Ethnic boxes perpetuate colonialism


There is much to be learned about the present from the messy past. Those of us who have an eye on a better future have to remind ourselves of this rather more often than we want to. That past refuses to remain behind us, buried, and resurfaces with alarming frequency and disquieting results.

In the last, paranoid phase of apartheid, novelist and critic Zoë Wicomb confronted the possibility of thinking about identity in a post-apartheid dispensation. In a critical reading of Bessie Head, she argued for the importance of reformulating the ways of being human in this place at that time beyond the constraints of “race”, ethnicity, and victimhood.

Her argument did not dismiss the significance of “race” in the distribution of power and resources in South Africa; on the contrary. The definition and history of “race”, and ethnicity, as figured in South African history, are inextricably linked to colonial conquest.

Missionaries, linguists and military officials extended Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus’s project of categorising the world in their interactions with the indigenous people of the places they settled in. This afforded the conquerors a way to order the world, thereby controlling it more easily.

Edward Said traced the processes by which imperialism (and colonialism) and culture worked together to produce the knowledge systems by which indigenous people became classified, and how such classifications became calcified over time. It was the differences noted by the settlers that mattered and held sway. In South Africa, this can be traced in the development of dictionaries of indigenous languages in the colonial period, and the translation of European texts (or texts such as the Bible, which was so central to the Christian components of colonial conquest) into standardised versions of indigenous tongues.

The processes by which European languages became standardised as national languages were mirrored in the South African context. This required the establishment of written traditions in the local languages. First, imported texts central to the missionary projects were translated, followed by the development of written records of the indigenous oral traditions — think of the Bleeks. Later, the production of printed material and literature in languages such as Sesotho, isiXhosa and isiZulu followed — think of intellectuals and writers such as Sol Plaatje, the Dhlomo brothers and the Jabavus.

But whereas some of this cultural production was informed by anticolonial resistance, the colonial project and its apartheid extension also used that material to construct the “identities’” and “polities” of 20th-century South Africa. This apartheid notion of veelvolkigheid (multiple nationhood) has lingered on in other forms.

JM Coetzee, in his analysis of the spectacle of culture at the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1995 Rugby World Cup, demonstrated how the “rainbow nation”, as imagined in the early post-apartheid era, retained elements of such conceptions.

In the apartheid era, this led to the development of “own affairs” politics — radio and television stations serving what were superficially defined as linguistic groups but were also actively constructed as cultural groups and, thus, nations.

The reconfiguration of 19th-century anticolonial “tribal” resistance — constructed in nationalist terms, ironically — became the terms that anti-apartheid liberation movements had to abjure. Black nationalism was meant to cut across the divisions that colonial conquest and apartheid policy had used to divide the subjugated indigenes in South Africa.

Njabulo Ndebele traced the reasons behind the rise of “black English” in South Africa, and links it partly to bridging the linguistic divides that colonialism and apartheid ossified as cultural difference. The thrust in much of the anti-apartheid liberation politics was against the tribalism that the apartheid regimes and administrations used to co-opt some indigenous political figures to sow dissent.

The Black Consciousness Movement and its political intervention also played a crucial role in trying to unite the oppressed majority against the oppressive minority, in what academic Mahmood Mamdani would later clarify as a society of victims and beneficiaries, not just of victims and perpetrators.

But the ethnographic gaze has never really been absent from South Africa’s polity, nor from its politics. It lived on in the half-joking remarks about a “Xhosa Nostra” in the first two post-apartheid administrations of Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki. The notion of ethnicity was actively exploited by various politicians in the decade after that.

Under Jacob Zuma’s leadership, an active re-ethnicisation of politics ought to have alarmed many of those who had emerged from the liberation movements into government. It did not help that this was accompanied by a steady “re-racination” of South Africanness by the continued casual and inaccurate use of abolished Population Registration Act 1950 terms to describe people, situations and phenomena engendered after the abolition of that legislation.

What makes someone a member of an ethnic group in post-millennial, post-apartheid South Africa, where urbanisation, made illegal and thus interrupted under apartheid, has continued apace and the old “tribal” divisions are hardly as rigid for the majority of South Africans? Is it the language they speak? Is it their immediate ancestry, and is that ancestry to be traced purely along patrilineal and patriarchal lines in a constitutional democracy supposedly dedicated to political, social and economic equality between men and women?

These are not easy questions, and they are not posed out of some dismissive attitude. They are questions we must confront as a society, and we must find political solutions to them. The retreat into cultural essentialisms, specifically when what counts as culture here and now relies so heavily on what is also eschewed — the legacy of colonial conquest — is not helpful or productive.

Compromises made to ensure a relatively peaceful transition from the apartheid horror to the post-apartheid dispensation cannot be reversed.

Yet, to return millions of South Africans to ethnic categories (“You are Zulu first!”) based on whether they speak a specific language as their mother tongue, or whether their immediate forebears spoke that language, is to complete the ugly and dehumanising work of colonial conquest and apartheid violation. It is to render millions of South Africans subjects of culture, rather than citizens of a democratic order, as Mamdani outlines in his analysis of the consequences of the colonial project in various African polities.

This is not to deny the value of people’s languages, traditions or customs, or to suggest that they play no role in how people think about themselves. But we must be careful of calls on us to protect tradition if such tradition is seen to be fixed in time. Such calls often deny the histories by which those customs and habits became tradition, and how those became figured as cultures which came to be not only applied to, but also to define some but not all of us.

In a constitutional democracy we should all be citizens, subject primarily and principally to the supreme law of the land, which supersedes all other calls on us as human beings. To return to ethnicity essentialised as a primary form of political organisation would not only be regressive but would reduce some people to second-class status. They would be subjects of that ethnic category or its authorities in ways that suspend their rights and obligations as citizens as defined under the Constitution meant to ensure their full humanity.

To return to ethnicity as primordial organising principle in politics is also dangerous. It leads so easily to ethnonationalism, and the examples of how spectacularly that goes wrong cannot be forgotten. Let us remember Rwanda and Burundi, Sudan and Yugoslavia.

Bessie Head once lamented how in South Africa “we find ourselves born into a situation where people are separated into sharp racial groups … one is irked by the artificial barriers. It is as though, with all those divisions and signs, you end up with no people at all.”

Elsewhere she articulated a vision of a new social order, one that she would not live to see but that we in post-millennial, post-apartheid South Africa need to rededicate ourselves to bringing about. She suggested “a world apart from petty human hatreds and petty human social codes and values, where the human soul roamed free in all its splendour and glory. No barriers of race or creed or tribe hindered its activity.” That country does not yet exist — not here, not now — but we would do well to continue to strive towards realising it.

As Wicomb indicated in Another Story, it may be time to remove the old words from the back of the political refrigerator where they have been rotting, contaminating other items in our politics, because cerebral and political hygiene are matters of lexical vigilance.

Angelo Fick is the director of research at the Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute. He continues to teach at universities on questions of culture and still publishes columns on

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Angelo Fick
Angelo Fick

Angelo Fick is the Director of Research at ASRI. He continues to do part-teaching at universities on questions of culture, and still publishes columns at

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