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We are all African

We are all Africans

by Petra Mason, illustrations by Anton Kannemeyer / 18.06.2010

If you could email your ancestors, what would you want to know?
Family legend or delusions of grandeur may suggest you are royalty:
A Nubian Princess, the fruit of Genghis Khan’s loins, or a descendant of Shaka Zulu’s warrior clan. You may be some, or all of those things, but most likely, you’re a mongrel.

Up until last week I thought I was pretty vanilla. An average 5th generation white settler, much like, in terms of my genetic cocktail, any other rooinek. But then I did a DNA test. Not because I wanted to find out the obvious stuff, like where my Grandparents were born, but to trace the journey of my maternal distant relatives – where they lived and how they migrated around the world many thousands of years ago.

At the world cup kick-off celebration you may recall Tutu’s global greeting: “welcome home, we are all African”. It’s true: we are all descended from the “Mitrochondrial Eve” who originated in Africa.

In the world of Science, Human Genetics studies are in fashion. Just last month researchers announced the seriously sci-fi creation of synthetic DNA, the “genetic software” required for artificial life. The synthetic cell looks identical to the “wild type” raising some serious ethical questions about Scientists ‘playing god’.

To get the results of my mitochondrial DNA, or mtDNA, all it took was a painless cheek swab sample and about R1000 bucks. The test results are limited to two genetic lines, X (from your Mom) and Y (from your Dad). Mother’s pass mtDNA to all their children – male and female, but only females pass them down to the next generation. Women can trace their paternal lineage (Y) by having a male blood relative take the test. Lucky for me, my dad did the test too, so I have a sense of my ancestry beyond my Mom’s X information. Geneticists identify each of the major clans by a single letter. Each of these letters represent a family descended from a distant female ancestor.

Title: B is for Black, Medium: six colour lithograph, Paper size: 44 x 57cm,
Image size: 37 X 49.5cm, Edition size: 35, Price: R 3 000

The results of my Genetic Ancestry Testing Report:

My Dad’s line is H1c1 – H is clan of Helena, one of the “Seven Daughters of Eve” consistent with European ancestry. About 47% of native Europeans belong to clan “Helena” having originated from a hunting family in Southwest France, French cowgirl country, and the same line as Marie Antoinette. 1 exact match in the Cook Islands.

My Mom’s line : mtDNA haplogroup: LOa1b. Clan L for Lara, from the single main lineage from Africa. Loa1b is from East and Central Africa, and is almost absent in North African, West African and Southern African populations. 1 identical match: an African American individual.

Initially, processing the results was very confusing. I got them via email, so had no chance of talking them over with a medical scientist in a white lab coat, which prompted me to put on my own white coat and submerge myself in Human Genomic Research.

The African Daughters in my mtDNA lineage were once Pygmies who wondered South East from Central Africa to East Africa, mixing with the local Bantu population along the way. Pygmy forest people symbiotically lived near Bantu settlements and hunted for protein, while the Bantu provided starch, using tools they had invented during the Iron Age. A little love under the stars in exchange for extra monkey meat or another sweet potato might have been all that was needed to get the clan of Lara intermingled all the way to Mozambique. There we were likely captured as slaves between 1750 and 1795 by the Dutch East India Company and shipped, along with 974 others, from East Africa, Zanzibar and Mozambique, to the Cape of Storms. If all the blood of the world is mixed in Cape Town, that’s where my Mom’s line, with Afrikaans names like Herculena Petronella Botes, added more and more “milk to their coffee” over the generations.

Title: W is for White, Medium: five colour lithograph, Paper size: 44 X 57cm, Image size: 37 x 49.5cm, Edition Size: 35, Price: R 3 000

By the time my short, dark Grandmother, aka “the wild card” married my Grandfather, a tall German man with an evil blue eyed glare, our tanned, green eyed relatives with frizzy blonde hair from the Cape had moved to an impoverished area in the Transvaal. By then the Gothic Novel turned Gothic Horror. Unlike classic Gothic Novels, there were no castles involved, just an unromantic cast of tyrants, villains, bandits, maniacs and skeletons in closets; which include a Native Appeals Court judge, members of the Ossewa Brandwag, the Pretoria Department of Native Affairs, a small holding in Boksburg, a typist, a nurse, and some jail time. Some of them were vile people, all of them are now dead.

The thought of having an African maternal ancestor would have horrified the entire cast of recent relatives. Little did “the wild card” know that she was from the clan of Lara, the same branch as rock ‘n roll royalty Tina Turner, and not her beloved Duchess of Windsor. And what if the gardener, who strangled her to death at age 92, had known that she was infact a distant relative. Perhaps understanding that there are lots of hidden and unacknowledged race mixtures out there would have appealed to his sense of ubuntu.

U is for Ubuntu:
Ubuntu is an Nguni word, which has no direct translation into English, but is used to describe a particular African worldview in which people can only find fulfillment through interacting with other people. Thus is represents a spirit of kinship across both race and creed which united mankind to a common purpose.

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu has said “Ubuntu is very difficult to render into a Western language…It is to say. ‘My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in what is yours’…”

Where to get a DNA test:

Human Genomic Diversity and Disease Research Unit
Division of Human Genetics
They get clients from all over South Africa. Clients that aren’t in the area can phone (011 489 9293) and ask for a kit, which they will post to you.

Department of Human Genetics
National Health Laboratory Service
P O Box 1038
Human Genomic Diversity and Disease Research Unit
Division of Human Genetics
South Africa

Tel: +27 11 489 9237 / 9293
Fax: +27 11 489 9226

All images © Anton Kannemeyer
Available for purchase from Art Print SA

Opening Image Credit:
Title: Birth, the first and the direst of all disasters, Medium: seven colour lithograph, Paper size: 44 x 30cm, Image size: 32 x 41cm, Edition size: 35, Price: R 3 000

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  1. brandon edmonds says:

    Great read. I remember Mitrochondrial Eve – we partied in Matjiesfontein and she still owes me R40. “A little love under the stars in exchange for extra monkey meat” is an achingly beautiful thought, Petra.

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  2. haha says:

    A big chunk of the east coast of SA did infact descend from Shakas clan. Despite family legend or dellusion.

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  3. jenny b says:

    How interesting to find out were you hail from in the beginning time. Thanks for info………

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  4. creepy steve says:

    come on now everyone knows those that are closest to you, causes one the most consternation if being associated with afore mentioned, and thats why Afrikaners have always been acutely sensitive regarding the black issue.i’m no scientist but need i say anything more than “HANSIE CRONJE” to prove the mixing of genepools, and now after years of opressing them swart volk, all of a sudden post 1994 they’re all hard done by, now we must feel sorry for them and all thier kuk afrikaans fokofpoliesie car novelty act spin offs. well i’m not falling for it. your people are not in charge, it’s not your country anymore. interesting article though my aunt recently did the same test and it turns out even in my own conservative english family may have mixed up with some hottentots back in the day but i’m 100% ginger —-no soul nesscary

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  5. Petra Mason says:

    @ Haha: Agreed. Please note what I wrote : You may be some, or all of those things, but most likely, you’re a mongrel. @ Jenny B: Thanks, we are running a piece on SA celebrity DNA results soon. Look out for it. @ Creepy Steve – send me your Aunts results and I’ll analyze them. The raw data they send is pretty complex and I spent a lot of time on research. petramason@gmail.com

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  6. DB Cooper says:

    im glad i dont have ginger hair like creepy steve

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  7. Pia Presha says:

    @ DB – Maybe you do. Do your cuffs and collars match?

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  8. Andy says:

    cuffs and collars… oh no… i get it

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  9. Jersey Pot says:

    Ubuntu is probably one of the most ridiculous ideas I’ve ever heard of in my life. And it’s more ridiculous because of the resonant way in which African academics and yellow-bellied liberal academics munch it up and want it to mean something. All this bullshit about: “Ubuntu is very difficult to render into a Western language”… as if it’s possessed of some kind of beautiful occult knowledge about getting along-ness between the races that ‘white man’ couldn’t have perceived of. The concept of ubuntu is as obvious as that dull Christian (of Confucian, depending on which point in history you decide to pick up from) “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It’s just not interesting, it’s just trite words, and every culture has them, every culture has principles, but in practice they mean something different altogether.

    So why are people so hell-bent on trying to prove to that we have this unique ubuntu concept, and that the Africans can save mankind if we just listened to them. It’s total kak, I’ve never heard such kak in my life. Ubuntu is a lazy attempt to make up for thousands of years worth of ‘oral tradition’, superstition, the absence of a metaphysical system to rival the Indians and Chinese, the absence of industrial enterprise to rival the Europeans, the absence of anything uniquely salvageable for mankind that couldn’t have come from the Mayans or the Native Americans, the absence of any contribution to mathematics like the Arabs — it’s just this little catch-all phrase, conceptually and biologically endemic to the survival of the species, although destined to be discarded and misused, as if to say, “we had fuck-all to offer the academic development of the great project of civlisation (whether it’s failed, or taken a wrong route – which it obviously has – or not), but we have this, so please take us seriously!”

    Does pre-colonial African culture strike you as being particularly friendlier than any other society? Fuck no. They were prey to all the illnesses of mankind (war, hatred of women, superstition, anti-rational idiocy) a thousand times over. It’s nice to talk big.

    I’m so sick of hearing about ubuntu. Empty words.

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  10. reality check says:

    Jersey Pot, kudos for putting it out there. This is a debate that is long overdue in South Africa.

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  11. Doctor L. says:

    So you guys feel threatened by ubuntu or what?

    I honestly dont see anything far fetched about it not translating, especially given how many different manifestations it has.

    For me, personally, its something positive and I value it. I take the cue mostly from Biko who said our duty as Africa was to give the world a human face – thats ubuntu to me, that ineffable humanness, and I see it everywhere in SA.

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  12. Doctor L. says:

    I think maybe some of you guys dont, or cant, distinguish between co-opted, media-spun phraseology and actual age-old cultural institution. you are maybe unaware as to how these institutions are practiced and regarded by those who hold them and use them to raise their homes.

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  13. Petra Mason says:

    The article is about DNA. The point is that racial purity is very rare. There are lots of hidden and unacknowledged race mixtures. DNA testing proves that we are mostly a mix and claiming 100% anything is inaccurate. I think large scale DNA testing could have a positive effect on South African’s who are so preoccupied with race. xxxx

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  14. Doctor L. says:

    I think theres a difference between race and culture. Being ‘white’ doesnt exclude you from ubuntu the same way being ‘Western’ might. Not really addressing your article but some of the things you, Jersey Pot and [someone else] have said here in the comments re: ubuntu.

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  15. Petra Mason says:

    Doctor L – it would be awesome if both you and Jersey Pot could write articles on ubuntu.
    Also go get your DNA done, and post the results here. It’s a pretty fascinating journey.

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  16. Doctor L. says:

    Will consider doing research on ubuntu. Its actually a very good idea. Thanks. DNA testing would be sweet.

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  17. Petra Mason says:

    It’s a deal! Just write it as you’ve said it here, only a bit longer. Email : Andy@mahala.co.za
    We could use a doctor here at Mahala — a lot of the readers have psychological problems and anger management issues ; )

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  18. Andy says:

    He Dr L. good to see you back

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  19. Doctor L. says:

    Thanks, Andy.

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  20. Anonymous says:

    The arrogance displayed by some commentators in ‘writing off’ ubuntu is crazy.
    from petra’s new york and Jersey Pot’s, uh, new jersey perspective (?) there simply is no perspective.
    spend some time in a township or a village, speak to some old african people. consider polygamy not as a woman-hating practice but an effective means of creating large, social inclusive family groups versus our super ‘sophisticated’ western practice of abandoning divorced women and their kids to whatever fate dishes up to them.
    consider children being raised by grannies; multiple family members being included always for supper, breakfast, guidance… consider how contemporary black diamonds find themselves ‘out of place’ in fancy corporate jobs because of how these have removed them from their communities and being in touch with the issues of the people around them.
    If Jewish or Muslim culture mandates a percentage of income given to the poor and needy, why is it so difficult for some whiteys to recognise similar but less dogmatic practices in African cultures?

    I have seen ubuntu practised, referred to and celebrated by even the most contemporary urban blacks.

    Howcome some whiteys reckon they have any kind of right to claim it doesn’t exist?

    You may need to DNA your brains, not your bloodstreams.

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  21. Judith says:

    Enjoyed the article very much, but am a bit puzzled by the Ubuntu hysteria. It is no more a myth than love, or tolerance or generosity are myths. It is more noticeable in its absence than in its presence, but like all the other virtues it is practiced every day, somewhere, by some people. I don’t think whiteys struggle to understand it. I just think that all of us have a hard time living out this universal concept. Nostalgic admiration for traditionalism versus modern, ‘heartless’ societies is a waste of time. Ubuntu does not need a setting, or a culture. It just needs people who want to mend our fractures wherever and whenever we can.

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  22. Jersey Pot says:

    Sorry, anonymous: My point still stands. And my point was this – the concept of ubuntu is simply unspecial and trite. It is a maxim that belongs, in some other permutation to every culture. And my second point is this: african culture does not show off this ubuntu prinicple any more than any other culture does. So, it’s just a load of hot air, far as I’m concerned.

    “Polygamy not as woman-hating practice…” — blah, blah, blah. My ass. It’s just another primitive leftover of African culture. Masculine dominance. And look at, for example, the african attitude to testation, for example, and male primogeniture.

    African culture is the most infantile and failed expression of the human project of civilisation. The Native Americans were building aqueducts, they were growing crops in the fucking desert, man! The Indians wrote texts on metaphysics 5000 years ago! Look at European industrialisation. I’m so sick and tired of pretending that pre-colonial, sub-Saharan Africa was ‘equal’ with all other cultures. The more I study in anthropological disciplines, the more obvious this fact becomes to me.

    So, I become recalcitrant when this ‘ubuntu’ concept gets foisted on us, by African intellectuals. They’ve salvaged this one trite little platitude out of a history of intellectual bankruptcy, and try to pretend its some definitive, exclusivist wisdom of theirs. It isn’t exclusivist, and it isn’t demonstrable in African culture altogether.


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  23. Judith says:

    JerseyPot, unspecial, trite concepts can still be desirable, and one needs to be careful about how one evaluates cultures. Successful societies don’t necessarily depend on technology or written philosophy but on how compatible that society is with its environment. The San were probably among the most successful societies on earth, given their lack of chauvinism, their community-spiritedness, their spiritual traditions, their respect for the creatures they hunted, and their artworks. Anyway, it does nobody any good to bleat about the loss of tribal values, or the bankruptcy of Africa. Putting ubuntu into practice might,on the other hand, improve the society we are now trying to forge.

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  24. Larry says:

    ubuntu’s not amyth, but an ideal to which most do and all should aspire to you little twats! JerseyPot, you dumb fuckface; look up “Timbuktu”!

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  25. Wendile says:

    Nice article…. Welcome to the family bro!

    “So, I become recalcitrant when this ‘ubuntu’ concept gets foisted on us, by African intellectuals. They’ve salvaged this one trite little platitude out of a history of intellectual bankruptcy, and try to pretend its some definitive, exclusivist wisdom of theirs. It isn’t exclusivist, and it isn’t demonstrable in African culture altogether.”

    So telling the world about Ubuntu is African leaders way of punking people into believing that we africans achieved something. “Look, we didn’t invent shit but… hey we have ubuntu.”

    Well guess they didn’t get you. Which African leader claimed that Africa invented ubuntu?? Must be someone South Africa we don’t use that term in Botswana..

    “African culture is the most infantile and failed expression of the human project of civilisation.”

    “I’m so sick and tired of pretending that pre-colonial, sub-Saharan Africa was ‘equal’ with all other cultures.”

    As far as I know..anthropology is about learning about different cultures, trying to understand context, practices, history.. not placing ticks and crosses over who did what when and then ending up with an equation where an eastern/western/african culture scores the most points. But since you keeping tabs who is winning?

    For you.. ubuntu isn’t special.. its nothing compared to the industrial revolution.. well if you look at it that way then I see your point.

    What I dont understand is how with ALL the African cultures or even for convience ALL the Sub Saharan African cultures all Africa has in battle for which race/culture/tribe rules is the smiley hugsie fuzziness of ubuntu while the other okes get to bring aqueducts and shit..

    Ubuntu or in tswana botho/ motho ke motho ka batho exists, believe me Bstswana will tell you when you don’t have it. People with botho are the ones that chase down the guy that just robbed you. Share their food with strangers, even if that person has their own food. Opening up thier homes and selves and later gushed about it in blogs.. Its empathy and respect and its not something that you have to be taught. That it exists in other cultures by a different name… more better. The article is called We are all African…

    Jersey Pot is right maybe ubuntu isn’t the most awesome thing to ever come from this earth but Judith is right too if there was more ubuntu and less selfishness maybe the world wouldn’t be fucking out so hard..

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  26. Judith says:

    Thanks, Larry. That was what I was trying to say!

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  27. Twonny says:

    Jersey pot, you are an idiot i’m afraid and do not deserve to be living in africa im afraid with your disguisting outlook.. How on earth can you base the success of a culture on how much technological progression it makes? is this our purpose on this planet? you obviously are void of any spirituality whatsoever. Who the fuck are you to say “African culture is the most infantile and failed expression of the human project of civilisation” ?
    That comment is both arrogant and awful, and maybe you should keep it and those like it to yourself because some of us have to live here and quite fancy this idea of Ubuntu…
    Bet you wrote that from Wimbledon..

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  28. a foreigner's perspective says:

    Amazing article written by an American on SA

    (Ref: The Huffington Post)

    I went on a rant the other day regarding the cost of the 2010 World Cup versus all the critical needs South Africa is facing and whether or not the most vulnerable of this country would gain anything from having the World Cup hosted in their country. At that time, I also had some very positive things to say about our hosts for the 2010 World Cup and I wanted to share that side of the coin as well, because it is equally important.
    To say that I have been blown away at the hospitality South Africa has shown the rest of the world would be an understatement. I think back on recent Olympics and struggle to remember much reporting in the USA of athletes from other countries. I remember when a Togolese guy won a bronze medal in kayaking and NBC reported it and I thought to myself, “where are all the other fascinating stories like this one…like the Jamaican bobsledding team.” In today’s America, sadly, we have drifted so far towards being so US-centric that we only seem to root for the Americans.
    Not so here in South Africa. I’ve been here since early May and each week I have become more and more impressed with the global embrace that South Africans have offered up to the world. On the way to the airport a couple of weeks ago, I heard a radio program that said each day they would focus on one country that would be coming to South Africa for the World Cup, and they would explore not only that sport’s history in soccer, but also their politics, religion, and socio-cultural practices. On the television, I’ve seen numerous programs that focus on a particular country and it’s history of soccer and how the history of that country is intertwined with their soccer history. I’ve seen programs on India, exploring why India enjoys soccer but hasn’t really excelled at the global level… yet. And I’ve seen shows on soccer in Muslim countries. Maybe it’s planned, maybe it’s unplanned, maybe it’s by chance, but it is happening. It’s not just about South Africans showing off their varied and multifaceted culture to their global guests, it’s also about using this opportunity to educate South Africa on the rest of Planet Earth’s inhabitants.
    As I moved through my work here in the provinces over the last six weeks, I had a pivotal meeting with the Board members of a rural NGO. They were explaining their guiding program philosophy of Ubuntu. No, not the Linux program. I’m talking about the traditional African philosophy of Ubuntu that essentially says, “No man is an island.”
    I found a better explanation from Wikipedia:

    Archbishop Desmond Tutu further explained Ubuntu in 2008:
    One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu – the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality — Ubuntu — you are known for your generosity.
    We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.
    To me, Ubuntu is the acceptance of others as parts of the sum total of each of us. And that is exactly what I have experienced during the lead up to, and the initial days of this World Cup. There is nary a South African citizen that I’ve met on the street, or in shops or restaurants or hotels, that hasn’t gone out of their way to greet me and make me feel like I am home. And I don’t mean that in the trivial, “Oh, aren’t they nice, homey people here… ” sort of way. I mean real, genuine interest and questions. People seriously want to know where I come from. What it’s like where I live. How does it compare to where I am now. What do I think of South Africa. Oh yes, and what do I think of Bafana Bafana… The questions and conversations are in earnest. They are honest. And they are had with enthusiasm and a thirst to know more. South Africans are drinking deeply from the cup of humanity that has been brought to their doorstep. I would never imagine that an American World Cup or Olympics would ever be this welcoming to the rest of the world. And that saddens me for the state of my home country, but it also makes me feel the pride of the South African people.
    I have been truly humbled on this trip. And while I have my gripes regarding development here, I cannot say one negative thing about how South Africa has handled its duties as host and hostess to the world. If I could say one thing to sum up being here during this once-in-a-lifetime experience, it would be that I’ve learned the value of Ubuntu, and that when found and offered in abundance, the world is indeed a better place to live in.
    So, if South Africa accomplishes nothing more on the playing field, it will still have won as a host country. I am a cynic, no doubt about that. And yet I have to admit, I’m a little teary just writing this because I leave for home next weekend and I will be leaving a little piece of myself here in South Africa. I just hope I have learned enough to bring back a little piece of Ubuntu to my homeland, where perhaps with a little caring and a little water, it will take root as naturally as it does here, in the cradle of civilization. It’s funny, many people in America still ask me, “are the people in Africa very primitive?” Yes, I know, amazing someone could ask that but they do. And when they do, I usually explain that living in a mud hut does not make one primitive, however, allowing kids to sell drugs to other kids and engage in drive-by killings — isn’t that primitive behavior? I think it is. When I think of Ubuntu and my recent experiences here, I think America has much to learn from Africa in general, in terms of living as a larger village; and as human beings who are all interconnected with each other, each of us having an affect on our brothers and sisters.
    As the 2010 Cup slogan goes, “Feel it. It is here.” Well, I have felt it, because I am here. Thank you South Africa, for giving me this unexpected gift. I am humbled.

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  29. Koos Van der Merwe says:

    So that would make you a kaffir.

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