By Zodwa Radebe
Decolonisation can be understood as the process that decolonises what was colonised; not what was used to colonise. Therefore, it is absurd to think that anthropology can be used as a tool to decolonise because it was used to colonise. We need to unthink anthropology and imagine something like decolonised ethnic studies, which Maldonado-Torres explains as: “studies of and from the lived experience of the damned, that are able not only to offer positivistic analysis and corrected facts about certain communities but can also offer a radical critique of the sciences.” (2009:127)
As part of my doctoral studies, I am doing fieldwork in Vryheid, a small town in KwaZulu-Natal, which is one of the nine provinces in South Africa. On the first Sunday of my fieldwork, my cousin invited me to her church; one of those African independent churches. What really caught my attention as I entered the church was the seating arrangement: There were sections of rows that faced the front of the church. The rows on the left-hand side were designated to women and those on the right-hand side to young women and children. In front of the row that was designated to young women and children, was a row of chairs that faced the left-hand side of the church; these chairs were designated to men. There was a table and two chairs in front for the pastor and her assistant and the pulpit was next to this table. There were exactly 22 people in the church that day and only three of them were men (an old man and two young men); therefore, the chairs in the front row were mostly empty. What was also interesting is that all the women greeted the men first before they greeted one another. Even the woman pastor, greeted the old man and then the two young men before she greeted the remainder of the congregation. It did not make sense to me that the women would begin by greeting the men who clearly were not there at the expense of women. This was disturbing to me, but I tried to forget about the incident as I left the church, since it was not part of my research interest; and I also did not have anyone with whom I could discuss these issues.
When we went to the church again, only the old man was present. I wondered where the two young men were; they received so much attention, why did they not come back? I really felt sorry for the women who are clearly doing everything possible to make the men feel welcome in church, yet they were not interested. This reminded me of my own efforts to restore failed relationships with men in an attempt to fit in according to the social standards informed by the dominant discourse of patriarchy. maybe the difference is that my efforts were not consistent; and often infused with the logic that as the privileged class, men were in a better position and there was no need for me to support, nurture and “make” them. These ideas were cemented once I was removed from the community and then they became just the ‘black condition’. Everything seemed too abstract, complex and unreal; and it required some ‘objectivity and critical thinking’ rather than just a response.
But, black conditions are part of the life and the experiences of women in this church. They have seen things we might never see; they have lived without men and were forced to play the role of men and women; they understand the vulnerability of not having the protection and support of their male counterparts; they know the pain of seeing how men are being sent away to work just to return and die in their hands; they have experienced the system that turns men into monsters; they live in a world where murder and rape is part of their existence; they have witnessed the dehumanisation of the black race where gender collapses; and they live in a society which Aimé Césaire defines as “drained of their essence cultures trampled underfoot, institutions undermined, land confiscated, religions smashed, magnificent artistic creation destroyed, extraordinary possibility wiped out.” (1972: 6) It is this painful experience that has forced them to think; theorise about their conditions and formulate mechanisms to deal with these challenges. It is these mechanisms that have become tradition in most rural communities and are normally perceived as oppressive and nonsensical to outsiders; but these traditions are solely aimed at restoring their communities and bringing dignity to the dehumanisation. This indeed is thinking in action.
This experience forced me to think of what it means to decolonise anthropology such that we do not misrepresent the communities that we study. I argue that the idea of decolonising anthropology is still entangled within the western epistemology that maintains: (1.) Anthropologists have skills that can improve societal conditions (2.) Anthropology can delink itself from its colonial foundation to produce knowledge that is to the advantage of the oppressed. However, my filed work experience suggests that anthropologists do not have tools to read communities. Even though I am/was a ‘native’ anthropologist, I did not have automatic access to this community as argued by Jacobs-Huey (2002). In fact, my anthropological training was a hindrance, since it imposed foreign concepts, such as patriarchy, that are not part of the reality of this community. I had to draw from my personal experience to make sense of what was happening in that church. Also, the narrative shows that communities are actually capable of theorising about their conditions and come up with solutions that make their conditions more bearable. This means that communities do not need to read about their conditions; therefore, it is self-serving to publish the work that anthropologists do. The skills that anthropologists claim could benefit the communities are, in my opinion, more about sustaining their profession and being recognised in the intellectual space rather than changing the conditions of the communities for the better.
Secondly, delinking anthropology from its colonial foundations proves to be a mission impossible. The biggest criticism of anthropology has been its subject of study – ‘the other’. Levi-Strauss (1966) tried to justify the importance of studying ‘the other’ in an attempt to learn from those who are different from us. This could be read as a noble gesture indeed, since it demystifies the negative connotation of anthropology: that it creates ‘the other’. However, Fanon brings another dynamic to this question of ‘the other’ as he argues that, “it is the settler who has brought native into existence… and he is his property.” (1963: 27) Therefore, “the colonized could not be accommodated into any of the categories utilized in anthropology, the savage, the barbarian and civilized man.” (Maldonado-Torres, 2009: 122) As “the black is after all, a being that has not always existed.” (Gordon, forthcoming: 2) Clearly, the anthropological method cannot reach out to those who have been excluded from the human race – blacks. It is in this context that Gordon calls for philosophical anthropology that will offer a transition from method to methodology and methodological critique (forthcoming: 9).
My fieldwork experience challenges the foundations of anthropology and forces us think beyond the western methodological canon. Our research must be informed by the lived experiences of the ‘damned’. In fact, the insistence on studying the oppressed is the continuation of colonialism as Biko argues: “the problem is white racism and it rests squarely on the laps of the white society.” (1987: 23) Maybe the first shift should be on the anthropological subject of study, from the ‘other’ to the ‘self’.
Biko, S.B. (1987). I write what I like. London: Bowerdean Press.
Césaire, A (1972). Discourse on colonialism. New York and London: Monthly Review Press.
Fanon, F. (1963). The wretched of the earth. New York: Grove Press
Gordon, L.R. (Forthcoming) Reasoning in black: African philosophy under the weight of misguided reason. In The Savannah Review, edited by Abiola Irele and published by Africa World Press.
Jacobs-Huey, L. (2002). Exchange across difference: The production of ethnographic knowledge. The natives are gazing and talking back: Reviewing the problematic of positional, voice, and accountability among “native” anthropologists. American Anthropologists, 104(3), 791-804
Levi-Strauss, C. (1966). The savage mind. Chicago University: Chicago Press
Maldonado-Torres, N. (2009). Rousseau and Fanon on inequality and human sciences. Creolizing Rousseau, Spring, Volume 15:1
NZ Radebe is a lecturer at the University of South Africa (UNISA) in the department of Anthropology and Archaeology where she teaches a third year module on qualitative research methods in anthropology. She is currently on sabbatical working on her doctoral studies. Her research topic is: Towards the Human Economy: Understanding the Different Economic Logic of Stokvels. She is a committed decolonial scholar, an activist and an artist that is imagining a world free from all forms of injustices. She has co-authored a book chapter titled: Decolonial Analysis of Coloniality in Anthropology, with Dr N.L. Hlabangane (2016) in Decolonizing the University in Africa, Knowledge Systems and Disciplines, S. J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni & S. Zondi (eds.) She does storytelling performances in some black communities to open a space for communities to think, engage and express ideas that can contribute to a better world we are imagining.