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28/03/2018 05:31 SAST | Updated 28/03/2018 05:31 SAST

Identity Cannot Be Used As A Footnote In Decolonisation

Identities, ethnicities and traditions existed before colonisation, but colonisers manipulated these identities as a means to remain in power.

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In a modern South African political climate the pressure to be politically correct has become an increasing topic of discussion. How we label one another forms our identities and, because of the undeniable role identity plays in our lives, we need to better understand who we are, and where we come from, in order to truly decolonise our societies. We cannot simply allow ourselves to be categorised with a one-dimensional label that limits the multiplicity of what our identities truly encompass.

It is important for us to understand the intersectionality of people and how they are able to occupy several identities at once. A quote that resonates with this is that of Nhlakanipho Mahlangu, Rhodes SRC president for 2018, who says: "I occupy all my identities at once. I am not a woman first and then black, or subsequently black first and then a woman. I am both simultaneously."

This is undeniably true, but it also requires us to debunk where our identities stem from. Often we encourage talks about how we can change present issues, yet fail to understand through interrogation from where those issues stem.

It would be ignorant and reckless of me to assume that identities did not exist before colonisation. Identities, ethnicities and traditions existed before colonisation, but colonisers manipulated these identities as a means to remain in power.

We continuously have discussions about decolonisation within spaces of learning, but also tend to complicate the process of decolonisation – it simply means removing everything that the colonisers imposed on the colonised. When asked what the process of decolonisation entails, responses such as changing the curriculum, changing the languages in which people are being taught, removing oppressivestatues and symbols are mentioned. Yet not once have I heard anyone mention the removal of imposed colonial identities on the colonised.

Identity in and of itself is a social construct. If one were to use Rwanda as a case study, one would discover that the Twa were the first people in Rwanda, followed by the Hutu and the Tutsi. Rwanda was colonised by Belgium, giving that country a powerful political standing in Rwanda. Prior to colonisation a process called kwihituru was operative in Rwanda, in which Hutu people could change their political identity and become Tutsi, but only if they owned enough cattle – alluding to the fact that identity was not only based on race, but on class as well.

In the South African political climate, we still grip tightly onto the identity markers that were imposed on us during apartheid.

Once colonisation took place, the Belgians introduced a rigid caste structure that made identities fixed, creating even further divisions among the Hutu and the Tutsi. After the Rwandan genocide occurred, the Tutsi fled to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The Tutsi in the DRC were known as Rwandophones and were not perceived to be DRC citizens, as they were not originally born in the DRC. Despite their ability to speak the language, and having the right to vote and purchase land, they were still not citizens. This changed the concept in the DRC of what belonging meant, but also of what citizenship meant. It no longer meant living in a place or being born there, but of having ancestry that originated there.

In South Africa we still grip tightly to the identity markers that were imposed on us during apartheid. It would be interesting to know how different races referred to each other before colonisation. In addition to this, how different ethnicities acted towards each other before the apartheid government separated people into homelands.

Another notion that I battle to grapple with is how we as South Africans tend to hold onto the very identity markers that formed the reasons for our oppression. It could be argued that our identity was not the problem, but rather how people responded to our identity. We cannot however ignore the oppression that rests within our races.

I would like to propose that decolonisation can therefore only mean a process whereby we ascertain where our identities stem from, and revert to a time where we self-identify in the same manner as our ancestors did before colonisation.

The reason why I have used identity as the primary force of decolonisation is that our identities form part of the reason as to why we were colonised. There are other factors that led to our colonisation – such as land, minerals and resources – but identity cannot simply be a footnote in the process of decolonisation.