From Manyasarandi to Amakwerekwere:

Emergent Political Languages and Identity Narratives in Southern Africa

Presented by Dr Finex Ndhlovu, Senior Lecturer, Linguistics, Social Sciences, University of New England, Armidale

Thursday 25 February 2016 | 12 – 1 pm

Oorala Lecture Theatre (Bldg E22)

Although academic debates and conversations on the subject of identity formation processes are numerous and too well known to rehearse (starting from the pioneering work of T. H. Marshall (1965) to more recent African-focused studies by Paul Tiyambe Zeleza (2007); Francis B. Nyamnjoh (2006); Michael Neocosmos (2006) and Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni (2012 )) much of their focus has generally been on the discourse of the empowered; that is, the discourse of those who control, design and create the public space. Such a focus overlooks the fact that identities are multilayered, self-imposed, and ascribed by others and as such require a critical analysis to avoid essentialism that has bedevilled most social and political discussions on these issues around the world. This seminar draws on the concept of vernacular discourse to examine what I call emergent political languages that have shaped past and present everyday narratives about identity and belonging in southern Africa. Emergent political languages are discursive practices and other forms of ‘language’, ‘grammars’ and ‘vocabularies’ that emerge out of small talk in micro-social settings such as the street corner, the local bar, at taxi ranks, in buses, trains and other public spaces, which are then subsequently translated and acted upon to inform popular thinking and perceptions about identities. Examples include identity labels such as manyasarandi, machawa, mamoskeni, mabrantaya, mabwidi (commonly used by Zimbabweans in the early to the late 1900s to denigrate migrants from Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique) and amakwerekwere (a term that has gained currency in Botswana and post-apartheid South Africa as a derogatory identity label for black African migrants).

While the specific focus of the seminar is on identity contestations that were prompted by the recent anti-immigrant sentiment in South Africa, I also draw on examples from Zimbabwe with some passing remarks on Botswana to illustrate particular points about the long historical genealogy of emergent political languages that dates back to the period of colonial encounters. I argue that in much of southern Africa, emergent political languages have taken various forms of powerful discursive clichés – defensive, ethno-nationalist, racial, xenophobic, rebellious, emancipatory, patriarchal, ethno-linguistic, cultural-nationalistic, ethno-nationalistic and
chauvinistic. I address the following key questions: What does the social and political history of emergent political languages in southern Africa tell us about identity narratives and their meanings for belonging? Under what circumstances do emergent political languages get invented and deployed in the framing of identity narratives? What do emergent political languages and vernacular discourses on identity and belonging hide and reveal about formal, legalistic and statecentric conceptions of citizenship and belonging? Overall, whose interests do vernacular discourses and emergent political languages serve and whose interests do they undermine?

Launch seminar recording