Picture: 123RF/Cienpies Design
Picture: 123RF/Cienpies Design

Bad writing, like flawed thinking, can often be spotted by its deployment of the obvious contrast. A recurring example is the analysis of a political party’s pro-poor policies, accompanied by a photo of a politician’s luxury vehicle collection or mansion in Sandton.

And yet, sometimes it’s hard to avoid the obvious. Every morning as I walk past the hundreds of refugees camping on Greenmarket Square in Cape Town, I marvel at the rich tourists disembarking from the luxury hotels moored in the CBD like hermetic cruise ships. What do they think when confronted by this stark insight into how badly SA treats its fellow Africans?

Much more important, of course, is what the refugees think, abandoned on the cobbled sidewalk of history, as those who determine how history is written amble past on their way to hop on a coach to the winelands.

There are reportedly more than 500 of the refugees, split into two feuding factions, and the Methodist church that has taken them in has basically been rendered inoperable.

Perhaps part of the problem is that we have no generally accepted definition of what it means to be an African, and so the term is too easily weaponised by xenophobes and those who profit from turning us against each other.

You might think, in your naiveté, that the term simply denotes someone who lives on the continent of Africa.

But that would be too crude, as it wouldn’t include someone who was born in Africa but has emigrated to Europe. But are people who’ve moved there not European, if they’ve set up life on that continent?

Or do we favour "African-European", like those awful US portmanteaus such as "Irish American" and that favourite of genocide watchers, the paradoxical and chronologically reductive "Native American"?

The one positive we could take from such a proliferation of fragmented identities is that it can work to break down the iniquitous notion of the nation-state that — if you’ll forgive this gross oversimplification — we’ve inherited from colonialism.

Why should we care about who can claim to be an African and who can’t? Because this is a proxy for a host of other ideological skirmishes in the great battle that is the SA condition

No less an authority than Jamaican musician Peter Tosh tells us that, "as long as you’re a black man, you’re an African. No mind your nationality, you have got the identity of an African."

It’s an interesting angle, though slightly undercut by the fact that Tosh’s list of 20 examples of potential African locations doesn’t include any place in Africa. It’s an argument for racial identification over geography, also articulated by US hip-hop duo Dead Prez ("No it ain’t ’bout where you stay, it’s ’bout the motherland"). But it doesn’t really help those of us living in the monochromatic rainbow nation that is SA.

In a way, it devalues the lived experience of Africans who have to endure the vicissitudes of our continent. But in another, perhaps more important way it’s a political definition that was — and still is — necessary in the ideological battle for racial equality.

The definitions in the dictionaries of the world reflect the same confusion and conceptual slipperiness.

Oxford’s Dictionary of American English defines the noun "African" as "a person from Africa, especially a black person". The "especially" seems to suggest that though all Africans are defined equally, some races are more equal than others.

On the principle that all words are created equal (spoiler: they’re not) you might expect the definition for the noun "European" to be "a person from Europe, especially a white person". It’s not, you won’t be surprised to learn. In the same dictionary, European is defined as "a native or inhabitant of Europe".

Discerning readers will immediately notice that being an African is defined as coming from a place, whereas being European is defined as being in a place. To qualify as an African, being black is a plus. To qualify as being European, you just have to be in Europe. (A more jaded analysis might suggest that the unconscious assumption has been that Europeans are white, so there’s no need to specify.)

These are not accidental differences, but reflections of the different power dynamics at work in the constant redefinitions to which history subjects us.

And while some of us might feel a little sympathy for white people — whose families may have lived here for hundreds of years — at not being able to identify by continental affiliation, whereas an American who thinks Africa is a country can blithely identify as African, it’s not that easy a dichotomy.

My enduring memory of that allegedly transformative moment, the 1995 Rugby World Cup in SA, is of the SABC’s commentary for the opening ceremony. As the Ivory Coast team marched by, the SA commentator said: "And here’s the team from Ivory Coast, the only team from Africa to qualify for the finals."

It’s a malady many South Africans suffer from, this continental blindness. Even that well-dressed son of the soil, Julius Malema, seems unclear on this. I’m still befuddled by his message to his followers at the EFF national people’s assembly last year, where the leader of the party that advocates for African unity appeared to imply that South Africans aren’t Africans. "We say don’t attack Africans," he said, "because once you finish Africans, you will go for each other."

He suggests that we need "to liberate the mind of our people that Africans are not our enemies". But, as usual, he knows who to blame. "You don’t know there’s a continent called Africa because whites told us there is only SA and the rest are useless."

I don’t seriously think Malema doesn’t consider South Africans to be Africans, but this imprecision of language allows for multiple, and sometimes pernicious, understandings of power and place.

What it means:

Without a generally accepted definition, the term 'African' is too easily weaponised by those who would turn us against each other

And who can forget (answer: a surprising number of white people) that apartheid- era definition of African, whereby the indigenous inhabitants were described not by any positive qualities but by an absence of one particular quality: "non-European".

We’ve come a long way since then, at least cosmetically — though in your gloomier moments, you would be forgiven for thinking that the more populist politicians are working their shortsighted way towards categories of African and non-African.

In SA, we have that paradox so beloved of reactionaries, alt-white groups and blinkered edgelords everywhere: a nation that proudly proclaims itself as nonracial insists that its citizens identify by race.

But choosing to tick the box that says "African" on forms means something very different to claiming to be an African in the continental sense. The first definition is designed to redress the wrongs of our unequal past, whereas the latter is a way to ease our journey into the future.

Why should we care about who can claim to be an African and who can’t? Because this is a proxy for a host of other ideological skirmishes in the great battle that is the SA condition.

Populists are going to use it to foment racial discord, politicians are going to use it to deflect attention from the crumbling economy over which they preside and splinter groups are already using it to reinforce their laager mentalities.

Even more importantly, though, if we don’t work to find a generally accepted definition, someone else will do it for us.