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Promoting tradition: Images of the South African past.

Andrew Spiegel and Emile Boonzaier This article by Andrew Spiegel and Emile Boonzaier, addresses the meaning of the word ‘tradition’ and its derivatives; ‘traditional’ and ‘traditionalism’. Most people infer the meaning of ‘tradition’ as the handing down of ideas, conventions and practices, aiding in the transmission of culture. However, ‘tradition’ can have contradictory connotations, which in South Africa have been used as euphemisms such as uncivilized, primitive, tribal and nonWestern and ‘traditional’ societies are perceived as unchanged from the past. In South Africa today, the term ‘traditional’ is used to label a category of people whose behaviour and thinking is portrayed negatively. ‘Traditional’ Africans are seen as backward and conservative and are therefore unable to compete with ‘modern’, ‘developed’ and ‘westernized’ people. The non-adherence to Western practice and persistence of customs such as bride wealth, initiation rituals and the use of ‘traditional’ healers has labelled many Africans as impoverished and disadvantaged. The negative connotations connected to ‘traditional’ life-styles of Africans seem to have stemmed from early anthropologists deliberately studying people in rural areas who were not ‘Western’, ‘literate’ or ‘industrial’. The ethnographies written about these rural African societies described the social institutions in the ethnographic present, consequently creating the impression of unchanging societies existing into present day. The current African traditions may be similar to that of their ancestors, but have been slowly changing by natural progress of adaption and influences imposed from the outside. An example of ‘traditions’ changing over time, is the transformation of bride wealth payments from cattle to cash in Lesotho. Because of changes in the twentieth century, men were forced by economic and political circumstances to become labour workers, however, even without cattle as payment, bride wealth is still a critical part of the social system and culture. Another example of contemporary change to African ‘traditions’ is within the radical modification of the roles of chiefs. Currently, many chiefs now act as bureaucratic administrators rather than autonomous legislators and mediators. It can be seen that ‘traditions’ and certain customary institutional complexes are modified to meet contemporary needs. This should be considered a normal process of social adjustment by African societies, and not as a negatively stigmatized way of life. Spiegel and Boonzaier try to address the importance that ‘traditional’ practices are never simply a

statement of objective historical facts and the notion that ‘tradition’ derives from the ways in which people use images from the past to give legitimacy to presentl beliefs and practices. .