Sad Afrika (A Country Without A Name): A Philosophical Critique Of The South African Identity

By Joburg Post

The name ‘South Africa’ is not reflective of the identity of the indigenous people conquered in the unjust wars of colonisation. It is a name given and reaffirmed to a colonial territory - by colonialists - in the 19th and 20th centuries. 

Could this point to some evidence that the knowledge framework of the indigenous people remains in bondage, in a country supposedly free from colonialism and apartheid?

In 2002, amidst much anticipation, the late legendary jazz composer Zim Ngqawana released Zimphonic Suites. Under this highly conceptual album, he snuck in a masterful sonic critique aimed at the gross neglect by post-94 South Africa of the knowledge framework of the indigenous, in the form of Sad Afrika (A country without a name)

Bra Zim, whose works are grounded in the African philosophy of Ubuntu, would, at least in 2002, have more than likely agreed with Professor Mogobe Ramose, that “for the indigenous conquered peoples, a name is an identity card that opens up the genealogy and history of the bearer of that particular name. It is the coded history of the bearer of that name. As such, it is the affirmation of connections and relations with the extended family, the living dead (ancestors) and the community from which the name-bearer originates.” 

This importance of naming is applicable to a nation’s moniker down to that of a person. It stands, nonetheless, that a name in the imagination of the indigenous is one typically rich with meaning. Why is it then that our own country, even after 1994, still does not bear a name that communicates our endogenous reflections?

The history of colonisation in this country is dominated by two ethnically disparate Europeans, namely, the Dutch – later to refashion themselves, rather presumptuously, as Afrikaners – and the British. Over the passage of time and unjust wars, both these nations claimed undue sovereign title to territory over the indigenous people and shared the spoils in the shape of land, but not without their own contestations over these lands. However, it is only in 1852 that the name South Africa emerges, interestingly almost exactly 200 years after Jan van Riebeeck’s arrival, properly as Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (Dutch for South African Republic). It represented  the area north of the Vaal River, otherwise known as the Transvaal, and was decided upon unilaterally by the Dutch.

Amidst the  “discovery” of gold in the Witwatersrand along with, British ambitions for expansion, tensions grew between the latter and the Dutch over this land. This led to the first Anglo-Boer war in 1880, which the Dutch won. The British were relentless, however, in their pursuit of this land and 19 years later, the 2nd Anglo-Boer war broke out. Three years of combat saw Britain emerge victorious in 1902. Bearing in mind, however, the illegitimacy of the claim to the land of the indigenous people by the Europeans, it is interesting that the Anglo-Boer War was fought as if  the indigenous did not have any claim over this land. This occurred notwithstanding the indigenous who participated in the war and , who were quite literally cannon fodder. The end of the war between the two European nations led to the Treaty of Vereeniging. 

The treaty served as an instrumental prelude towards the passage of the 1909 Union of South Africa Act, in 1910. This statute saw  the unification of the colonies, namely Transvaal, Orange Free State, Natal and Cape as constituent provinces of the Union. So here we see the name reaffirmed, this time to describe the Union, but expressly in the English language this time. However, this Union followed the problematic logic of the war, as the indigenous peoples again had no say about this de facto and de jure unification of the colonies. 

The historical record thus shows that from 1862 to 1909, South Africa qua the Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek was a territory across Vaal river, which was unjustly claimed by the Dutch colonists who oppressed the indigenous  people with impunity. And from 1910 until 1961, at least juridically, the name South Africa qua the Union of South Africa could be said to not only have represented an agreement by formerly warring colonisers to unify their respective colonies into a single entity , but was also a consensus on the modes of oppression of  the indigenous. 

So what does it mean that the indigenous leadership collective that formed the South African Native National Congress – later African National Congress – seemed, in their nomenclature, to have accepted this name at their inception in 1912? And what does it mean that the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania disregarded the moniker five decades later? Azania is a contested term etymologically - Africa likewise - but is nevertheless asserted with the understanding that a name symbolises ownership as well, and that to accept the name South Africa is to accept its ownership by those who originally coined it as such under the colonial regime.

It is also interesting to note that the currency the  (Rand) of the country is still depicted under Afrikaner grammar. This name again is not in tune with the indigenous people, no matter what the settler Dutch community call themselves nowadays. In several instances all over the world, a nation’s currency speaks to proper sovereignty over country and territory. Think of the Yen, Pound, US Dollar, etc. Here in Africa we have the Naira, Pula, etc. Hence, the question stands with regard to  what justifies the fact that the neither the name nor the currency of the country expresses the philosophical view of the indigenous?

 Furthermore, the transition from the Pound to Rand anticipated the legally questionable metamorphosis of the Union into the Republic of South Africa, in 1961. From a philosophical point of view, this was not a transformation but a reversion back to 1852, back to Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek. Our current adaptation of the name remains uncomfortably close to the nomenclature of the conqueror. It is small wonder if this goes some way in explaining the financial inequalities in the country, which remain heavily skewed in favour of the descendants of the colonisers. 

Since South Africa is essentially a product of colonisation, and therefore, it is not unreasonable to  posit that even the proclamation “I am proudly South African”, which has outgrown its “buy local” marketing origins, promotes an identity constructed within the remit of the existential and epistemological model of the colonising Europeans. It thus speaks to the imperative of epistemic justice, but ultimately historical justice. As a consequence, the continuing struggle for decolonisation should encourage  far-reaching structural changes in the country that will engender the total emancipation of indigenous people as was the case in Thomas Sankara’s Burkina Faso.

Perhaps Bra Zim was on to something if the title of his meditation suggests that the country – maybe even Africa in general - is in a sad state due to its namelessness which has been compounded by the dereliction of indigenous knowledge. The name South Africa is indeed incongruous with the outlook of the indigenous people. It is long past its expiry date and to stretch a metaphor slightly by Prof Ramose, it is hardly the mirror which reflects the real image and identity of the indigenous people’s standing in front of it.

  • Katlego Mereko 

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