South Africa

OPINIONISTA: The omelette is cooked and cannot be undone: We are all African

When Archbishop Desmond Tutu declared at the opening of the 2010 Soccer World Cup that ‘Africa is the cradle of humanity… we are all Africans’, it was not a thoughtless, vacuous rhetorical statement; it was an assertion deeply informed by scientific evidence.

South Africa is a country full of shocks. They come hard and fast, at dizzying speeds. In recent times we have been treated to what amounts to an overdose of shocks from the daily Zondo Commission tragi-comic revelations of monumental corruption. And gender-based violence is so ubiquitous it is blood-curdling.

Then there is the convulsion at Senekal evoking a Tower of Babel spectacle. It displays an assortment of devotees of various mutually antagonistic ideological persuasions clad in outfits bedecked with insignia and belching songs incongruous with the democratic moment. There are many more afflictions, but these should suffice for illustrative purposes.

The most recent entrant to this cocktail of macabre shocks is the charge laid against Glen Snyman by the Western Cape education department. The charge sheet reads, “You committed a common law offence, to wit, by stating on your CV… that you are an African male.”

This is not a flashback to apartheid South Africa; it is happening right now in a democratic South Africa whose forebears had imagined and pledged that it would be an emphatic negation of the horrific deeds and beliefs of the apartheid regime.

It should be obvious that the charges against Snyman are an ignoble travesty of justice; a perversion of what the Constitution stands for. A number of individuals have wrangled with the legal and constitutional standing of the charge and so this contribution veers away from repeating the arguments. In this piece, I wish to bring to the fore what seems to be largely buried beneath the surface, despite the knowledge being in the public domain for quite some time.

It is essential at the outset to reassert what has become increasingly accepted in scientific circles – that race is a social construct. The pseudoscience that codified “race” in the 18th and 19th centuries has been virtually debunked. 

Contemporary multidisciplinary research including palaeontology, palaeoanthropology, molecular biology, genetics, archaeology, geoscience etc, all confirm the common origins of humankind before the great dispersal, and trace it to the great expanse within which the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site is nested – here in South Africa. 

In his book “Man’s Most Dangerous Myth”, John Stanfield demonstrates the damage race theory has wrought in the world.

The research conducted at the University of the Witwatersrand’s Evolutionary Studies Institute and the Origins Centre, for example, is renowned and has inspired deeper introspection resulting in the correction of previously dominant errant racial orthodoxies that constructed a racial hierarchical structure justifying white supremacy.

In an informed account of evolutionary biology, Oxford’s Prof Bryan Sykes observed that “our genes did not just appear when we were born. They have been carried to us by millions of individual lives over thousands of generations”.

If one is persuaded by this scientific theory, then it is logical to acknowledge that modern humans are Africans by virtue of their ancestral birthright. 

It can be said therefore that Snyman’s claim is essentially correct. To borrow a phrase (modified in this instance) from former president Thabo Mbeki, none dare challenge Snyman when he says, “I am an African.”

Mbeki’s 1996 “I am African” speech – made after Parliament had voted on the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa – framed an idea in superbly poetic form which powerfully articulated a complex national identity casting an edifying light on what should constitute South Africaness. This conception was drawn from established scientific knowledge.

It was remarkable in its far-reaching embrace of the multiplicity of the constituent parts in the country, and thus affirming the “united in our diversity” principle embedded in the Constitution. 

In tandem, Sathima Bea Benjamin’s beautiful song, “Many nations in me”, serves as a complement to the poem’s philosophical and yet utterly pragmatic disposition.

When Archbishop Desmond Tutu declared at the opening of the 2010 Soccer World Cup held in South Africa that “Africa is the cradle of humanity… we are all Africans”, it was not a thoughtless, vacuous rhetorical statement: it was an assertion deeply informed by the scientific evidence he had encountered in his interactions with scientists at the University of Witwatersrand. 

It is simply preposterous in a constitutional democracy to use debunked and bankrupt apartheid formulations to deny him what he wants. These charges need to be dropped urgently as they are contrary to the letter and spirit of the supreme law of the land – the Constitution.

It was not, dare I say, inspired by creationism for he would have quoted the biblical chapter and verse if that were the case. To use Martin Luther King’s powerful imagery, he had been to the mountaintop and seen the Promised Land.

So, in addition to the current scientific knowledge about human identity, there is a clear-eyed common sense whose aim is to widen social consciousness about what South Africaness is. Common sense provides the bricks and mortar necessary to construct a much-needed national common purpose.

A house divided can never stand. 

Failure to forge a common purpose contributes to an inability to achieve the national development goals. A house divided can never muster the collective determination, discipline, sustained effort and unwavering focus to enable South Africa to secure a place in the much-vaunted 4IR. 

No amount of avant-garde words can fuel the developmental state without the establishment of a strong common purpose.

Furthermore, it helps to remember that we live in the 21st century. There is no returning to the presumed pristine hominid period. The omelette is done and it cannot be disassembled. That means adapting, discerningly, to modalities conducive to genuine development. 

All of the current endowments of South Africa, human and otherwise, are the hand the country has been dealt. Diversity in our country should not be regarded as a disadvantage, but rather as a valuable asset if managed properly and judiciously.

While the aspiration to board the 4IR is commendable, that will only happen if the weight of the mindset lodestone rooted in the Agrarian Revolution is significantly diminished. 

The incongruence represents opposition to modernisation efforts. The necessary congruence will be accomplished through fundamental curriculum transformation or reform that will incorporate the new vistas of knowledge suppressed by self-serving colonial arrogance.

Beyond the constitutional, scientific and common sense affirmations to Snyman’s claim to be an African, is his right to self-identify as he pleases. 

It is simply preposterous in a constitutional democracy to use debunked and bankrupt apartheid formulations to deny him what he wants. These charges need to be dropped urgently as they are contrary to the letter and spirit of the supreme law of the land – the Constitution.

Indeed, there are many more kilometres in this “long walk to freedom”. It’s an endless journey comparable to the journey undertaken since the beginning of time.

Who and what is an African must necessarily be a national project whose aim is to construct an expansive Afropolitan consciousness congruent with the complex demands of a modern African state; one that can spur the national development project.

All hands should be on board in pursuit of this historic project. DM

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