Dr Wilmot James adds an interesting bit to the ongoing discussion about which group(s) can lay indisputable claim to being South African. It arguably opens up new ways of looking at the issue of settlers and natives, and may lead to new arguments and contestation about indigeneity.
James argues that – as a newspaper headline put it – “we are all settlers”. He states that the modern human being in South Africa came here from East Africa. This occurred about 110000 years ago.
“No one group can lay claim to South Africa. Everyone is a settler, and we will show how people came here in waves of migration,” says James. “We do not understand our history well enough and the truth has been modified in many stories.”
This news will cheer many people up; they will see this as further support for the Freedom Charter notion that SA belongs to all who live/settle/survive in it and that the country will thrive only if shared. Such persons will take it as further encouragement to work for the non-racial and anti-racist, inclusive and democratic society envisioned in our Constitution.
Others, however, will be very cautious as they read James’ findings. Already, in some views expressed, people particularly resent the term “we are all settlers” and the leveling it suggests. These people rail against what they might term an ingenious attempt to gloss over the terrible impacts of the colonial period. In this category will also be groups such as Bruin Development that are campaigning for a better status for so-called Coloured people. They will latch on to James’ remark that the “Khoi/San moved from East Africa and, up until 2 000 years ago, people living in southern Africa were brown.”
Somehow, we must try to live with both truths and perspectives – one that centres on inclusiveness and the other which emphasises restoration and restitution. As I have suggested before, if you want to live on the Southern tip, a capacity to live with ambiguity is a must.
We need to accept the truth that we are all human beings and spring from the same source; at the same time, we must deal with memory, history and past experience. Put another way, we cannot solve the problems of the past in a manner that creates new prejudices; at the same time, we should not myopically try to avoid rectifying past injustices just because we want to be nice or avoid constructive conflict.
This research information drives one to the conclusion that it is possibly incorrect, sloppy and perhaps expedient to use the term "native" in an essentialist way. It is much better to use it in a political sense, and, when doing so, to explain what is meant and who is included in the category.
A subtopic to all of this is the science that underlies all of this: James draws his conclusions from DNA evidence and his studies into human genetics.
The “origins” of human-beings always fascinates, as does the genetics involved, but it all becomes sullied, ridiculous and facile (and sometimes even evil) when various forces try to apply this knowledge to issues such as culture and identity. I say: study our origins, teach it to wide-eyed children by all means, but keep the scientific wonder of our genesis far as possible away from contestation about culture, race, ethnicity and social organization in the world today. Identity, it can be argued, is influenced by culture and by power relations that interfere with selfhood and distort discussion around definitions.
Identity and culture are social constructs; they are also subject to change/ adaptation/ evolution through development processes, policymaking and conscious decisions and actions. In any case, cultures adapt in the light of changes (social, economic, technological, etc.) in the world around them. Let’s use the diversity and richness that lie in our differences as human beings to build the society we want here in Mzansi and in the wider world.
Blog readers are invited to share their "take" on the issues involved and on my views by adding a comment.