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Making a Difference: How Anthropology Constructed South Africa’s colony, Namibia.

Colonialism was not only racist and exploitative, it was also ridiculous. Indeed it was the absurd rules of etiquette that largely radicalized the anti-colonial movements. This project considers how ‘native experts’, in particular ethnologists, contributed to framing this ridiculous situation in one country, Namibia, South Africa’s ‘forgotten’ colony. Following recent studies in the sociology and philosophy of science I initially treat expertise not as inherent but as ‘performative’; that is, how audiences, real, potential and imagined, shape their discourse. Starting with the pre-colonial terrain, and moving through the German colonial efforts I show how this set up the framework for South African efforts which ranged from initially denying the importance of specialist native expertise to cynically manipulating anthropological expertise at the International Court of Justice to justify Apartheid and naively arguing that since ethnic groups in Namibia were relatively insular they were the ideal testing ground for ‘Grand Apartheid’. Finally, I discuss the role of ethnologists in the so-called ‘Border War’ and how expertise gained in this War was used in ‘covert operations’ in South Africa to subvert anti-Apartheid forces. The project is based on extensive archival research in Germany, Namibia and South Africa (especially the Verwoerd and Bruwer papers) and in-depth interviews conducted in South Africa and Namibia.


Fellows involved in this project

South Africa

Related publications

Book/Book Chapter

Gordon, Robert J. 2021. South Africa’s Dreams. Ethnologists and Apartheid in Namibia. Berghahn Books.

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Is any information on this page incorrect or outdated? Please notify Ms. Nel-Mari Loock at [email protected].