

In the local elections in 2006, the Coloured vote swung to either the Independent Democrats or the Democratic Alliance and handed control of the Cape back to the Democratic Alliance. See Chapter 22, endnote 12

The full text of Seepe's article follows:

BUSINESS DAY
25 May 2005
AFRICAN IDENTITY/Sipho Seepe

Resolving the 'native question'

AFEW years ago, I was intrigued by my university colleague's frantic attempts to learn French. Upon inquiry he indicated that he was going to France for two weeks. "Just for two weeks!" I exclaimed, unable to suppress my disbelief. Yet it made sense - in France the French were not going to be at his service. This much we knew.

Despite having spent all his youth and adult life in SA, the need for him to learn an African language had not dawned on him. This disregard for and lack of interest in the languages of compatriots is a defining characteristic of many white South Africans, for whom blacks do not exist except to be at their beck and call. In this case, the French mattered - Africans did not. This remains the case for most white South Africans today.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu jokingly expressed similar sentiments when he remarked that his embrace of the master's religion, his exposure to the best of British university education, and winning a Nobel peace prize, did not grant him rights equal to that of a useless white bum in the park. To the apartheid regime he was non-white and non-European.

The labels were meant to drive two points home: one, that being black is an aberration from the norm - which is white; and two, by the extension of this logic, blacks had to disabuse themselves of the notion of any equality with whites.

Should we therefore be surprised that the assertion of an African identity has become a post-1994 political, cultural and social national imperative? This assertion and the attendant cultural reclamation should be seen as a corrective step following centuries of denigration, dehumanisation and oppression.

Author Es'kia Mphahlele captures this as follows: "I cannot help but appreciate and support the concept of black consciousness in SA. How else? We have been shut up in an enclave for 300 years so that we never forget that we are black, so what is so startling or scary when we make it known that blackness has become our anchor, our source of strength, the reason for our survival?"

It is this experience that makes President Thabo Mbeki's bold and unapologetic assertion, "I am an African", so profound. This assertion of African identity is part of the healing process following centuries of denigration. Understandably, Mbeki, in his role as president, is easily irritated by what some may consider mild expressions of racism. If anything, tolerance of such remarks is indicative of failure by sections of white South Africans to reciprocate the reconciliatory spirit displayed by Africans. For black people, no racial incident, racial remark or expression in behaviour is remote, mild or inconsequential. It forms and is seen as part of the cumulative experience of racial bigotry and injustice.

In the broad scheme of things, this assertion of an African identity is part of the process of resolving a native problem created by apartheid colonialism. To the extent that the oppressed are their own liberators, it is incumbent upon the natives to resolve this problem - a challenge of turning around a state of alienation and self-loathing and to turn their identity into a positive force.

Referring to this challenge, Steve Biko wrote: "So immersed are (whites) in prejudice that they do not believe that blacks can formulate their thoughts without white guidance or trusteeship."

For Mphahlele, Mbeki and Malegapuru Makgoba, vice-chancellor of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, the African identity project is about reclaiming the right of Africans to name themselves.

It is about taking ownership of the native question. Gone are the days when Africans had to carry labels imposed on them. Prospects of nonracialism and configuring new identities are predicated on the resolution of this native question. It is possible to reconfigure new identities simultaneously as we resolve this historic challenge.

At the same time, for those of us who have never doubted our Africanness, these debates are meaningless - they are a diversion from critical issues such as poverty, diseases, homelessness, landlessness, unemployment, illiteracy and so on, all of which heavily affect the African majority. The sudden vociferous interest and appropriation of the African identity by whites is understandably considered to be a deliberate obfuscation and mystification aimed at derailing Africans from dealing with white privilege and all its manifestations. Not surprisingly, the African National Congress and other liberation movements are unwavering in declaring that the struggle and challenge remain that of the "upliftment of blacks in general and Africans in particular". This definition of an African or black does not include whites.

What, then, of the future?

In a profound sense, the process of defining and forming an identity is linked to the inauguration of a new cultural, political and human consciousness. Building this identity thus becomes an act of liberation. As some have argued, this shift should "institute a practice that would break with the familiar, the now routine way of seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding things, so that the new organism becomes receptive to the potential forms of a nonaggressive, nonexploitative society".

Consistent with this statement, freedom should provide us the space to name ourselves as we see fit. A range of identities then becomes possible - from black, male, female, African, Zulu, Indian, white, Christian, Muslim, heterosexual, gay, scholar, poet, writer, Marxist, capitalist, among others. The assertion of different identities rejects attempts to impose a new official identity.

At a societal level the question arises: what is distinctive about being South African? After all, national identity can be a socialising and mobilising instrument. The new South African identity should be informed by SA's realities. It should be an identity that shapes and informs our domestic and foreign policies. SA's realities are shaped by history and the current challenges of underdevelopment.

Another aspect of this identity relates to SA's commitments as it creates a different, if not new, society.

This calls for an appreciation of how identities intersect and a celebration of cultural and ethnic diversity, while allowing the African majority the right to address historical injustice. Building a new South African identity, aside from being a unifying mission, should enable us to create a space that is big enough to tell our own stories. Debates on language and African identity are intrinsically linked to the native question.

Prof Seepe is academic director at Henley Management College (incorporated in the UK).

And, published the same day:

BUSINESS DAY
2005/05/25 12:00:00 AM

Difference can be an asset as long as it does not buttress inequality

Steven Friedman

WANTING too much unity can divide us. The African National Congress (ANC) discussion document on "the national question" has attracted attention because it suggested that white Afrikaners might be embracing democracy more readily than English-speakers. But it had more to say: reading it reminds us of some of our challenges - and dangers.

The document is useful because race remains the fault line in our society, yet we often avoid discussing it honestly. Anything that forces us to debate it helps us.

It also raises issues of which we need to be reminded. The right to be different is essential to democracy, but there is no right to lord it over others. As long as racial inequality remains, white concerns may be dismissed as pleas for privilege. And so the document's stress on tackling racial inequities is essential if difference is to be respected.

Respect for cultural and language diversity is also important to democracy. But the formerly privileged will not safely enjoy their cultural preferences and language while those who have been suppressed remain on the margins.

And so the document is right to insist that culture and languages which were obscured by minority rule need to become visible now.

Diversity in a democracy is not unlimited: we can have only one name for our cities. Those who insist that it is a right to have them named after white generals endanger cultural difference by making diversity seem like a means to insult the majority.

But parts of the discussion document are a symptom of our problems, not a recipe for a cure.

One is seeming intolerance of differences between black people. The Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) is denounced for "brazen tribalism". Low-intensity tribal mobilisation within the ANC is condemned. And "African unity" is proposed as a remedy.

Tribalism can be divisive. But experience in sub-Saharan Africa shows that suppressing it prompts conflict, not unity. We are far better off if "tribalists" express themselves and campaign for office than if they are forced to seethe beneath the surface.

And, once people who differ are stigmatised, antitribalism can be used against those who simply disagree.

Another aspect of the document is a seeming tendency to judge nonracialism by whether people vote for the ANC. The document complains that Democratic Alliance and IFP supporters continue to vote for their "own" party. It also sees support for the ANC by racial minorities as a sign that we are moving beyond racial differences. It is unlikely that the authors would feel similarly pleased if ANC supporters began voting for opposition parties.

There is a strand in ANC thinking which does see support for it as a sign of white good faith. A friend tells of a meeting of white Afrikaners in Tshwane called by the ANC to elicit support for the new order. "Instead of appeals to share with our black neighbours, we were exhorted to join the ANC," he recalls.

Some may see this as an attempt to use race to squash opposition. It is more complicated.

Apartheid insisted we were all different. So it became vital to the ANC to insist that we should be all the same - voting for it is one way of expressing sameness. Some whites who rail against the ANC do so because they doubt black competence - what better test of whether whites have abandoned that prejudice than voting ANC? And, since voter choices are so strongly shaped by our identities, opposition parties do tend to represent racial or language minorities. Ditching them for the ANC can be seen as acceptance of majority rule.

This may partly explain the claim that Afrikaners are more accepting of change. There is no evidence that the proportion of Afrikaners embracing democracy is greater than that among English-speakers. But Afrikaner politicians such as Pik Botha have joined the ANC while Marthinus van Schalkwyk has been willing to dissolve his party to do so. To ANC leaders, there can be no greater sign of willingness to accept change than that of the architects of apartheid joining the liberation movement they once vilified.

So some of this may be understandable. But this does not make it helpful.

Some whites may join the ANC in pursuit of position or status; others may remain outside it but loyal to majority rule. Equating support for majority aspirations with joining the ANC is to prize uniformity ahead of concrete contribution to our future.

Equally importantly, difference is an asset to our society as long as it does not buttress inequality. We should be striving not for sameness but for a society in which inequality is eroded while difference is valued. And some whites who differ with the ANC may be more committed to equality than some who support it.

Whites need to do far more to support democracy. But the test is whether they embrace and work for racial equality, not whether they vote for the governing party.

Friedman is senior research fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies.

BUSINESS DAY
5 March 2007

Like it or not, leading the DA is just not the job for a black man

Cyril Madlala

I am not as attuned to internal DA dynamics as I perhaps should be, but something just does not feel right about the prospect of Seremane being the face and embodiment of the values of the liberals of old, now blended uniquely with the values of the Nationalists of old.

It worked for Leon but it cannot work for Seremane, precisely because Seremane is who he is - a black person - despite his own vigorous attempts to downplay his identity as such. He would have us believe that in the context of his party's politics, his blackness is incidental. That is fine for him to believe when he sits among his leadership colleagues in caucus, but the reality is that what matters is how the party is perceived outside that caucus room.

I do not quite know how to convey this feeling that one gets as an outsider when our political parties hold public events.

There is just something one feels amid throngs of Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) supporters in Ulundi. It is different from when African National Congress (ANC) supporters from all corners of SA gather for major conferences. There is a mood, a feeling that is distinctly different from that of the IFP.

And one then goes to a DA conference, and something does not feel right. Probably it is the sight of a traditional praise singer for the leader, definitely the torturous sounds of kwaito music and pantsula dancers, who have to be endured by an audience that in a previous life clearly acquired finer tastes in music and dance. And, of course, there is Seremane. A fine gentleman indeed, if ever there was one - too gentle and nice for my liking. It is difficult to resist thinking that this is precisely why he is national chairman ahead of many very able and competent DA leaders.

To the ANC's great irritation, the DA MPs are on top of their game as an opposition because they prepare thoroughly and come across as people of conviction. I am not certain that Seremane could ever be thoroughly convincing about everything the DA stands for.

Another DA member could believe that ailing Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang should not be allowed to die in office. Those outside the DA would say that it is understandable when such a statement is made by somebody who is not imbued with the spirit of ubuntu, as understood by black Africans. But a Seremane could never have been expected to defend such a sentiment.

Similarly, black South Africans, irrespective of political affiliation, generally expect everyone to respect the office of the president of the republic, whether they like the incumbent or not. Now there is a manner about the way some white leaders address themselves to the president that makes many Africans cringe. Seremane should know what I am talking about; it was this phenomenon that explains partly why the DA and the IFP were unable to work together.

Therefore, as much as Seremane would not like to be judged as a black person, the reality out there is that the vast majority of those he wants to attract to his party view him as such.

However, for me, the biggest danger that would be posed by Seremane's victory is the alienation of the DA's core white, Indian and coloured support.

The DA's strength is its unequivocal opposition to the ANC and a clear ambition to reduce the ruling party's influence in our politics.

On the other hand, traditionally black parties have largely resigned themselves to roles in the periphery, with all serious debates about the future of this country being confined to the ANC and its alliance partners.

We have gone so far down that road that the ANC's own leadership issues are matters for discussion by everybody.

It is clear how, under a white leader, the DA would exploit any cracks in the ANC. It should come naturally, as it did when it seemed Jacob Zuma was headed for the political scrapheap not so long ago.

It would, however, be awkward for Seremane. Not only because he lacks the aggression to sustain bitter exchanges with the ANC as Leon does, but because as a black South African, deep down in him there is a soft spot for the role of the ANC in the struggle and a better appreciation of the reasoning behind some of that organisation's way of doing things.

The effect of his leadership would be a distinct softening towards the ANC, which I don't think the DA's core supporters are interested in.

This is assuming Seremane would have real power in the first place.

Madlala is the editor and publisher of UmAfrika.

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.