Visit and Lecture by John Comaroff – „Ethnicity, Inc. Revisited“

by: Caren Bergs, M.A., University of Göttingen

From November 10 to November 15, 2013, the Interdisciplinary Research Unit on the Constitution of Cultural Property hosted Professor John Comaroff, Hugh K. Foster Professor of African and African American Studies and of Anthropology/ Oppenheimer Research Fellow in African Studies (Harvard University), for intellectual exchange and a public lecture on “Ethnicity, Inc. Revisited“.

On the occasion of his visit, the entire team, collectively and individually, had plenty of opportunity to discuss their research projects in depth with Prof Comaroff who left us all in an energized and motivated state, ready to tackle the remaining months of our research time.

Professor Comaroff’s visit to Göttingen concluded with his public lecture which picked up main points from the widely received work Ethnicity, Inc. (2009), co-authored with Jean Comaroff. In an anecdote during the lecture he noted that “Ethnicity, Inc.“ had at one point even became mandatory reading for the employees of the largest South African company based on ethnicity, Bafokeng, Inc. – which had formerly been researched by him and Jean.

Professor Comaroff’s lecture aimed to recap, expand and update „Ethnicity, Inc.“ In 2000, the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (Contralesa) formed a corporation to invest in mining, forestry, industry and tourism. The idea behind this was to empower their peoples by „usher[ing] their rural chiefdoms into the world of global business,“ because the political fight for constitutional recognition had been focused upon too long. Comaroff then went on query the extent to which the future of ethnicity would lie in ethno-futures and entering the market place. In doing so, the binary of rural „traditional“ culture and urban Africa would be made to collapse.

Heritage, Comaroff pointed out, is alienable identity: its objects and objectifications may be consumed by others and sold on a market. To have culture to sell means having a presence in the world. This he illustrated with the rise of ethno-businesses in South Africa, with their cultural products being in high demand. The idea behind empowerment is constituted here with access to markets, material benefits and a people selling its “essential own” – as a brand. Selling culture challenges tried and not so true dichotomies such as tourist performances endangering or replacing “authentic“ traditions.

To Comaroff, politics and economics appear far more interlinked today, He stressed that the context in which culture, identity and politics are embedded, i.e. the nation-state, is changing. Coming from the “fiction of homogeneity” upon which European polities were founded, we now find ourselves in an age of acceptance of heterodox nationhood – a “cultural diversity within a civic order composed of universal citizens”. More than for Africa, this holds true for Europe with its nation-states born of European “colonial fantasy”. In African polities it is an essential right, in the pursuit of collective interest, to be different. Cultural identity, Comaroff stressed, “has become, simultaneously, a function of elective self-production and ascriptive biology”. Culture therefore congeals into a “genetically-endowed intellectual property”, becomes a form of capital and can be sold for profit.

Comaroff also noted the importance of legal instruments, as difference turns into a subject for legal actions. Hence “Ethnicity, Inc.” is a mixture of the commodification of culture, legal actions over cultural identity, the “displacement of the politics into the domain of jurisprudence” and the dissolving binary of rural and urban culture(s).

This is not a new phenomenon, as Comaroff showed by evoking the examples of the Pomo Indians, who went from being two homeless Native American families to being an ethnic group with a casino license, and Maryann Martin who opened a gaming house on the grounds of being the only member of the ethnic group of the Augustine Cahuilla Indians. The creation of ethno-businesses in the USA is mostly financed with the capital of non-Native Americans. Another point of interest is the proclaimed sovereignty of the state and its laws. Native American identity usually begins with a land claim, as “territory” is a major principle of sovereignty. The emergence of the prototypical Native American ethno-business depended on the recognition of legal sovereignty. Cultural identity is then incidental to these corporations. Only in few cases an ethnic group turns local knowledge into a brand from which arises an ethnic corporation, as is the case with the Pueblo of Sandoval, New Mexico, and their brand of “Hopi Blue” corn.

In recent times, the UN and the WIPO have come to recognize the “inherent” rights of indigenous peoples to their tangible and intangible cultural property. This has led to the acceleration of processes of incorporation. Comaroff told the story of the San/Bushmen in the Kalahari desert who were severly suppressed under colonialism and the San’s knowledge of the hoodia cactus which can stave off hunger and thirst. In 1963, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) of South Africa became interested in the cactus and its effects; from then on word spread about the cactus as a hope for the alleviation of obesity without side effects. The bioactive component was patented under label P57 in 1997 and subsequently licensed to the British company Phytopharm and then to Pfizer – all under the impression that the San were extinct. An NGO representing the rights of the San was formed and protested against this case of biopiracy. This led to a profit-sharing agreement between Phytopharm and the San. The San “identity” has since gone through a reanimation, stimulated by the assertion of intellectual property coupled with a land claim. Today, the San are an ethno-corporation while their “identity” is debated by academics.

The major example in Comaroff’s talk was Bafokeng, Inc. which gained wealth with platinum and whose corporate history goes back to sage decisions made by one Bafokeng king in the nineteenth century. Buying land to protect it from white settlers and hence establishing the Bafokeng as a corporate, private owner, the terrain was defended from seizure. Today, Bafokeng Inc. is a nation of 300,000 shareholders and is involved in a complex network of companies yielding some $100 million per year. Comaroff noted that the success in turning Bafokeng Inc. into a hugely successful nation/business is accompanied by a lack of Bafokeng cultural identity.

The strategies of the Bafokeng, the San and Native Americans groups in the USA have several points in common: genealogical membership in their respective ethnic group; sovereignty vis-à-vis the nation state through incorporation based on land claims; and a reliance on ”lawfare” to crystallize or reproduce the sociological entity within which cultural identity is taken to inhere.

To Comaroff “Ethnicity, Inc.” is a “world-historical phenomenon in the making” with many roots in nation states’ search to distinguish themselves through unique cultures. “The ethnically-defined peoples” have taken ethnicity into the global sphere. As such, “Ethnicity, Inc.” is an important subject for anthropological research.

For further reading::
Comaroff, John L. and Jean (2009): Ethnicity, Inc. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Leave a Reply