We are African Before We are South African

Identity still remains a highly contentious and divisive issue in African society. One occasionally comes across heated debates on South African social media about who is an ‘African’ and who is not. Young, old, whites, blacks, foreigners, immigrants, homosexuals, heterosexuals and many other words which aim to socially identify and classify people.  There is nothing wrong with having an identity; the problem arises when an identity is used to justify exclusion and dehumanisation.  It is far more advantageous and progressive to invest in the African identity sometimes than in a nationality. It is perfectly normal at this stage for the reader to be frantically searching for the point in all this identity talk. Well, these are some of the concepts that have preoccupied my mind ever since my arrival in Namibia in early May as part of an exchange agreement between South Africa and Namibia.

Due to cost cutting measures by the South African government, I unfortunately travelled by bus to Namibia, which meant a gruelling 24 hours on the road. The scenery was spectacular, vast stretches of desert, which quickly turn into Savannah (yes, it is dry but you can’t drink it). The capital, Windhoek, is a modern bustling African city, the cleanest in Africa as far as I am concerned; literally no papers, plastic or sweet wrappers on the ground. Food is, however, very expensive in Namibia. Nothing illustrates the point better than the price of an IQF 2kg Chicken (affectionately known as a ‘2KG’ in South Africa) which costs a whopping N$89. One cannot ignore the economic and cultural dominance of South Africa over Namibia, the Namibian dollar is pegged to the rand. Young Namibians also speak about “blessers”. Most major South African retailers are available, Afrikaans is widely spoken, and one could mistakenly think possessing a South African identity is an advantage in Namibia.

Carrying a South African identity in Namibia can be extremely advantageous at times just as it can be equally precarious. In some instances, it can be a poisoned chalice, this is due to the fact that historically in Namibia South Africa was synonymous with colonialism and oppression. One occasionally (if not constantly) has to distance himself from the actions of apartheid South Africa. It literally gives one first-hand experience of how some young white South Africans might feel in post-1994 South Africa, bearing an identity of an oppressor can be a cumbersome affair. I had the opportunity of meeting Namibia’s first democratically-elected president Dr Sam Nujoma near a place called Ondangwa, seated under a tree surrounded by VIP protection and governors and a litany of other onlookers, his first question to me was “ Are you South African? How is President Zuma?” the eager eyes of the entire entourage shifted towards me, full of expectation. I am sure some of them felt pity for me and curiously listened to how I would handle the political mine field I found myself in. I won’t bore the reader with how I sidestepped that potentially sticky situation, but what is obvious is the fact that Namibians follow our politics very closely as they directly affect them economically.

Namibians are generally very humble, extremely proud and welcoming. They are true representatives of what it means to be African. Although they are not a homogenous society, they have successfully managed to instil a culture, even among the young that being African first is far more beneficial than prioritising division. The African Union flag stands side by side with the Namibian flag in nearly all state and private institutions, even in rural schools children sing both the African Union and the Namibian anthem. Namibian youth are very dynamic, in a culturally conservative nation they have managed to use the very same prescripts of culture to secure their own seat at the table of national discourse. One occasionally hears youth activists quoting the Oshiwambo idiom “Waa na mutanda ku na ngombe” (If you do not have a calf, you do not have a cow) which they interpret to mean without youth there is no nation. This they use to justify their inclusion. Young people in Namibia (particularly Northern Namibia) are extremely entrepreneurial. Unlike many in South Africa who believe that attending ‘Business seminars’ or ‘wealth summits’ makes one a business person, in Namibia people believe if you can purchase tomatoes and are able to sell them at a profit, then you are a business person.

What all these snippets highlight is the fact that as Africans we are connected, particularly as young people. Our history is divisive and painful, however, our collective African identity is the cohesive glue that binds us together. An African identity is portable, one can take it wherever they go; because as the quote by Dr Charles Finch suggests at the beginning being an African transcends geographic location, it transcends tribes or race but is a state of mind. If we want this concept to work, young people should and must be at the forefront. Political principles need to abandon phrases like “we need to engage the youth”, the youth doesn’t need to be engaged, it needs to be involved.

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