South Africa's Native Club
Under white rule in South Africa the word was an insult, a way to describe and demean black people: native. As a legal term it was used to distinguish European settlers from indigenous inhabitants, a different category of people deemed inferior and uncivilised.
Now a group of black intellectuals has stirred controversy by attempting to reclaim the word as a badge of honour. They have founded the Native Club, a think tank to explore and promote African identity.
Based in Pretoria at the Africa Institute of South Africa, the club has inspired acclaim, ridicule and some nervous questions: Who are its members? How much influence do they have? How do you define native?
The club, funded partly by the South African department of arts and culture, is seen as close to the African National Congress. Leading members have suggested that black people who criticise the ruling party are "coconuts": black outside and white inside.
President Thabo Mbeki denied in parliament that the organisation was his brainchild, but observers note that its chairman, Titus Mafolo, is an adviser to the president, and that a founder, Sandile Memela, is a government spokesman.
The club was launched two months ago, with its first meeting billed: "Where are the natives? The black intelligentsia today."
Mr Mafolo outlined the club's agenda in a recent article: "Though we are Africans, many South Africans seem to have an identity crisis. Through our dress, music, cuisine, role models and reference points we seem to be clones of Americans and Europeans."
The initiative is part of a wider effort to promote black heritage. Colonial and apartheid names for streets and cities are being replaced. Pretoria, for example, is increasingly referred to as Tshwane. Some commentators have argued that ancient Greece owed its glory to Egyptian influences.
Supporters welcome the Native Club for tackling the inferiority complex of some black people, the legacy of centuries of oppression and condescension by British colonialists and the apartheid regime.
Inverting a once pejorative term, they say, reflects the liberation since the ANC swept to power in 1994. "The restoration of the term 'native' is a part of claiming our heritage," said Mukelani Dimba, in a letter to Business Day.
However, critics say promoting racial exclusivity will undermine the country's multi-racial ethos. Some have compared the group to the Broederbond, a secretive and influential Afrikaner association in the apartheid era.
It is not clear whether white people or those of mixed race are welcome. President Mbeki signalled that it should be open to all, saying he was willing to participate in the club's activities, but hoped Afrikaners would also be members.
Detractors have also scoffed at the club's interpretation of the word native. South Africa's first inhabitants were the Khoi and San, hunter-gatherers who were squeezed off their land by Bantus, darker-skinned tribes who migrated from central and eastern Africa.
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