Accepted Paper:

Seeing beyond ethno-racial classifications at South African universities: an anthropological intervention  


Rehana Vally (University of Pretoria)
John Sharp (University of Pretoria)

Paper short abstract:

There have been numerous reactions to recent incidents of racial intimidation and humiliation on South African campuses. Most have focussed on the persistance of racism, but we argue in this paper that an important prior step is to recognise the widespread adherence to ethno-racial classification as a mode of knowledge production – a way of knowing about the world – at these universities.

Paper long abstract:

In the wake of several incidents in which black university students and workers were intimated and humiliated, there is much discussion of continuing racism on South African campuses. University Principals have appointed a commission to examine the problem, and newspapers have attempted to pin down its precise nature. While the recent, publicised incidents of outright racial insult are seen as outside the norm, as they involved only a handful of perpetrators at specific universities, there is also a widespread assumption that these episodes are, in another sense, only the tip of the iceberg.

But what is the iceberg? Commentators appear to believe that the problem is 'racism', defined as negative attitudes towards members of other 'races' and/or 'cultures' and the discriminatory behaviour flowing from such attitudes. This is evident in arguments about the ostensible importance of 'everyday racism' and 'hidden racism', the latter, in particular, to be revealed by strict (and politically correct) discourse analysis of selected texts and behaviours.

We attempt to counter this bias towards psychologising by offering a more anthropological assessment of the issues at stake. Without discounting the significance of racism, we suggest, on the basis of materials available at the University of Pretoria, that a prior problem consists in widespread adherence to the notion that 'races' and 'cultures' are natural entities and the basic building blocks of humanity, and that belonging to entities of this nature determines an individual's identity. Here is one important instance in which 'seeing beyond ethno-racial classification' is of crucial significance.

Panel W015
Diversifying anthropology: politics of research or research in politics?