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South African anthropology has a long and distinguished history. Ethnographic writings stems from the eighteenth century when European travelers and missionaries, who came into contact with indigenous people, recorded the languages and customs they observed. The most prominent of these authors were Wilhelm Bleek, Eugene Callais and “Henri Junod, whose classical account of the Tsonga was published in 1913 as The Life of a South African Tribe. Black Christian converts, such as S.M. Molema and Sol Plaatjie, also published important accounts of folklore and local histories.
Anthropology was professionalized in the 1920s, when teaching positions were established at various universities. Radcliffe-Brown was appointed to Cape Town in 1921, “Winifred Hoernle to the Witwatersrand in 1924, and Werner Eiselen to Stellenbosch in 1926. These teachers, particularly Hoernle, produced a network of extremely talented scholars. They included “Isaac Schapera, “Max Gluckman, “Monica Wilson, “Eileen Krige, “Jack Krige, “Hilda Kuper and Ellen Hellman who produced renowned studies on the Tswana, Zulu, Pondo and Nyakyusa, Lobedu, Swazi, and on slum life in Johannesburg.
The 1930s and 1940s became known as the ‘golden age’ of South African anthropology. A grant from the Rockefeller Foundation sponsored anthropological research. Local scholars often set international trends, and often transcended the limitations of the prevailing functionalist paradigm. Beyond documenting how different local institutions were interconnected, South Africa’s anthropologists showed the impact of broader social forces on local settings, and did not shy away from the subject of history. Schapera argued, ‘the missionary, administrator, trader and labor recruiter must be regarded as factors in the tribal life in the same way as are the chief and magician’ (1938: 27). Local anthropologists documented the effects of migrant labor and focused explicitly on White domination, the cleavages that divided groups in the country, and cross-cutting ties that united them. “Bengt Sundler saw the African independent church movement as form of self-assertion and resistance to White domination in the religious domain.
In 1948 Daniel Malan’s National Party defeated Jan Smut’s United Party at the polls. Afrikaner nationalists now took over the civil service, and apartheid become official government policy. A branch of ethnology, called “volkekunde, was taught at Afrikaans-medium universities and at new universities established specifically for particular Black ethnic national groups. Inspired by the romantic German tradition of cultural history and by Muhlman’s etnos theory, prominent volkekundiges insisted that indigenous peoples be studied as total groups with unique and separate cultures. Their research had a strong base in Bantu languages, but sought psychological and mental rather than sociological explanations. Unlike their English-speaking counterparts, the Afrikaner anthropologists had an explicit political agenda, continuously proselytizing the idea of apartheid. They opposed the notion that Black people should be prepared for British citizenship, and called for the total segregation of Whites and different Black ethnic groups. Many volkekundiges were members of the Broederbond (an elite secret society for Afrikaner men) and served on homeland consolidation committees. They promised graduates employment as experts on indigenous cultures in government departments, such as Native Affairs and Defence.
From the 1950s to 1970s British social anthropology was still taught at four English-medium universities in the country, but had lost a great deal of international recognition. Research funds were harder to obtain, Isaac Schapera and Max Gluckman left the country never to return, and the academic boycott inhibited the flow of visiting academics into the country. Monica Wilson continued to work in South Africa, but her research and writing now focused largely on the Nyakyusa of central Africa. The 1950s and 1960s saw further examples of ethnographic monographs on the Basotho by Hugh Ashton, Bacha by David Hammond-Tooke, and on the Zulu by Absolom Vilakazi; but none were particularly innovative. More fruitful were studies on urbanization and on religion. The most acclaimed study during this period was Philip and Iona Mayer’s Townsmen or Tribesmen (1961), which explored the contrasting manner in which the ‘Red’ and ‘School’ Xhosa adapt to the urban environment. The former used conservative rural ideas as a mechanism to resist White values; the latter embraced education and joined urban churches. Other scholars further explored the rise of matrifocal families, high incidence of illegitimate births, social networks, the growing Black middle class, and racial attitudes in urban areas; or built on Sundkler’s earlier insights on the impacts of Christianity and Independent African Churches. There were also valuable studies on cosmology that drew on “Victor Turner and Claude Levi-Strauss’s theories. These include Axel-Ivar Berglund’s Zulu Thought Patterns and Symbolism (1976); Harriet Ngubane’s Mind and Body in Zulu-Medicine (1977), and David Hammond-Tooke’s works on myth, pollution beliefs and witch-familiars.
The 1980s, the last decade of the apartheid regime, was a period of intellectual turmoil. The unity that had previously marked Afrikaner anthropology began to disintegrate. R.J. Coertze and some his followers seceded from the ruling National Party to join more right-wing groupings, whilst other Afrikaans-speakers converted to social anthropology. Social anthropologists now derived inspiration from Marxism and from revisionist history, and documented the destructive effects of ethnic nationalism, population removals, poverty and of gender discrimination in a more explicit manner. This tradition of expose ethnography is best exemplified by Philip and Iona Mayer’s edited collection, Black Villagers in an Industrial Society (1980), Emile Boozaier and John Sharp’s collection South African Keywords (1985) and Ramphele’s study of migrant laborers in Cape Town, A Bed Called Home (1991). Unfortunately, these studies were often parochial in focus, and devoid of comparative international insights.
The post-apartheid era — inaugurated by South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994 — brought about the challenges of reconstruction and development. Anthropologists became involved in the appraisal of specific development projects and land claims, and in researching political reconciliation, and the social aspects of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Old schisms disappeared, and a single professional association, Anthropology Southern Africa, was established in 2001. A larger number of South African students enrolled for graduate studies abroad, and there has been a trickle of international visitors. At a theoretical level, studies have sought to combine the insights of social history and ethnography, and of political economy and culture. This is exemplified by David Coplan and Deborah James’ studies on ethnomusicology and performance genres, and by Adam Ashforth’s works on witchcraft beliefs and ‘spiritual insecurity’ in Soweto. The early South African experiences of leading international scholars such as Jean Comaroff, John Comaroff and “Adam Kuper are also apparent in their studies of the colonial encounter, and critique of culture theories. Unfortunately, small salaries and heavy teaching loads often prove an obstacle to attracting talented younger scholars to the profession.
- Gordon, Robert (1988) ‘Apartheid’s Anthropologists: Notes on the Genealogy of Afrikaner Volkekundiges’, American Ethnologist 15(3): 535–53.
- Hammond-Tooke, W.H. (1997) Imperfect Interpreters: South Africa’s Anthropologists 1920–1990, Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press.
- Schapera, Isaac (1938) ‘Contact between European and Native in South Africa – 2: In Bechuanaland’, in Bronislaw Malinowski (ed.) Methods of Study of Culture Contact in Africa, London: International Africa Institute.
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