“Anthropologist and Accomplice in Botswana” by Jacqueline Solway

Solway, Jacqueline. (2005). “Anthropologist and Accomplice in Botswana.” In Anne Meneley and Donna J. Young (Eds.), Auto-Ethnographies: The Anthropology of Academic Practices (113-125). Toronto, Ontario: Broadview Press.  

In this chapter, Jacqueline Solway employs her fieldwork experiences to tell us a few ‘anti anti-morality tales’. Her message is largely aimed at young anthropologists, who possess supposed tendencies of succumbing to hubris despite their motivation for empowering social change. Solway gently reminds us of our assumed position as active anthropologists as instead being mere ‘inconsequential’ actors (or should that be witnesses?) to a wider scheme of history unfolding. Her reflexive tone regarding anthropologists’ involvement in Botswanian affairs is cautionary, if not pragmatic, rather than cynical or dismissive.

Solway traces particular occurrences in Botswana’s political and social history to identify the process of social change as one that includes ethnic-rights activists and organizations vying for a position of established authority and acknowledgment in the political system. Solway’s account begins in the late 1970s with the political economy involving diamond mines. The success and wealth resultant from these mining projects led to an emergent middle class. Subsequently, the newfound wealth of the 1980s bore a reformation of the education system. Solway explains that local wealth also influenced notions of autonomy, thus diminishing the expressed importance of foreign aid. As a reformed community took shape in the Kalahari area, Solway describes the 1990s as a period of strife regarding conflicting ethnic identity politics between Bakgalagadi and Tswana peoples.

Much of this strife involved the notion of democracy and its applicable uses and/or misuses. Solway describes working with activists and local scholars to compile information that would become the report that she wrote and addressed to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Solway’s account describes the usual ping-pong game played between the political administration and her affiliated organization. Two Tswana state policies of note came to the fore as primary concerns due to the marginalization and the lack of acknowledgment of non-Tswanan identities. Enacting the detective’s persona, Solway recounts tracking down a particular legal document with a supposed ‘keyword’ to emancipation, which isn’t without its own sense of historical irony of colonialism: where the keyword refers to ethnic groups of human beings as belonging to a particular ‘stock’, of all things!

This bad joke snowballs even further into colonial anthropological history. The legal document entitled, The Ethnic Composition of Tswana Tribes (1946), was originally written by colonial-anthropologist Isaac Schapera. Solway provides some measure of context. Circa 1940, she tells us the colonial administration that employed anthropologists carries somewhat of a contentious history. Anthropologists collecting data would often write reports concerning rituals and detailed accounts of the locals. This kind of information was all but relevant to the colonial administrators. Their purpose in employing anthropologists was to have them perform the undesirable task of being around the locals long enough to acquire competence in local customs, in order to then impart this knowledge to British officers on site. Schapera’s document was one such report and would become part of the legal system in contemporary Botswana.

However morally questionable the history of Schapera’s document may be, Solway tells us how the document, still in effect and accordance to contemporary Tswana constitution, established ancestral associations rather than ethnic divisions in the territory of Botswana. This meant that the Tswana government would have to legally attend to the document, which they did, and concede House of Chiefs membership entry to a number of representative groups.

For Solway, the occurrence of social change does not end here. Her account shows how a colonial-made document somehow managed to accomplish some measure of ‘good’ for Botswana’s disenfranchised and marginalized ethnic groups. But, this is a case of savvy legal work and clever sleuthing. Before this particular case had unfolded and served to benefit Botswanian people, Solway tells us Schapera was considered as just another colonial confined to history books. Solway considers the irony of Schapera’s promotion from ‘cultural pariah to cultural hero’ within the Botswanian community and universities. She hints to Schapera’s credit, were he still alive, that he may have even contributed to working with advocates for ethnic human rights. And yet, his shortcomings as an advocate on behalf of anthropology to the colonial administration remain evident. In short, Solway is informing us of the power of interpretation, and how history can allow unsavory aspects to slide in place of more contemporary and pressing issues.

This is not permission to be or act irresponsibly; in fact, it is quite the contrary. Indeed, Solway admits to taking part in the whole scheme as an ‘accomplice’, and yet her personal victory is not without its own sense of reflexivity. Solway closes with a final anecdote, set in the 2000s, whereupon she had been granted permission for further research in the same Kalahari region. She re-encounters a woman she had met 2 years prior at the research office who inquires about the nature of her research. Solway discovers that activists had come to the region claiming to be anthropologists, intent on filming the Bushmen of the Kalahari in order to promote their views of Botswana’s inhumane treatment of its people. According to Solway, the ensuing public reaction had a detrimental effect on the diamond production industry, causing grievous damages to Botswanian public relations. Here, we are presented with the other side of the traditional ‘conquering colonialist’ – that of the ‘colonial hero’ – poised and ready to save the people from themselves and unafraid to brashly inform the world of the injustice of foreign lands. As a result, Solway again wisely reminds us to instead practice and represent anthropology as sensitive, disciplined, and not too seriously.

In my view, Solway’s words are wise, catering to a kind of pragmatism that should be practiced by all anthropologists, and most carefully amongst activists. Solway has shown how a colonial document, intended as an expedient classification system of Botswanian people, was transmuted into a voice to politically acknowledge various ethnic groups. While this is a somewhat of a fortunate case, it does not discount the notion of accountability for our intentions and actions. Given the overzealous attitudes of some well-intentioned activists, it is the pragmatic anthropologists’ responsibility to state their intentions clearly, and repeat them if necessary. Building this kind of imagery of anthropology would translate into the inevitable promulgation of stereotype, where even our characteristic studious nature may serve to dispel the image of the hyperactive minorities in our discipline. In doing so, the manipulative business of activists posing as anthropologists may not have the same luck in tarnishing our discipline. The litany of outsiders interfering with territories of native inhabitants has not shown any intention of slowing down. As vigilant and sensitive anthropologists, however, we may offer some measure of mediation. Committing our efforts to a tempered and pragmatic understanding of the knowledge we accumulate and communicate seems like a good place to start.


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