IN THE PURSUIT of ‘open debate’ on the touchy subject of who is an African and who is not, commentators often fail miserably in their characterisation of continental identity as solely a ‘race issue’, in the process repeating many of the racist tropes and typology of the past.
If one follows Thekiso Musi on the subject, in ‘Don’t call me a black African’ published by Sunday Independent, and supposedly in the ‘interest of generating public debate’, one could be forgiven for adopting a mistake common to many, that of believing the word Africa, denotes ‘exclusive place of the people with the dark skin’.
The retired judge is not only wrong on this count, but his views require a quick history lesson, if not a full traversing of law.
Several well-established theories abound regarding the term Africa and its provenance, all pointing to weather and geography, not skin colour as the over-riding factor in attributing identity.
According to one theory, It is thought that the Romans called the region Afri-terra, meaning “the land of the Afri.” Later, this could have become contracted to form the single word “Africa.”
Another theory is the name was acquired during a series of three wars known as the Punic Wars between Rome and the ancient North African empire of Carthage (present day Tunisia) from 264 BC to 146 BC.
The word “Africa” is thus either derived from the Greek word “aphrike” meaning “without cold,” or from the Phoenician word “Afar” which means “dust” or from Latin “Aprica” which means sunny.
Rest assured there are a plethora of such theories, one has it that the term is derived from two Phoenician words, “friqi” and “pharika.” Thought to translate as corn and fruit. Yet another theory suggests that the continent’s name came from even further afield, brought by traders from modern-day India. In Sanskrit and Hindi, the root word “Apara,” or Africa, literally translates as a place that “comes after.” In a geographical context, this can also be interpreted as a place to the west.
It is the modern emphasis on otherising Africa, as a place distinct from the West and in the face of a tragic history which has lead to terms that have less appeal to rationality and reason, rather than the return of a historical, albeit racialised claim to continental nation-building, ( one consistent with earlier racist attempts to build a white Volkstaat.)
Yet the distinction made today, between African and Non-African is as galling as the distinction made by the apartheid state, between European and Non-European, and so too Aryan and non-Aryan under Hitler’s Germany. Readers may recall the repugnant emphasis on pseudo-scientific race classification which was the hallmark of both regimes.
What exactly marks a person as African or Non-African? Is it ever possible to tell who is African and who is not by simply looking at a person? Are all black persons African? The former judge’s musings on the subject show evidence of a deep seated discomfort with identity that is not solved by our judiciary refusing to accept that such distinctions are, in and of themselves, racist. There is certainly no scientific basis for inferring a ‘separation between the species’.
For starters, Musi appears to assert the term ‘African’ refers exclusively to those who are ‘native to Africa’, and hence Africans can only be black and the term ‘black African’ is merely an unnecessary repetition. On the flip side, a ‘white person’, he seems to assert, can never be considered African since ‘Africans are not considered Europeans when they move to Europe’.
“By way of analogy,” says Musi, “an African who has permanently settled in Europe may acquire citizenship of whatever European country he/she has settled in, but he/she cannot be called a European. “
“If he/she has the citizenship of, say France, he/she is a French citizen and may be referred to as French, but that does not make him/her a European”.
These assertions are not backed by any evidence and contradict International and European statutes which assert both the equality of citizens and the right to individual identity. The term Afro European (or simply European) for instance, refers to ‘Europeans who trace at least part of their ancestry to Africa, mostly to former colonies’.
There are some 15 million people of African or Afro-Caribbean descent, living in the European Union comprising over 2.5% of the total population. Notable Afro-Europeans include the French writer, Alexander Dumas, tennis player Yannick Noah, and Rama Yade, a Senegalese-born French politician. They would all no doubt object to Musi’s characterisation of their status as ‘Non-Europeans’, as too would anyone confronted with the apartheid states own pencil test.
Bizarrely, Musi proceeds to conclude that since we as South Africans have a common citizenship ‘there are black South Africans and white South Africans’, just no black or white Africans.
“In South Africa, writes Musi, “we share a common citizenship with our white compatriots (and others) and we can, therefore, talk of white South Africans and black South Africans. But Africans should not get confused and call themselves “black” Africans.”
This is nothing less than racist twaddle, narrow-minded tinkering, chauvinistic bunkum and bigoted opinion by a member of our judiciary. Instead of asserting non-racialism, that we are all human beings, possessed of equal rights, Musi proceeds to claim race as a necessary defining factor in our lives. In this respect, we are all the poorer.
Far from encouraging open debate, the judge must be seen as a spokesperson for a moribund ideology, one that has succeeded in turning my own person, and others, into an absurdity in the eyes of the law.