By Sandile Memela

Not long ago a prolific public intellectual not only pointed out why social cohesion cannot be attained in South Africa but called for an examination of the state of Africanness, whatever that is.

It was noteworthy that the unnamed public intellectual defined himself as a member of a somewhat prominent association that has claimed for itself the right to be custodian of the gospel truth according to ‘Africanness.’ Some of its members included academics, activists, artists and writers.

But what intrigued me is what this public intellectual perhaps defined as the homogeneity of so-called Africanness.
In a post-Mandela, post-apartheid and non-racial society, this Africanness is not only complex and confusing but accessible to everyone who lives in this country, whatever shade of black you are – creatively, socially, intellectually, philosophically and, of course, politically.

The new Africaness, if we can call it that, is a new mental attitude that can be also adopted by those who are of European, Chinese or Asian descent, too, as it is definitely not about rallying around skin color.

This new Africaness, if you like, is not just intuitively owned or connected to descendants of Robert Sobukwe’s Pan-Africanist philosophy or its definition of what constitutes Africaness. In fact, Sobukwe’s understanding and interpretation of Africaness has not only been distorted by the self-appointed individual and organizations that claim to be custodians of his thinking but has, wrongly, been narrowed to issues of skin color and physical appearance.
This is what even some contemporary intellectuals understand it to mean: those who possess a particular physical appearance and have been adversely affected by apartheid and its legacy.

But as things stands now, this Africaness is a fusion of different classes, backgrounds, lifestyles, languages, cultures, ethnic groups and political orientations. In fact, there is not a single ideology, philosophy or perspective that is authentically ‘African.’ Africans have long splintered into diverse interests groups that can only be united, potentially, by their commitment to giving the world a human face or implementing the philosophical framework of Ubuntu. Besides that there is nothing that makes Africaness a monolithic group attitude.

Thus in this Africaness you are likely to find people who question its certainty and authenticity as espoused by the Father of Black Pan-Africanism like Sobukwe, for instance. After all, Sobukwe – just like Nelson Mandela and the late Steve Biko - was only human.

Today of course you hear young black people - who are called Cheese Kids - say Africaness is not a monolithic experience and is varied, depending where you coming from. And they are correct!

There are now millions of Africans who live in what can be called or defined as the post-African Age, that is, that period following the demise of apartheid where blacks are so free that they can define themselves in any way they want.
In fact, to deny them that right would be a development that is worse that apartheid that aimed to impose narrow, parochial ideological identities on people based on their skin color or group allegiance.

The South Africa we all inhabit today comprises of African people from all over the world, bringing not only other languages and cultures but experiences, perspectives, values and lifestyles as well.

We should all be ready to accept that so-called Africans come from a wider variety of places than just those who are considered natives of this beautiful land or were oppressed by the discredited and defeated apartheid regime.

I do not believe that there is any single person now, including Sobukwe who continues to rule from the grave, who has the authority and power to tell us what constitutes the state of Africaness. But even if this elusive and essential state of Africaness or identity exists, it cannot be something static. It is dynamic, forward-moving and undergoing constant change and transformation.

This 21st Century Africaness must not only connect the politics of identity preservationists and others who want to freeze philosophy and culture into an unchanging apartheid mode but integrate the progressive new generation of young people who do not necessarily speak so-called African languages or live outside the rural areas or township.
In fact, we have to push its boundaries to the limits to absorb the suburbian, continental and global experiences and influences of former exiles and refugees who come from all over the continent and the world.

If by Africaness you have something homogeneous, exclusive and impenetrable, it is a phenomenon that can no longer be found in the post-Sobukwe South Africa. The eclectic combination of the people, languages, complexions, cultures and values found in this country are not the result of any particular Africaness.

This country has become a big, diverse and intercultural melting pot where no single African experience or perspective is more important than the other except ideals, principles and values that promote social cohesion and national unity.
In fact, solidarity and unity beyond Africaness towards anti-racism is the new gospel that should influence and shape the new thinking, behavior and attitude of all people, including the alleged non-Africans.

If you open your eyes to the almost 20-years old South Africa, you can safely conclude that this is not the same country that Sobukwe and his disciples of Africaness lived in in 1959 where the battle lines were not only clear but simple and predictable.
In the last few decades since the death of Sobukwe, the release of Nelson, the return of exiles that were scattered throughout the world and the unbanning of the liberation movement, South Africa has not only unleashed diverse African perspectives and experiences but exploded into many parts that are greater than the whole.

Perhaps those who over-glorify frozen Pan-Africanism and perpetuate its unchanging nature in the name of 1950s radicalism are still trapped in communities that are relatively African and homogenous. Yes, there may still be a few die-hard but marginal exponents of this old Africaness who are like the super-Afrikaners who long for some homogeneous world view based on what happened in the past.

But we must be aware that African people have always been open to global influences which, inevitably, redefines and expand Africaness. Think back to Mapungubwe in Limpopo which was the cradle of world commerce and trade with China and Europe long before the arrival of the European conquerors.

After all, the freedom struggle has always been premised on bestowing freedom of choice, movement and self-definition for all. And some African choices may not necessarily be with the narrow, monotonous and predictable view of what constitutes Pan-Africanism.

In the South Africa that celebrates two decades of freedom and democracy in 2014, all people must be encouraged to embrace diversity of whatever it is that constitutes Africaness. Those who want to protect and preserve African homogeneity need to retain what they value with neither fascist prescription nor discrimination.

Well, yes, they will always be those who think their Africaness is a prerogative of Sobukwe’s descendants and disciples who continue to promote his legacy. But we should be ready to accept that there are other Africans who are not interested in being imprisoned in the past of how he defined Africaness, no matter how correct he was.

Africaness, whatever that is, now, is open and accessible to everyone who believes that the struggle was not only for human rights but to enable any African person to redefine himself in any way they wish, including speaking English only or turning their back on so-called African culture.

In fact, Africaness has gone global. Where it is portrayed or projected as homogenous and exclusive, as exponents of politics of identity and cultural preservationists are likely to do, they need to not only be warned against dictatorial tendencies but to be deplored and discouraged in the strongest terms. What this new world needs is absolute freedom for African people to express self-love, above all, in any way that promotes peace, unity and harmonious non-racial living. And this includes the gays, lesbians, heterosexuals, disabled, youth, aged and every other shade they come in.
Nobody should tell us that Africaness or its expression should be locked and ring-fenced into some form of relationship with what was espoused in the 1950s. Marcus Garvey, for instance is dead and buried but his legacy can only be promoted when it is allowed to redefine itself to be relevant for the new global world.
Those who feel that their Africaness is threatened must accept that it was destined to, inevitably, change because it is part of human progress in a changing world. Nothing is permanent except change.
The push towards a new Africaness should, rightly, be from within the evolving inclusive African community itself. Much as it is an unsettling thought, it will come from the creative tension that marks the fusion of the local, regional, continent and global experience.
Some will like it and embrace it. Others will not. But the African people must continue to be in the forefront of bring a ‘human face’ to the world. It is what has to happen in these times when Europe has not only failed and betrayed Africa but itself.
The push for a new Africa is an eternal struggle that is timeless, ever-changing, dynamic and forward-moving.

Sandile Memela is a journalist, author, blogger and a civil servant.

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