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Research Project: Ndebele Communities and the South African State – Negotiating Culture, Structure and Strategies

Jonathan Kempen

This PhD research project aims at a critical discussion of “tradition” and “modernity” as concepts applied in the discursive reality of South African society today and the development of a correlative ethnographic case study. Despite the deconstruction of these two terms in the context of postcolonial discourse analysis throughout the past decades, they still persist outside of academia. Communities with high awareness and respect for their historical heritage are nowadays confronted by the social and political realities of the new South Africa. Members of many communities are forced to constantly renegotiate their own role between the “traditional” values and customs of their community and the “modern” structures and practices of the state. In this regard it will be a major research task to document different aspects of daily life affected by these concepts in order to establish a thorough analysis of the negotiation process. As an example, questions of jurisdiction may be mentioned: where do conflicts between the state’s legislation and “traditional” norms arise? Who is responsible for the interpretation and execution of laws in a society that has the right to call upon both state and traditional authorities for such matters? Further fields of interest may be education, medicine, language, property allocation, subsistence strategies, welfare, inter-ethnic cooperation, art and crafts. Especially, those areas where government policy and communal custom exhibit substantial differences are likely to facilitate an analysis of the processes that construct “tradition” and “modernity” in common discourse.

Similar to other groups in South Africa, the Ndebele exhibit a rich and vivid history, which is also evident in dominant cultural features up to today. However, their history and culture are by no means to be regarded as isolated from the rest of the country. Due to the geographic distribution and political connectedness of the Ndebele a strongly contested interface between the “modern” state and Ndebele “traditions” exists, where individuals and groups have to find their role and place. Therefore, a comparative case study based on long-term ethnographic research within at least two of their communities seems an appropriate approach to gather data for the discussion outlined above.

The total amount of time in the field is planned to be one year. So far arrangements have been made for a stay in Witlaagte/Rapotokwane (one hour north of Pretoria), where the Litho Ndzundza Ndebele Tribal Authority maintains an office. During Apartheid and in its aftermath, this area was subject to several administrational shifts between state- and private-owned land, including the creation of Lebowa, Bophuthatswana and KwaNdebele Homeland. Field research in Witlaagte is envisaged to begin in July 2016 for three months to start with. An extension of this field phase or a change in location to another community are both viable options depending on practical circumstances and academic interests. Methods will include participant observation and different interviewing techniques, while an enquiry of survey data may also be an option. Once in the field, it will be necessary to develop contacts to further Ndebele groups in different areas and contexts, and to include neighbouring non-Ndebele groups in the data gathering process to get a comprehensive picture of the situation.