A debate on identity has raged in much of post-colonial African political and intellectual discourse. Much of the debate centres on the culture and politics of naming, especially on whether Africans should continue to bear European names, whether African cities and landmarks should keep the names they were given during colonialism, and whether monuments of key colonial figures should remain or whether they must fall, as the #Rhodesmustfall movement and others like it demonstrated in recent years.
Identity itself cannot be wished away. It is vital to the existence of human life. It is by identifying ourselves that we centre what is important to us and leave the rest to the peripheral. This is true in every aspect of human life: economic, political, social, cultural and even spiritual. How we identify ourselves suggests not only what we value most but also with whom we share those values in common: the shared worldview.
Consider a tree. When it is named a tree, its relationship with human beings becomes obvious. Before naming it, so it was a living thing without a clear relationship to human beings. It is the act of naming that creates a relationship with the human psyche as the mind starts to look for ways of interacting with it: that it is vital for breathing and produces medicine and therefore should be preserved; or that it is comfortable to sit on and should be destroyed. The same is true for human relations, whether human beings should be preserved or destroyed has much to do with identity. If whoever names the tree creates it and its purpose, then whoever names human beings creates them and their purpose and decides whether they should live or get destroyed, or the extent to which they should live: to survive or to thrive.
Suffice to say that the namer controls the reality and destiny of the named. In his analysis of the link between colonial war and mental disease, Frantz Fanon emphasises the absolute duty of the native to deliver himself from the bondage of being at the receiving end of violence by renaming himself, by becoming a new person.
He says:“[…] Their first encounter was marked by violence and their existence together – that is to say the exploitation of the native by the settler – was carried on by dint of a great array of bayonets and cannon. The settler and the native are old acquaintances. In fact, the settler is right when he speaks of knowing ‘them’ well. For it is the settler who has brought the native into existence and who perpetuates his existence. […]
Decolonisation brings a natural rhythm into existence, introduced by new men, and with it a new language and a new humanity. Decolonisation is the veritable creation of new men. But this creation owes nothing of its legitimacy to any supernatural power; the ‘thing’ which has been colonised becomes man during the same process by which it frees itself.”
In other words, decolonisation isn’t complete unless it brings about a new person who can engage in a dog-eat-dog cold world whose dynamics involve a tug of war or a “balance of power” struggle between groups, nations and regional blocs. In that fight for supremacy, different groups defend their collective interests that are birthed from the way each group relates to itself – its identity.
A son or daughter would die for the interests of his family because s/he relates his/her life to that of his/her family due to a mindset that protects the family’s interests. On a global scale, that same mechanism prevails. Those who have organised themselves around a common identity are always stronger than the individually scattered identities regardless of their claim to a sense of pride and belonging. There is no pride in vulnerability and acquiescence to the domination of others with a meaningful identity.
The goal of domination is to reframe the reality of the dominated so that it works for the dominator’s interests on all spheres of human life: economic, political, cultural, and spiritual. Invariably, the aim of domination is to have the dominated confuse their interests with those of the dominating power and to obscure their vulnerability. Indeed, if the dominated is so committed to an identity that reinforces this domination, then he doesn’t deserve to be free because in so doing, he has committed himself to servitude.
For Africa, without the memory and consciousness of a shared past – identity – friends have confused one another for foes against whom they have been unable to conceive a future of unity and shared interests.
Identity and Forgiveness
The concept of forgiveness is fundamental to the subject of identity. Forgiveness is a political concept that protects those with whom there’s a relation to history and shared experiences. Moreover, the question of who to forgive and who to punish is related to the interests we have in forgiving – strategic forgiveness.
However, without identity we lack a clear understanding of whom we share those interests and who is therefore deserving of forgiveness. At the group level, the desire for self-actualisation determines the pursuit of interests. Further, those who have historically supported or impoverished this pursuit will be stored in the collective memory, to associate with amicably or on adversarial terms. Moreover, this memory is preserved in the education system because the next generation’s survival depends on it. A people that easily forgets and forgives prepares itself for more abuse, violence, and recurrent manipulation. Neither does it deserve a reprieve. Indeed, the exercise of forgiving and forgetting is a vital political instrument that cannot be reduced to the pursuit of peace of mind. Historical experience is an asset for the people to affirm themselves rather than a meaningless event that belongs to the past.
The clinical psychologist, Amos Wilson, observed, “We are more victims of our history in not knowing it than in knowing it.” Africans don’t forgive – or forget – those who oppress them time and again because they are “good people” or “spiritual.” Neither do they do it as echoes of Ubuntu from their ancestors. It is because they are unable to define a paradigm of identity and collective memory that determine who to forgive and the purpose of forgiving.
Centuries of domination have conditioned the African to prioritise alien interests and subordinate his own. Similarly, the deference and forgiveness that comes “naturally” when Africans deal with foreigners is contrasted with the urge to “punish” and to sustain “atavistic” rivalries. This distorted worldview is the result of uprooted identity. It’s a tree without roots that’s incapable of ever becoming a forest.