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FLF 2015: Why the Question “What is an African?” is Inherently Flawed

This year’s Franschhoek Literary Festival left no stone unturned as speakers and authors dove head-first into the contentious issues plaguing the South African literary landscape:

Jonathan Jansen, Moeletsi Mbeki and GG Alcock participated in a discussion on race, culture and identity chaired by Richard Poplak, and from the outset the panelists questioned the validity of the title of the event, “What is an African?”

How to Fix South Africa's SchoolsWe Need to ActUntil Julius ComesAdvocates for ChangeArchitects of PovertyThird World Child

Jansen, author of How to Fix South Africa’s Schools: Lessons from Schools that Work and We Need to Act, and Rector and Vice Chancellor of the University of the Free State, said he believes “What is an African?” is a dangerous question, as it is rooted in exclusion: “I’m very worried about the shallowness of the discourse around African identity and blackness.”

Mbeki (Advocates for Change: How to Overcome Africa’s Challenges and Architects of Poverty: Why Africa’s Capitalism needs Changing) concurred, and admitted to being wary of providing an answer to the question. Born in the pre-apartheid era, Mbeki said he and his brother, former President Thabo Mbeki, grew up as Xhosa men with their identities being largely shaped by the frontier wars and the Xhosa poets’ accounts of these wars.

Poplak (Until Julius Comes: Adventures in the Political Jungle) remarked that “What is an African?” doesn’t take into account the hybrid identities of South Africans.

Alcock (Third World Child: Born white, Zulu bred) explained how growing up as a Zulu child in a mud hut in rural Msinga shaped his perception of culture and identity. “I’ve been commercially successful because of understanding culture,” Alcock said. He is the owner of Minanawe Marketing, an events company that started the Soweto Beach Party. Reflecting on the recent spate of xenophobic attacks Alcock, who views himself as a migrant worker, said: “The tragedy of xenophobia is that we’re all migrants.”

Jansen said the UFS has spent a significant amount of time and resources to address the issue of what it means to be a human being. He said that the recent attacks on statues and memorials show a “massive failure of education” and says he has seen a trend emerging in which people are turning against each other. He believes the question “What is an African?” enables these exclusionary practices. “I’ve been told I’m not a real coloured,” he offered as an example.

Mbeki said: “We live in different South Africas. To me the debate has really yet to start about the future of our country.” The author and economist said that South Africa has been run by nationalist parties for a very long time and argued that the National Party made the issue of identity problematic for themselves because on the one hand the Afrikaners hated the English and on the other they wanted to be included in colonial society.

Ending the discussion on a positive note Jansen said that he has seen incredible optimism among the youth of South Africa. He warned that talk of transformation should be a fluid discussion and not one that only occurs in times of crisis.


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Annetjie van Wynegaard (@Annetjievw) tweeted from the discussion using #FLF15:


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