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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

On-line version ISSN 2224-7912
Print version ISSN 0041-4751


GERBER, Schalk. On the question of identity in a post-apartheid world: Co-creation as an alternative to onto-race-logy. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2018, vol.58, n.3, pp.597-607. ISSN 2224-7912.

How does one understand who one is in a post-apartheid world? Put differently: what comes after the logic of apartheid? In this article I take up the question by arguing for a notion of identity as action rather than essence, that is, a notion of identity that allows for one's existence in the world as always with others. In order to argue the case, the first part of the article hermeneutically analyses the logic that constitutes the colonial and apartheid conceptions of identity as onto-race-logy, that is, a logic taken over from a certain form of Western metaphysical thinking that takes race as its highest and grounding principle according to which the totality is ordered. According to this logic, identity functions as "something which is the same as itself (A = A). It is an essentialised form of identity that is separate from the world as totality in a vacuum-like existence. The world and the other are therefore understood according to the categories of the self, in which the self or its identity is given an elevated position in relation to the world and others, that is, a certain racial identity in the case of onto-race-logy. Furthermore, the logic has two ethical implications. Firstly, binary oppositions are set up, the identity of the other becoming the negative pole of the positive self-identity. For instance, the colonised African subject is seen as negative and primitive in relation to the Western subject. In apartheid terms, the "black man" is regarded as "godless" and the opposite of the "Christian white man" and branded as a "kaffir". The latter term originates from the Arabic word kafir, meaning "infidel", and may be compared to the use of Negro in America and Nègre in the French-speaking world, both fulfilling the same function. Difference or strangeness is typified negatively and should therefore be kept apart. In addition, this negative typification occurs through the process of scapegoating, which has a long history in the Western world, in which all the sins (aggression, guilt and violence) of the group are projected onto the stranger. This is a means of creating a binding identity and solidarity within a group. Moreover, the negative typification and scapegoating is accompanied by the creation of myths that are not based in reality but in fantasy, in this instance myths about the "black man", who is seen as exotic, barbaric, hyper-sexual, pre-political, and so forth. These myths create a mask of race that covers the face of the other and provides the content with which to typify. The second ethical implication is that the other is not only typified as negative, but is also regarded as less valuable ontologically. Hence, enclosed in the term "kaffir" is the misrecognition of the human dignity of the person enclosed by this concept of identity. The same logic that holds for the relation between the self and the other is also at play in society, and determines the way in which the totality and the relation between groups are structured. The meaning within a society is determined by the identity of one group, which may lead to a state of totalitarianism. Apartheid is an example of this function where the world we live in is determined by the categories of race, which largely dominate to this day. Our identity is thus enclosed in and reduced to race. The first part ends with an exploration of another reason for the creation and perpetuation of racial identities in the colonial and apartheid eras. This reason concerns the creation of racial categories for the justification of the exploitation of people for capitalistic ends. In other words, if the "black man" is not regarded as fully human, there can be no objection to treating them as inferior and to rationalise any practices that follow from such a conception. Since all identities are enclosed in this logic, the "white man" is, in turn, regarded asfully human and therefore economic and political prosperity is justified. And because this logic has not yet been overcome, "white privilege" has become part of the everyday discourse in South Africa, a discourse in which the connection between economic prosperity and the identity of the "white man" is regarded as negative in the absence of political power. More important, although these constructions of "white man" and "black man" (or any other racial construction) might not apply to one, one is still captured in them and the misrecognition of one's existence in the world may lead to alternative self-conceptions. The second part of the article explores what might follow on the logic of apartheid (or the colony, in the larger context), namely the onto-race-logical constructions of identity. Two choices are outlined. The first choice entails a perpetuation of the logic by a nostalgic appeal to the colonial and apartheid conception of identity, or by the construction of a new absolute reference point as found in variations of the ideology of Pan-Africanism and Afrocentrism. This would lead to the totality becoming enclosed in a logic based on an essentialised notion of identity, the existence of the other in both cases being misrecognised. Apartheid itself may be regarded as an example of this choice, because it originated in a project of decolonising British colonial oppression and reappropriated the problematic logic in new forms. The second choice, by contrast, aims at breaking with that logic by reconsidering the notion of identity at an ontological level. Instead of an essentialised notion of identity, identity should be considered as accounting for our existence in the world with others. Hence, one does not think about the relation to the other or about self-understanding from a point of isolation but rather in relation to the other. In our co-existence, therefore, where each person is co-original, co-creation of meaning takes place. The implication of this ontological shift is that there is no notion of a pure identity, but rather that identities are always intertwined with other identities and that each identity needs an-other to be an identity. Meaning is co-created in tension with others. Moreover, as part ofour shared existence there is an ethical responsibility in our shared striving for a dignified life, and that is the demand of the reparation of the human dignity of all. Thus, to take responsibility for the past and the present is to contemplate our shared existence in the future, and to take up the shared responsibility for it, which makes it a universal task.

Keywords : identity; post-apartheid; onto-race-logy; misrecognition; meaning; co-creation; universal; particular; responsibility; dignity.

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