Anthropology and Apartheid - The Rise of Military Ethnology in South Africa


The use of anthropologists by military forces did not begin in Vietnam or with Project Camelot in Latin America. Already in 1941 the American Anthropological Association had unanimously passed a resolution calling on all members to place themselves and their specialized skills and knowledge "at the disposal of the country for the successful prosecution of the war." Many enthusiastically did, participating in activities ranging from Carleton Coon's OSS (Office of Strategic Services) spy missions to developing etiquette guides or advising on counterinsurgency. It was no coincidence that the Society for Applied Anthropology was founded in 1941. Anthropologists like Max Gluckman who, as a conscientious objector refused to serve, were indeed rarities. The truth is that wars, and especially (neo)colonial wars, have been good for the business of anthropology.

It is thus not surprising that in South Africa, plagued by a 21-year-old insurgency war in Namibia and growing civil unrest in the black townships, the largest single employer of anthropologists and ethnologists is the South African Defense' Force (SADF). In 1967, Riekert, an influential "Urban Bantu Administrator," argued that "anthropology can be of the utmost importance in the South African Armed Forces...the most recent trend is in fact to utilize anthropologists". In 1975, after a few Afrikaner ethnologists had shown their worth, an ethnological section was formally created as a support unit of the army. Its mission was to provide ethnological knowledge not only for strategical and tactical operations but also to "improve race relations" both within the SADF and between the SADF and the black population that bore the brunt of military operations. By March 1977, the ethnology section of the SADF employed 16 full-time, permanent ethnologists and was recruiting aggressively - even going as far as advertising in the English-language press "to help maintain good relations between various ethnic groups employed in the services".

Despite these efforts, almost all of the estimated 34 full-time ethnologists are drawn exclusively from Afrikaans-language universities. Their approach is thus not that of British social anthropology or even American cultural anthropology but a unique homegrown anthropology known as volkekunde. Organizationally, the ethnology section forms part of the Civic Action Program, a program organized around the belief that victory in the war was going to be 20 percent military and 80 percent political and civil. The major project the program is associated with is WHAM: Winning the Hearts and Minds of the indigenes.

The volkekunde discourse is well suited toward maintaining the status quo. In 1977 the SADF published an Ethnology Manual for the Soldier which concluded that ethnology studies the life of peoples, its course and its development, including those (actors that exert an adverse or a positive influence on their lives. Ethnological knowledge, therefore, is of vital importance to any person or government body controlling or directing the lives of a people, especially of those who still have to be guided on the road to civilization.

To be able to counter enemy attack, it is vital for the soldier to understand the ideology behind a revolt, and to be aware that the counter-insurgency could be successful only where the security forces enjoy the support of the local population. Ethnological knowledge, therefore, is considered the greatest single means of power at the soldier's disposal.

Knowledge of the enemy, even in the premilitary phase, is important. Similarly, knowledge of the local people trapped in the war zone is important if the military is to minimize its resistance. The task of the ethnological section is thus largely to collect data from the (potential) war zones. In selling their expertise to their superiors, the ethnologists point out the successful anthropological contributions in other war situations. Thus Colonel Stoffberg, PhD, the officer-in-charge of the ethnological section, claims that the American success in World War II was due, in part at least, to the anthropological contribution of the Foreign Morale Analysis Division. Contrarily the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya is blamed on settler mismanagement, poor administration, lack of understanding and too rapid forced acculturation; in Rhodesia costs were high because of a lack of ethnological knowledge.

The circumstances of other counterinsurgencies, most notably in the Mau Mau and Rhodesia, determine to a large degree what research ethnologists will undertake. In Rhodesia, mediums played a crucial role in the war. Thus, not surprisingly, the chief military ethnologist in Namibia is doing his doctoral research on witch doctors. This knowledge is then used to ensure a "minimum of disturbance" with military intrusions and the promotion of relations between military personnel and local indigenes.

Should problems fall beyond the unit's expertise, it can call on a vast network of Afrikaner academics. For example, the SADF ethnologists flew in volkekundiges and other experts when faced with the problem of Bushman resettlement and charges by anthropologists that they were committing ethnocide against the Bushmen. From this case it was made clear that some volkekundiges are regularly consulted by the South African security establishment. Of course it is not only volkekundiges who have applied their knowledge to the service of the Apartheid state - geographers, psychologists and even horticulturalists have all featured prominently. Indeed a grateful Department of Horticulture at the University of Pretoria named one of its marula cultivars "Koevoet" in honor of its close relationship with the dreaded police counterinsurgency unit. It is now apparently accepted practice for military personnel to complete advanced degrees at Afrikaans language universities and have their theses read only by security-cleared supervisors and examiners.

In addition to presenting flawed discourses on such topics as "The Influence of Marxism and Communism on the Traditional Black Communities of Africa", military ethnologists also have more mundane duties: They are expected to advise on the selection of black recruits, teach an orientation course and instruct officers eligible for promotion in ethnology. But even though ethnology is appreciated, white defense personnel are not encouraged to be amateur ethnologists. On the contrary, the SADF offers only one 2-week training course in a black language. None of the 77 whites assigned to the premier black unit, 21 batallion, could speak an indigenous language. Similarly, despite employing more than 2,000 Bushmen, the SADF has only one white who can speak a Bushman language (Gordon 1984). Blacks are made mysterious by SADF personnel in various ways. Bushmen are treated as magical good luck amulets; and "terrorists," we are assured by an experienced mercenary, "are able to walk two or three kilometers on their toes in order to confuse security forces". This mystification only bolsters the status of the ethnologist as an expert; other white personnel cannot challenge his magical knowledge. Still, it is worth noting that as in the British colonial service, officers are divided in their views on the efficacy of ethnological advice. Structurally, however, the future of the ethnological section appears secure at the support of upper echelons: one of the four secretariat sections of the ultra-powerful and secretive State Security Council is exclusively concerned with "strategic communications" and "cultural action".

Military ethnologists are also heavily involved in preparing material for the Youth Preparedness curriculum, which is compulsory in white schools. Youth Preparedness is seen as a key component of the state's reaction to the "Total Onslaught" inspired by the "Communists" it believes it is facing. This onslaught is a form of psychological warfare for the "soul of the volk" and entails instruction to counter a familiar litany of manipulative evils: God is Dead, Liberation Theology, the breakdown of the family, legalization of abortion, free love, long hair, hippies, unisex haircuts, internationalism and humanism. The major source cited on the "Communist" strategy is The Naked Communist, published in 1946 by the John Birch Society. Organizations allegedly working against South Africa include the AFSC (American Friends Service Committee), ACOA (American Committee on Africa) and the CIA. The Namibian Youth Preparedness Handbook that I consulted contained headings such as "My Contribution to the Promotion of the SADF's Status," "Why Military Service?" and "The Girls' Responsibility with Regard to the Defense of the Land." It also contained a number of units which discussed ethnology.

But what is this ethnological knowledge that the ethnologists package, market and distribute so widely? The ethnology manual is revealing in this regard. After providing a brief introduction to the distribution of the Bantu who, it claims, are the result of the intermixing of Negroes and Hamites and now all live happily in their "Homeland," the manual stresses the need to obtain the goodwill of indigenes and proceeds to give advice on Important Aspects of the Culture of the Blacks that have to be Considered During Liaison. After recommending the use of interpreters (with white monitors), the manual discusses Bantu social organization, which is based on two principles: seniority and group formation. It then proceeds to warn that

Direct contact with Bantu women should be avoided, while social contact should be ABSOLUTELY FORBIDDEN AND PREVENTED. The comings and goings of the Bantu woman should, however, be closely observed for the following reasons: I: She provides food and is the "beast of burden." It will most probably be her duty to provide the insurgent camp with food and beer...and she may even carry the heavier automatic weapons, as happened in Angola. 2: She incites the men to successful military action by arousing them sexually before a battle, taking part in the "Washing of the Spear," a ceremony based on a party where sexual intercourse takes place. 3: Experience has shown that the Bantu will take advantage of the "weakness" of the Whites not to treat women pushing them to the front in political riots…

Such "rules" tell us more about the Afrikaners' Calvinistic sexual inhibitions than ethnographic reality. Other stereotypes abound: "White rule has prevented them from waging war on their neighbors, and in this way replenishing their livestock. An effective way of intimidating Bantu is by taking away his livestock." Or, "Blacks never hurry," Blacks have an inability to defer gratification and while whites have an analytic-scientific way of thinking. Blacks think mythologically. The Black woman's role is to keep quiet, work and bear children. The critical message underlying this discourse is that Blacks are different and that a distinctive Black culture still survives. Some elementary rules of etiquette are then offered which, like the advice the Chamber of Mines used to hand out to novice white officials, starts off with the golden rule: accept the Bantu as a human being: admit that he has a name. But of course this message is undermined by the context of discourse. Indeed, whites are told "it is completely good etiquette to initially tell a lie".

Volkekunde sits well with, and indeed buttresses, the dominant Afrikaner belief system in certain crucial ways - first, in its paradigmatic belief that most cultures are stable. Since, it believes, culture change can only occur after a few generations, most blacks - despite their Western veneer - are still traditional and in a state of happy equilibrium. Any problems are the result of misunderstanding between black and white. (This is why a major emphasis since 1973 has been the development of etiquette guides, Budack 1973.) Volkekunde also emphatically believes that change occurs as a result of diffusion from outside, which fits comfortably with the proponents of "Total Onslaught." It justifies its lies and deceit by the enemy's lies and deceit. In doing research for this article I was intrigued to discover that Colonel Stoffberg, the chief military ethnologist, had plagiarized an article published 10 years earlier by one of his subordinates in the same journal!

As someone who looks forward to the day when peace comes to Namibia - which will only happen when a legitimate black government is installed - I was initially prepared to argue, on ethical grounds, against participation in the military by anthropologists. However, as I examined the record of ethnological counterinsurgency research and the military ethnology discourse in Southern Africa, I became less certain of my argument. Ethnology advisers such as those employed by the SADF may well be worth at least a division to the forces opposed to white hegemony in Southern Africa!

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