Special Issue: Debating Southern African Anthropology

Introduction to Anthropology Southern Africa, special edition on ‘Debating Southern African Anthropology’

Kees (C. S.) van der Waal & Vivienne Ward

pages 67-74

Abstract By challenging anthropologists practising in different southern African contexts to engage in debate, we elicited a rich array of viewpoints and counter-challenges as we gathered articles for this special edition. In this introductory article we set the scene for the special edition, tracking the history of this contentious discipline and sketching the views of the participating authors as they engage with debate from various perspectives. In the process we note deep introspection regarding the position of the discipline with its shifting relationships between practitioners and between academic institutions, as well as a concern to expand the intellectual and public foci of the discipline and the need for critical social engagement. This collection of voices challenges southern African anthropology on many levels, and most importantly, sets the stage for further debate within and around the discipline.

Subjects: Debate, southern African anthropology, public anthropology, essentialism, criticality, Anthropology Southern Africa


Primordialist paranoia, essentialism and South African realities: participating and observing across the ‘anthropological divide’

Michael de Jongh

pages 75-84

Abstract This article interrogates the exigency of some of the current concerns of South African anthropology. The contribution is autobiographical and occasionally anecdotal; personal narrative hence shapes the mode of text development. In considering the current state of the South African anthropology project, the following, inter alia, receive particular attention: the legitimacy of the perseverance with the notion of an ‘anthropological divide’; the persistence of discrete ‘quoting circles’; a debilitating past which still haunts the contemporary anthropological enterprise and results in a kind of primordialist paranoia; and a state of selective denial as regards prevailing perceived, lived and legislated South African realities—the new essentialist challenge for constructivist anthropologists.

Subjects: South African anthropology, ‘anthropological divide’, primordialist paranoia, essentialism, constructivism, empiricism, South African realities


De-provincialising South African anthropology: on relevance, public culture & the citizen anthropologist

Heike Becker

pages 85-96

Abstract This paper examines a range of challenges to anthropology in post-apartheid South Africa in the hope of stimulating a much needed debate on ‘doing anthropology’ from the perspective of South African anthropologists who research and teach within their own complex society. It addresses questions about the continuities and discontinuities of ‘doing anthropology’ in South Africa, which pay special attention to the discipline's historically situated politics in the post-apartheid society. The title of the essay takes its cue from Dipesh Chakrabarty's effort to ‘provincialise’ Europe and builds upon the ‘World Anthropologies’ project, initiated by Gustavo Lins Ribeiro and Arturo Escobar. I highlight the legacy of the late apartheid era's exposé anthropology which critically included a reluctance to engage with cultural analysis due to apartheid's preoccupation with ‘cultures’ as its ideological basis. The paper argues, further, that post-apartheid anthropology needs to develop an approach to interpret the meanings and engage with the contemporary world in South Africa and beyond. It investigates three interrelated sets of critical issues: ‘Doing anthropology at home’: the anthropologist as investigator and citizen; the question of ‘relevance’, whither for a publicly engaged anthropology, and perspectives on anthropology, public culture and the postcolonial state.

Subjects: South African anthropology, de-provincialisation, public anthropology, public culture, anthropology at home


An appeal for principled symmetry: Anthropologies in South Africa and elsewhere

Thomas G. Kirsch

pages 97-100

Abstract This article summarises and elaborates the author's arguments as presented in the round table on ‘Perspectives on “Doing Anthropology” in Contemporary South Africa' that was held during the ASnA conference in Cape Town, on December 5, 2006. It is suggested, by way of personal reflection, that some of the ethical, methodological and theoretical challenges of ‘doing anthropology’ in post-apartheid South Africa can productively be met by a pre-theoretical commitment to ‘principled symmetry’. This commitment is also helpful in addressing the questions ‘Is “relevance” still relevant?' and ‘How to engage public culture and the postcolonial state’?

Subjects: Reflexive anthropology, pre-theoretical commitment, symmetry, ethics, methodology, theoretisation


At home to the other: the racialising and deracialising of anthropological research in South Africa

Robin Palmer

pages 101-110

Abstract There is an older and even more enduring split in South African anthropology than the erstwhile division between ‘English’ and ‘Afrikaans’ anthropologies, but it is never acknowledged. This is the racial split between whites who privilege the Other, usually the black African Other, in their field research, and blacks (in the general sense) who generally select ‘subjects’ in the same racial, linguistic and ethnic categories as themselves. In a discipline whose core identity depended for a large part of its history on alterity in research orientation (among other distinguishing features) the tendency of black anthropologists to do auto-anthropology both expressed and reinforced their subaltern position relative to white anthropologists. With reference to personal experience, I show how this pattern has been changing and suggest ways of encouraging the recent tendency towards a plurality of ‘subject’ choices among both white and black researchers. The outcome would be a local anthropology in which equality of opportunity in ‘the field’ mirrors the situation in the wider non-racial society. However, as I argue, the first step is to acknowledge the racially differentiated legacy in anthropology as in the larger society that we confront.

Subjects: South Africa, alterity, auto-anthropology, reflexivity, indigenous anthropologists, coloniality, subaltern


Building a teaching praxis in Anthropology: critical pedagogy in action

Joy Owen

pages 111-118

Abstract The following paper reflects on a course entitled ‘Power and Wealth’ that I developed and have been teaching since 2004. I consider the course in light of my own understanding of critical pedagogy as informed by Paulo Freire and Ira Shor. I discuss the importance of student-centred learning and the possibility of teaching through a single ethnographic encounter—what I refer to as the township walk. The paper does not pretend to stimulate educational theory at this point. Rather I attempt to raise a number of discussion points pertinent to the teaching of the discipline within southern Africa and to initiate a critical consideration of our relevance as a discipline in the southern African and African contexts. In this way, I imply that a conscious and nuanced teaching of the discipline, could inform the manner in which we re-create it in a rapidly changing global political economy.

Subjects: Critical pedagogy, student-centred, South African anthropology, reflexivity, teaching praxis


Reproducing criticality: South African social-cultural anthropology's contemporary challenge—the UCT experience

Andrew D. Spiegel

pages 119-128

Abstract For many who were drawn to the discipline during South Africa's apartheid years, social anthropology offered a means for a cohort of primarily middle class persons to crystallise an otherwise inchoate criticality about the regime, in large part by providing opportunity for what has been called exposé. For a while after the collapse of apartheid, such exposé seemed to have become passé because it was assumed that the new democratic government would address the problems that such work had exposed and find means to remedy them. Moreover, it seemed inappropriate, at least in the early years of the new government, to be seen to be attacking its policy implementation. Although such criticism is often labelled as reactionary racism, continuing inequalities suggest a need to re-open the door for such critique and to return to the fray, drawing our students with us.
To do that we need to ask: what are the imperatives that drive the post-apartheid generation of social anthropology students, and are they such that they will permit students to become critical citizens rather than subservient subjects? The article suggests that South Africa is today marked by a coalescence of neo-liberal imperatives and a media-driven hegemony of that ideology; by a growing embourgeoisement of the population from which South African higher education students are drawn and who are increasingly polarised from the poor. It argues that those factors have led to tertiary level students developing a set of aspirations that, without the students being carefully mentored, constrain most from adopting a substantively critical perspective, and that the challenge our discipline faces is to rekindle in that kind of student population an interest in, indeed to revive a passion for, criticality in a way that will enable a public anthropology of good citizenship. It also provides some indication as to how that rekindling might be effected.

Subjects: Criticality, transformation, teaching anthropology in South Africa, conflicting discourses


The possibility of a critical anthropology after apartheid: relevance, intervention, politics

Kelly Gillespie & Bernard Dubbeld

pages 129-134

Abstract This paper, prompted by an Anthropology Southern Africa conference around the theme ‘Public Anthropology’, argues that any post-apartheid anthropology that abandons criticality as a core disciplinary principle risks dispelling any radical content that anthropology may have to offer South African society. Anthropological practice that, in the name of activism or application, misrecognises the necessary and complicated relationship between thought and action by privileging action, threatens to slip into a positivist position that silences broader political questions and becomes fundamentally repetitive (in Freudian terms). The authors call, on the other hand, for anthropology as ‘negative work’, as an intellectual practice that constantly queries the terms of its own social claims. They argue that this kind of intellectual engagement is itself a form of political action, and that without it post-apartheid anthropology could become, yet again, an uncritical handmaiden of the state or the market and their normative forms of political action.

Subjects: Anthropology, post-apartheid, criticality, anti-positivism, humanism, activism, negative work


Socio-economic rights and anthropology? The case of Deaf people who use South African Sign Language (SASL) in a university setting

Marion Heap

pages 135-142

Abstract As a response to Van der Waal and Ward's (2006) invitation, this article suggests human rights, particularly socio-economic rights, as a conceptual framework to take forward anthropology in post-apartheid South Africa. Entrenchment of human rights in South Africa's Constitution marks a break with the country's past. South Africa's Constitution is relatively unique in its comprehensive inclusion of socio-economic rights as enforceable rights. The article draws on the unexpected consequences of a postdoctoral fellowship in public health and human rights. These consequences, based on participant observation in a university setting, supply the ethnography for the article. The ethnography traces the process that saw Deaf people who use signed language enter a university department as research assistants on a rights-based project, and thereafter transform the social relationships and day-to-day interactions of the hearing people around them. The reasons provided for the integration of the Deaf into the university include a ‘signing space’, a Deaf strategy (described earlier in Heap 2003), a supportive staff and a commitment to and teaching of, human rights. On the basis of the ethnography, I suggest that socio-economic rights as a conceptual framework allows the debates in anthropology and human rights to take an additional social dimension. This additional social dimension allows the anthropologist to work for socio-economic rights, and in doing so, combine social activism and anthropology. Then the social activism itself becomes the means to the ethnography and the exploration of the often-unpredictable social life of rights (Wilson and Mitchell 2003).

Subjects: Socio-economic rights, social activism, ethnography, Deaf people