Why don't we use the term "Bantu"?

Andrew Kenny on the problem with "African" as a racial classification

Compulsory racial classification is as central to the ANC's thinking as it was to apartheid. Under the ANC, racial classification is faced with two problems, one very difficult to solve, the other very easy. The first is a definition of race. The second is the vague term "African", when there is clear and accurate term that could replace it.

The Employment Equity Act, the centrepiece of ANC's race laws, defines "Black" as "African", "Coloured" or "Indian" but it does not define these terms at all. The intention of the Act is to strive for "demographic representivity": whites make up 9% of the South African population, and so employers should strive to see that whites only make up 9% of doctors, managers, pilots and maths teachers at every institution. 91% of these professions should be made up of "Africans", "Coloureds" and "Indians". Such racist selection is justified by the need for "transformation".

The people who champion this racism, often in a very sanctimonious way, sneering at "liberals" who reject it, are the very ones who refuse point blank to explain how the race classification is done. The University of Cape Town selects student by race. Each year it classifies thousands of students as African, Coloured and Indian. How does it do so? It refuses to tell. At a public meeting where a UCT academic was defending its race policies, I asked her to explain how she did the classification. I asked her to point at a member of the audience whom she would classify "Coloured" and explain why she did so. She would not.

It is silly so say that "there is no such thing as race". Of course there is. Without race there could be no racism, and there is plenty of it. Almost everybody, looking at photos of Marilyn Monroe and Mike Tyson, would notice a racial difference between them, and be able to say which was white and which was black. We all have a descriptive sense of race. What it true is that "there is no definition of race".

Apartheid made some ludicrous and humiliating attempts to devise tests for race, including the infamous "pencil" test, where the examiner put a pencil in your hair on the top of your head and asked you to bend forward: if the pencil fell out you were "white" and if it stayed in place you were "coloured". (If President Zuma, Trevor Manuel and I had to take this test now, they would be classified as "white" and I should be classified as "coloured". If you look at our heads you will see why.) The ANC have no tests or definitions at all.

Today, with DNA analysis, it is possible to have a scientific definition of race. You could say that anybody with such and such a combination of DNA was defined as belonging to race X. Another combination would define race Y, and so on. How closely this would match our perceptions of race is a different matter. It would be difficult and expensive.

The easy problem is over "African" as a racial classification. What does African mean? Is an African someone originating in Africa? In that case everybody on Earth is an African. Is it anybody living in Africa? Then F W de Klerk, Helen Zille and I are all Africans. Is it an indigenous South African? Then the Bushmen and the Khoi are the only Africans in South Africa.

Actually everybody knows what the Employment Equity Act means by "African". It means "Bantu". Bantu, which is literally translated as "human", is a perfectly respectable term for the large family of the human race that originated in West Africa. It is used by anthropologists all over the world and black politicians all over Africa.

The Bantu have a rich genetic diversity (there is a smaller genetic difference between Margaret Thatcher and Mao Tse Tung than between two Bantu in Nigeria living on other side of a mountain). The Bantu seem to be pure homo sapiens whereas Europeans have got a bit of Neanderthal in them. (The marker is body hair. If you've got a hairy back you've probably got Neanderthal ancestors). In South Africa the Bantu include Zulus, Xhosa, Sotho, Venda etc.

The native South Africans, the Bushman and the Khoi, seem to have lived all over what is now South Africa for at least fifty thousand years. (I believe "San" is an insulting word, and prefer to call the people what they like to be called, "Bushmen".) The Bantu entered from the north about two thousand years ago. They stopped at about the Fish River because their crops could not grow west of it. So we now have the ludicrous terminology that "African" applies to people who have been about two thousand years in the east of South Africa but not to the people have been fifty thousand years in the whole country.

Why don't we use the term "Bantu"?

The answer is "mental slavery", a phrase devised Marcus Mosiah Garvey, the pan-African thinker, and put to music by Bob Marley. It is alluded to over and over again by Steve Biko and other black pride spokesmen. "Mental slavery" means that black men have allowed their thoughts and attitudes and self-regard to become enslaved by the opinions and judgments of white men. It means excessive concern by blacks in what white people say.

Today many black people in South Africa, especially black leaders, have allowed themselves to become mental slaves to the former masters of apartheid. They have allowed them to define their own attitudes. Every stupid utterance by a white apartheid minister and every silly thought by a white bigot, which should simply be laughed off or ignored altogether, is invested with tremendous significance, indeed definitive significance. So the fact that white apartheid leaders used the word "Bantu" gives it an enormous importance in the minds of black leaders, and of course makes it anathema.

The fact that "Bantu" is used proudly by black people all over the rest of Africa means nothing. The fact that it is a clear, respectable, scientific term in the classification of homo sapiens also means nothing. The only thing that matters is that some white men used it when they were devising their system of apartheid. Only the white man's opinion is important. Therefore we are not allowed to use the term now.

Apartheid was simply an excuse for white minority rule. It was cruel, humiliating and stupid but it wasn't really any theory about race. Verwoerd, the thinker behind "grand apartheid", went out of his way to say that black men were in no way inferior to white men but just had a different history and need to be treated differently (a familiar justification for oppression of the majority by the minority).

On one occasion, exasperated by the racism of his followers, he declared that white men, because of their hairier bodies, longer backs and shorter legs, were more apelike than black men. (He didn't know about the Neanderthal genes in Europeans but probably would have mentioned them if he had.) "Bantu" in his eyes was not a derogatory term at all. But even if it had been, why should anybody care what he thought?

On a personal note, one of my ancestors in England ran off with the cook. Apparently she was black and might have been Bantu. In this case I might have Bantu genes in my blood. According to the American "one drop" rule of race classification, I could then be classified as "black" or, to be more accurate "Bantu". I must have the DNA analysis done on myself and find out whether this is the case. If it is, I shall flog it for all its worth. "Proudly Bantu" would be my new family crest.

So here is one of the few South African problems that can be easily solved. The muddle over the meaning of "African" would be instantly ended by changing it to "Bantu". The only thing preventing this happy change is mental slavery. How to end that? Bob Marley explains:

"Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery;

None but ourselves can free our minds."


1. The lack of genetic diversity among Asians, Europeans and Americans compared with Bantu is easily explained. It seems a small group of homo sapiens, probably about 100 individuals, left Africa about 80,000 years ago. All Asians, Europeans and Americans are descended from them. The Bantu on the other hand were a huge group of people living for a long time all over West and Central Africa.

2. Recent studies show that white Europeans have got about 4% Neanderthal genes. We (homo sapiens) probably got rid of them (Neanderthals) by a combination of slaughter and inter-breeding in Europe.

3. Verwoerd said: "Caucasians also have certain characteristics that the Negroids do not have but that are ape-like. They have so much hair. Their legs are short in comparison to their upper body". (Malherbe, Educational and Social Research, 1939, p 13)

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