The study of Identity is very complex to define, and it consists of many elements that are socially constructed, however the term Ethnicity is central to these studies as a key feature that defines identity and categorize people in social structure and allocates them into groups of their same others. This paper aims to tackle and explain the argument that Ethnicity is not primordial but a constructed and contested social identity. It will kick-off with defining the term ethnicity and then go deeper in explaining the argument at hand, with the help of various sources to help support the argument, explicitly Mamdani (2001), Webster (1992) and Dlamini (2005).
According to Dlamini (2005, 180) Ethnicity is sometimes used synonymously with controversial concepts such as culture and race. Basically, Ethnicity refers to social characteristics that are shared by a group of people who share an identity such as race, although unlike race it is not a physical trait but a social characteristic that is/can be shared amongst a group of people who are classified into one category. These social characteristics include common language, tribes, shared tradition, nationality and culture. He furthermore says that the Apartheid government perceived it as primordial (Dlamini 2005, 180), ultimately ethnicity was regarded as an ascribed status from birth which was considered as permanent because it was obtained from kin and clan structures of society (Dlamini 2005, 181). Mamdani (2001, 652) viewed ethnicity as something that stemmed from the colonialization of Africa, he says that it was used by Western colonisers used it in order to distinguish themselves from their different others and to advance their colonial interests. This according to Mamdani (2001, 652) was due to the fact that the Westerners considered Africans as incompetent, meaning that they were not capable of building states that had law and order.
Ethnicity tends to divide people in the society, especially in terms of territory. To justify this, Dlamini (2005, 181) sates that KwaZulu-Natal was declared as the geopolitical space for Zulu people as Zulus shared a common history, language and also identified racially. Such division meant that there was a struggle for fitting in and ethnic and racial membership that was asserted by political leaders, and this membership made it possible for individuals to have certain access to state-controlled resources. This membership had a positive impact on people’s social roles and status as there was room for interaction with others. Technically, the meaning of Zulu was encoded in the legal system of the country (Dlamini 2005, 181). Although ethnicity differentiates and categorizes people, Dlamini (2005, 182) claims that ethnic groups depend on interacting with other ethnic groups due to the fact that ethnicity has no life meaning when in isolation. This is what makes the society to function, therefore with this view, ethnicity can be considered as a constructed and contested social identity. Thus, it is capable of mobilizing people who are one of mind into political, cultural and social acquisition.
Dlamini (2005, 183) argues that ethnicity somewhat gets constructed and negotiated in everyday life. This means that it is not necessarily static, it is flexible, and it does change, it is constructed when we choose what is right and what is right, what to believe and what to not believe. Therefore, ethnicity can lead to superiority and inferiority, especially in the historical context of Apartheid, where the white race was considered as the superior race and Black was regarded as indigenous and inferiors, in fact any race that was not white was considered as “inferior”. Mamdani (2001, 654) says that the colonial state made a distinction in law between “race” and “ethnicity”, where Africans were ruled under customary law, which was ethnically specific. This helps justify the fact that ethnicity is constructed as Africans were considered as savages because of this customary law and as a result they were not allowed to be closer to whites as it was believed they would pollute the white race. Mamdani (2001, 657) states that what is termed and identified as tradition today is actually what was conceived by Western colonisers to destroy the culture of Africa.
Webster (1992) illustrates in his case study of the Thonga men, that ethnicity is indeed politically and socially constructed. In this case study the Thonga men claimed the Zulu identity and left their own identity, which justifies the fact that ethnicity is a matter of interest and choice and not a biological identity. According to Webster (1992, 245), ethnicity is instrumental and makes people compete for economic and political resources, hence that is why the Thonga men neglected their identity and opted for the Zulu identity, it was because of the perks it came with.
Conclusively, is not a biological attribute, but a constructed and contested social identity, because historically it never existed up until the world became racialised. In other words, ethnicity is a product of race and has been constructed in the process of socialisation is social structure in order to share commonalities and be able to relate with the other. Also, power influenced this, especially in the Apartheid Era or the period of colonisation, where race played a major role, in terms of dominance. The dominating race was the state, and therefore the came up with laws in order to maintain social order.
Dlamini, Sibusiso. 2005. Youth and Identity Politics in South Africa, 1990-1994. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. Ch. 10
Mamdani, Mahmood. 2001. “Beyond Settler and Native as Political Identities: Overcoming the Political Legacy of Colonialism.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 43 (4): 651-664.
Webster, David. 1991. “Abafazi Bathonga Bafihlakala: Ethnicity and Gender in a KwaZulu Border Community.” In Tradition and Transition in Southern Africa, edited by Andrew Spiegel and Patrick McAllister, 243-71. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press.