I Am White and an African, and Nobody Has the Right to Take Away This Birthright

Cape Times (South Africa), May 31, 2007 | Go to article overview

I Am White and an African, and Nobody Has the Right to Take Away This Birthright


BYLINE: Yolanda Kemp SPIES

Je suis une Africaine. This was one of the few sentences I could muster in faltering French when, as an exchange student many years ago, I went abroad for the first time.

It was not said as a political statement - I was far too naive for that. By introducing myself as "an African", I conveyed a very basic but fundamental part of my identity.

My hosts were particularly intrigued by my mother tongue, Afrikaans. They learnt that the language was named directly after the continent of Africa - the only one among hundreds of other African languages to be called thus.

This language, which I adore, is colourful in idiom, just like the many peoples who contributed to its development. If the genealogists are to be believed, my blood - like the absolute majority of South Africans' blood - is "colourful" too, even if my own skin happens to be pale. In France then (just as subsequently elsewhere in Europe and Asia and the Americas) I felt different, and special. I was, as I am, African. I have never not been African, nor thought of myself as anything else.

My South African citizenship is my birthright and endorsed legally by my South African ID book and passport. If African leaders obtain their much expressed political goal of political unity for the continent, I would automatically become a citizen of a "United States of Africa".

This would be a natural extension of my national citizenship, and also of my cultural identity. I would not then choose to call myself a Euro-African or whatever.

But in saying that, I am not denying that some peoples need to express a more complex historical identity. African-Americans, for example, venerate the struggle of many of their forefathers who were forcibly relocated to the Americas. However, today, generations later, African-Americans are no less American for being black. It would not occur to anybody to make them choose between being "black" and being "American". Their identity is complex, but the components of their genetic and geographical identity are not mutually exclusive.

This has been patently obvious to me on the occasions that I have interacted with African-Americans. Whatever their empathy for Africa, culturally as well as geographically we are worlds apart. They are American, and I am African.

It would be such a pleasure to add the word "period" right here. But a sinister new bureaucratic "technicality" is challenging my identity, and I am compelled to speak out.

Increasingly, official forms oblige me to choose among categories that make it impossible to be white and African (or coloured or Asian and African for that matter).

These forms always offer the explanation that the information is for government's statistical purposes, and/or to assist with employment equity.

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I Am White and an African, and Nobody Has the Right to Take Away This Birthright
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