Daily Archives: 20 February 2011

Chasing Identity Mirages in South Africa

From The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief, by V. S. Naipaul (Knopf, 2010), pp. 212-214:

IN THE Apartheid Museum one wall was engraved with the names of some of the repressive racial acts that had helped to keep the state in order. There was no longer apartheid, but it had lasted long enough—thirty-six years—for people to be made by the intrusive laws. Fatima, our guide and arranger, had been made by the laws. Someone less remarkable would have been crushed. Fatima had literary ambitions; this idea of nobility helped her to keep her soul. She also had an idea of other cultures outside—in the beginning she dreamed of the Islamic world—and though this Islamic dream was misguided, it also in the end helped her.

She told us when we met that she was “coloured.” This was a South African word, it could mean someone of mixed race in a purely descriptive way. It had another meaning as well, and then it was loaded with unspoken insult. It came from the remote past and it implied that an ancestor was a Bushman: the equivalent here of what a pigmy was in Gabon, physically negligible, but also to be considered the first man, full of wisdom about trees and plants and poisons. In the “Origins Centre” at Witwatersrand University they endlessly ran short films (scratchy and loud from being run over and over again) about Bushmen singing and dancing and hunting the magnificent eland, which they poisoned and killed in a terrible way.

On her mother’s side there was a great-grandfather who was English. Her great-grandmother was Xhosa. She claimed to be of mixed race (already the fantasy created by apartheid legislation), but Fatima saw photographs of the lady and thought she was very much a Xhosa woman. Fatima’s paternal grandfather was very black, but the family spoke Afrikaans and hated dark skin; and when Fatima went to visit them they took her to the hairdresser and had the kinks in her wiry hair straightened out so that she could look white.

So she grew up as “just a coloured girl,” without any identity. The Xhosa girls at school all had identities, and she had nothing. She grew up in a coloured community. She had Muslim neighbours and she saw they had feasts and rituals and a complete Muslim identity; and it was no doubt to grasp at this identity that when she was twenty she married a Muslim cleric. She was very pleased to have done that, feeding off the religion from the source, as it were. She began to “cover up”; she started with a head scarf, and soon she was all covered, except for the face and hands. She did this on her own, but then her husband made more and more demands. He didn’t like her sitting in taxis with other men; he didn’t like her shaking hands with them. He threatened to divorce her. Her job as a reporter became impossible; her dream of an Islamic identity fell to the ground. It had already taken a knock when she went to Durban and tried to attach herself to the Indian community there. They weren’t easy; they wanted to know her family name, her village; invariably, at the end of this inquisition, when they understood that she was coloured, they dropped her. She read a lot about Islam; she got to know more than the Indians and Muslims who quizzed her; it didn’t help. She went on the pilgrimage to Mecca, but felt nothing; she saw only the restrictions on her as a woman.

She began to look then for a black identity, but it was hard. Her coloured background again got in the way; the blacks rejected her as someone without a country or culture. So the whole South African journey for her was a discovery of pain: from her coloured beginnings to the Islamic dream, to the Indians of Durban, to the blacks of the townships. There were townships in Durban but they were near the airport and she didn’t see them. She saw them properly only when she came to Johannesburg and began to work with the blacks. It was only then that she understood the great pain and, with that, the deception, for Africans, of political freedom and the end of apartheid.

Fatima said, “I see that the blacks here reach out more than the white South Africans. They, the whites, want the blacks to be ‘there,’ not near them. They cannot reach out or forgive, and they want a distance from the black. They are full of preconceived ideas, like Soweto is dangerous and that a black boy friend is bad.”

I had wanted, when I began this book, to stay away from politics and race, to look below those themes for the core of African belief. But rather like Fatima looking for identity, I felt stymied in South Africa and saw that here race was all in all; that race ran as deep as religion elsewhere.

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Filed under democracy, nationalism, religion, South Africa