Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Legacy of Racism Volume 52 Number 3, May/June 1999
by Martin Hall

For years most South African archaeologists argued that there was no connection between politics and the study of the past. This blinded many scholars to the political implications of their work. For example, instead of stressing the frequent divergence of traits such as material culture, social practice, and language, South Africa's prehistory was written as a set of discreet units defined by distinctive types of material culture. This expressed the generally held belief that all cultural characteristics are immutable despite the passage of time--i.e., that black people were beneath civilizing because they could never change.

The elections of 1948 brought the National Party, the fathers of formal segregation, to power. The new government made it clear that the next meeting of the Pan African Association for Prehistory and Related Studies would be "inconvenient." For the next 20 years, archaeology languished. But by the early 1970s the government was spending more than ever on civic amenities for whites, and the growth in funding to universities and museums created more positions in archaeology. By 1985 there were more resources in archaeology than in any other country in Africa, yet South African archaeologists were alienated from the contemporary communities whose history they studied, and there were almost no black archaeologists.

Now, five years after its first democratic elections, South Africa is back in the international community. At the same time, the number of professional positions in archaeology seems to be declining, one department has closed, and there are still very few black archaeologists. What we are seeing is the legacy of apartheid. There is very little public appreciation of the past in South Africa. The most important priority for the future is to ensure that all South Africans develop a full sense of their past. Until the nation's historical fabric becomes part of everyday life, archaeology will remain an esoteric pursuit on the margins of South Africa's popular consciousness.

Martin Hall is a professor of historical archaeology at the University of Cape Town.

© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America