Working with our grandparents’ illusions

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Shannon Morreira. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau6.2.018


Working with our grandparents’ illusions

On colonial lineage and inheritance in Southern African anthropology

Shannon MORREIRA, University of Cape Town

In the late 1950s my grandfather, Blair Ewing, a politician in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), was one of the last people to travel down the Zambezi River before the filling of Lake Kariba forever altered its route. His role was to persuade those people who had thus far resisted resettlement that the only options left for them were to move or to die. It was an episode that stayed with him, where the dehumanizing logic of colonialism and modernity were laid bare, lessons that he imparted to his grandchildren through an often-told story. As a young adult, I began to teach anthropology at the University of Cape Town. One of the texts that I taught—Elizabeth Colson’s 1971 “The social consequences of resettlement”—brought this personal family history into conversation with the history of the discipline of anthropology in Southern Africa. In this article I consider that encounter.

Keywords: History of anthropology, Zimbabwe, Elizabeth Colson, colonialism, modernity

Illusions: A personal preamble

My grandfather died when I was twelve years old, many years before I became an anthropologist, and many years before I properly discovered the colonial and postcolonial history of the country in which we (mostly) lived, and in which he died: Zimbabwe, formerly known as Southern Rhodesia. I remember Grandad as a man who oscillated between joviality and seriousness, sometimes tinged with anger, who put great faith in intelligence and serious conversations, but who also liked to tell naughty jokes and to laugh at the world and with his grandchildren. When I knew my Grandad, he was a retired businessman. I knew that for a time he had been a farmer, and that for a time he had been an opposition politician who had resigned [280]his seat in parliament during what was referred to around our house as “the Smith regime,” although I didn’t know exactly what that meant. But mostly he was just Grandad, a fixture of the house in Southam Way, Harare; a man who liked to eat pickled mushrooms (still a staple of our table and still referred to, twenty years after his death, as “Grandad’s mushrooms”) and who liked to read the paper every day.

It was the 1980s, a time of great optimism in newly independent Harare, and so not a time when children were exposed to the urgent political conversations that peppered my late teenage years in the 1990s, or that punctuate the childhoods of my own son and my nephews in post-2000 Zimbabwe. In the early 1980s we didn’t yet know about the Gukurahundi genocide that was happening down the road in Matabeleland, and we were caught up in the heady atmosphere of the end of the liberation struggle and the first years of postcolonial nation building. I had no idea that my grandfather had tried very hard to avoid the armed liberation struggle that was the second Chimurenga by pushing for majority rule more than two decades prior to the 1980s, but that it had ended in disappointment and loss as conservative white voters ousted the political party to which he belonged and voted in the ultraconservative Rhodesian Front (RF). Headed by Ian Smith, the RF, through racist ideology and the desire to maintain white hegemony, had created the set of conditions that made the liberation struggle unavoidable as black nationalists clashed with white “Rhodies” in their struggle for self-determination.

But I get ahead of myself: in the 1980s, it was only occasionally that we not-yet-grown grandchildren caught glimpses of the adult Grandad, and even then the glimpses were usually of the joker rather than the ex-politician. I remember him bursting into laughter upon hearing me refer to one of my soft-toys as a “little tart,” for example, following (ill-advised?) exposure to a British television show, and wondering what on earth this strange brand of adult humor was that found a word as innocent sounding as “tart” amusing. But I also remember with great clarity a conversation with him as we drove in our car down the winding Zambezi Escarpment on our way to a family holiday on Lake Kariba, when he described to me and my sister one of the tasks he had undertaken as Member of Parliament. I remember the sticky feeling of my leg sweating on the plastic car seat as he recounted his “expedition” down the Zambezi River, tasked with persuading BaTonga people who lived along the river and who had thus far resisted resettlement, that the only options left open to them were to move or to die. I remember his pride that they had managed to move people without bloodshed, unlike in neighboring Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), and I remember the seriousness with which he tried to impart to us, his young grandchildren, that the lake that we now visited for pleasure had once been someone else’s home. His journey down the Zambezi was an episode that stayed with him, and one that, through its narration to me, has stayed with me, an uncomfortable part of my family narrative, part of the oral history of myself and my clan of white (liberal?1) Zimbabweans.[281]

It was a conversation that taught me—albeit not in such academic terms as the ones I use now—that the march of modernity is not always positive and that Kariba was embedded in a complex political economy. These are lessons that lie at the heart of much of the work done by anthropology in Southern Africa over the last century, as I discovered when I grew older, embarked on university study, and emerged some time later with a PhD in anthropology. While an undergraduate, I was introduced to a book that intrigued me because of its resonance with my family history. Elizabeth Colson’s The social consequences of resettlement (Colson 1971) examines social change as experienced by Tonga people in Gwembe as they encountered the twin forces of colonialism and modernity, through the building of Lake Kariba. It was a book that I later taught to undergraduates in anthropology, as a young lecturer at the University of Cape Town. In what follows I consider the ways in which Colson’s text, in combination with my family history, enabled me to teach the history of anthropology, and of its historical roots of entanglement in and resistance to the logic of colonialism, in a way that allowed for an affirmation of classic texts and techniques, and a simultaneous intense engagement with the ways in which the discipline has provided a space for resistance to coloniality,2 both during colonialism and in the present. Elizabeth Colson died in Zambia in August 2016, at the age of 99, while this paper was in process.

My grandfather’s political dreams: Rhodesia in the 1960s

It can be hard to disentangle the personal and the academic, the work self and the home self, the private and the political. The kind of work I have done as an anthropologist has often been impacted by personal factors, with my fieldwork often informed by my position as a Zimbabwean living in South Africa, and my choice of research topics often directly influenced by my anger at the ways in which political wrangling in Zimbabwe had negatively impacted the livelihoods and possible lifeworlds open to the country’s citizens. But it is only recently that I realized the historical resonances at play in the work I do and the work done by my family members, in sometimes deeply unsettling ways. Much like anthropology’s history, my family history is one of both coloniality and of resistance to that coloniality; like ethnography, it can be read as a complex and tense engagement between individual stories and broader political economies.[282]

Let us begin, like any good ethnography, with the individual stories. I came to my grandfather’s autobiography by circuitous means. Upon being introduced to my husband’s grandmother for the first time (my marriage being a classic example of endogamy within the grouping of white radical/liberals of Harare, for all that my husband and I actually met as students in Cape Town, thousands of kilometers away), she looked at me and said, “Blair Ewing’s granddaughter? Your grandfather was a wonderful man, but I never forgave him for abandoning us to Smith in the 1960s. He should have stayed to fight, not run off to Johannesburg when the Rhodesian Front started winning,” and (as an afterthought), “Your grandmother always wore the most fabulous dresses.” My grandmother-in-law herself was a woman of inimitable style, fiercely independent, immediately lovable, and with an unwavering sense of social justice. At this stage, I didn’t know very much about my grandfather’s political history, but my new grandmother-in-law did, and she began to share it with me over afternoon tea in rainy season Harare. I remembered then that my grandfather had written an autobiography for the consumption of family and friends rather than for publication, and I decided to track it down. It was at this point that I discovered that the colonial political history that I had read in academic books and used in my own work was available in Technicolor here, in engaging prose and personal detail, in my grandfather’s words and from his perspective as a person immersed in the norms, mores, and social hierarchies of the time.

My grandfather became a politician by accident. Born in Rhodesia to parents with close links to England but whose own families had been situated in “the colonies” since their founding—my grandfather’s maternal grandfather arriving in what became Southern Rhodesia with the first “pioneer column” in 1893—he was without doubt a product of British empire. He lived a transnational childhood, moving between England and Rhodesia before being sent to boarding school in Grahamstown, South Africa, from which he matriculated at the early age of fifteen. Too young to legally go to university, he spent a year sitting in on lectures at Rhodes University in Grahamstown before registering for a degree in mining engineering at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg when he turned sixteen. This he duly completed but never used, as he was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to study toward an Honors degree in Jurisprudence at Oxford University. Upon graduating with a First, he returned to Rhodesia, married my grandmother and, after a brief stint at a law firm, found that not to his liking either and he thus returned to the family tobacco farm to become a hands-on farmer. After a few years of this, he “fell into” politics when Garfield Todd, then Prime Minister of Southern Rhodesia, was ousted as leader of the United Federal Party (UFP) because there was dissatisfaction at the sorts of liberal reforms Todd had attempted to introduce. In the fallout from this, the Party split into the (more liberal) United Rhodesia Party lead by Todd, while the old UFP was taken over by Sir Edgar Whitehead. Elections resulted: cue my grandfather, who, from his farm in Banket, was asked to sit for a rural seat in Lomagundi. The seat was going uncontested as the UFP was so disliked in that area as they were perceived as too liberal (despite the fact that they were less liberal than Todd). Given that the popular Dominion Party were, in my grandfather’s terms, “ a bunch of anachronistic right-wingers” (Ewing 1987: 89), it seemed to him to be worth contesting the Seat just for the experience of running a campaign and so as to ensure there was some sort of middle-ground option for [283]Lomagundi voters. Despite his confidence that he would lose, he won, making him the country’s youngest MP at the age of 29.

It was in this capacity that he found himself on a trip down the Zambezi, a moment that contributed to the shift in his political sensibilities that occurred throughout his time in politics. “During the election campaign,” he wrote,

my views would have to be classified as fairly right wing, indeed I would not have had a hope in hell of being elected had that not been the case, not that this was a conscious posture. Then as I began to understand the problems I must have shifted to a middle of the road approach; and later, as I really grasped what was at stake and the forces at work in Africa, I must have moved to being left of centre. All these classifications, I hasten to add, relate to the perceptions of the White Electorate in the late 50s and early 60s. From the viewpoint of the Blacks I may well have appeared as slightly to the right of Attila the Hun. (Ewing 1987: 103)

It was while he still perceived himself as “fairly right wing” that he travelled down the Zambezi, beginning his interest in the contradictions of the work of modernity and the difficulty of questions of land in a colony. The decision to build a hydroelectric dam on the Zambezi River between Northern and Southern Rhodesia was reached in 1955, as it would be able to provide electricity to two of the countries within the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. The dam had originally been intended for the Kafue River in Northern Rhodesia with an aim of powering the Copperbelt, a cheaper project with less of an impact on persons and environment, but also a less magnificent one. In his book Kariba: The struggle with a river god (1960), Frank Clements (strangely enough, the Dominion Party candidate whom everyone expected to win but whom my grandfather had beaten in the 1958 election) made it clear that grandeur, and not practicality, was an intimate part of the plan behind Kariba, such that the dam would stand as a symbol of that ideal of modernity, progress.

My grandfather’s description of the trip taken down the Zambezi to move those people who lived in the path of progress provides a snapshot of the moment, and gives unsettling insight into a colonial mindset that put the ideals of (white) modernity before (black) human cost:

Towards the end of 1959, the Kariba Dam was virtually finished, and all that remained was for us to move out all Africans presently living in the area to be inundated. The Northern Rhodesian Government had already tried to accomplish the same exercise, but it had ended in disaster, as people refused to move. They simply did not believe it was possible for the mighty Zambesi to be dammed, and that the spirit of the River God, (“Nyaminyami”) would not permit it. There had certainly been quite a few indications that the River-God was angry, and in the earlier stages of construction the Zambesi had flooded to such an extent that it looked as if the coffer dams would be swept away. The N.R. endeavor had resulted in the Governor arriving in his cocked hat with a platoon of askaris at Gwembe3 and since nobody would cooperate there was shooting, and a fair number of tribesmen had been killed and wounded.[284]

I went up with a small group consisting of the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Native Affairs, the Chief Native Commissioner, his Secretary, and two MPs. It was a marvelous trip, real Sanders of the River stuff, and we took a week travelling down the Zambesi in a large Government flat bottomed barge, stopping all the time to talk to the relatively few tribesmen that so far had refused to move. The Native Commissioner’s handling of the reluctant headmen was masterly. He would conduct a long and leisurely interview with him sitting on the barge, while the tribesman would be standing on a sandbank up to his waist in the middle of the Zambesi, with the current (and presumably crocodiles) swirling by. After a while, the man on the sandbank must have figured that his life expectancy was diminishing rapidly while the Native Commissioner continued with his quiet and calm questions, and there would be a sudden capitulation.

All told, over 21 000 Batonka people were moved away from the South Bank without the loss of a single life. But the strange thing was to travel down this great river, knowing that nobody would ever do this trip again, because when we reached the dam wall the sluice gates would be closed, and the dam would start to fill up and the river bed we were travelling down would never be seen again. (Ewing 1987: 104–5)

The internalization of colonial classificatory hierarchies (cf. Mignolo 2011) can be seen very clearly in this excerpt. I find it quite hard to read, as an anthropologist descended from, and who feels a deep love for, this man who sailed down a river in my country’s past. There is a blasé lack of consideration for life, livelihood, and connection to land in this telling of the journey, where the strange thing was to consider the land flooded and the river gone, rather than to consider what this might feel like to those people who had lived on that land, or what might be the effects on kinship relations when a dam was placed between groups, or, indeed, the ways in which crocodiles can be used as coercion. He was not alone in this lack of consideration for people: the white population of Rhodesia mobilized behind Operation Noah that rescued the wild animals that were being displaced by the floodwaters, but scant attention was paid to displaced persons. Aside, that is, from the close attention paid by anthropologists such as Elizabeth Colson and Thayer Scudder: more on this below.

To return briefly to my grandfather: over time he developed a much more radical view on the politics of land in the colony. Certainly, when he told me the story of Kariba it was with a sympathetic awareness that seems missing from the excerpt above. His first act on returning to the city from the Zambezi trip was to accuse other members of the Select Committee on Resettlement of Natives of shirking their responsibilities in the Committee’s attempts to find ways of dealing with the “problem” of black settlement in urban areas. As an MP on the Select Committee, he had frequently clashed with other party and opposition members for his take on the “land problem,” which resulted from the Land Apportionment Act that designated specific areas of the country to specific groups of persons and specific purposes. He conceptualized it thus:[285]

The more you looked at it, the more inescapable the solution was. How could we possibly go on spending millions of pounds just to remove people from an area where they were quite happily settled, just to make sure they were living in the right area of the map? I suppose it may be argued that in the political climate of White Rhodesia in 1960 it [a document he wrote that argued for the repealing of the Land Apportionment Act] was in advance of its time, and that people were just not ready to accept it, White people that is. Well, I’m not convinced that it was premature, but it certainly did contribute to our losing the General Election that swept the Rhodesian Front into power. (Ewing 1987: 108).

In 1962, just before the Rhodesian Front came into power, my grandfather was appointed Cabinet Minister of Native Affairs and District Administration, where he attempted once more to repeal the Land Apportionment Act in order that black people not be moved from the places in which they lived, but was blocked from doing so from within his party. He did succeed, however, in involving black people in a more meaningful manner in local government, but such victories were short-lived. After a fiercely contested election that effectively pitted those who would see majority rule come about against those who would not, the Rhodesian Front came into power in 1962. My grandfather remained in Parliament as an Opposition MP for another year, at which point he tendered his resignation, tired of “parliamentary clashes which I didn’t really enjoy, but I refused to let the RF get away with their half-truths and evasions” (Ewing 1987: 141). In August 1963 he left politics. “In my final speech,” he wrote, twenty-five years later, “I tore Ian Smith apart for his incredible insinuation that any Rhodesian who did not fall behind the R.F. like sheep were disloyal. And I also said that UDI, then freely being spoken about, would be a total disaster for the country, and totally unnecessary. Not that it did me any good” (142). It was this act of abandonment—leaving, instead of fighting the policies of the Rhodesian Front—that my grandmother-in-law, herself involved in the politics of the time, remembered when she met me forty-odd years later.

The Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) did indeed ensue, but only after my grandfather and his family (my mother included) had left Rhodesia, not to return until the country’s independence in 1980. My grandfather described the move as a “traumatic, wrenching process” (Ewing 1987: 142)—like the Tonga people at Gwembe, then, he experienced what it is to feel a loss of place. Unlike Tonga people, however, he had a choice. In 1965 Smith’s UDI separated Rhodesia from Britain and thus from the processes of decolonization that were occurring in other colonies and that my grandfather had sought to see occur in Rhodesia. My grandfather spoke of those years that led to and incorporated the second Chimurenga (liberation struggle) as “a wasted fifteen years” for the country in which life and livelihood were lost by many, when the transition to majority rule could have been achieved differently. My grandparents and all three of their then grown children only returned to Zimbabwe in the early 1980s, following independence, at a time when many of the conservative white voters who had ousted my grandfather from politics were leaving. I, myself, was born in Durban, South Africa, and moved “home” to Zimbabwe when I was two months old.[286]

Mobilizing colonial family histories in teaching anthropology: Encountering Colson’s The social consequences of resettlement

The above then constitutes my personal and familial engagement with the history of Lake Kariba, a historical vignette, if you will, of one particularized example of the last days of colonialism in Rhodesia. How has this positioning impacted upon the ways in which I have approached teaching the history of anthropology? Perhaps the best way to continue is as I would do in seminars where I have used Colson’s text for teaching purposes: to move from my personal history to Colson’s, and in so doing speak to the ways in which the works of Colson and other anthropologists from the Rhodes Livingstone Institute were understood at the time, and have been understood after the fact. In so doing, I introduce the work of intellectual historian Lyn Schumaker, whose book, Africanising anthropology (2001), provides a cogent and detailed analysis of the Rhodes Livingstone Institute and its intellectuals. I also consider some of the critiques of anthropology as a colonial discipline that emerged in the 1970s: specifically, Talal Asad’s (1973) Anthropology and the colonial encounter, and, more locally, the critique of the Rhodes Livingstone Institute offered by South African anthropologist Bernard Magubane (1971). Finally, I consider the ways in which present-day anthropological analyses of similar topics, as seen in Alan Isaacman and Barbara Isaacman’s (2013) ethnography of Cahora Bassa Dam in neighboring Mozambique, have followed this genealogy of representation to allow for greater inclusion of “bottom up” voices. Moving between these texts allows for a historical consideration of anthropology in the region, as well as for a conversation about the value of detailed ethnography in challenging (and in some instances reinforcing) colonial forms of representation.

Elizabeth Colson’s take on the building of Kariba differed to that of the government, and that of my grandfather. Her 1971 monograph, The social consequences of resettlement, opens with the line, “Massive technological development hurts” (Colson 1971: 1). While most of the white population in Rhodesia, following the example set by government and administration, steadfastly ignored the human costs of building the Kariba dam wall, a sector of academic society did not: the anthropologists. Elizabeth Colson joined the Rhodes Livingstone Institute in Northern Rhodesia in 1946, when Max Gluckman was the director, at which point she undertook a year’s fieldwork at Gwembe among a grouping of people who practiced agriculture in the fertile soils along the Zambezi’s banks. She later returned to the site in the 1950s at the time of resettlement, and her 1971 monograph thus draws on fieldwork from the 1940s to the 1960s: prior to, during, and after resettlement.

The Rhodes Livingstone Institute (RLI) was founded in 1937 under Godfrey Wilson, and was the first social science research institute in Africa, acting as a base from which anthropological research could be conducted across Southern and Central Africa. By the time Colson arrived there, it was under the Directorship of Max Gluckman. Fieldwork was at the core of the RLI’s activities, with anthropologists and assistants developing their methodology and theory in response to work in the field, rather than conducting fieldwork that was driven by theory (Schumaker 2001; Colson 2008). In Colson’s initial time there this was driven by Max Gluckman, who was an intellectual descendant of Evans-Pritchard and Radcliffe-Brown, but it was a characteristic of the RLI from its inception under [287]Godfrey Wilson. Wilson and Gluckman also both imbued the work of the Institute with a sense of moral imperative, in that the work they did was directed toward solving the problems experienced by Africans as a result of rapid social change4 (Schumaker 2001). Although based in Livingstone, the RLI had close links to academics from a multitude of disciplines working in South Africa, such that the cohort that Colson originally worked with in 1946 began their stay with a series of “study sessions” (Schumaker 2001: 87) at the University of Cape Town. Here, under Gluckman’s guidance, researchers were introduced to the intellectual work (and often, the persons themselves) of South African thinkers such as Hilda Kuper, Monica Wilson, and Ellen Hellman, among others.

Gluckman, who went on to develop the Manchester School of anthropology when he left the RLI for Manchester in the late 1940s, is of course renowned for the method of situational analysis. The best known exemplar of this, his “Analysis of a social situation in modern Zululand,” (1940; also known colloquially as The Bridge) gives insight into the ways in which activities at the RLI were influenced by a recognition of the effects of the wider political economy of empire on everyday happenings in [288]colonial Africa. In the article, Gluckman describes the opening of a bridge in a district of Zululand in South Africa, and a later magistrate’s district meeting on the same day. In his description of the two events Gluckman analyzes the interactions between white and black African groups at the two settings as part of a single Southern African social system that was in turn part of a global system, rather than considering “the Zulu” to be a bounded whole that were somehow removed from the wider social context as was common to anthropology at the time. In essence, the article showed the ways in which people existed within local, national, and global political economies, and the sorts of conflicts that emerged from such (Gluckman 1940). Gluckman (1946: 38) considered the area in which the RLI was located to be a “human laboratory across the Zambesi” within which it was possible to conduct comparative research on urban-rural connections and the difficulties arising from urbanization. He stressed that the different racial and tribal groups, as they were categorized at the time, were all members of a single community that was characterized by circular migration patterns themselves driven by colonial capitalism. These were radical ideas for the time.

This was the disciplinary and intellectual context into which Colson arrived, and to which she then contributed, joining the team of new researchers at the University of Cape Town in 1946 before they dispersed into the field, assigned by Gluckman to various sites. The RLI was interested in social change—as Schumaker notes, “Few untouched societies remained to be studied in Britain’s colonial territories, and anthropology had to justify its growth as a profession by demonstrating the need for research in areas where European penetration and resulting social change were far advanced” (Schumaker 2001: 23). This intellectual quest was also one informed by the logic of colonialism—funding for fieldwork in Africa became available at this period due to the need to gain knowledge that would be useful for processes of governance in the colonies (Schumaker 2001: 23). The impetus of modernity and development also impacted, with anthropologists from the RLI engaging with colonial African development policy that was informed by ideals of agricultural practices that more closely resonated with “a romantic vision of English vision life, transferred to Africa” (Schumaker 2001: 25) than the realities of agricultural and social conditions in Southern and Central Africa. Gluckman’s choice of field sites for RLI researchers was thus influenced by intellectual considerations, such as testing the theories of other anthropologists or finding spaces for comparative work on the effects of urbanization, migration, and social change, but he also chose sites “based on the advice of colonial government officials about the places that, in their estimation, would be most useful to investigate” (Schumaker 2001: 80). In some inescapable ways, then, the RLI was entangled in the colonial context of its time and was without doubt immersed in a project of knowledge making about Africa and Africans that carried colonial influence. The very name of the institution reflects two main projects of colonialism—the economic and the cosmological/civilizing mission—as exemplified by the missionary Stanley Livingstone, and the colonial capitalist, Cecil John Rhodes. It was thus nicknamed “the Saint and Sinner Institute” by Evans-Pritchard (Schumaker 2001: 52). In many ways, then, the RLI was immersed in the broader projects and discourses of colonialism. Talal Asad’s (1973) seminal critique of structural functionalist anthropology focused on this entanglement and on the ways in which the categorizations of colonialism resulted in an objectification of the subjects of anthropology: the people. Anthropology, in this reading, was a colonized and colonial discipline. It could be argued, however, that the real focus of Asad’s critique was not the discipline per se but rather the discourses of modernity that frame topics and order society, and academic disciplines, in particular ways. The researchers of the RLI, for all that they were immersed within it, were not necessarily convinced that modernity was such a good thing. Thus, while without doubt entangled in colonialism, the RLI was also able to be a space of resistance. Gluckman’s single society approach was a radical one: to contextualize it in terms of prevailing ideas of the time, Schumaker notes that a magazine that Gluckman often wrote for in order to get his ideas across to a popular audience, Libertas, carried articles at the same point in time that “described the Bushmen as ‘living human fossils’ and outlined the ‘duty and the mission of white man’s civilization in Africa’” (Schumaker 2001: 286).

Colonialism, for all its heft, was thus not a system without internal variation. “Analyses of anthropology as the ‘handmaiden of colonialism,’” Schumaker notes, “often portray colonialism as a hegemonic system, more or less uniform in its discourses, motives and practice. In these accounts, anthropologists are implicated by their position in the system, and little scope is given for their own agency or the agency of the people they study” (Schumaker 2001: 7). Contrary to this simplistic view, Schumaker shows the ways in which anthropologists present at the Rhodes Livingstone Institute were both a part of colonialism and resistant to it; one’s position within the racialized hierarchies of the global colonial system did not necessitate agreement with others in those same positions. This is not to say that cultural and social factors didn’t influence the ways in which such anthropologists conducted ethnographic fieldwork and generated theory.

A return to Colson, and the building of Kariba, can help to illustrate this. Colson had taken over the Directorship of the RLI from 1947 when Gluckman left for Manchester: like her predecessors, she maintained a commitment to research-based [289]theorizing. Her work with people identifying as Tonga began in the late 1940s, followed by a hiatus from Gwembe, which ended when she returned in 1956 with fellow researcher Thayer Scudder. The aim of fieldwork in the 1950s was specifically to study the effects of resettlement once the plans for Kariba were finalized. The ethnography Colson presents as a result of a number of years of fieldwork examines life at Gwembe before the move, and life in the first few years after resettlement. It stands as an excellent example of ethnography in a number of ways: the detail is immense and extraordinary, from agricultural practices to drinking patterns to livestock numbers to cosmological and kinship relations, Colson covers life in the Zambezi Valley with a completeness that is not often seen in contemporary ethnography, especially when the text is read in tandem with an earlier work on Gwembe (Colson 1960). Her core concern in The social consequences of resettlement is social change and, like other RLI anthropologists, it is clear that her personal and academic sensibilities are not aligned with the grand projects of colonialism and modernity. In the introduction, she writes, “If this book has a message, it is an old one long sounded by other anthropologists and students of social change: that it is folly to allow technology to determine policy” (Colson 1971: 3). Her disdain for the grandeur of Kariba as a politico-economic project is clear, as is her awareness of the reach of global politics and global economics in affecting local spaces. It is thus a useful text to use in teaching to highlight that even prior to the reflexive turn, anthropologists were deeply aware of such issues:

In 1955 the Prime Minister of the new Federation announced the decision to build a dam at Kariba, rather than on the Kafue River, where it would have been entirely within Zambia. The dam would provide power for the Copperbelt of Zambia and the growing industrial plant largely centred in Rhodesia. It would also create the largest man-made lake in the world. The great dam and the great lake would be permanent symbols of the power of the new State and its dedication to economic progress. The project was also a monument to the international nature of the contemporary world, financed as it was by a loan from the World Bank and other international banking houses, built by an Italian firm with plans supplied by a French engineering company and with labour drawn from Italy, Tanzania and Malawi. Its primary customers were to be the mines controlled by financial interests based largely in the United States, Britain and South Africa. For the international world of technology and finance, Kariba Dam was therefore a triumph. Few bothered about the implications for Gwembe people, even though some who lived outside central Africa worried about the effect upon the wildlife of Gwembe and organized expeditions to rescue wart-hogs and elephants, kudu and snakes, baboons and rhinoceri from the rising floodwaters. If they thought of the people of the region it seems to have been with the happy expectation that they would adjust, while their loss would be offset to the gain to those who would build the dam, use its power, or perhaps find a vacation home upon its lake. (Colson 1971: 4)

There is a trend in post–reflexive turn anthropology to conceptualize anthropology and ethnography prior to the late 1970s / early 1980s as having little sense of global politics, and having little sense of the fluidities and socio-political constructedness [290]of the categories to which people in Southern Africa (and elsewhere) belonged. Colson’s The social consequences of resettlement, and other work to come out of the RLI, gives the lie to this generalized overcorrecting of “old” anthropology that occurred post–reflexive turn. RLI researchers, Colson among them, were deeply aware of the political and economic context—which they had to negotiate in order to undertake fieldwork at all—even while they were part of it. In their fieldwork they had to deal with the ramifications of colonial racism and sexism, from an agricultural officer preventing Colson from putting her tent where she wished on the Gwembe Plateau in a bid to protect her (Schumaker 2001: 134) to Gwembe Tonga women living with the effects of racist epistemologies such that they insisted Colson witness the birth of children so that she could prove to white settlers in the area that they were not born with tails like monkeys (Schumaker 2001: 135). While Colson’s style, particularly her emphasis upon Gwembe as being a space for a scientific case study through which anthropologists could explore the longitudinal effects of a large-scale crisis upon members of a community, might not find favor with postmodern anthropologists, the actual substance of her work is closely aligned to any work that considers political economy important. Like my grandfather, Colson was immersed within empire; like him, albeit in very different ways, she worked simultaneously within and against the norms of that empire.

It is worth noting that while Colson may have come to “the colonies” as a foreigner and as a researcher, it is a place she made into her home and the place in which she died, aged 99. As Laura Nader (2016) noted in Colson’s obituary in Anthropology News, “For Colson, fieldwork was a way of life. . . . Given that Elizabeth Colson considered her field site home, it is fitting that she worked, lived, died and was buried there. The funeral took about 4 ½ hours. Truckloads of Zambians attended—tribal chiefs, university people, government people, Zambian singing. They drummed and danced, drumming and singing to the grave. 100kg of maizemeal was cooked, two cows were slaughtered and 100 cabbages cut. Elizabeth Colson would have loved this last ritual.” In Colson’s life, work, and death, the lines between researcher and participant, outsider and local, are increasingly blurred.

In her anthropological work, Colson brought considerable evidence to bear upon her position on the negative effects of resettlement on the people of Gwembe. Unlike my grandfather, who encountered the Tonga as occasional nameless “tribesmen” on the banks of the river, to Colson, Scudder, and their longtime field assistants the people of Gwembe were real, knowable, and known men and women. She documents the effects of resettlement upon kinship, both with the living and with the dead (as seen through what she refers to as the Cult of the Shades) in order to argue that while the wider kinship system made it through the move intact, relationships with The Cult of the Earth took serious strain as people moved from the shrines and land they knew to areas not inhabited by Earth spirits. While the ancestral Shades were able to move like men, the Earth-bound spirits could not and were overcome by the water. In such ways does technological development hurt. While Colson ultimately shows the ways in which people resettled into new relationships with each other and with the land, her ethnographic descriptions of the processes that took place in order to get to that point show the ways in which the march of colonial modernity displayed little sympathy for certain kinds of persons. Colson relates the minutiae of daily life first to the wider societal context of Gwembe and [291]from there to the wider politico-economic context of Southern Africa. As one reviewer of her work commented at the time, while “societies are abstractions which can effortlessly maintain themselves through periods of crisis, human beings are not theoretical constructs and, as such, experience concrete suffering. Colson is too much of a humanist to overlook this” (Arens 1973). Her work thus allows the reader to know the difficulties experienced and overcome by Tonga people in ways that my grandfather, from his position on board the boat while the tribesman stood in the water, was not able to do, or to see. To me, a descendant of that (for his time, quite radical) politician, this is one of the reasons why anthropology matters. Anthropology in the present follows this tradition of giving academic space to voices from the ground: for example, Isaacman and Isaacman’s 2013 volume on Cahora Bassa, Dams, displacement, and the delusion of development: Cahora Bassa and its legacies in Mozambique, was based on long-term research and more than three hundred oral interviews. The book aims to provide an alternative history of Cahora Bassa, “one that seeks to recover, or bring to the surface, what the master narrative of Mozambique colonial and postcolonial state actors have suppressed” (Isaacman and Isaacman 2013: 7). It is exactly this kind of critique, based on voices from “below” the master narrative, that Colson provided for Kariba, a dam on the same river as Cahora Bassa, forty years previously.

For all its strengths, the work of the RLI has, of course, not gone uncritiqued. Famously, in 1971, Bernard Magubane used the work of the RLI as a case study through which to critique anthropology as a colonial pursuit; Magubane argued that the categories used by RLI writers reinforced notions of primitivism, particularly as seen through the use of the concept of tribalism. Both Schumaker (2001) and Bruce Kapferer (2006) argue, however, that Magubane’s critique was reactive to colonial categories without taking into consideration some of the ways in which the RLI approach fundamentally differed from these colonial categories, even while it may have used some of the same terminology. Magubane thus glossed over the ways in which the version of tribalism generated by RLI theorists referred to an ethnic construct that resulted from colonial-era socio-economic power relations: that resulted in other words, from colonial modernity rather than primitivism. In this, the strength of the RLI’s fieldwork-centered approach can clearly be seen. Unlike other theorists working within categories generated by colonialism’s internal epistemological frameworks that categorized “natives” as somehow lesser, the RLI categories emerged from on the ground work, which showed how tribalism was situationally created within the context of colonial capitalism. Magubane’s critique, then, is unfair to the kind of radical theorizing that was done within and against the constraints of the time. Magubane’s opinion thus differed to the view taken by African nationalists in Northern Rhodesia, who instead found the work of RLI anthropologists useful for the emergent project of nationalism that saw the creation of independent Zambia.

Magubane’s work is important, however, in that it raised issues of the representation of Africans in anthropology. Some of the critique that takes context into better consideration is thus more aptly viewed as a critique of the colonial constraints generated by disciplinary (and societal) conventions rather than a critique of the authors themselves. For example, Schumaker’s (2001) book highlights the fact that the anthropological knowledge that was generated by the RLI was a result [292]of collaborations between anthropologists, informants, and the fieldwork assistants who are often invisible in the final texts. In this, we see an element of the construction of anthropological knowledge that is rooted in the colonial origins of the discipline but that is still relevant today: the question of who is able to represent culture and persons with authority and who is not. A recent biographical consideration of the work done by Monica Wilson, edited by South African brothers Leslie Bank and Andrew Bank (2013), has similarly shown the ways in which research assistants were coproducers of cultural knowledge. Despite such coproduction in the field, the name on the finished product, however, was that of the (usually white) anthropologist, with acknowledgment of the (usually black) research assistant confined to the acknowledgments pages or not present at all. Thus, while Colson and other members of the RLI managed to produce works that critiqued colonialism in important ways, in other ways their work was, of course, influenced by the norms of the time. Moreover, these are norms that are still prevalent in anthropological works today. To return full circle to the present moment of anthropology as it is occurring in Southern African academies today, then—to return to the undergraduate classroom in which we teach our histories and engage with present day debates— it is worth highlighting the calls that are being made in the present by anthropologists such as Francis Nyamnjoh (2012), Bank and Bank (2013), and Schumaker (2001) for an acknowledgment of the ways in which anthropological knowledge is coproduced.

A personal postamble

What I have provided here is a personal history of encountering and teaching a particular text, and the ways in which that personal history led to engagements with a (well-documented) history of anthropology in Southern Africa. Colson’s The social consequences of resettlement, in combination with my family history, has enabled me to teach the history of anthropology, and of its historical roots of resistance to the logic of colonialism, in a way that allowed for an affirmation of classic texts and techniques, and a simultaneous intense engagement with the ways in which the discipline has provided a space for resistance to coloniality, even while it was embroiled within it, both during colonialism and in the present.

Why does this matter? As I write this article, the students of the University of Cape Town, where I teach, are engaged in a loud, effective, and meaningful protest against institutional racism at the university. The protest began with a call to take down a statue of Cecil John Rhodes, who donated the land on which the university stands—land that, the students argue, should not have been his to “donate” in the first place. This matters to this article—which has touched on issues of land and dispossession, and throughout which the name Rhodes has resonated—because coloniality has not disappeared with the end of colonialism (Mignolo 2011). University curricula draw on particular kinds of experience in their pedagogy and content, and are designed for particular kinds of imagined students (Morreira 2015). The students whom I teach this history of anthropology that I have narrated here—joyfully? painfully? tragically?—are those selfsame students who even today are having to call for colonial symbolisms to not be celebrated in our intellectual institutions. [293]In many (not all) of the instances of this long-standing protest (which has spread from the University of Cape Town to Rhodes University in Grahamstown, to the Matopos region of Zimbabwe where Rhodes is buried in an area sacred to Ndebele people, to Oxford University in the United Kingdom), the students have made their calls with an awareness of historical context and with an embeddedness in the identity politics of the present. In those instances where they haven’t, and where race-based essentializing has guided the response rather than a more nuanced discussion of power and history, the history of how knowledge came to be made matters even more. When I began to write this article, a core group of students had situated themselves within what was the University’s Bremner Building, the administrative center of the university, now renamed by them Azania House, where they awaited the bringing down of the statue and in the meantime shared poetry and discussed issues of the curriculum and how it might be decolonized. Many of the students making this call were humanities and social science students; many of the staff who supported the call were academics in humanities and social science disciplines. The historical context of our disciplines and of our gaze matters to those students camped out in Azania House, and to those of us academics who watch and join in where we are able: joyful, tragic, painful engagements with our disciplinary and familial lineages are not instances of navel gazing into the past but are part of the essential work of the present.


Arens, William. 1973. “Book review of The social consequences of resettlement.” American Anthropologist 75 (6): 1829–31.

Asad, Talal, ed. 1973. Anthropology and the colonial encounter. Atlantic Heights, NJ: Ithaca Press.

Bank, Andrew, and Leslie Bank, eds. 2013. Inside African anthropology: Monica Wilson and her interpreters. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Clements, Frank. 1960. Kariba: The struggle with the river god. New York: Putnam.

Colson, Elizabeth. 1960. The social organization of the Gwembe Tonga. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

———. 1971. The social consequences of resettlement. Manchester: Manchester University Press, on behalf of the Institute for African Studies, University of Zambia.

———. 2008. “Defining ‘The Manchester School’ of anthropology.” Current Anthropology 49 (2): 335–37. doi: 10.1086/524226.

Ewing, Blair. 1987. “‘A charmed life’: The Blair Ewing story.” Unpublished manuscript: Author’s private collection.

Gluckman, Max. 1940. “The analysis of a social situation in modern Zululand.” Rhodes-Livingstone Papers 28. Livingstone: Rhodes Livingstone Institute.

———. 1946. “A human laboratory across the Zambesi.” Libertas 6 (4): 38–49.[294]

Kapferer, Bruce. 2006. “Situations, crisis and the anthropology of the concrete: The contribution of Max Gluckman.” In The Manchester School: Practice and ethnographic praxis in anthropology, edited by Terry Evens and Don Handelman, 118–51. New York: Berghahn Books.

Kotze, Dirk. 2015. “Navigating South Africa’s loaded political lexicon.” The Conversation, June 9. https://theconversation.com/navigating-south-africas-loaded-political-lexicon-42791.

Isaacman, Alan, and Barbara Isaacman. 2013. Dams, displacement, and the delusion of development: Cahora Bassa and its legacies in Mozambique, 1965–2007. Athens: Ohio University Press.

Magubane, Bernard. 1971. “A critical look at the indices used in the study of social change in colonial Africa.” Current Anthropology 12 (4/5): 419–45. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2740927.

Mignolo, Walter. 2011. The darker side of Western modernity: Global futures, decolonial options. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Morreira, Shannon. 2012. “Anthropological futures: Thoughts on social research and the ethics of engagement.” Anthropology Southern Africa 35 (3–4): 100–104.

———. 2015. “Steps towards decolonial higher education in Southern Africa: Epistemic disobedience in the humanities.” Journal of African and Asian Studies. doi:10.1177/0021909615577499.

Nader, Laura. 2016. “In memoriam: Elizabeth Florence Colson.” Anthropology News 19, August 2016. http://www.anthropology-news.org/index.php/2016/08/19/elizabeth-florence-colson/.

Nyamnjoh, Francis. 2012. “Blinded by sight: Divining the future of anthropology in Africa.” Africa Spectrum 47 (2–3): 63–92. http://journals.sub.uni-hamburg.de/giga/afsp/article/view/551/549.

Quijano, Anibal. 2007. “Coloniality and modernity/rationality.” Cultural Studies 21 (2–3): 168–78.

Schumaker, Lyn. 2001. Africanising anthropology: Fieldwork, networks, and the making of cultural knowledge in Central Africa. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Spiegel, Andrew. 2005. “From exposé to care: Preliminary thoughts about shifting the ethical concerns of South African social anthropology.” Anthropology Southern Africa 28 (3–4): 133–41.

Travailler avec les illusions de nos grands-parents: lignage et héritage coloniaux dans l’anthropologie sud-africaine

Résumé : A la fin des années 50, mon grand-père, Blair Ewing, un homme politique de la Rhodésie du Sud (Zimbabwe actuel), fut l’un des derniers à emprunter le cours de la rivière Zambezi avant que le remplissage du Lac Kariba n’altère définitivement sa route. Son rôle était de convaincre ceux qui résistaient à la politique de déplacement et relocalisation que leurs seules options étaient de se déplacer ou de mourir. Cet épisode le marqua de façon permanente: la logique déshumanisante [295]du colonialisme et de la modernité y fut mise à nu, et ce sont des leçons qu’ils partagea souvent avec ses petits-enfants. Alors que j’étais un jeune adulte, j’ai commencé à enseigner l’anthropologie à l’Université de Cape Town. L’un des textes que j’enseignais, “The Social Consequences of resettlement” par Elizabeth Colson, mis l’histoire personnelle de ma famille en conversation avec l’histoire de la discipline qu’est l’anthropologie en Afrique du Sud. Dans cet article, je relate cette rencontre.

Shannon MORREIRA is a Zimbabwean academic who lives and works in Cape Town, South Africa. An anthropologist by training, she works in an Education Development Unit at the University of Cape Town where she teaches and studies the anthropology of education and rights. Her book, Rights after wrongs: Local knowledge and human rights in Zimbabwe, was published in May 2016.

Shannon Morreira
Humanities Education Development Unit
University of Cape Town
Private Bag X3
Rondebosch, 7701, South Africa



1. As Dirk Kotze (2015) has noted, in the South African context, the term liberal carries different connotations than it does in the American context. Liberals in South Africa (but not, interestingly, Zimbabwe, where the term as I have used it and heard it used is closer to the American) could be said to be closer to American Conservatives. During apartheid the white liberals supported a more benign racism as represented through qualified franchise for black people, and in the present tend to support policies of the free market without state intervention (Kotze 2015). White liberals in South Africa were thus in opposition to white radicals, who more closely represent what the term liberal often means elsewhere in the world. In Zimbabwe, then, my family presently positions itself as liberal; in South Africa, the term is more loaded.

2. The notion of coloniality originated in the work of Latin American scholar Anibal Quijano, and has subsequently been expanded on by Walter Mignolo, and refers to the epistemological frameworks that underlay colonialism. The authors argue that while colonialism demarcated a temporal period that has now ended, coloniality remains in the way modernity is structured and organized (Quijano 2007; Mignolo 2011).

3. Gwembe was where Elizabeth Colson, the other subject of this archival article, conducted her fieldwork. The two texts then are not entirely geographically aligned, in that Colson’s ethnography examines the Northern Rhodesia side of the Zambezi, while my grandfather’s reports on the Southern. Nonetheless, the texts are commensurate and provide interesting contrasts between the political position and the anthropological one, which are telling. I will return to this below, where considering Colson’s 1960s.

4. In some ways, a sense of moral urgency has imbued Southern African anthropology ever since. See Spiegel (2005); Morreira (2012).