Friday, 3 August 2007

Old Word with New Meanings?

The term ‘native’ has re-entered the SA political debate. This entry is positive – unlike in the past when ‘native’ accompanied a long line of terms such as ‘Bantu’ and ‘Plural’ that were used as the name of the government department charged with the administration of the majority in the black population.

Firstly, the current use of the term ‘native’ is interesting. The word ‘native’ leapt into the public arena through the formation of The Native Club about a year ago.

We all know the meaning of the word as per the Webster’s or Oxford dictionary. Used in its political sense, however, the term originates from the context of the colony and colonisation. It conjures up a graphic image of the coloniser (hard, aloof and frequently patronising) and the locals (exploited in many different ways). Today “native” is often used in tandem with the term “settler”. Sometimes, however, it is deployed interchangeably as referring to the hardships and oppression that arise from the vestiges of colonialism as well as the evils of human subjugation prevalent during imperialism.

There appears to be some link to debates about who can be regarded, I suppose, as true and genuine South Africans, those with a genuine interest and a more legitimate stake in the future of the country.

I believe that when considering who is a South African, we should steer away from essentialist notions. Such notions get you into all kinds of trouble. When trying to categorise people, terms that at first seem clear, after a while – especially at the margins where categories interface – become murky and nebulous. You would be in danger of becoming entangled in problematic debates about genetics, bloodlines and eugenics.

South Africans include:
a) indigenous people, those who can trace their forbears as far back as possible and still place their footprints and fossils in Southern African soil.
b) groups/individuals that have no home in another place, no place else either geographically (or in their consciousness) where they can run to when things become too much for them in Mzanzi.
c) people or individuals who make a commitment to and identify with Mzanzi and its nestling within the region and continent; such a stand means the exercising of an option and a political commitment to Mzanzi.

These categorizations should not be the building blocks of prejudice and intolerance; rather (more positively) they should indicate the deep reservoirs of human experience, insight, perspectives and ways of living that we can draw on as we define our distinctiveness as South Africans into the future.

However, I must ask: how important is it to draw a distinction between being native and non-native as we dialogue about the future of the country and debate each other’s positions?

There is some use or merit to the term being employed in debate. For example, it seems to come into play in the quest to unmask power relations. It is a tool in discussion about how major solidarities develop and sustain themselves. Its use can lead to a deeper discussion and reflection about the motivating forces for change. In this regard, the term can be deployed to indicate persons whose vested interests stand in contrast to those of imperialists. It puts the spotlight on sets of people or organised groups seeking redress against specific cases of historical exploitation.

At another level, the term has little value. Our constitution gives citizenship rights to all South Africans and such rights (which include voting rights) imply that we can all take part in debates about the future of the country. Even the Freedom Charter, which appears to provide the philosophical underpinning for our democracy, states that Mzanzi belongs "to all who live in it".

In terms of these seminal documents, this opening up is much more than a liberal concession; they punt such an inclusive stance as a radical position that is distinct and intentional against a backdrop of historical (in South Africa) and contemporary (many parts of the world) racist exclusivity.

Although the term native has undoubted currency - and appears to be adding spark and vibrancy to political debates - those who use it should bear in mind the following issues:

* The term is weakened to the extent that it overlooks or submerges the class factor. It suggests that persons organized in terms of nationalistic solidarity fundamentally and always share common perspectives. But in today’s South Africa, as COSATU frequently points out, people who have a shared heritage, historical experiences and even common national heroes often have significantly diverging interests and priorities. In the trade union federation’s view, a huge gulf exists between the “native” capitalist mogul that has benefited from affirmative action and the native unskilled worker.

* The term does not bring to the fore gender differences in a meaningful way, nor does it adequately deal with other differences within, for example, the black community. The danger is that those who then aim to articulate the “native” position run the risk of downplaying the diversity of views, and instead put forward monolithic views that in themselves can be stereotypical.

* We should not become so caught up in the use of jargon (or “in” terms understood by a few) that we neglect to explain what we mean. If a term gets used as shorthand, or as a sociological term with specific meaning, it will be helpful if those using such a term continuously explain what the term means. In this way we would ensure wider participation in debates and ensure that discussion of real issues is not undermined by poor hearing and distorted inferences.

* Categorisations are a problem if they paint us into a corner and limit the possibility of forward movement. Once we have completed the classification of who is a native and who is not, or who is an African and who is not, what then? Where do we go from there? As someone who works in social change and transformation, I am perturbed by rigid categories that suggest no change is possible. Even the original communist thinkers that emphasized the primacy of class categorisations conceded the possibility of "class suicide". Thus, whereas in the context of a nationbuilding, terms such as "native" and "settler" help us to openly discuss the legacies of oppression and exploitation; they also lead us to a dead end if the peddlers of such terms close off possibilities of moving forward, of working together on shared priorities, and forging new solidarities based on some shared grasp of past truths and future possibilities.

What is your view as a reader on this issue? Let's widen participation in the debate.

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