Ok, let’s talk – but it won’t be painless

Is the ANC brave enough, are South Africans brave enough, to have a proper, honest debate about race? If the answer is yes, then President Jacob Zuma is wrong in saying we don’t need to talk about the issue. If the answer is no, then Defence Minister Lindiwe Sisulu is wrong when she asks for a national conversation.

I think properly dissecting the racial question at this stage in our development as a nation could be uncomfortable, even painful.

“The national question” is covered in many layers of myth, propaganda, ideology, prejudice and ignorance. All these will have to be stripped away brutally and put on the table if a discourse on race is to be meaningful.

If we are really honest, I am fairly certain the main protagonists of racial solidarity will become frustrated and angry. People like right-wing fundamentalist and pseudo-intellectual Dan Roodt and his ilk, people like the Black Management Forum’s Jimmy Manyi, like the John Hlophe-cheering commando and the racial rabble rouser Julius Malema.

We should start any discourse on this topic by agreeing that the whole concept of “race” is just nonsense. It sounds corny, but it is true, and Robert Sobukwe said it many years ago: there is only one race and that’s the human race.

All human beings are from Africa. All human beings are the descendants of a woman who lived about 150 000 years ago in Africa, the “mitochondrial Eve”.

The latest research indicates that about 60 000 years ago, the human population crashed to about 2 000. All six billion of us living on this planet today come from those 2 000 people. External features such as skin colour, hair and nose shapes are merely a result of environmental factors such as climate and diet – the European side of my ancestors became pale-skinned because they had to process more vitamin D from very limited sunlight, while those who lived near the equator had to become blacker because of the abundance of sunlight.

Our ancestors, even those 2 000, probably looked very much like a San or Bushman living in the Kalahari today.

So when we talk about “race”, we are actually talking about culture and history. Genetically we differ less from one another, whoever we are and wherever we live, than chimpanzees (our closest relative) living in the same part of the forest.

The second unpleasant truth (to some) is that there is no such thing as a “pure race”. If you look at me, you may think I’m pure European, and yet I have in the region of 22 percent non-European blood: Indonesian, Indian and Khoi. My young daughter’s genes are even more mixed: apart from my genes, she also carries her mother’s, which include Chinese, African and more Indian genes, which she got from a great-grandfather who was a native Mauritian.

Nelson Mandela’s DNA tests have shown, as do his facial features, that he has a lot of Khoi blood in him.

Let’s talk about another liberation stalwart, Walter Sisulu. His father was a white European man. That would make him, in our screwed-up obsessive little world, a “coloured”. So when Malema complains that the economic cluster in government is all “minority groups” and the security cluster all “Africans”, he is wrong: our minister of defence is technically “coloured”, thus belonging to the “minority” category.

Take the Lemba people who live in the north of our country. They are generally regarded as Vendas, as descendants of Bantu speakers, just like the Zulu and the Xhosa and the Pedi. And yet it has been scientifically established that an important part of their genetic make-up is Jewish, because they descend from a group of Jews who left Yemen about 2 000 years ago and settled in Africa. Shouldn’t the Lemba now be classified a “minority group”?

So when the ANC declared during all those years that they were committed to “the liberation of blacks in general and Africans in particular”, would that “African” group have excluded the Mandela clan, the Sisulu clan and the Lemba people?

When we do have a debate about “race”, we should perhaps first agree on the terminology we are going to use.

For instance, the continued use of the term African to depict only the direct descendants of the Bantu-speaking immigrants of 2 000 years is wrong, unscientific and insulting.

The brown-skinned people of the rural Northern and Western Cape and Namakwaland are visually identifiable as direct descendants of the Khoisan, our country’s aboriginal people who represent the oldest genetic human stock on the planet.

They are the original Africans, but according to people like Julius Malema and Jimmy Manyi they are “minorities”.

“Race” is not a simple matter.


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