Sifiso Skenjana | Identity economics and indigenous preservation – lessons from King Zwelithini’s life

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Sifiso Skenjana (supplied)
Sifiso Skenjana (supplied)

King Goodwill Zwelithini's life will remind us of the investment we need to make in preserving our cultural libraries, as a well as building contemporary libraries of cultural expression in a modern world, writes Sifiso Skenjana.



The story of monarchs and traditional councils in South Africa has been a sad story of economic leakage by virtue of the weakened role they play or have been afforded in the contemporary democratic dispensation.  

Many have used the adage "you cannot know where you are going if you do not know where you are coming from" to emphasise the importance of history, placement, identity and a self of self in determining ones choices, as well as influencing their economic outcomes. A contextual and intimate understanding of our history allows us to appreciate the value of the knowledge systems that existed at the time, that eventually informed how we do things in today’s context as well as the value systems we assimilate.

History is broadly defined as a study of past events and or the whole series of past events connected to a person, people or thing. In our home environments, history is often contemplated as a means for cultural preservation and heritage acknowledgement and appreciation.

In economics, we use history as a means to understand the relationship between things and the variation of a thing over time. The combined views on history emphasise its importance for both social and economic outcomes. The importance of indigenous knowledge systems and the role they play in shaping modern-day pedagogy, economics and as well social identity theory is often understated. Indigenous knowledge systems are often very complex, and do not typically fit the mould of western education models.

"… in the context of indigenous knowledge systems, therefore, a literature review is an oxymoron because indigenous knowledge is typically imbedded in the cumulative experiences and teachings of indigenous peoples rather than a library."
Dr Marie Battiste

Simply put, indigenous peoples are a walking library and they need to start recognising and identifying themselves as such. I emphasise that, in order for South Africa to progress socially and economically, we need to 1) reinvest in the creating diversity in voices and narratives of our history; 2) recognise the role of knowing the right history in our identity project; and 3) how to use that understanding to create a socially and economically equitably society.

Black consciousness literature

Core to the decolonisation of education, history and literature is the primary need for an emphatic investment in the institutionalisation of black consciousness, and black consciousness literature is a pivotal component in the rebuilding of the institutional infrastructure that will both celebrate who we are and where we really come from as an indigenous people.

Such infrastructure was the reason behind prominence of Ntsikana, the founding father of black theology - an African adaption of Christian beliefs. Such infrastructure was the reason why Tiyo Soga was able to express political disdain to the inherent racism in the colonial project, and the reason why John Tengo Jabavu was able to establish Imvo Zabantsundu (The Native Opinion) as the first black newspaper at the age of 24.

Through black literature, we are able to learn in our own voices, how things were and how we have evolved over time. We learn of social, political and economic dynamics in the way they were actually experienced by black people. Not the worn-out narratives about Bushmen and uncivilised black people that were saved from themselves by the amazing colonisers. Through the works of Samuel Mqhayi, author of the renowned Ityala lamawele, we learn from a juxtaposition of the practice and execution of tradition, indigenous social order and justice in a precolonial Xhosa context.

At the heart of black consciousness is an interrogation of social identity theoryDeveloped in the 1970s by Henri Tajfel, the theory addresses factors that inform how we self-identify and how we act as result. I posit that a real and a contextual understanding of one's history contributes to positive self-identification.

"Most educational milieus solidify patterns of inequality, ultimately reinforcing regenerating domination. A common way this happens is through the banking system of teaching, where educators try to 'deposit' a set amount of information into students’ minds. Such form of education fails its students because among other reasons, it does not take into account their realities, their 'situation in the world' especially in terms of social status. Instead it ignores this critical element of teaching in an effort to impart or impose knowledge on them."
Freire, 2006


And lastly, theories on identity economics suggest that people make economic choices based on their incentives, as well as their identity and perceptions of their identity. George Akerlof and Rachel Kranton really dug deep to reveal some insightful nuggets on the subject and earned themselves a Nobel Prize for Economics. Their paper was groundbreaking in how it introduced a person's sense of self into economic analysis. All of this is important in both ensuring that we continue investing in telling our history and our stories, as well as ensuring that we understand how institutionalisation of oppression for centuries will influence the sense of self and identity processes of those affected and the generations that follow.

So, from Isilo Esikhotheme, uKumkani, King Zwelithini we say, may his life continues to inspire the identity project of the South African indigenous people; may his life remind us of the investment we need to make in preserving our cultural libraries, as a well as building contemporary libraries of cultural expression in a modern world.

May the value of identity never be underestimated in the role it plays in defining economic outcomes. And may the Zulu nation mourn and celebrate a life that fought tirelessly for their identity.

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