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Oprah's Feel-Good-About-Herself Zulu Identity

Charles Leonard

The motivational Oprah Winfrey show rolled into Johannesburg recently and a rather eccentric pronouncement by the talk-show queen prompted our correspondent, Charles Leonard, to write her this open letter about identity...

Sawubona, Oprah! I am sure you will understand if I greet you in isiZulu, because I read in the local media that you are now a member of South Africa's largest ethnic group, the 10.6 million-strong Zulu nation. (I am, of course, not referring to hip-hop legend, Afrika Bambaataa's '70s movement that, as Madvillain almost said, you spell with all caps).

Let's just pause here Oprah, because this is, after all an open letter. For those readers unaccustomed to my first-name familiarity with you, let me quickly explain that you were here in South Africa delivering your "Live Your Best Life" motivational seminar to 3,500 people who paid what in South African terms is a quite steep 480 Rand (about $70), for a three-hour session cum sermon. In this session/sermon you said: "I always wondered what it would be like to be a South African � I feel so at home here. Do you know I actually am one? I went in search of my roots and had my DNA tested and I am Zulu!" ("Oprah the Zulu finds her roots in SA", by Thinus Ferreira & Eagan Williamson, Beeld, 13 June 2005.)

When I read about your new ethnicity it brought up a few emotions and some memories, especially one, an ear-glowingly embarrassing public incident which I probably asked for, that happened back in 2001. As the queen of confessionals I'm sure you won't mind if I share it with you � it is both instructive and as you'll see, relates to you in a roundabout way.

I was at a media conference for the first-ever Black August tour to South Africa and I was verbally mauled by a 12-legged, designer-clad, Mother Africa-idolising hip-hop-machine consisting of six rappers: Talib Kweli, M-1 and Stic-man who are Dead Prez, The Roots' Black Thought, Jeru the Damaja and Boots, and the Coup's MC. I thought they fitted in quite well at the gaudy casino where the conference was being held, what with their rather loud designer hip-hop outfits, but Stic-man wasn't impressed and told all and sundry: "Like, all this type of shit � it's all white people's shit."

It wasn't Dead Prez's first visit and when I interviewed them the year before they said that they were here to "reclaim what is ours". They put a fairly broad definition to that because they "forgot" to pay their 12,000 Rand telephone bill at their fancy hotel when they departed. Jeru, who owns a record label, stated his aim with the Black August tour very clearly: "We can empower ourselves with music and turn it into a multi-billion-dollar industry. That's what I'm doing in South Africa... showing the youth you can be the same as a multi-billionaire in America." Stic-man didn't concur: "It may be a billion dollar industry but there's no billion dollars in our pockets", he said.

Oprah, I have a tendency to open my mouth where I should keep it tightly shut (I hope you're not already thinking that about my open letter). But at that media conference I was given the opportunity to ask the very last question. "I am an African," I started off quoting the opening sentence to our President Thabo Mbeki's most famous speech. "I was born here, Africa is my motherland. People like Nelson Mandela count among my heroes. What message have you got for me?" Jeru (the capitalist rapper one) grabbed the microphone, but it can just as well have been a flamethrower. "YOU ARE NOT AN AFRICAN! WE ARE AFRICANS! You are a European! Listen!" This he punctuated with a stabbing index finger. "I was born in America, my mother was born in America, my grandmother was born in America, but I'm no American! I'm a kidnapped African! These people have been here since the beginning of time; you've been here a couple of hundred years. So you can't claim something that is not yours! What you did was take that!

"What you are is a European-African, like I'm an African-American � you're a European with residency in Africa like I am an African who has residency in America! Check it out � I can put a muffin in a freezer, but it won't make it a piece of ice! Right, I can take an apple pie and put it on a baseball field and it can't make it a pitcher!"

And Oprah, right there I had one of those strange déjà vu moments back to my college days in the early '80s. I went to a predominantly Afrikaans campus and was seen by some as the embodiment of communism. One young woman I was courting was even warned against me by her seniors because I supposedly worked for the Soviet secret service, the KGB! I was, however, tolerated by most because they probably thought it quite quaint to have a lefty on campus. About once a month a politician addressed us and the one speech I wasn't going to miss was where Eugene TerreBlanche, leader of the neo-Nazi, racist Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging was to speak. How could I resist the opportunity to taunt his ilk? During question time I opened my big mouth as per usual and told him that he didn't, and couldn't, speak on behalf of me and many other Afrikaners, some of them even black. He exploded and roared back at me that with my leftwing views I wasn't a proper Afrikaner.

But M-1's (he is the other half of the avid telephone-using rap duo, Dead Prez) contribution jerked me back to Johannesburg 2001: "I'm not saying we hate white people � because we talk like this doesn't mean we don't like white people! No, we love black freedom and we'll have it, no matter what!"

Applause, and the media conference was over. I sat there with one of those dry mouths like after a rough night partying, ears ablaze with embarrassment, shame, anger and frustration. My cameraman colleague, to use Jeru's definition, an African-African, came over, put his hand on my shoulder and said: "I wish I could ask one more question to those guys, 'Have you ever met Mr Nelson Mandela? He would have condemned talk like yours'."

So why am I telling you all this, Oprah? You may rightly ask what this has to do with your newly discovered Zulu-ness. Contradictory as it may sound, it has both nothing and a lot to do with it. Nothing because you probably don't share those kinds of narrow-minded racist views as espoused by our rapper friends and even if you do, you won't put them across in such an aggressive fashion. And unlike old Stic-man and company, you are quite specific in stating that you are a Zulu. But while their reclamation of the motherland and your new ethnicity seem to have different tenor and timbre, to me it seems to be about the same thing: people searching for identity. I can only try and imagine the horror and displacement of the dehumanising slave trade, and how because of that the Diaspora continues to search for its roots. Please know that I am sensitive to that and respect how that search cannot be easy. By the way Oprah, please read my fellow columnist Mark Reynolds's fine column, entitled "Negritude 2.0: One Diaspora, Under a Groove", which most eloquently deals with this matter.

But on the negative side, Oprah, expressions like our rapper friends' and your claim that you are a Zulu speak of an over-simplification of history, like a Hollywood movie with a disregard of facts. It also gives away a complete lack of understanding of how my continent and my country work. Africa is not one uniform piece of land with a homogenous population, except for a few whiteys down here in South Africa. South Africa and Africa are diverse, with both good and bad people of all races and creeds. And these rappers' comments are indicative of how tarmac-kissing celebrities come and reclaim our country and continent for themselves in an unbridled capitalist format that again refers to that airbrushed version Hollywood studios churn out. Now that is annoying; we are being re-colonised, this time by the entertainment industry and its agents.

Let me try and explain our sensitivity when it comes to race and its kissing cousin, ethnicity. We are still the miracle nation that managed to achieve the seemingly impossible; that is, a peaceful transition from brutal oppression to a non-racial democracy without a civil war. We don't need our waters muddied with simplistic and careless racist drivel. We also try and discourage the beating of the ethnic drum. Apartheid South Africa was based on ethnicity, where people were encouraged to be separate according to their ethnic group, Afrikaners here, Zulus there, Sothos over there and no mixing, otherwise we'll deal with you... very brutally.

The concept of ethnicity killed people in this country. We counted bodies, for example, on the pre-democracy killing fields of Natal where the Zulu nationalist movement, Inkatha, was involved in a bloody, low-intensity war supported by the apartheid regime, against members of the internal ANC. They have used the threat of opening the tap of ethnic strife as a political tool since the '80s, but fortunately it has been less successful these days. I don't need to remind you of what happened in Rwanda where hundreds of thousands of people died because of ethnic cleansing. I'm overstating the obvious in reassuring you that I know your Zuluness is an attempt to find your elusive roots and won't be used for any nefarious means. But I'm trying to get the point across of how sensitive ethnicity is on our continent, and that it isn't some "Cowboys and Indians" kids' game where one debs who you play this time round, and swap around when you get bored with the game.

Also, such ignorance as Jeru's statement that South African kids too, could become billionaires, sounds louder than the drums on one of those touristy African CDs. We do not have a raging free market economic system here in South Africa even though we've moved much closer to the Washington consensus, these days. We still have to undo and address the economic injustices apartheid delivered on our country, using some form of socialism still being practised to help uplift the poor people in our country.

So Oprah, being worried that it was just old cynical me, and because I gagged on ethnicity and nationalism when they were forced down our throats like bad steroids, especially as young Afrikaners when our tribe still ruled this country, I spoke to a few of my Zulu-speaking friends about you joining their tribe. My friend Lindelwa is a young, sassy urbanite with strong, interesting views about everything. You should meet her, as she epitomises what is great about our country's energy, which is probably what attracted you here.

"At first I laughed, then I though how fucking patronising and then I felt sorry for Oprah," she said. "The people who tested Oprah's DNA are like those palm readers - they tell you what you want to hear. 'Let's tell Oprah she's a Zulu', even though they know no slaves � Oprah's forebears are probably from West Africa � came from here in South Africa.

"She must know that belonging to a certain group like the Zulus can't be bought like the latest trendy fashion accessory - unlike the new Gucci handbags it's not for sale. You are born into it. But I also feel sorry for Oprah, because it must look enticing being part of South Africa, which is a really nice place for its people, black and white. We have an emotional attachment to this place because we were born here. If I go to rural Zululand where my ancestors come from I feel I belong there even though I am a Johannesburger through and through and I was born in Soweto. That kind of thing can't be bought."

I also spoke to my friend Bongani, who is in charge of Zulu news at our country's public broadcaster. He is older and closer to his roots than Lindelwa. After a little chuckle he said: "Didn't most slaves come from West Africa? I'm unsure how she can say she is a Zulu � I take it with a pinch of salt. As you know we can trace our ancestry back right to where we come from. Now Oprah will have to do that through a Zulu family, which has its own traditions, to establish her roots as a Zulu. It is highly unlikely that it will be successful. But in the unlikely event of that happening she will then have to slaughter a goat as offering to the departed ancestors, who will then have to decide if Oprah is really a Zulu... and that will be even tougher."

Personally, my ancestors apparently came from Ireland, Holland, Scotland, France, and mixed it up like a good crossover world music tune, with indigenous people here. I don't feel any ancestral link with someone in France or Holland for that matter. I am an African. I feel edgy when I haven't smelled the dust, heard the multilingual street noises, or seen the bright orange sunsets for longer than a month. I have more in common with people with names like Sandile, Nonkwazi, Modibedi, Puleng, Faizel, Altaaf, Piet than with people with names like John, James and Annie (no offence to any Johns, James's or Annies reading this, because I simply trying to make a point). But I don't have much choice, because that is who I am. I am a South African, with Afrikaans as mother tongue. I feel a great affinity for this African continent. I am also a socialist, rugby-loving, music obsessive with a range of other identities, some evolving, some diminishing. Identities, everyone's identities, are based on one's bloodline, geography, tastes, associations, likes and dislikes. But the big ones, like one's ethnicity can't be bought.

But there is an option for you, Oprah, even though it is not the real thing. You can even become an honorary Zulu, like me. During our struggle days I developed a close friendship with a leading, politically involved family in one of our townships. Their surname is Nkosi. Whenever I visited them they insisted that I use Thabo, my Sotho nickname, which means the "happy one". Nkosi is an honour name, which they bestowed on me. But as soon as I drove home I became Charles Leonard, again...

But dear Oprah, please don't see my critique of your perceived Zulu-ness as a rejection. You are more than welcome here and you don't have to go over the top by finding fake Zulu roots in order for us to accept you as an African, albeit one with American residency, to quote my friend Jeru. We are generous, large-hearted people on this diverse continent, especially when it comes to people who see this as their home from home. But please respect us, our traditions, sensitivities, and our history, past and not so far in the past. Hamba Kahle (go well), Oprah, and see you soon!

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