South Africa


Race, ethnicity and culture as proxies for promoting universal group identity

White and black students hold hands at the University of Pretoria, Pretoria, South Africa, 25 February 2016. The author writes that power relations tend to be attached to racial hierarchy as a substitute for ethnic cultural identities, and by extension, culture then assumes race-based hierarchical status. (Photo: EPA/KIM LUDBROOK)

The relationship between race, culture, and ethnicity can be better explained by conducting a closer examination of perceived or real dominant social values in a given community. 

The notion of race hierarchy is based on perceptions and uncorroborated beliefs that skin pigmentation determines superior intellect in humans. By virtue of this belief, power relations tend to be attached to racial hierarchy as a substitute for ethnic cultural identities, and by extension, culture then assumes race-based hierarchical status. Consequently, traditional ethnic and cultural values recede to the background while the hegemonic group values take over the space, virtual or real, and settle in by stealth using institutional arrangements to universalise a particular culture and economic asymmetries. 

In the period of the slave mode of production and reproduction, slavery and gender inequalities became functional tools for entrenching economic inequalities. Slaves were used for dual purposes, for production of commodities, and for the reproduction of human labour power. The process of reproduction, on the one hand, remained both natural, and socially engineered to manipulate population demography while at the same time entrenching economic and institutional inequalities. 

While the notion of cultural autonomy has a legitimate claim to exist based on ethnographic and historical factors, the often present underlying racial undertones and the hierarchy which is infused into the formula tend to undermine the positive aspects of the concept of culture. The apartheid state classified population groups not only according to ethnic identity but rather according to racial identities which were manipulated to justify the dominance of one particular racial group over others. 

It should, however, be noted that a racial/ethnic hierarchy tends to be replaced by a class hierarchy and social inequalities in neoliberal or capitalist economic systems. The black consciousness philosophy sought to defuse this racial hierarchy by popularising the positive aspects of the concept of “black” through deliberately uplifting the political consciousness of black Africans, coloureds and Indians. However, the effects of the hierarchical structure of the economy were not fundamentally changed. 

The post-apartheid state, in adopting the concepts of black consciousness philosophy in the official categorisation of the different population groups failed to use its constitutional mandate to insert strategies to practically reverse the historical economic asymmetries. Therefore, as Wallerstein asserts, the group that was at the bottom of the hierarchy tends to remain at the bottom of the hierarchy after the political change. Instead of addressing the inequalities of apartheid structural urban planning, the post-apartheid state — unwittingly — simply entrenched the historical class stratification and by extension, the racial, and cultural inequalities. 

Ethnic vs cultural identities 

A line has to be drawn between the political use of the terms race classification and ethnic classification, not only between geographical spaces but within territorial entities in a single country. Race and cultural differences among groups within a single country can be significant and even impact on state allocation of resources. It is not enough to have a legislative framework without putting in place mechanisms for the implementation of the policies. 

For example, ethnic cultural prejudices may have the same effect as racial discrimination if no difference is made between structure and agency. The constitution of structure is meant to condition the behaviour of the agency. The caste system in the South Asian subcontinent may discriminate on the grounds of class categorisation based on nuanced chromosome differences. 

Similarly, if we take the isiXhosa-speaking group in South Africa, there are nuanced cultural differences that are derived from the historical interpretations of the background of those groups, irrespective of their languages and different dialects and colour (racial pigmentation) coding. Therefore, this necessitates the explanation of the organic tissue of social identity within a given community. The subtle difference between Amamfengu and AmaXhosa, Amampondo and AmaBhaca, all of whom speak isiXhosa, has to be analysed and contextualised. 

There are visible normative cultural differences among these groups which are collectively classified as amaXhosa without regard to their historical and cultural differences. AmaXhosa is a group term centralising individuals on the basis of the language they speak without regard to sub-group cultural identities. 

The term AmaBhaca, for example, is associated with “run away”, in a way similar to the term Shangaan as interpreted by the Tsonga. The contentious term Amashangana is interpreted to mean “leave the child” (shiya ngane), meaning people who left their children behind and ran to Mozambique following Soshangana who ran away from Shaka. As a result, the South African Shangaans resent the use of the term and prefer to be referred to as Tsonga. They argue that they did not flee from Shaka to Mozambique leaving their offspring behind. The ethnic background of the group is essentially the same but the tissue of the social organs which constitute the groups is not the same, irrespective of the common language. To leave children behind and run for safety is considered by the Tsonga as having been immoral, hence the term Shangaan is seen as derogatory to the South Africans while the Mozambicans are proud to be called Shangaans. This suggests that ethnicity and language alone are not sufficient determinants of group cultural identity.  

There is a danger in generalising behaviour by using the overarching group protocols which may not accommodate the nuanced diversity of subcultures within the same ethnic, group, race or gender. The risk of generalisation can be compared to the plant kingdom, where an assumption is often made that a particular plant family will grow under certain conditions without taking into account the specificity of the genetic makeup and the particular needs of the given species in a given geographic space. For example, a type of grass colloquially called shade grass or LM is marketed as being suitable for shaded spaces in the garden, but this is not always the case. The LM grass does not grow in full shaded spaces, it needs a certain amount of sunlight.  

Interaction between technology and democracy 

In his analysis of the cult of leadership, Read (1963:49) explains that “History investigates the organic tissue of society just as histology investigates the organic tissue of the human body.” He goes further to argue that history cannot explain the processes governing the immediate emotions of the collective organisms called states or nations. For this reason, for the analysis of culture and race, I decided to take a brief look at the analysis of the relationship between technology and democracy. 

The difference between AI and the blockchain in the artificial intelligence space as explained by Divya Siddarth and Kelsie Nabben in Neoma magazine is that,  

“AI promises to usher in an era of peace and plenty for humanity that frees us from the burden of labour and need, provided we play our cards right to avoid the risk of existential catastrophe. Meanwhile, blockchain provides the infrastructure for the unparalleled exercise of both individual and collective agency, opening the doors to automation, self-governance and global coordination.” 

Interestingly, Siddarth and Nabben (2021) draw a parallel between the desire of artificial intelligence technology to implicitly or explicitly abstract away human fallibility in the service of a fully automated vision of perfection. They are cautious not to take for granted that human fallibility can be abstracted from an automated vision of perfection in the era of coordination failures and corruption at the highest levels, and the aspiration toward decentralised coordination between empowered individuals. The above two political economists and social technologists are seeking to establish the intersection between technology and democracy. 

Their assertion is that the ultimate goal of the blockchain vision is freedom itself, but they argue in the negative sense that freedom from regulation, from corruption, from banks, from schools and from governments, is a highly individual autonomy process and the end results are contingent on individual choice. To counter this conception, blockchain, according to Siddarth and Nabben, has developed and evolved into a plethora of protocols and applications, many of which directly claim to actualise visions of politically autonomous futures through the software code. 

However, despite these ideal visions, Siddarth and Nabben have come to the conclusion that these technologies often inevitably collapse into recentralisation in practice because the forces of commerce and individual profit drive technological innovation. The outcome remains contingent on individual choice, as solving collective action problems is wholly contingent on individual incentive and structures. The technologically driven vision notwithstanding, it should not be forgotten that technology itself, as Siddarth and Nabben caution, because of the extreme ideological orientation toward autonomy throughout the development process in blockchain communities, and technical and administrative decentralisation, can be confused with democratic decision-making and non-hierarchical modes of interaction. This assumption that human fallibility can be abstracted from the perfection of technology cannot be taken for granted, it has to be proven in each case.  

It is interesting to note what Herbert Read wrote in his book To Hell with Culture about Hitler and how he ascended to power. “If Hitler consciously represented any economic interest, it was that of the ‘little man’, the bankrupt shopkeeper, the small capitalist, who had been put out of business by the big monopolies and chain stores”. But, he adds, even this sympathy was not genuine. He cited Dr Fromm, who stated that Hitler succeeded because he was able to combine the qualities of a resentful petite bourgeoisie, with whom the middle classes could identify themselves, emotionally and socially, with those of an opportunist ready to serve the interests of the German industrialists and Junkers.  

The notion that structural centralisation can ensure cross-subsidisation in the allocation of resources without defining the role of the agency is flawed. Geographic coverage, just like technological centralisation, in the era of corruption and systems manipulation, provides no guarantees for ideologically and value-free outcomes. DM 

Thozamile Botha holds a PhD in Sociology University of Johannesburg, M.phil in Political Science Strathclyde University (Glasgow, Scotland) and a National Diploma in Development Administration (Glasgow College of Technology, Scotland, Now changed to British Caledonian University). 



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