Discussion: Deconstructing tribal identity in a modern world

Eusebius McKaiser says he has become aware that tribal identities seem to be 're-inscribing themselves' in public debate and contemporary politics in South Africa.

Tribing and Untribing the Archive is a two-part volume of writings which track how the domain of the tribal and traditional was marked out and came to be sharply distinguished from modernity, how it was denied a changing history and an archive and was endowed instead with a timeless culture.

McKaiser explores this with John Wright, Research Fellow in the Archive and Public Culture Research Initiative at the University of Cape Town, and Mbongiseni Buthelezi, Research Manager at the Public Affairs Research Institute.

Wright explains the notion of a ‘tribe’ and how ethnic identities were imported under colonial, as well as apartheid rule.

The British bring this notion that Africans live in tribes from some time way back and they bring it to Natal which is annexed as a colony in the 1840s.

John Wright, Research Fellow in the Archive and Public Culture Research Initiative at UCT

In the 1900s, academics in central Africa started noticing that migrant laborers going to the towns and cities were not doing what they were supposed to do and losing their tribalism , as they become 'civilised', 'modernised', but in fact, the exact reverse happened.

John Wright, Research Fellow in the Archive and Public Culture Research Initiative at UCT

Migrant laborers moving to the town and cities wanted support groups and started creating them with people from their own regions and own areas ...so in fact, you got these regional and what were then called tribal and ethnic identifications actually strengthening. The same in the rural areas.

John Wright, Research Fellow in the Archive and Public Culture Research Initiative at UCT

Buthelezi speaks on some of the historical material that exists which would help South African's to interrogate issues of ethnicity.

...If you look at trying to write a biography of one single object you can begin to tell us a whole lot more about the people who made that object, how people understood themselves and the world around them. You can begin to delve into all sorts of questions around how identities have changed over time.

Mbongiseni Buthelezi, Research Manager at the Public Affairs Research Institute

Some of the chapters in the book do this work. If you start with a knobkerrie that was collected and ends up in a museum in Oxford, one of the things you can begin to trace is the journey of that object to get to Oxford....

Mbongiseni Buthelezi, Research Manager at the Public Affairs Research Institute

It's that slow painstaking work that we need to do in order be able to get to that point of doing this work of decolonisation.

Mbongiseni Buthelezi, Research Manager at the Public Affairs Research Institute

Click on the link below to listen to the full discussion...


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