The search for our identity: Who are you?

When someone asks you what you are, how do you answer? Many commentators are concerned by a resurgence of ethnic or tribal identities represented by the popularity of 100% this or that labels. We asked leading South Africans to answer the question: Who are you and who are we?

‘My heritage defines who I am’

Nkosi Patekile Sango Holomisa is the traditional leader of the Hegebe clan, which has its roots in the outskirts of a small town called Mqanduli in the Eastern Cape.

City Press interviews him at his Mqanduli home. He is in his study working on his computer.

There are three elderly men present.

“In my culture, as the chief of the amaHegebe, I have to be surrounded by elders and the people of this land whenever there are visitors so that they can witness the proceedings and give counsel to me as chief. This is protocol, and I respect and abide by it,” says Holomisa.

The president of the Congress of Traditional Leaders of SA defines himself as a progressive traditionalist and an African who also embraces Christian views as an Anglican.

He knows this may seem contradictory, but it makes sense to him.

Ahh! Dilizintaba – Holomisa’s praise name – speaks fondly of his heritage and upbringing as a Thembu and umGebe, his clan name.

“We are amaHegebe, one of the clans that constitute the Thembu nation. We regard ourselves as Africans first because, according to history, we originated from what is now known as Zimbabwe.

“We travelled down to where we are, mostly along the coast, passing through nations such as Swazi, Zulu and amaMpondo.”

Holomisa takes his identity from his people, he explains, and his heritage defines who he is and what he stands for.

There are two South African flags and an ANC flag on his desk. Law books line the shelves behind him (he is a lawyer).

He wears many hats, but his identity is more defined by his job as a traditional leader than as an MP or a legal representative.

Holomisa says of his people in the Eastern Cape: “They take traditional leadership as the symbol of their identity.” – Lubabalo Ngcukana

‘My faith shapes me’

The moral and ethical values contained in his faith as a Catholic played a far more significant role in shaping Protas Madlala’s thinking than race, gender or ethnicity.

Madlala, the chief executive officer of Durban’s Small Business Development Agency, believes that using culture as an excuse for “backward’’ behaviour is a result of intellectual and moral laziness.

The 55-year-old social activist and academic is a devout Catholic whose life in St Wendolin’s township near Marrianhill, west of Durban, and marriage to a white American woman, cultural anthropologist Suzanne Leclerc, made headlines in the 1980s.

“What is the strongest determining factor in who I am? The Zulu factor certainly is not. The Zulu factor is out. What influences me most in my work and life, and forms my values, is my Catholicism.

“It is Catholicism that teaches me to be selfless, that the purpose of life is spirituality and service.

My analysis is determined by the values that come from that belief, the understanding that to serve is to do God’s will.

“My old philosophy professor used to say that 95% of people would rather die than think.

People want to go along with the stream because it’s easier. It’s easier to say, ‘

I’m doing this because I’m Catholic or I’m doing this because I’m Zulu’.

“People say, ‘I’m living like this because I’m educated’ and when they get caught doing something like having girlfriends they will say, ‘I’m doing this because I’m Zulu’.

“It’s unfortunate that the most backward behaviour happens in the name of culture.”

Madlala is proud that his children see themselves not as coloured or mixed race, but as people.

“I didn’t bring up my kids to be colour-blind, but to understand that it is the person and the issue that counts, not the colour of their skin.

“The other day they embarrassed somebody who told them, ‘Hey, you’re coloured like me’.

“My kids responded by saying, ‘No, we’re not coloured; we’re South African’. I was so proud.” – Paddy Harper

‘I am a South African first’

Anthony Benadie is a tower of a man, physically speaking. He is also white, but that’s not a fundamental part of how he identifies or thinks of himself.

At 33, Benadie has been the DA’s leader in Mpumalanga for seven years. The married father of a six-year-old boy who comes from Middelburg, is absolutely certain of who he is.

“First and foremost, I’m a South African and it’s a philosophy I believe in. Identities are not created by circumstances of birth. It is not a direct consequence of birth that you are Swazi or English-speaking . . . These are things that we learn.

“Next week I’m registering my son at school and I’ve got his birth certificate, which says his country of birth is South Africa.

“Before I can teach him who he is, he’s South African first. The downside is that people often associate themselves with things they learn.”

As a white politician, Benadie sometimes faces comments tinged with racial undertones in the legislature during heated debates.

But he claims he regards this as his opponents’ defence mechanism – and a reflection of their own past experiences under apartheid rule.

Racism is an individual choice that says a great deal about a person’s character, he suggests.

“I don’t live my life on the path of judging other people on their identities. I’m not naive to the inequalities that exist in the country, but what defines you is the way you treat other people.

“It’s the way you speak to the lady who packs bananas at the shop or the car guard that determines the kind of person you are.

“I critically judge government on performance, but I don’t do that on the identity of the people in government.”

He says it is both a blessing and an honour for him to be a South African, and he harbours an unwavering, burning love for the country.

“Unfortunately, that dream of a better South Africa is hampered by external things like politics and economic inequalities. My wife and friends often ask me how I keep on doing what I’m doing and I tell them it’s because of my belief that this is a great country.” – Sizwe sama Yende


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