Engaging Mafeje's Ghost: Fort Hare and the Virtues of 'Homeland' Anthropology
In 2015, in the year preceding the centenary of South Africa's oldest historically black university, the University of Fort Hare, the vice chancellor of the university, Dr. Mvuyo Tom, asked academics who were presenting inaugural lectures in that year to specifically reflect on their work and their disciplines in the light of the history of Fort Hare. In this article, which was first delivered as a lecture in May 2015, I take up the vice chancellor's request by reflecting on the role and significance of Fort Hare in the history and practice of social anthropology in southern Africa and in the Eastern Cape in particular. I ground my analysis in the critiques of the discipline that were initiated in southern Africa through the work of Archie Mafeje, an intellectual son of the Eastern Cape in the late 1960s and have recently been reproduced in various forms. To address this critique, I turn to the history of the discipline and its two main South African variants, social anthropology and volkekunde, and discuss the intellectual origins, content and focus of the former at the University of Fort Hare during the 1940s and 1950s. I will show that social anthropology was warmly and enthusiastically embraced by African scholars and leading liberation figures at the university at that time, who domesticated the discipline within their own concerns about African nationalism and identity. In the final part, I revisit the work of regional anthropologists in the Eastern Cape, including Monica Wilson, Philip Mayer, and others (including myself), to highlight the virtues of what I call a regional tradition of 'homeland anthropology'. I suggest this brand of anthropology still powerful and enduring insights one of the offers that help us understand the region and the country. My aim here is not to shield anthropology from its complex and compromised past, it is rather to make a case for the domestication of the discipline in a regional and African context by building on its own history as a discipline in Africa.