Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

A Post-Fordist Ethnicity: Insecurity, Authority, and Identity in South Africa

Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

A Post-Fordist Ethnicity: Insecurity, Authority, and Identity in South Africa

Article excerpt


The expression of ethnicity in postcolonial public life is typically regarded as a regression to the legacies of a colonial rule of difference. Taking the case of Jacob Zuma's controversial appeals to his Zuluness in the run-up to the South African elections of 2009, I propose a different analysis that grounds a more contemporary mode of ethnic attachment in the dynamics of post-Fordist sociality. Zuma's supporters utterly rejected the concatenation of culture, local authority, and ethnic population. It was Zuma's own identification with Zuluness in his personal life that made him into an intimate, of the very most up-to-date kind. Through this identification his supporters hoped to inhabit an unmediated relationship with a powerful and loving state, in scenes of embrace with ethnically grounded normalcy and security. [Keywords: Post-Fordism, ethnicity, youth, South Africa, Zulu]

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In August 2009, South African humorist Fred Khumalo devoted a newspaper column to the strangeness of collective nouns. Recalling gems from his schooldays-a memory of elephants, an implausibility of gnus- he went on to ask what names we might give groupings of folk from South Africa's many ethnicities. A flight of Englishmen? A restlessness of Zulus? The suggestions mined deep veins of stereotypy until he came to the question posed in his subheading: "What's the collective noun for those obsessed with people's ethnic origins?" "We should be ashamed of ourselves," he commented:

The very fact that we are debating ethnicity is a disgrace. Is this what we fought for? When we were in the trenches, we spoke about nonracialism and anti-tribalism. But now that we are on the plateau of victory and democracy, we are reverting to that shameful past of ethnic bias. (Khumalo 2009)

Khumalo's prompt was the rise of a national debate on the place of ethnicity in post-apartheid politics, occasioned by the public appeals that newlyelected President Jacob Zuma made to his Zuluness during his struggles for party and national political office. How to explain the popular reception of those appeals in 2009 is my object in this essay. But Khumalo's complaint also raises some immensely vexing problems of analysis. What are collective subjects? What joins collective identity to a personal sense of self? Most saliently for my own concerns here, how do such identifications place their subjects in history? How do we approach the historicity of something like the wave of ethnic attachment that has swept through life in South Africa in recent years, as it has in so many parts of the post-Cold War world? What kinds of continuity and discontinuity make themselves apparent here?

For postcolonial places such as South Africa, the accent of the last generation of scholarship has been firmly on the side of continuity when it comes to such questions. In postcolonial studies, it is an orthodoxy that forms of identification such as ethnicity are legacies inherited from the colonial order of things. From this perspective, the task of thinking is first to locate the forms of colonial life in which such identifications originate, then to trace the complicated relays of rule and response that carry them forward into the postcolonial era. Without for a second disputing that ethnicity was intrinsic to the logics of colonial rule, I venture that resorting to this older truth alone serves all too often to divert us from the dynamics grounding ethnic attachment now. In South Africa, the identity of Zuluness was intimately tied to modes of rule, accommodation, and resistance that developed during the 19th and 20th centuries. But deriving Jacob Zuma's campaigns from these prior iterations of ethnicity distracts us from the most important feature of the cultural affect that gathered supporters around him in the run-up to his election to the presidency. It overlooks the rise, that is, of new kinds of dispositions towards the authority of the state, especially among the young and the poor, where support for Zuma was strongest. …

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