Social anthropology has a lot to offer to government policies


When assessing government policies, the discipline of social anthropology is relatively obscured in most policy contributions. This can be analysed and understood from successive government policies and their failures in producing desirable outcomes in closing out the spiritual and material deprivation in black communities. This is evident from the proliferation and never ending patterns of informal settlements in urban areas, the overdependence of the black population on social grants, uncontrollable and increased social crimes, and a complete collapse of the black family structure. 

These are policy areas of serious concerns for black people and should be looked at with serious anthropological discernment and understanding by the government. This is because social anthropology was and still is very instrumental and a great success in aiding the histories and experiences of colonialism in Africa. The discipline wields enormous power in the construction and maintenance of colonial power and its continued gaze over African people. It is in a similar manner that the government should work with contemporary African anthropologists in the task of redefining and reconceptualising the challenges facing black communities.   

As a graduate and researcher in social anthropology, in this article, I am explaining that the government must look at and use the discipline of social anthropology to inform its critical thinking on the needs of black people and how they should be attended to. 

The architecture and implementation of colonialism was first preceded and grounded by voyage writers, explorers and anthropologists researching and writing about enchanting and exotic people they encountered on distant lands. In their travel and exploration journals, they wrote and articulated the complexities of the people and their social systems as they encountered them. To them, the social lives of the natives, as they observed, were totally different from the western selves. Their otherness warranted curious western minds to travel for studying and understanding the underscoring values of the natives. Famed American anthropologist, Margaret Mead, wrote and published “Coming of Age in Samoa” to show people in the west that adolescent children in Samoa were reared differently compared to their adolescent rearing culture in the west. This comparative analysis was Margaret Mead’s seminal work in the establishment of her anthropological reputation and influence in American cultural politics.  

And Bronislaw Malinowski was one of anthropology’s 20th century founding figures, with his conceptualisation of the ‘participant observation’ method for conducting research on natives in distant lands. This research method allows anthropologists to gain lived experiences during their research in order to access in-depth knowledge on the natives and their social systems. Participant observation, followed by others such as “Thick Description” by Clifford Geertz, was very effective with successive studies on native territories for the advancement of colonialism. With its advantaged position in the intimate and sacred lives of the natives, anthropology was colonialism’s golden discipline for the effective conceptualisation and implementation of anti-native policies in colonial territories. While the South African apartheid project was best founded on and implemented with a psychological precision on the natives, the colonial project was a cultural deconstruction and reconstruction of natives. And missionaries served as effective tools in the implementation of anthropological studies. 

Although a colonial project itself, social anthropology is a very important discipline for the government to consider more and seriously when assessing and discussing policy issues concerning black people. The in-depth anthropological recordings and analysis of people and their social systems provide significant details for consideration in policy discussions and formulations. The challenge of rapid urbanisation paralleled by the unending patterns of informal settlements, which in turn are the breeding grounds for the most violent crimes, especially in Cape Town, can be easily articulated with profound impact from anthropological research and perspectives. Ultimately, appropriate policy responses to challenges facing black communities cannot be exclusively formulated from economic-oriented approaches. Cultural-oriented approaches are imperative for the understanding of the deficiencies causing seemingly intractable challenges in black communities. It is social anthropology that has the tools and power to provide the necessary understanding of the serious and historical challenges facing black communities.   

In an academic document about the design of the RDP houses in Cape Town, I wrote and discussed that the designs of the houses do not accommodate the cultural needs of black people. In them, black people do not experience life as humans. They are designed as spaces to exist rather than to live. For black people to live and perform their cultural rituals, they have to travel to the Eastern Cape because the township spatial development is not designed for the cultural communal needs of black people. Rituals are central cultural experiences that bring black communities together in one spirit. This is because black people are inherently cultural beings. The Omni-present spirits of our ancestors necessitate that we perform rituals and ceremonies for spiritual solutions when challenges arise in the family and communities. The rituals ease tensions and renew broken spirits for the regeneration of the communal spirit. Without performing rituals, black people become spiritually and psychologically deprived in our pursuit of lifelong desires, consequently turning to violence to express our unmanaged spirits. So rituals are important for black people because they cleanse our spirits when we are overburdened.  

This anthropological insight is important for housing development policies because it illuminates and highlights the importance of making room for African cultural practices when designing communities. This is important for preventing especially the social challenge of violent crimes in Cape Town and other communities. For as long as black people are deprived of the means and spaces to peacefully express and release their energies, the government will continuously be fighting social challenges. In her seminal work, Let the Circle be Unbroken, Dr. Marimba Ani explains that our cultural heritage is that of spiritual beings. We cannot be anything without reverence to our ancestors. When we give our backs to our ancestors, we are actually closing off from the source of life itself. It is our ancestors who help us navigate our earthly lives. They guide us as we stay connected with them. It is through rituals that we stay connected to them. Without rituals, our communication with the ancestors is cut-off. So when we experience tragedies, it is because we do not have the guidance from our ancestors. 

Ultimately, we have to return back and do libation to resurrect them and call their spirits into our presence. But if and when black people are not properly understood and accommodated from an anthropological understanding, the government creates and perpetuate policies that are self-defeating and dangerous for black people. Spiritual beings cannot be mechanised and materialised without maintenance. Without maintenance they break or cease to function normally. And anthropological research and perspectives help us understand these facts about black people. It has to be understood that African people became black people with the imposition of the colonial culture. And being black is to be sub-human and a violent criminal that deservingly invites violence within the violent colonial fold.  And this has to be corrected. 

Lindiswa Jan is a Researcher & Masters Candidate at the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cape Town