decolonising anthropology

Professor Robert Thornton (031RTHOR@MUSE.ARTS.WITS.AC.ZA)
Tue, 7 Feb 1995 06:59:09 -0500

Mr. Johnson's proposals intrigue me because they seem so
quintessentially North American. Apart from the fact that they
ostensibly deal with the 'rights' or 'property' of Native Americans,
it seems to me that it is 'only in America' that such nonsense can
be spoken and taken so seriously. The nonsense, of course, is not
the desire to be moral and to occupy the high moral ground, whatever
that might take, but the naivity about how the world really works.
What disturbs me most, however, is the naive acceptance of the
principle of what in Soiuth Africa has been called 'group rights',
especially under Apartheid, and yet today among the various Black
and White fringe-groups that are beyond (admittedly, only just
beyond) the limits of the consensus of the Government of National
Unity that has been set up between the Afrian National Congress
(ANC) and the Afrikaans National Party (NP) (note that the names of
the two old antagonists really only differ in the moot distinction
between 'party' and 'congress'). In any case, the often-overlooked
basis for Apartheic legislation in the bad old years here in South
Africa was precisely that 'national groups' 'native groups',
'peoples' and so on had rights as groups that were somehow different
from, and enforceable by different means, than those of individuals.
The fundamental principle of the Apartheid laws was to preserve the
Afrikaner cultural heritage and cultural rights from the
depredations of the COLONIAL English, and from 'swamping' by the
African peoples and cultures. It was, for a time, and in part,
quite successful. Afrikaans has survived as a language, and the
'poor Whites' as they were called in the 1930s (those who had been
disposessed by the Anglo-Boer War and the subsequent long and bloody
guerilla campaign against British Imperialism that was fought by the
Boer 'freedom fighters') and the 'so- called' Coloured people did
benefit under the legislation and under the Apartheid system. The
Afrikaner culture and its heritage was preserved, and the rights to
it --whatever these may be -- have been effectively assigned to a
particular group of people. Moreover, the group that recieve these
benefits and rights was not, on their own reckoning, racially
selected. In the last election, the so-called 'Coloured' people of
the Western Cape province where most of them live, voted
overwhelmingly for the National Party, the party of Apartheid. This
was not because they were 'for' Apartheid. It would be safe tosay
that none of them were. It was because the NP offered protection
for their 'cultural rights' and their heritage as Afrikaners, albeit
brown ones. (This will be difficult for many to understand who only
know the press accounts of South Africa, or who have only the
WEstern popular view of it)

In any case, this success would seem
to qualify Apartheid for moral honours under Mr. Johnson's
proposals. Like Daniel Foss's welcome comment about 'giving
Christianity back to the Jews' -- not a bad idea under some readings
-- the absurdity of assigning moral honours to Apartheid should in
itself refute Mr. Johnson's claim.

Johnson's proposals, if I understand them correctly, show how
diametrically opposed the South African principles of 'non-racialism'
are to the American principles of poltical correctness. 'Non-
racialism' has long been the principle of the ANC, and of the left-
and-liberal coalition that opposed Apartheid for decades in this
country. The fundamental principle is, as the ANC Charter states,
that the "doors of culture shall be open". In other words, culture
is not assignable to one group --as the White Afrikaners
(self-named _Blankes_ incidentally, not 'Whites' or even the word for
'White' in Afrikaans, _wit_) attempted to do under apartheid.

Proposals such as Mr. Johnsons contradict, ironically, one of the
cardinal principles of the internal opposition to Apartheid in South
AFrica (principles and motives that were almost always different
from the principles of the Anti-Apartheid Movement outside of South
Africa). Contemporary movements in South Africa attempt to make
these doors fo culture 'open'. We do not seek to close these doors,
or do assign ownership or 'rights' to them. This is what Apartheid
attempted to do, and we know that it did not work. It did not work
for many reasons --I'll not list them here since you will know some
of them, I'm sure -- but this attempt to assign some sort of
'cultural rights' to a 'group'.

The 'sacred geography' of South Africa is furthermore too fraught
with multiple claims and counter claims that no assignment of
'rights', sacred or otherwise, can easily be made to any of it. It
is a complex issue, and it will take a great deal of effort and
compromise to sort out solutions and working arrangements that will
satisfy as many people as possible, and lead to the best possible
path towards peace and prosperity. This is not as easy as Mr.
Johnson, sitting in Colorado, might imagine.

I will be intersted in what Mr. Johnson does imagine.

=====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
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