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Anthropology in Southern Africa

By David Coplan (University of Witwatersrand)

2008 Copyright © American Anthropology Association

The annual conference of Anthropology Southern Africa (ASnA), the association of anthropologists from the Southern African Development Community countries, took place from 26-28 September 2007 at the University of Pretoria in South Africa. Organization and amenities provided by the UP Department of Anthropology and Archaeology were superb, and even though our sister continental organization, the Pan African Anthropological Association, did not meet jointly with ASnA this year as they did in 2006, this year’s meetings were very well attended indeed.

In addition to excellent representation from both established and graduate anthropologists from southern African universities, attendees included currently resident visiting scholars from Germany, France, England, the US, and Japan, as well as delegates from the University of Sergipe, Brazil. The conference commenced with an incisive and thoughtful keynote address by Catherine Besteman from Colby College, Maine. Her talk introduced and summarized the focus of perhaps greatest current interest in the region: public anthropology. In brief, colleagues are vitally interested in how our research and our graduates, the majority of whom go on to careers outside academia, can use their anthropological skills to make an impact on the region’s staggering social problems and other crucial issues. But, how might such impacts be perceived by a public comprised of individuals who largely do not even know what anthropology is?

The reflexive constructions of ‘culture’ so frequently mobilized around the strategic engagements of various groups with these public issues were not forgotten in the program, nor were the discipline’s on-going epistemological and ethical self-examinations. The poor were as always very much with us, but the emphasis was decidedly in favor of agency rather than entitlements. Overall the delegates demonstrated the relevance of anthropology not simply to the witnessing of and debates around the region’s epochal social struggles, but also to their critical advancement. Through our words and deeds, we can impart our anthropological skills.

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