Archive: Issue No. 68, April 2003

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Thank You Barbara Pollack
by Sean O'Toole

In a news story titled 'Barbara Pollack on SA Art', I mentioned my distaste for her use of the word tribe. After some meditative time alone, I realise that I may have overstated my case. (Or simply become embroiled in the more profound problem of language in South Africa.)

After publishing my comment in the April 1 update of ArtThrob, I had opportunity one evening to read Robert Thornton's essay 'The Potential Boundaries in South Africa: steps towards a theory of the social edge', published in Postcolonial Identities in Africa, (Zed Books, 1996).

Thornton, an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Witwatersrand, offered this interesting analysis: "The South African condition is more postmodern than it is postcolonial. This is especially marked in what Steven Tyler would call the 'unspeakable' character of contemporary South Africa: there are quite literally no names, no vocabulary, to discuss major aspects and parts of its political being."

Thornton further elaborates: "There is no agreement on what are the boundaries of 'Black', of 'White', of 'Indian' or 'Coloured'." He remarks that, "No one knows whether to refer to 'tribes', 'ethnic groups', 'language groups' 'peoples' or races. There is no simple way to 'be Zulu ' since the king, the ethnic party (Inkatha Freedom Party), the region (KwaZulu Natal) and the category of 'speakers of Zulu' are all in conflict in some domains, and unresolved in all domains. Not even colour is a reliable signifier any longer."

All of which tends to suggest that an apology is order, which I am happy to do. Yes Ms. Pollack, you were right, tribes it is. But let me insert a treacherous but here. If I read Robert Thornton's text correctly, I was right too. There are other ways to describe these tribes. Or am I just confused? Whatever the case, thank you Ms. Pollack; I think I am finally coming to grips with the vagaries of postmodernism.

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