Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

Definitions of African

Last month, everyone at Madulammoho traveled to Soweto to visit our newest project, Jabulani.  One of the managers brought his minivan and a large group of us packed ourselves inside: one white South African, five black employees, one coloured employee, me, and my Canadian friend who had just arrived the day before.

Even though we all work in the same office, it’s unusual for all of us to talk together.  The white manager, who visited Vancouver in the 1980s, asked my friend about Canada and his opinions regarding South Africa.

I really like the manager who was driving us.  He’s passionate about his country and loves discussing politics.  Moreover, he’s a decent guy: a nice person.

During the car ride, he exclaimed,

“Know what really bothers me?  Our voting forms used to have four racial categories: black, white, coloured, and other.  But now what do we have?  White, colour, other, and African.  My family has been here for 160 years!  I hate ticking the ‘white’ box.  How much more do I have to do to prove that I’m African?”

“Move to a township and learn Zulu!” quipped one of my black colleagues.

We all laughed, including the manager, although he didn’t concede that he agreed with her.

On the one hand, I agree with my black colleague.  There are residual and obvious differences between those descended from disempowered aboriginal tribes versus the affluent white population.  At the same time, however, how is this country going to get over its racism if it can’t accept place of origin regardless of skin colour?

I hate it when people question my Canadian heritage, although Canada is a little different since it’s a country built on immigration.  We either killed our natives or segregated them to isolated reserves – a tactic that worked because most First Nations tribes were decimated by foreign diseases before European pioneers ever made face-to-face contact.

Anyways, it frustrates me that people want to know where I’m really from because I’m not 100% white.  Moreover, if I’d been born here, it would frustrate me that only black people were considered African according to national surveys.  What about coloured people?  They should count as African, shouldn’t they?  Their ancestors have lived in this country just as long as blacks’, although not all of them.

The residual resentment here drives me insane.  “Just get over it!” I want to say.  “Just get over your white supremacy or your reverse racism and start accepting people as people.  All these barriers and stereotypes you put up… can’t you see what utter bullshit they are?  Doesn’t the government understand that continuing to use us-versus-them rhetoric is harming this country?”

I’m not advocating to overlook history.  But one purpose of remembering history to keep it from repeating, is it not?


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3 thoughts on “Definitions of African

  1. I love the way you’ve written this article. It’s a problem in every country. I come from Malaysia and lived in Johannesburg for a while. Race was and still is such a huge recurring issue in both places. But hopefully with enough people changing their mentality, the perception of us vs them can change?

  2. Great post.

    But why do voting forms have to ask for race? Does it even matter?

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