decolonising anthropology

Professor Robert Thornton (031RTHOR@MUSE.ARTS.WITS.AC.ZA)
Thu, 9 Feb 1995 08:55:14 -0500

Dear folks, and *Oh dear me!*, but I don't think I know what
'decolonising' could possibly mean -- when I think about it -- when
applied to Anthropology. It shows, however, that buzz words like
this come to be used as adjectives, adverbs, verbs, nouns and any
which way that English, broadly construed, will permit, and she is
very broadly construed ineed in these circumstances if not simply
misused. As a scholar of South AFrica, in South Africa, and now
more or less of it, I do know enough not to engage with people whose
minds are already made up. During a recent 2 year stint in a couple
of US East coast high profile academic institutions I learned that
lesson very well indeed, especially with respect to the difficulty
of talking aobut South Africa in the US (and parts of UK and Europe,
too, though some kinds of discussion are much easier there, as they
are in South Africa). I have had ample experience with people like
Robert Johnson. I try to stay away from them. Somehow, however, he
touched a nerve, or rang a bell and I sprang to action: responded to
his post. It seemed to me that he did represent a broader tendency,
broadly construed again, that upset me in American intellectual
discourse in particular, and on this list in even more particular.
In other words, it was not just Mr. Johnsons trademark left margin,
or his pseudo-aphoristic style -- though these bothered me,too --
but the sense of righteousness that we have heard too often in this
century from nationalists and fascists and leftists of all
varieties. It is an attitude that has directly and often interfered
with my own work, and has caused me personal pain, and an attitude
which has served to underwrite probably the bulk of humanity's pain
in this century. It also was so contrary to the stance on culture
that the anthropologists in South Africa have taken. Unlike Mr.
Johnson's Colorado, people kill and die for these things in
countries like South Africa. My colleague in this department, David
Webster was killed by gunmen who thought he was interfering with the
cultural and political 'ownership' of 'their' culture(s). To this
day, we do not know who killed him, but we know that it was people,
whether Black or White, who opposed his active research and efforts
to support an open, sharing and free society in South Africa in any
way that he could. He was not the only one, but I can tell Mr.
Johnson that no 'justice' or anything else was 'bought' in this way,
either with David's death, or with anyone else's death here.

A number of people have made suggestions about what to do with
this thread. Kathi Kitner has suggested that discussants, especially
Mr. Johnson, declare where they are coming from. I, for instance,
was born in Colorado, but you can read more in the 'Potted bios' that
Danny Yee has sent out and made available. I don't think this fact
of birth tells very much about me, but it does have implications --
for instance, that my godfather at baptism (Catholic) was a nissei
Japanese-American who was involved, with my parents, in community
attempts to resettle Japanese Americans after WWII after they left
the internment camps. Elements of my history such as this one
naturally predispose me to snap at people like Mr. Johnson. Lief
Hendirckson has suggested that it would be better not to discuss SA
while Mr. Johnson is on the list. I agree: he very likely has, as LH
says, his answers all worked out before he has heard the questions.
I will simply ignore Johnson's snide remarks, but I would like to
provide him with a challenge.

Here are 3 cases that pose a number of problems for the approach that
he has outlined for us in his 'proposals'. I would like him to read
them carefully, and then explain how his proposals 'fit' or otherwise
make sense of this material. I would like to ask him to make
specific policy suggestions, or to suggest how further research might
be stimulated by his proposals in these cases, or how his proposals
would help the people I have described in these brief cases.

The cases: (1) Yesterday, I accepted the registration of a woman who
wanted to study anthropology. She was a refugee from Yugoslavia.
She cried about the 'stupid war' there, and about her close
relations who had died and/or been abused in concentrtion camps there
-- now. They had got caught between the self-righteous people
(apparently of Robert Johnson's persuasion) who were 'buying justice'
with blood, as Mr. Johnson thinks might (should?) happen in South
AFrica, and those who were fighting for the rights to their cultural
heritages, and against those who had --in their belief -- taken them
away from them. I will not recite the history of YUgoslavia and its
parts and people and their complex histories -- I am sure Mr.
Johnson is well versed in this. The problem with my student's
relatives was that they had Montenegran names, but were 'mixed'
Bosnian/Serbian, and had been 'mistaken' for Muslims.

On Mr. Johnson's principles, I would have to say: let them be
punished! - - they are too 'mixed', obviously, to be the just
inheritors of any pristine cultural heritage, and therefore useless
breathers of the air, and since they come from the Balkans it is a
virtual certainty that some one or many of their ancestors have
oppressed someone at some time and/or disrespected someone's
cultural heritage. Why should they not suffer for your principles,
Mr. Johnson?

But what about my student now -- a Yugoslavian in Africa? a
would-be anthropologist who is a refugee, who loves her country and
her heritage even though she weeps for it? Who comes here for safety
and for a love of African culture. Will she steal it? By learning
an African langauge/dance/culture does she deprive the 'rightful'
owners of this 'good'? Can you tell us, Mr. Johnson, how
decolonising anthropology applies to her?

Should I teach her anthropology? Should I deny her access to my
knowledge because she is Serbian? Perhaps she should be sent back
to Europe 'where she belongs'? Is she a settler? an exploiter? She
was once forced to be a Communist: does this make her a better or a
worse person in your regard? How much force would I be permitted
to use to do this if she did not immediately agree to the wisdom of
your principles?

I had another student. He sells denim 'Levis Blue Jeans' made in
Botswana, from fabic made in India, imported by a Chinese (Taiwanese)
business man in Johannesburg, and he, a French-speaking refugee from
Zaire, sells them in the streets of Johannesburg along with a
selection of masks and genuine Zairean cultural artefacts, to South
Please help me sort out whose 'cultural' and 'patent' rights belong
to whom, and how these could be enforced. At the moment in some part
of Johannesburg, black South Africans are beating people like this
(also black) from other parts of Africa because they are taking jobs
away from South Africans and thereby debasing their culture (by
being 'non-South African blacks/Aricans') and depriving them of their
economic rights as native South Africans. The masks he sells to
tourists and other Africans are unambiguously Zairean, and on your
principles, assignable only to 'Zairean' owners (whatever that may
mean since Zaire did not exist when they were created). He makes a
living from this, however, and without it would starve or ahve to go
back to Zaire where he would be killed. He is, however, 'ripping
off' the Zairean cultural heritage for a living, not to mention the
Levi Strauss brand name via his Chinese suppliers. Who do we punish
here, and how, Mr. Johnson?

Another student in this department is currently studying the efforts
of the UN Highh Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) to return --
'repatriate' is their term -- Mozambiquans to Mozambique after the
recent war. The in tention of the UNHCR is to return these deserving
'owners' of the right to be Mozambiquan citizens, to their
'patrimony' (they are by the way, largely matrilineal, but never
mind), that is, to their 'sacred geography' of (mostly defunct)
chiefdoms and kingdoms of old. The problem is, most of them don't
want to go. They and their ancestors have migrated across the region
now divided into countries like Mozambique and South Africa for many
centuries. They like to live in Mozambique, but they like to work in
South Africa. They wil be forcibly returned to their 'heritage'
however, whether they like it or not. They will be forced t give up
whatever goods they have achieved in South Africa and in return they
will be given seed and hoes by the UNHCR (even tho southern Mozambique
is way too dry for agriculture) so that they can 'go back' to their
'traditions'. Is this what you would recommend, Mr. Johnson?

As Todd Nims said on the list yesterday, lets have a little less
'blah blah blah', and a little more concrete argument. I have given
you 3 case studies that raise a myriad of questions fro your approach
to 'decolonizing anthropology'. I look forward to hearing how you
will solve these problems based on your 'propositions'. Be warned,
however, that you will not be the first. All of these problems have
been addressed by the previous Apartheid government, by colonial
administrators, by misisonaries, by African chiefs and kings and
their councils, by party caucuses in the townships and cities, and
by South African academics, and they continue to be addressed. I
would assume that you would be
familiar with their proposed solutions before you step where even the
architects of Apartheid truly feared to tread.

Good luck, Mr. Johnson.

=====Professor Robert Thornton, Department of Social Anthropology====
University of the Witwatersrand, PO Wits, 2050 Johannesburg
South Africa
Office tel. : (011) 716-2900
Secretary, fax and answering machine: (011) 716-2766
Home tel: (011) 646-2578
---------------------"The New South Africa"--------------------------