South African histories recontextualised

Our ancestry, heritage and the traditions passed down to us from previous generations
have a huge impact on how our identities are formed. “Our understanding of knowledge is very much contextualised by our own culture, so living in that western culture, we tend to give priority to the discoveries of our own culture and tend to forget or even change stuff,” says anthropologist Janet Hayward.


In her PhD research, Hayward traces the lineage of clans across the Eastern Cape and how they were affected by European and Asian shipwrecks around the Wild Coast. Understanding origins of clans can provide a greater understanding of ourselves and how we interact with people different to ourselves. “[This research] gives us a glimpse of a different kind of South African reality,” says Hayward. “Cultural contexts shape knowledge [and a] shared history [can] become more important than [a] shared race.”

What sets Haywards research apart from many of the studies and papers written about South African history and particularly the history of the Xhosa culture, is its interdisciplinary approach. Hayward not only looks at scientific evidence, such as studying of Y-chromosomes passed down in males from one generation to the next, but also documented history and most importantly, oral tradition, a major aspect of African cultures. As Hayward says, “culture triumphs over biology,” which is why scientific research cannot be the only accepted reference.

“This little story can do nothing to change South Africa’s past, the history, but what it can do is show a slightly different way in which things have played out historically. It’s just one story but its one story that reverses so much of South Africa’s history. It’s like a reversal of the exclusion and the racism of white South African history,” she adds.

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