AFRICA is a land mass, a continent. It doesn’t define a people, a culture, a race or an ethnic identity.
You don’t have to be a student of history to know that there are many people with different origins, cultures, ideologies, religions, racial backgrounds and ethnicity who make up the population of this vast continent.
In the north of Africa the people around the Mediterranean Sea have for millennia had a closer association with Europe than with the rest of Africa.
The best known ancient civilisation is that of the pharaohs, while later the Phoenicians’ influence extended around the Mediterranean. The Berbers are a Caucasian people ethnically indigenous to North Africa west of the Nile Valley.
Ancient Carthage, based in what is now Tunisia, was a civilisation that included much of what is now southern Spain. The Islamic Moors from Morocco also ruled in most of the Iberian Peninsula for more than two centuries.
The Arab slave trade carried on for more than a millennium, with slaves coming from north Africa, the horn of Africa and southeast Africa – as well as from Europe.
Two hundred years before the Portuguese ravaged them, there were thriving city empires on the east coast of Africa that derived their riches from trade across the Indian Ocean. Farther south there is strong evidence of a Dravidian influence on the language of the San peoples, while the Chinese also left their mark in southern Africa.
In Mali, Timbuktu flourished from the trade in salt, gold, ivory and slaves, and it became a world centre of Islamic learning from the 13th to the 17th century.
Then there are smaller groups such as the Beta Israel in Ethiopia, while more recently European colonialism has seen a large influx of settlers into many parts of Africa; Indians were also brought in to construct the Uganda railway and to work on sugar cane fields.
Through all these periods the people have mixed and intermarried, resulting in groups with very diverse backgrounds. Of course, it is also important to acknowledge that the latest research identifies the south coast of South Africa as the origin of all homo sapiens.
Former president Thabo Mbeki’s famous “I am an African” speech does not define what he meant by being an African. He speaks of being formed of the migrants who left Europe, and states that in my veins courses the blood of the Malay slaves who came from the East.
It seems that he regards an African as someone who can identify with the continent, and he describes his belief in the capacity of all such people. There is no indication that race or ethnicity play a part in being an African.
So why is there this emphasis on skin colour and ethnicity in South Africa? Particularly when our constitution states that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.
The answer is patently obvious: it suits politicians and their ilk to divide up the nation into perceived or imagined groups, and to then give their own particular grouping an advantage over others in order to engender greater loyalty.
The Nats were adept at this, using skin colour and language to separate people by law. Now it suits the ANC government to dish out privileges to the black groupings within South African society because that is where their support base lies. The EFF has had to look at a smaller grouping of discontented black people whom they are mobilising as “our people”.
In the end it’s all about divide and rule, and none of it benefits this great country. It is sad that we cannot reach a stage where people are regarded as individuals, each with the potential to achieve.
Instead, every effort is made to separate people on the basis of race, whereas it is clear that in each grouping there are advantaged and disadvantaged people, achievers and non-achievers. A person’s character and capabilities cannot be ascertained from appearance.
Interestingly, neither the old South African ID book nor the new smart ID card appear to have any place where the race of a citizen is listed. How then is one to know into which racial grouping one falls?
-Dr Eckart Schumann, Humewood, Port Elizabeth