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Defining race and ethnicity in South Africa

This is part 1 of a 2 part series. You may find the full series here:
  1. Defining race and ethnicity in South Africa.

  2. Defining race and ethnicity in South Africa, part 2.


This is shameless linkbaiting on my side. A recent troughleader post (We are not all Africans, black people are!) asserts that only black people can be truly African. I'll reserve judgement on whether this is true or not, but this post is such an easy target for a sadist like myself so I couldn't resist dishing out a few slaps on the wrist. What can I say? Give me a barrel of fish and a shotgun and I have a fun-filled afternoon.

I'll quote segments from the blog post in bold, and debunk them blow by blow:

Neanderthal skull

A Neanderthal skull. Any species that had dentistry advanced enough to survive death for a couple of hundred thousand years is obviously superior to ours. Then again, our mammaries tend to be non-biodegradable so maybe we show potential.

Historical revisionism is generally a legitimate re-evaluation of existing understanding and knowledge of particular historical aspects in order to correct any distortions; but there are also those with deliberate motives to revise history in order to mislead or reflect them in favourable light.

Historical revisionism does not have a general status as either legitimate or illegitimate. Historians know that, as Winston Churchill once noted, victors are the writers of history. Revisionism is a term used to describe a process of historical speculation. In most cases, there is no objective means to determine which version of history is more accurate than another. The American Historical Association offers some illumination:

History is a continuing dialogue between the present and the past. Interpretations of the past are subject to change in response to new evidence, new questions asked of the evidence, new perspectives gained by the passage of time. There is no single, eternal, and immutable "truth" about past events and their meaning.

Historical revisionism is thus not a process that necessarily corrects distortions, it is the process of studying history and merely offers different viewpoints of an assumed history. History is a narrative, descriptive, humanist endeavour and should not be confused with science in the true sense of the word. History is not a quest for truth, but a quest for deeper understanding of human nature. It is largely the study of mythology, in the epic of evolution sense.


Historically, the term “African” never had any ambiguous meaning.

This is demonstrably false. The term Africa is considered to be a Latin term, given to Africa by Roman conquerors. One possible root of the word is aprica, which is Latin for sunny. Another possible root is Afer, which means of or related to Africa. During the time when Africa was baptised Africa by the Roman Empire, this term referred specifically to Carthage, or Phoenicia, in modern day Tunisia. The term Afri referred to several Semitic people who lived in the Northern parts of Africa during this time. Originally, then, the terms Africa and African have absolutely no bearing on black people, but referred to the Semitic natives of the African continent who dealt with the Roman Empire.

Historically, the term African is as ambiguous as it is today. It is thus a convenient blanket term for the Roman Empire to refer to that sunny continent, or a way to refer to the Semitic people who lived there.

The term originally did not describe a racial group or even a specific ethnic group. The term African merely described people of or related to Africa in some way.

This 'some way' is vague, as it originally referred to Semitic people who very much are Afro-Asiatic, depending on the historical revisionism you'd like to believe.

The fight against colonialism was to liberate Africans from the thuggery visited upon them by Europeans who had arrogated to themselves the power to rule with brute force and dominate vast territories of the African continent.

The history of slavery (or if Wikipedia is somehow a questionable source, try the BBC's History of Slavery), particularly in Nigeria, proves that thuggery was native to Africa long before European colonialism reared its head. In their case, European colonialism liberated the slaves and brought much more freedom to the populace than it discovered there. Colonialism is not the mainstay of the Caucasian race. Colonialism is very much native to Africa, as it is to the entire savage homo sapiens species since they obliterated the civilised Neanderthal species, historical revisionism besides.


Mbeki recognised and acknowledged that other cultures and the acquired knowledge of the history of various races had shaped his being and person as an African.

Before putting words in Thabo Mbeki's mouth, it is perhaps best to read the famous I am an African speech. Let Mbeki speak for himself:

I am formed of the migrants who left Europe to find a new home on our native land. Whatever their own actions, they remain still, part of me.
...
My mind and my knowledge of myself is formed by the victories that are the jewels in our African crown, the victories we earned from Isandhlwana to Khartoum, as Ethiopians and as the Ashanti of Ghana, as the Berbers of the desert.


We see thus that Mbeki very much includes any racial or ethnic group born in Africa - that is, native to Africa - as Africans, in much the same way that the original meaning of the word African means of or related to Africa (be it sunny skies or Semitic people, your choice).


Our historical revisionists who want to be reclassified as Africans and no longer as Europeans or white, tend to look north at Arab countries and claim, in their state of bewilderment, that Arabs are Africans, therefore, they too have the right to proclaim themselves African.

No white person who wants to be classified as African ever conflated the term African with being black. African and black are not synonyms and never were, given the ambiguity of both terms. The term African means of or related to Africa, while black may refer to a race or ethnic group with a dark complexion, sometimes with a Semitic genetic lineage like the Lemba.

It is thus a misconception that white people are trying to be black when they claim, like Thabo Mbeki did, that they too are African if they are of or related to Africa. The reason is obviously that African and black are two separate, ambiguous, emotionally loaded terms that means different things to different people.

Most white people in this debate claim that they are African purely because they are native born in Africa and nothing more.


Popular theory among whites has been that their ancient ancestors came from Africa. However, palaeontologists after an analysis of more than 5 000 ancient teeth, concluded that first Europeans were from Asia, not Africa.

The author does not provide any links to the palaeontology sources. What is claimed without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. Neverteless, the Smithsonian Institute does not seem to buy the idea that homo sapiens evolved in China.


No white person can either through birth or naturalisation assume an identity of African. African is not and has never been a national identity.

This simply does not make sense, unless one decouples the terms African and black. As a race, no white person can either through birth or naturalisation change races any more than any other person can socially construct their genetic heritage. However, one person born in Africa and of Africa is just as African as the next, precisely because the term African is not and has never been a national identity - or a specific racial or ethnic identity.

Once the penny drops that African and black race are not synonymous terms, it makes sense how one can be black but not African, and African but not black.


If this historical revisionism if to continue, soon whites would find the racial identity as African not enough, and proclaim themselves “black” and accuse those who refuse to recognise them as such to be racist and intolerant.

On the contrary, if one decouples the terms African and black with the aid of any dictionary, one realises that the two are not synonyms. Then it makes sense how one can be African regardless of ethnic or racial heritage, but not black. It also makes sense how one can be black but not African, as the people of Oceania and Australia with dark skins can be black but with no relation to Africa.

It would appear rather that the only historical revisionism that is racist and intolerant in this regard is on the side of those who would like to do a reverse pencil test to determine who is African and who is not (black or not).

Comments

I doff my hat to you, I have to say (& this is becoming far too common an occurrence) I agree with you fully on this. Honestly, I couldn't even finish the first paragraph of that ThoughtLeader post I so strongly disagreed with it.
Andre said…
Perfect. Clearly thought, eloquently delivered.

I'm not normally a fan of fisking, but here, I think it's the correct approach to expose and debunk @Sentletse's poorly researched, idiot-speech.

Bravo, sir.
Anonymous said…
Thank you for an objective, rational and unemotional response to what I viewed to be a column so divisive, I couldn't respond to.

I suppose the debate is healthy;we, as a country,have a lot to work through.
Guy McLaren said…
I dismissed Sentletse in a fit of pique. I still opine that he is like a toolbox sans tools. this is the eloquent response I did not have in me. but still Fuck those that think I need a dark skin to be African already.
Anonymous said…
Sentletse replies via email:
It is important that I response to this article, lest it mislead some people into thinking that they're African.

I’m not sure why you’re making reference to Neanderthals because we didn’t evolve from these hominids. Modern human being s evolved from Homo Sapiens.

You refer to the Romans who called Semitic people in North Africa "African". Perhaps you chose to overlook the important fact that those people were not native inhabitants of Africa. That Romans called them "African" doesn't make them African. Arabs migrated to this continent from the Arabian Peninsula many moons ago. Their origins are not on this continent.

Archaeological evidence indicates that there was a migration of homo sapiens from Africa to other parts of the world, e.g. Asia. Homo sapiens fossils found in China are prove of this fact. The problem with the belief that Africa is the cradle of humanity rests on an outdated Out-of-Africa (OOA) hypotheses which suggests that it was Homo Sapiens Sapiens (modern humans), which are sub-species of Homo Sapiens, who migrated out of Africa to other parts of the world; and through adaptation other races emerged. The existence of Homo Sapiens fossils in China blows this hypotheses out and invalidates it.

What fossils in China tell us, is that evolution occurred in various parts of the world, and not only confined to Africa. It means races that emerged after evolution are a product of such migration of homo Sapiens; therefore their origins as modern human beings cannot be in Africa but where their evolution occurred. This settles the paleontological argument of the origins of mankind.
Anonymous said…
Getting back to the use of the term "African" in reference to black people. You state that black people were capturing slaves before colonialists invaded Africa, but that is besides the point. The fact of the matter is that from the colonialists set foot on this continent, which was largely inhabited by black people, the native inhabitants and Africans, there was no other person that was considered to be African. The Arabs that had migrated to the North of Africa, were enslaving black people and selling them off to Muslim countries. This as a historical fact was recorded as "African slave trade"; in reference to the trade of black people from Africa. Arabs didn't refer to themselves as Africans. The same applies to white colonialists who came here. They were trading in African slaves. There was no confusion as to who that African slave was. Everyone knew that it was black people of Africa.

In the late 20th century when Pan-Africanism began to take shape. Black people in the Diaspora, known as the African Diaspora together with those in the continent got together to promote unity of among Africans. Pan-Africanism was never misinterpreted to be making reference to white inhabitants of the African continent. When people like Mandela, Marcus Garvey, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Jomo Kenyatta, etc. spoke about the struggles of the African people for liberation against colonialism and apartheid; there was never any confusion about who these Africans were. We all knew that it was reference to black people.

The term "African Diaspora" has never been misinterpreted to mean whites who left South Africa to go live in Australia or New Zealand. You and I know that by African we mean black people. Why now do we want to create unnecessary confusion and what to call whites "African".
Anonymous said…
The mere fact that a white person was born in Africa, doesn't accord that person the title of African. They assume their national identity as South Africans, Zimbabweans, Malawians, Zambians, etc. depending where they were born. The nationality of whites is not under contestation here. It is important to separate that from the term that has specifically been in use for countless years to denote the race of black people of Africa.

This historical revisionism by whites was never there pre-1994. Most of them were very happy to be referred to as "Europeans", as part of the systematic oppression of Africans. The term European is an appropriate term in reference to white, given their historical origins. Their evolution from Hominids occurred outside Africa in that part of the world. The mere fact that genetically we all share the same "ancestor" which is an ape, doesn't mean that we're all from the same place. As modern human beings we came from different parts of the world.

Let me end here for now before I write a dissertation.
Garg the Unzola said…
1. I refer to Neanderthals because in one version of historical revisionism, Homo sapiens drove Neanderthals to extinction by means of what you'd call colonialism. This suggests that colonialism is endemic to Homo sapiens the species and not endemic to any particular race.

2. You claim that Homo sapiens migrated from Africa to other parts of the world, so you seem to suggest common ancestry between all Homo sapiens. Then you deny that this common ancestry is African. Surely, the common ancestor of Homo sapiens can't both be African in origin and not African in origin?

3. You claim that Semitic people are not native to Africa. Are you suggesting that the Lemba people, who are Semitic and black, are not African? They can't be African, according to you, because being Semitic, they are not native to Africa. Yet they are black, meaning your notion that African equals black fails yet again.

4. How far back would you like to go? Go back too far, and every Homo sapiens is native to Africa. Go back too recently, and every Homo sapiens of or related to Africa considers themselves African too. You seem to suggest a convenient Goldilocks zone in the middle somewhere between an Africa without any known black people, but with Semitic people whom you claim are not native to Africa, and post-colonial Africa. Both eras are said to contain various races, some of whom are black, all of whom considered themselves African. Even the Goldilocks zone in the middle contains various races all of whom considered themselves African.
Garg the Unzola said…
5. I would greatly appreciate links to your archaeological evidence. It appears that the out of Africa theory is the accepted model while the multi-regional origin of modern humans is the hypothesis. Which of course has no bearing on the terms Africa or African, as these were invented by Romans long after the emergence of Homo sapiens and long before the Islamic expansion into Africa.

6. Berber people were explicitly named by Thabo Mbeki as being African. Berber people are also thought to be one origin of the white race. They did both: migrate from Africa and remained in Africa. Does this make Berbers African or not?

7. The African diaspora is irrelevant as the topic is not black historic revisionism. Or is it? Even so, African diaspora refers mostly to African people who were enslaved and shipped to America. We've already seen that slavery is endemic to Africa: African people (Semitic or not, black or not) practised slavery long before the arrival of European colonialists or Islamic culture. If you stick to the Goldilocks zone somewhere between European colonialism of Africa and the Pan-African movement, which is where the African diaspora falls, you're still stuck with an Africa that already has different races of people all of whom considered themselves African, or were considered African since the time of the Roman Empire.

8. The term African only came to denote black roughly during the 1500s. The first recorded white person in South Africa who claimed himself to be African (Hendrik Biebouw in 1707) did so long before 1994, long before Apartheid and long before even the establishment of the Zulu Kingdom. I would greatly appreciate some references that suggests that white people in Africa did not consider themselves African. Afrikaners - who take their name from Africa - have always considered themselves African. Once again, this makes sense once you realise that African does not refer to a nationality, or a racial group, or an ethnic group. African refers to things that are of and related to Africa.
Anonymous said…
Sentletse's reply via email:
1. Neanderthals existed in Europe. If you say Homo Sapiens drove them to extinction, then you agree with me that it was Homo Sapiens that migrated from Africa, not Homo Sapiens Sapiens. Therefore the Out-Of-Africa theory is rendered invalid as it is premised on the view that it was Homo Sapiens Sapiens who migrated.

2. I don’t contest the notion that we all evolved from a common ancestor Homo Sapiens. My argument is that the evolution of Homo Sapiens to Homo Sapiens Sapiens and ultimately modern human beings didn’t occur in Africa. Therefore you can say that the origin of white people was in Africa. No white person evolved from Homo Sapiens in Africa. This all occurred outside the continent. Don’t confuse the origin of Homo Sapiens and the origin of modern human beings.

3. The Lemba people originate from Judea. They’re not African. They may have dark skins, but they’re not African. Indians also have dark skins and they too are not African.

4. I have answered this above on (1) and (2)
Anonymous said…
5. OOA theory is widely accepted. But the presence of Homo Sapiens fossils in China certainly invalidates this theory. See this table on the link which confirms that Homo Sapies fossils were found in China.

The only flaw of the multi-regional hypotheses as widely recorded is that it is based on the assumption that evolution elsewhere was from Neanderthals and Homo Erectus. Genetic evidence disputes that. But we can update that hypotheses now to say that such evolution did occur outside Africa as well but that being evolution from Homo Sapiens not Homo Erectus.

Whether the term “Africa” was invented by Romans is neither here nor there. We have the term, which is in specific reference to this continent.

6. That Mbeki referred to the Berber people as African doesn’t make that the gospel truth. He was wrong. The Berbers like the North African Arabs do not originate from Africa. They’re said to have reached North Africa around 2000 BC or so.

There was a study was done in respect of the origins of the Berber people. Here’s an excerpt:

Looking at the relevant mutations in and around the lactase gene in human populations, we can gain insight into the origin(s) and spread of dairying. We genotyped the putatively causal allele for lactose tolerance (–13910T) and constructed haplotypes from several polymorphisms in and around the lactase gene (LCT) in three North African Berber populations and compared our results with previously published data. We found that the frequency of the –13910T allele predicts the frequency of lactose tolerance in several Eurasian and North African Berber populations but not in most sub-Saharan African populations. Our analyses suggest that contemporary Berber populations possess the genetic signature of a past migration of pastoralists from the Middle East and that they share a dairying origin with Europeans and Asians, but not with sub-Saharan Africans.
Anonymous said…
7. The African Diaspora is relevant. Here we’re not trying to prove who practiced slavery before who, but to demonstrate that the term “African” has always been used exclusively in reference to black people for the greater part of our history.

8. That some lone white guy in 1707 called himself “African” doesn’t mean he is. Afrikaners are descendants of the Dutch, French and Germans. I’m not sure what makes them African there. That they created their own fanagalo doesn’t make their origins South African. You have a stronger argument to want Afrikaans at least be described as an African language than want Afrikaners described as African.

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