Monday, July 10, 2017

Decolonising

White South Africans are the largest European descended group in Africa, but still make up just 8% of the population in South Africa. Of that group, about a third are first language English speakers. Distinct from other 'expat' Europeans in Africa, there is a very clear South African national identity. There is no other home.

Although European explorers reached modern South Africa in 1488, The first waves of colonists arrived in 1652 establish a Cape Dutch Colony. Afrikaans grew out of the interactions between the arrivals and the native Khoisan people. I don't know much about the Islamic colonial expansion, or how much contact had already been established on the other coast. The history I did at school focused on the European side of things. The Bantu migrations (Uganda, Madagascar, Cameroon, Tanzania) are something I know far too little about. isiXhosa is the language with most evidence of interaction between the Khoisan and that wave. A wave of British Colonists arrived in 1820 after the Napoleonic Wars as the arms race of a 'balance of power' caused European powers to race around the world.

As a white South African, I have an awkward relationship with the idea of Nationality. European nations were only born post the French Revolution with romantic ideas around the sovereignty of 'the people' rather than a King. This meant distinct nationalities had to be created around language and ethnicity, where previously Monarchs would have downplayed differences since more people, any people, meant more soldiers.

The reason many German Americans don't think of themselves like that is Germany itself only really became a thing well after they had buggered off.  Europe now has all these little countries, one only two kilometres squared, while a bunch a crusty old men drew up many of Africa's nations with rulers on a boardroom table just outside Berlin. Most of my ancestors were either kicked out, or were fleeing the Wars of Religion in Europe. My surname, 'Black' came after sheep thieves were stripped of their clan name in Scotland (same for surnames like Green, Brown, White etc.). Hardly a reason to look back longingly at a country, or countrymen, of origin.

A big part of the (global) conversation about privilege, in South Africa, comes down to 'decolonising' (Think #RhodesMustFall). This is in party because the class divide of places like Britain is compounded by a visually obvious race divide in South Africa. The United States has similar issues, but the difference in South Africa is the poverty is amongst the majority, whereas in the US, it is amongst minorities.

Rhodes Memorial (University of Cape Town)

What I find interesting as a Soutie (I am now also a British Citizen), is the lack of conversation around decolonisation in Britain. In South Africa, dealing with our 'whiteness' is an unavoidable conversation. Although people do attempt to avoid it. It is a long, ongoing, tormented, unresolved, unravelling of Apartheid. There is no other home. It is something that needs to be dealt with.

As Britain has gone from a Global Empire to a country 'taking back control', I find the lack of historical context to the debate mind boggling. I understand it in the sense that no one wants to be the bad guy. If you want to build morale, it is far better to 'put the past behind us' and move forward. I also understand the desire to defend 'fellow countrymen' under attack. Even if there is a kernel of truth, nothing draws family together like attack from outsiders. As a White South African, 'putting the past behind us' is impossible. You can't ignore Cape Town.

In pointing a finger at fellow Brits asking for some self-reflection, three fingers are pointing back at me. Unravelling privilege is horrible, energy sapping, work. We have to do it.
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