African Identities: Shades of Belonging
African Identities: Shades of Belonging, season 2, Institute for Justice and Reconciliation and Light Feather Productions, 2012
This new and refreshing production, directed by Chia S. Kisuh, showcases five beautifully shot and thought-provoking short films geared towards exploring issues of identity and belonging. The project is the initiative of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) and produced by Light Feather Productions. This production forms part of the IJR’s Memory, Arts and Culture Project and is part 2 in the film series. The first season of the African Identities series explored identity in the context of what it means to be an African youth and in particular a black youth. This season is broader and mostly interrogates whiteness and what it means to be white in post-Apartheid South Africa. In each of the films, youths from different social backgrounds engage with their heritage, question their backgrounds, and reconstruct their identities in an attempt to locate themselves in post-Apartheid South Africa.
The leading question in each case is “Who am I and what makes me an African?” Besides unravelling whiteness, the diverse life stories that are documented also raise important questions about the challenges that youths face in their personal lives, at educational institutions (most notably Stellenbosch University), within their individual communities and, more broadly, within South Africa. For Kisuh this opportunity allowed him to develop his documentary filmmaking skills. He explains, ‘Through writing, speaking, and listening, I was given a platform to share my story and discovered a new purpose: helping to expose and articulate others’ stories…By telling these stories, we aim to make our contribution to the many debates about how to heal the world around us. Through contrasting history with the present day, we can better assess the politically and socially constructed boundaries of our current society…My destiny is to communicate, and to help others tell their story and be heard.’
Through the life history approach adopted in producing these films, a range of oral testimonies were captured - all of which help to unravel the quotidian experiences of South African youths and how they negotiate identity. To quote Kisuh, ‘The content of these documentaries offers a way forward for all young Africans by highlighting the need for engaging, educating, and interacting with the many different identities our African youth possess.’ ‘Identity’, as a conceptual tool in South African literature, and by extension documentary film, has only been utilised explicitly by some scholars including Vivian Bickford-Smith, Robert Morrell, Clifton Crais, Paul La Hausse de Lalouvière, Alan Lester, Ran Greenstein, Harry Dugmore, Karin Horwitz, Brynn Binnel and Katie Mooney. Much can be learnt about the construction of ethnic, racial, class and gendered identities from a corpus of social histories of members of the African community. However, comparatively little has been written on white South African identities. Beyond ‘poor whiteism’ and Afrikaner nationalism very little is known about the histories of white youths and white communities.
Systematic studies focusing on white youths are rare within South African historiography. Additionally, studies focussing on white communities (besides Afrikaans speaking ones) have been only patchily and superficially researched. Studies on race have become synonymous with explorations of black racial identities, and identities based on race, as Cocco Fusco alerts ‘are not only Black, Latino, Asian, Native American and so on; they are also white.’ To ignore white ethnicity as David Roediger insists is to redouble its hegemony by naturalising it. Deconstructing whiteness or as Melissa Steyn phrases it, “the growing interest in the racialization of white people” is taking place. She points out that the ‘critical thrust of the interest in whiteness has been to render this norm visible, by showing its embeddedness in historical and material relations, and by bringing in voices from the margins to create a multiplicity of centres.’ African Identities: Shades of Belonging Season 2 pursues this line of enquiry and contributes greatly to this much neglected area of academic enquiry with a particular view of gaining a better understanding of the processes involved in the construction and reconstruction of identities.
The Films: A Synopsis
Collectively the five films suggest that there are different and multiple forms of identity, of whiteness and of what it means to be an African. What follows is a brief synopsis of each of these pioneering and path-breaking films in the order in which they appear on the DVD:
Gina King: The Web of History
Born in the Eastern Cape, Masters student in History at the University of Stellenbosch, Gina King tells her story of the challenges and values that shape her identity and path in life. There are a number of extracts from interviews that she conducted with family and fellow students in order to disentangle her history, identity, family and privileged form of whiteness. In the course of this process she touches on a number of issues that youth face in contemporary South Africa ranging from rape and xenophobia to conservative versus progressive politics. She asks probing questions about being an African in contemporary South Africa. One of her interviewees – Lauren Conchar (currently completing her MA in Psychology at Stellenbosch University) believes that being an African ‘goes with the beat of my drum, goes with the earth…my heart is held in the hands of African people…I don’t feel that the colour of my skin has anything to do with it.’ Of her identity, Gina King maintains that she “explore[s] [her] identity through the people and places that surround me. My family through ‘the matriarchy’ taught me that honesty, integrity, and an indelible sense of humour are the best tools with which to approach life. Stellenbosch University taught me tolerance and passion”
Kabelo Gildenhuys: A Conscious Life
Born into a conservative Afrikaner family, Kabelo Geldenhuys works at the University of Stellenbosch aiming for student transformation. In this regard, Geldenhuys provides a thought-provoking critique of Stellenbosch University and in particular its policies around race and language. He questions his identity as an Afrikaner and of how his peers perceive him as a white Afrikaans-speaking South African asserting that: ‘[My] awareness of my colour affected my outlook on life as a South African…I still feel today as if I should be ashamed of my heritage as an Afrikaner.’ In his words, “I tell the story of a privileged life, dealing with the realities and inequalities of daily life in South Africa. I have a deep desire to address these issues in our country, but at the same time wrestle with the perceived rejection based on prejudice of my colour and position in society”
Jessica Bothma: A Voice for the Silent World
Jessica Bothma was born into a family with a long history of hearing impairments including (partial hearing and complete deafness). This physical challenge forms a large part of her identity and it is this that she explores. In this film viewers are introduced to Bothma’s family, her friends and her teachers at Wynberg Girls High School. Of contemporary South Africa and her experiences of living in a predominantly ‘hearing world’ Bothma feels that ‘things are improving but I am the lucky one.’ She sums up her inspiring story as follows “My documentary is about my struggles and achievements as a deaf person that went from a deaf school to a mainstream school. There are three main aspects of my life that are viewed in the documentary: school, family and church. I include discussions with my parents on the challenges and benefits of life in a deaf household, as well as my ability to assimilate with my friends and in my classroom. I am deaf, but I live life to the fullest”.
Nadine Moodie: Embracing My World
Committed academic Nadine Moodie holds two degrees and is completing a third one. She is active in a number of community action initiatives and transformation projects. Her story is about engaging with diversity and accepting difference as well as questioning how to overcome poverty and xenophobia. For her ‘being an African comes from within, it’s not the colour of your skin or the way you dance…it’s the beat of your heart, my beat of my heart says I am an African’. Moodie’s sister Zeena agrees, stressing that ‘because I was born here on the African soil makes me an African alone’. Both sisters are greatly influenced by their parents who instilled ‘two pillars of values into them namely Christianity and education’. Of her story Nadine Moodie explains: “This film is based on my faith, family, education and embracing diversity. I wanted to show those watching that the road less travelled is most often the more exciting journey and one that will set you apart. I learned a great deal from my experiences at University and wanted to highlight my parents’ role in shaping who I am. Through our commitments to acceptance and dialogue, I have grown into the person that I am today – committed to action, investigation and accepting difference.”
Pieter Odendaal: Afrikaner…African?
Poet, project manager and student at Stellenbosch University, Pieter Odendaal, tackles the impact that apartheid had on the nation and critically questions his Afrikaans heritage and identity to find his sense of belonging in the current South African ‘rainbow’ nation. His story convincingly shows how language is a key marker of identity informing viewers that ‘from the beginning Afrikaans was a mixture of different cultures, languages and sounds.’ Many of the interviews conducted stressed the impact that apartheid has made on all South Africans – regardless of race, colour or creed. Drawing on his father’s experiences from the Border War Odendaal talks about the damage that apartheid did to white people expressing that ‘it sounds weird saying that a white person could struggle under apartheid but I really think that all of us struggled in different ways.’ His whiteness is a burden that he is very much aware of and he explains that he (and by implication white South Africans) ‘must be aware of the baggage of our history that is still with us. And because I am aware of certain perceptions in people about being Afrikaans or being white and I try by the way I am, and live to change those perceptions.’
Odendaal explains his story as follows: “In a country where so much is determined by our past, I set out to discover what possibilities of being exist for a so called ‘Afrikaner’ in our new nation. Is there a part of my heritage that I can be proud of? Who can I be, and can I be an African? I try to understand these things by talking to my friends and family about the past and the present. My diverse friendships and particular family history play a large role in determining my concept of who I am.”
Insights and similar narratives
Although the socio-political contexts in which this group of youths grew up are different, their stories and the documentaries in which they are featured, reveal in a very powerful way that:
- consciousness and identity are comprised of numerous different features - race, gender, ethnicity, taste, social background, generation, occupational status, language, the body – and set in place, what Belinda Bozzoli terms, the individual’s ‘layers of consciousness’ but also lead to the construction of multiple identities.
- there is no collective social identity; rather, there is in existence identities of gender, generation, sexuality, class, race, ethnicity and religion and these are constructed over time.
- the variegated, disconnected and fugacious nature of identities is revealed.
- the subjects in the short films are all very self-conscious and through their stories it is evident that there are numerous influences and, processes that shape, construct, and negotiate and renegotiate identities. This conflates with Nikolaas Rose’s view that identity or ‘subjectification’ ‘is not to be understood by locating it in a universe of meaning or an interactional context of narratives, but in a complex of apparatuses, practices, machinations, and assemblages within which a human being has been fabricated, and which presuppose and enjoin particular relations with ourselves.’
- racial identities are shaped by the social context in which they emerge and today it is a conundrum. This puzzling question is articulated most clearly in one of the interviews that appear in Odendaal’s story. Khanya (Odendaal’s friend) maintains, ‘In South Africa the biggest thing is race in the time I’ve known you [Odendaal] we have crossed racial boundaries…I see you as a human first but there are instances or tendencies as what we describe in South Africa as whiteness. Sometimes I feel that as much as you are aware of your privileges sometimes you are ignorant about them…for me you have become a simple complexity…I would say you are African because you were born from this soil, you were born in this country. Yes you have the luxury of saying I have some Dutchness…European blood and I can go home…you have that option…to me you are a boertjie’. Odendaal’s other friend disagrees with this view and no longer sees colour or race. He stresses the need to move beyond stereotypes and boxing people.
- language is a key shaper of identity in South Africa and Africa.
- there are many different shades of belonging and of whiteness and South African identities.
Viewed collectively, these films all show how ‘our identity is shaped by our childhood, upbringing, culture and common history. Our names, surnames, families, ancestry and country of birth all speak to circles of belonging. Multiple identities can help us connect to families, friends, and strangers but can also divide us. By interviewing a range of South African youths, their families and friends the five films successfully unpack the construction and reconstruction of identity and in this case mostly white identities in contemporary South Africa. After the official release of this series, Kisuh insists that they were made to ‘provide a platform for debate and dialogue and not to suggest solutions to political and African identity crisis. Just to confirm, that the participants had maximum independence.’ The IJR, Light Feather Productions, director Chia S. Kisuh and most importantly all of the participants need to be commended for this fantastic, thought-provoking and insightful production.
African Identities: Shades of Belonging Season 2 was launched on 19 September at the District Six Museum and will be distributed to libraries and community organisations in South Africa to start contribute to dialogue about identity and belonging with a view to celebrating South Africa’s diverse heritage.
For more information visit the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation website.
Katie Mooney is an Archival platform correspondent based in Cape Town
African Identities: Shades of Belonging, season 2, Institute for Justice and Reconciliation and Light Feather Productions
http://ijr.org.za/newsletter/sep2012/index.html (accessed on 10 October 2012)
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