So, a few weeks ago I spent a weekend away with someone who told a really interesting – but not that surprising – story. For a reason I can’t remember she was curious to find out more about her genetic heritage, so off she went to Home Affairs (who knew they did this?) and for a nominal fee they took a swab of the inside of her mouth and fed her DNA to a computer. And when the test results came back they confirmed that this pale woman with a slight Afrikaans accent is a relatively direct descendant of the Khoi San.
Now, while biologists proved a long time ago that in South Africa, particularly amongst Afrikaners, there is no such thing as a pure white race (oh, the irony), this finding nonetheless filled me with a quiet joy. If she, in all her natural blondeness, is actually black, there can be no doubt that I’m black too. I’m half Afrikaans, I have little tufts of hair in front of my ears that in certain weather go kroes, and if you look at a picture of my maternal grandfather (and a male cousin) the resemblance to one of the Ndebele chiefs is nothing short of startling.
The reason why this finding made me so terribly happy is because I am desperately tired of having to justify living in Africa and claiming South Africa as my own. Yes, there was breeding with white people along the way and we don’t look dark anymore, but my roots are as African as anybody else’s. My people have been living here for hundreds of years, and a few members of my extended family have never even been overseas. We don’t have another home to flit to if things get rough. This is it, and will remain it, no matter what happens politically.
Of course the paleness of my kind afforded us privileges, and it’s our lot to live with the shame of apartheid and having always to be apologists and carry that guilt. And I wish that stuff had never happened because it really messed a lot of things up, but I won’t apologise for living here or calling myself an African. I have never felt so lost and bereft as when I lived away from this country, and the blue of its sky belongs as much to me as it does to anybody else, whatever their hue happens to be.
Anyway, being a South African is not about the colour of your skin, it’s about roots and belonging and commitment and pride. My blood is in this soil, and my heart beats in its sunsets and rejoices in the empty, open plains of its bushveld. Maybe one day I’ll go and get that genetic test done, just so I can show people like Oprah who claim to be more African than I am. But I don’t need it to prove to myself who I am or where I belong.