Sitting in a room on Ryneveld Street, Stellenbosch – one of the many areas in South Africa with a painful history of forced removals and systematic destruction of community bonds, on what was the 365th anniversary of the arrival in 1652 in the Cape of the “settler” Jan van Riebeeck – the incongruity was not lost on me.
The question that lay before us was: “Which title do you most identify with? Settler or native?”. It was a question with which I had always struggled and I am sure that I was not alone in this. With the surname van Duuren, many assume (probably safely) that my family history ties in with that of European Colonialism – and it does, just more truly on the British side. There are parts of my family that I can trace as living, farming and building communities in and around what was to become the Republic of South Africa since the 1800’s. Does this make me a settler? Yes, it does. More specifically, a white settler of European ancestry living in a country that my ancestors never had the right to claim.
So easy answer then, right? No. I have lived my whole life in Cape Town, I grew up here, I study here and I intend on spending the rest of my life devoting every last bit of my energy to the improvement of the health status of South Africa and the African Continent. So when the question arrises “Would you call yourself a settler or a native?” there is another question that I hear below the surface – “Would you call yourself an African?”
What makes someone an African? Can I say that that I am African because I can trace back my ancestry living on African soil for several generations, when so many others were denied their own history and can’t call on record books and formal genealogies. You realise that true brutality is a system that not only denies people their way of life, but also their memories. Can I say that I am African when there are people who lived here long before my family got off the boat? Who’s culture, language and history is more tied to that of the continent than mine ever could be.
There are those who plainly say that they have the answer. They say that it doesn’t matter as long as you were born here or you think of Africa as your home and that evolution shows that we were all “African” at one point in time. They ask who gets to decide when in time being “African” begins? But is this not just a justification for the status quo – the fact that I live here as a white man does not mean that I have the right to be here and do so.
There are others that say that being African is in the language you speak or the colour of your skin. But what of those parts of our society that are often sidelined in the discussion. Groups such as the Khoisan or populations descended from indentured labourers and slave groups. Where do they fit in? Both of these arguments have value but they simplify and reduce a complex issue to absolutes.
I would like to say that I have a simple solution but I don’t and anyone who does probably hasn’t thought it through. Being African to me means being invested in Africa – its people, its problems, its development and its future. Being African is active. It, like any other identity, is a process with ebbs and flows. I am willing to give all that I am to this continent and through every important choice I have made in life I have always seen it through this lens. Perhaps by holding Africa in mind and not trying to mould it to a definition that best suits us we’ll grow to be a little more like it.
If Africanness is something you earn, maybe I am not yet an African – but I hope someday to become one.