Rethinking Maties’ apartheid past

Scales, which were found at Stellenbosch University, were used for racial classification. The one above was based on the belief that eye colours were markers of racial difference. (Anton Jordaan)

Scales, which were found at Stellenbosch University, were used for racial classification. The one above was based on the belief that eye colours were markers of racial difference. (Anton Jordaan)

In February, while co-teaching a medical anthropology course to undergraduate students at Stellenbosch University's Sasol Museum, we were confronted by our institution's past in a radical way. One of us, Handri Walters, opened the door to a cupboard in the museum and found a human skull and instruments that were used to measure human hair and eye types in the past. Engraved on the case of one of these instruments was the name Eugen Fischer, a leading Nazi eugenicist in Germany in the 1930s.

At the time when these objects were found, in dialogue with our students, we were already starting to develop a critique of the museum's anthropology display as reflective of apartheid thinking on African "cultures" as separated into ­idealised types. But the recovery of the racial classification instruments in the course of a research project dealing with the history of anthropology led by a colleague, Professor Steven Robins, raised additional, troubling questions about how to address the legacy of the history of the discipline (previously called volkekunde, or cultural anthropology) at, and for, our institution and society.

Our preliminary investigation revealed that these items had found their way to the Sasol museum upon the closure of the volkekunde department at Stellenbosch in the mid-1990s. Proclaimed unfit for exhibition, the skull, hair and eye-colour tables were left in a cupboard for safekeeping. 

Their recovery by our department,  sociology and social anthropology,  has raised a number of research questions regarding the history of their use at Stellenbosch University and the deployment of scientific knowledge produced here to justify racism during the 1930s and 1940s. It has also sparked interest in the ethical issues surrounding scientific research involving humans in South Africa today.

Such scientific racism was not uncommon at the time: it was, rather, a mainstream and internationally prevalent approach to the study of human types. In essence, these eugenic objects reflected a worldwide obsession with racial science and human classification based upon the visible, physical attributes of human individuals and groups such as their hair type, eye colour, and skull shape.

In the post-war period, with the revelation of the Nazi Holocaust across Europe, a shift occurred in the international scientific consensus on race. 

Unesco was used as key institutional site for scientists to refute notions that there were pure racial types that provided a biological explanation for the intellectual, socio-economic, cultural and ­political differences between races.  

Paradoxically, though, the South African state implemented segregationist policies just as scientific racism was declining in influence in the rest of the world. This raises the question: On what intellectual basis did Afrikaner intellectuals at institutions such as Stellenbosch justify apartheid? Were such justifications based on ideas of essential cultural difference or scientific racism?

According to Saul Dubow, a professor of history at Queen Mary College, University of London, scientific racism was far from the only, or most common, way in which apartheid was intellectually justified. Indeed, it is important not to overstate the impact of eugenics and racial science on the development of apartheid policy. For instance, Christian-nationalist theological rationales were also often used and were frequently provided by leaders of the Dutch Reformed Church. Such justifications drew on the Old Testament to promote the idea that Africans were morally inferior in order to support separate development.

Cultural justifications for apartheid were presented by influential Afrikaans-speaking anthropologists, including those who were based at Stellenbosch. Volkekunde, a brand of Afrikaans anthropology that had found a home at Stellenbosch from 1926 to the mid-1990s, aimed to address both the "native" and the "poor white" questions of the 1930s by proposing separate development. These anthropologists' thinking was that this approach would ensure the "cultural" preservation of each group.  

Max Eiselen, a Stellenbosch anthropologist, was a key figure in the development of volkekunde and has been described as one of the intellectual "architects of apartheid". In justifying separate development, Eiselen emphasised cultural differences over those that were racial and understood to be biologically defined. 

Following a stint as an ­anthropology professor at Pretoria University, he went on to become secretary for native affairs while Hendrik Verwoerd was the minister for native affairs in the early 1950s. Eiselen is perhaps most bitterly remembered by Africans, and all opponents of apartheid, as the ­chairman of the Commission of Bantu Education.

By the time of the items' discovery, the Sasol Museum was very familiar to us because we had already used it as a teaching venue. The class focused on the efforts to bring together Western medicine (biomedicine) and traditional, complementary and alternative medicine. This venue was appealing to us, despite its problematic arrangement of artefacts, because it contained a Vhavhenda divining bowl and a Basotho fertility doll. 

During a class trip to the museum, our students questioned the way the material was ­— and still is — organised, especially the fact that each ethnolinguistic group has a separate vitrine (glass case). So, for instance, while one of the cases is labelled "Southern Nguni: Zulu" there is another titled "Southern Nguni: Xhosa".     

What the students saw at the museum was an excessive emphasis on the differences between African cultures, as opposed to the exchanges and overlaps between them. Both linguistic and archaeological evidence points to the relatedness of South Africa's cultures, especially, for instance, isiZulu and isiXhosa-speaking people, whose languages are akin, as are their healing-related words, beliefs and practices.

The anthropology display at the Sasol Museum also represents an ideal of Africans as rural and uninfluenced by Christianity, urbanisation, industrialisation or cultural exchange. It can, therefore, be seen to idealise the "tribal", "unWesternised" African in his/her "natural", rural state. Such thinking was reflected in policies such as the creation of the bantustans during the apartheid era.

Since the beginning of this academic year, the museum has proved to be both a stimulating site for teaching and a rich source of research. We are particularly interested in reconceptualising the museum as an artefact and archive. 

With the support of our dean, the anthropologists in our department have launched a five-year research project titled "Indexing the Human", which examines the history of anthropology at Stellenbosch and its legacy. We hope this project can help us to reimagine what it means to be human in a transforming ­society. It will require reflection on the way in which human populations were and are categorised by researchers and the state.

Our preliminary research indicates that the anthropological exhibition at the Stellenbosch University museum has utilised a similar conceptual framework since the 1970s, something very troubling given the fact that the democratic transition of our country occurred almost 20 years ago. This project has emerged in an institutional context where students and academics in the faculty of arts and social sciences are increasingly working towards a greater acknowledgment of Stellenbosch's past and its legacy in our teaching and research. 

The project will, among other things, involve the total redesign of the exhibition of the university museum's anthropological holdings to reflect on the history of the discipline at Stellenbosch, particularly the way in which academics in it influenced separate development.

Ultimately, we believe this project can enhance our efforts to advance human rights and national reconciliation in our country.    

Mandisa Mbali and Handri Walters are based in the department of sociology and social anthropology at Stellenbosch University, Mbali as a lecturer and Walters as a doctoral candidate



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