Like 8 million other Britons, I watched BBC’s “Question Time” on Thursday night. Nick Griffin, the head of the British National Party (a right wing party who restrict membership to white’s only and want to keep Britain “British” – by which they mean white, Caucasian) was given a place on the stage alongside other panel members. Click here to see a list of uploaded YouTube clips of the hour long Question Time.
Besides the fact that the BNP’s central issue of race is abhorrent, it is also an impossibility for them to actually enforce (or even define). They want Britain to be for those who “aboriginal” Britons – for the “original inhabitants”. They claim that this goes back 17,000 years, and is irrefutably about white people (not English speaking, of course, but they come very close to claiming this in their made up histories on their website). They want a complete halt to all immigration, and a return to a white Britain.
This, of course, raises huge issues of ethnicity and definitions of race. This affects many people in different ways. British citizens, born of British parents, but with fairly recent “ethnic” origins are understandably incensed. These include Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Caribbeans and others. But, there are also many Australians, Canadians and South Africans in Britain. I am the grandson of a British citizen, and married to a British born South African citizen. The Codrington family has a proud (British) heritage that has been traced back to 1335. Yet, I was born in Johannesburg, and I am an African.
I have experienced the strangeness of being a white African. A few years ago, I was invited to lecture at a university in the USA. After accepting my proposal, the organising team asked for my bio and photo, which I duly sent them. On receiving the photo, they wrote back and withdrew the invitation. The reason finally given (after much pushing from me), was that they could not let me speak as an “African” delegate because I was white. What is an African? This is clearly an issue people throughout the continent ask regularly.
Probably the best answer comes in the form of one of the greatest African speeches of all time. Written and delivered by Thabo Mbeki on 8 May 1996 when the new South African Constitution was adopted in Parliament, this speech was an amazing reminder to the recently unified country that although we do speak different languages, have different skin tones, and different facial features, our identity is not so much in our history as it is in our current-day choices. “Home is where the heart is”, and our ethnicity, our culture can be what we choose it to be. In a globally diverse world, this has never been more true than it is in the 21st century.
The BNP have an impossible task on their hands – to define what they mean by “British”. The easiest way to beat these idiots is to simply give them the space and time to try and do just that. Let them speak. They will dig their own graves.
For myself, I love Mbeki’s poem. Click here to see an edited video version from SA tourism. But, also, take the time to read the poem below (or on the South African government website), and marvel at its brilliance, and how it claims ethnic heritage from every influence and source – even those sources often reviled in South Africa – and draws them all together in one amazing tapestry of African-ness. Maybe we need such a poem in Britain, to remind the BNP of all the rich veins of British history. Like Mr Mbeki, I, too dare anyone to challenge my assertion: I am an African. Yet, I am also British (in the BNP’s definition, at least). But, mainly, I am human – a child of the world.
I am an African.
by Thabo Mbeki
I owe my being to the hills and the valleys, the mountains and the glades, the rivers, the deserts, the trees, the flowers, the seas and the ever-changing seasons that define the face of our native land.
My body has frozen in our frosts and in our latter day snows. It has thawed in the warmth of our sunshine and melted in the heat of the midday sun. The crack and the rumble of the summer thunders, lashed by startling lightening, have been a cause both of trembling and of hope.
The fragrances of nature have been as pleasant to us as the sight of the wild blooms of the citizens of the veld.
The dramatic shapes of the Drakensberg, the soil-coloured waters of the Lekoa, iGqili noThukela, and the sands of the Kgalagadi, have all been panels of the set on the natural stage on which we act out the foolish deeds of the theatre of our day.
At times, and in fear, I have wondered whether I should concede equal citizenship of our country to the leopard and the lion, the elephant and the springbok, the hyena, the black mamba and the pestilential mosquito.
A human presence among all these, a feature on the face of our native land thus defined, I know that none dare challenge me when I say – I am an African!
I owe my being to the Khoi and the San whose desolate souls haunt the great expanses of the beautiful Cape – they who fell victim to the most merciless genocide our native land has ever seen, they who were the first to lose their lives in the struggle to defend our freedom and independence and they who, as a people, perished in the result.
Today, as a country, we keep an audible silence about these ancestors of the generations that live, fearful to admit the horror of a former deed, seeking to obliterate from our memories a cruel occurrence which, in its remembering, should teach us not and never to be inhuman again.
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.
In my veins courses the blood of the Malay slaves who came from the East. Their proud dignity informs my bearing, their culture a part of my essence. The stripes they bore on their bodies from the lash of the slave master are a reminder embossed on my consciousness of what should not be done.
I am the grandchild of the warrior men and women that Hintsa and Sekhukhune led, the patriots that Cetshwayo and Mphephu took to battle, the soldiers Moshoeshoe and Ngungunyane taught never to dishonour the cause of freedom.
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.
I am the grandchild who lays fresh flowers on the Boer graves at St Helena and the Bahamas, who sees in the mind’s eye and suffers the suffering of a simple peasant folk, death, concentration camps, destroyed homesteads, a dream in ruins.
I am the child of Nongqause. I am he who made it possible to trade in the world markets in diamonds, in gold, in the same food for which my stomach yearns.
I come of those who were transported from India and China, whose being resided in the fact, solely, that they were able to provide physical labour, who taught me that we could both be at home and be foreign, who taught me that human existence itself demanded that freedom was a necessary condition for that human existence.
Being part of all these people, and in the knowledge that none dare contest that assertion, I shall claim that – I am an African.
I have seen our country torn asunder as these, all of whom are my people, engaged one another in a titanic battle, the one redress a wrong that had been caused by one to another and the other, to defend the indefensible.
I have seen what happens when one person has superiority of force over another, when the stronger appropriate to themselves the prerogative even to annul the injunction that God created all men and women in His image.
I know what if signifies when race and colour are used to determine who is human and who, sub-human.
I have seen the destruction of all sense of self-esteem, the consequent striving to be what one is not, simply to acquire some of the benefits which those who had improved themselves as masters had ensured that they enjoy.
I have experience of the situation in which race and colour is used to enrich some and impoverish the rest.
I have seen the corruption of minds and souls as (word not readable) of the pursuit of an ignoble effort to perpetrate a veritable crime against humanity.
I have seen concrete expression of the denial of the dignity of a human being emanating from the conscious, systemic and systematic oppressive and repressive activities of other human beings.
There the victims parade with no mask to hide the brutish reality – the beggars, the prostitutes, the street children, those who seek solace in substance abuse, those who have to steal to assuage hunger, those who have to lose their sanity because to be sane is to invite pain.
Perhaps the worst among these, who are my people, are those who have learnt to kill for a wage. To these the extent of death is directly proportional to their personal welfare.
And so, like pawns in the service of demented souls, they kill in furtherance of the political violence in KwaZulu-Natal. They murder the innocent in the taxi wars.
They kill slowly or quickly in order to make profits from the illegal trade in narcotics. They are available for hire when husband wants to murder wife and wife, husband.
Among us prowl the products of our immoral and amoral past – killers who have no sense of the worth of human life, rapists who have absolute disdain for the women of our country, animals who would seek to benefit from the vulnerability of the children, the disabled and the old, the rapacious who brook no obstacle in their quest for self-enrichment.
All this I know and know to be true because I am an African!
Because of that, I am also able to state this fundamental truth that I am born of a people who are heroes and heroines.
I am born of a people who would not tolerate oppression.
I am of a nation that would not allow that fear of death, torture, imprisonment, exile or persecution should result in the perpetuation of injustice.
The great masses who are our mother and father will not permit that the behaviour of the few results in the description of our country and people as barbaric.
Patient because history is on their side, these masses do not despair because today the weather is bad. Nor do they turn triumphalist when, tomorrow, the sun shines.
Whatever the circumstances they have lived through and because of that experience, they are determined to define for themselves who they are and who they should be.
We are assembled here today to mark their victory in acquiring and exercising their right to formulate their own definition of what it means to be African.
The Constitution whose adoption we celebrate constitutes and unequivocal statement that we refuse to accept that our Africanness shall be defined by our race, colour, gender or historical origins.
It is a firm assertion made by ourselves that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, Black and White.
It gives concrete expression to the sentiment we share as Africans, and will defend to the death, that the people shall govern.
It recognises the fact that the dignity of the individual is both an objective which society must pursue, and is a goal which cannot be separated from the material well-being of that individual.
It seeks to create the situation in which all our people shall be free from fear, including the fear of the oppression of one national group by another, the fear of the disempowerment of one social echelon by another, the fear of the use of state power to deny anybody their fundamental human rights and the fear of tyranny.
It aims to open the doors so that those who were disadvantaged can assume their place in society as equals with their fellow human beings without regard to colour, race, gender, age or geographic dispersal.
It provides the opportunity to enable each one and all to state their views, promote them, strive for their implementation in the process of governance without fear that a contrary view will be met with repression.
It creates a law-governed society which shall be inimical to arbitrary rule.
It enables the resolution of conflicts by peaceful means rather than resort to force.
It rejoices in the diversity of our people and creates the space for all of us voluntarily to define ourselves as one people.
As an African, this is an achievement of which I am proud, proud without reservation and proud without any feeling of conceit.
Our sense of elevation at this moment also derives from the fact that this magnificent product is the unique creation of African hands and African minds.
But it also constitutes a tribute to our loss of vanity that we could, despite the temptation to treat ourselves as an exceptional fragment of humanity, draw on the accumulated experience and wisdom of all humankind, to define for ourselves what we want to be.
Together with the best in the world, we too are prone to pettiness, petulance, selfishness and short-sightedness.
But it seems to have happened that we looked at ourselves and said the time had come that we make a super-human effort to be other than human, to respond to the call to create for ourselves a glorious future, to remind ourselves of the Latin saying: Gloria est consequenda – Glory must be sought after!
Today it feels good to be an African.
It feels good that I can stand here as a South African and as a foot soldier of a titanic African army, the African National Congress, to say to all the parties represented here, to the millions who made an input into the processes we are concluding, to our outstanding compatriots who have presided over the birth of our founding document, to the negotiators who pitted their wits one against the other, to the unseen stars who shone unseen as the management and administration of the Constitutional Assembly, the advisers, experts and publicists, to the mass communication media, to our friends across the globe – congratulations and well done!
I am an African.
I am born of the peoples of the continent of Africa.
The pain of the violent conflict that the peoples of Liberia, Somalia, the Sudan, Burundi and Algeria is a pain I also bear.
The dismal shame of poverty, suffering and human degradation of my continent is a blight that we share.
The blight on our happiness that derives from this and from our drift to the periphery of the ordering of human affairs leaves us in a persistent shadow of despair.
This is a savage road to which nobody should be condemned.
This thing that we have done today, in this small corner of a great continent that has contributed so decisively to the evolution of humanity says that Africa reaffirms that she is continuing her rise from the ashes.
Whatever the setbacks of the moment, nothing can stop us now!
Whatever the difficulties, Africa shall be at peace!
However improbable it may sound to the sceptics, Africa will prosper!
Whoever we may be, whatever our immediate interest, however much we carry baggage from our past, however much we have been caught by the fashion of cynicism and loss of faith in the capacity of the people, let us err today and say – nothing can stop us now!