(a note on content)
Some of the stories in the exhibition feature racist, ableist, and/or homophobic medical terms which are offensive. As curators and writers of this exhibition, we have done our best to use these terms responsibly, with a view to appropriately contextualising and exploring these ideas and their history, and encouraging continuing critical thought in the interests of positive social change in the future.
While trying to address these issues squarely, we are also aware that we may ourselves use racist and ableist language naively or in error. As such, we welcome corrections and suggestions for improving the language used here, and encourage you to get in touch with us to help us learn and improve the language of the exhibition if you feel we have done so. The exhibition also features images of pathology specimens which include human organs.
Southern African Beaded Girdle, UCL Ethnography Collections, late 19th/early 20th century.
Content Warning: This essay contains images of racist language that have been included to illustrate historical documents as well as the colonial frame of museum collecting and curation. We do not condone the use of this language.
In the UCL Ethnography Collection, one can find object I.0035, a beaded Zulu girdle from South Africa that belonged to a young girl. It is unclear exactly how the object entered the museum. It probably originates from the collection of musician A.J. Hipkins, and was donated between the 1940s and 1986, potentially by Hipkins’ daughter (Davis et al. 2021, p.50). The girdle is made of glass beads of four colors and plant fibres (Davis et al. 2021, p.18). It is estimated to have been produced between 1860-1920, when such European beads were acquired by the Zulu from colonial settlers (Davis et al. 2021, p.50; Nettleton, 2014, p.342).
Beadwork in Zulu culture communicates complex identities, in terms of socioeconomic status, region, age, gender, and marital status (Boram-Hays, 2005). This object could be an “isigege”, a girdle worn by young women which indicates readiness for marriage (Magwaza, 2002, p.195).
The study of this object can reveal how racial differences were constructed in South Africa in the 19th-20th centuries. For colonisers, Zulu beadwork became part of “the spectacle of the savage native”, and its removal a condition for conversion by missionaries (Nettleton, 2014, pp.349,356). From the end of the 19th century, Zulu people used beadwork to express their identity and resist domination (Nettleton, 2014, p.357).
Furthermore, the object’s label contains a racial slur, which is nowadays prohibited in South Africa. This Arabic word originally referred to non-Muslim Africans, but Dutch and British settlers used it to refer to ‘indigenous’ elements, classify Black people as an “inferior race,” and discriminate against them (Arndt, 2018, p.59).
Therefore, the object evokes a history of deep-rooted racial politics in South Africa, and its eventual mobilisation during apartheid, one of the worst crimes against humanity.
Racial discourse in South Africa, present from the 17th century, became more significantly weaponised after the discovery of diamonds (1867). This brought a demand for cheap African labor, and a desire to control Africans whose supposed “prolific fertility” was feared. Such developments inspired the study of African societies and race, and the invoking of white supremacy to maintain control (Dubow, 2010, pp.275-276).
At the start of the 20th century, segregationist ideas quickly absorbed eugenics (Dubow, 2010, p.277). Eugenics aimed to scientifically demonstrate the “disadvantages” of mixing different races, magnifying public anxieties in South Africa about a Black majority threatening the purity and integrity of the white race (Dubow, 2010, pp.277-279). As a result, eugenics solidified existing segregationist ideas by providing an apparent scientific basis for attempts to control so-called “racial purity” (Dubow, 2010, p.286).
These ideas were mobilised through the development of segregation policies that aimed for the subordination of people of colour after the Union of South Africa was formed in 1910 (Ross, 2008, p.92). Two important measures were The Natives Land Act, 1913, which defined Black rural reserves, and The Immorality Act, 1927, which forbade sexual relations between whites and non-white people (Ross, 2008, p.95; Dubow, 2010 p.278).
Segregation culminated in the 1948 election victory of the Afrikaner National Party, who adopted apartheid - "separateness”- as their official policy (Ross, 2008, p.123). Apartheid aimed to create a monopoly of power for whites by separating them from non-whites, with segregationist measures controlling all aspects of life. The Population Registration Act, 1950, required that all citizens are classified into racial groups: White, Black, Coloured, and later Asian. These categories were frozen through the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, 1949, and Immorality Amendment Act, 1950, which forbade marriages and sex between "white people” and “non-white” people (Posel, 2011, p.334-335). Soon followed so-called “‘petty apartheid’’ measures, like the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act, 1953, which enabled public premises and services to be racially segregated. In the 1950s, a job reservation policy secured specific jobs for whites people, while schools and other educational institutions became segregated with the Bantu Education Act, 1953 (Posel, 2011, pp.340-357).
Segregation was materialised on a large scale spatially through “grand apartheid”, the division of the country into “national groups” (Ross, 2008, p.126). The Group Areas Act, 1950, divided cities; non-white people were given less developed land and moved to townships. Mixed communities, like District Six in Cape Town, were destroyed (Posel, 2011, p.342). Movement of non-white people in cities was regulated, and they were required to carry a “reference book” showing their residence and employment (Ross, 2008, p.129). During Verwoerd' prime ministership (1958-66), the strategy of separate development dictated that each African group should become a nation with a distinct self-governed homeland/bantustan. The Promotion of Bantu Self-government Act, 1959, set the way for ten such bantustans to be created (Posel, 2011, p.341). Bantustans had local leaders that were subordinate to the government, and their residents lost their South African citizenship. Inside, extreme poverty prevailed (Ross, 2008, pp.145-146).
Territorial segregation brought immense suffering with forced removal of around 3.5 million people by the 1960s, loss of homes, and breaking up of families (Posel, 2011, p.342). It ultimately limited non-whites' political power, and so did a series of other laws denying vote to them (Ross, 2008, p.346).
Recently, it has been revealed that apartheid had even worse eugenic aspirations, set in motion through Project Coast. This was a secret chemical and biological warfare program developed during 1981-1995, that was revealed in 1997 (Singh, 2008). Project Coast attempted to control the population by developing a bacterial agent which would kill only non-white people, and an infertility vaccine that would be given solely to non-white people. One can draw parallels with the Holocaust.
Apartheid faced strong opposition from within South Africa and abroad, finally ending in 1994 through the steps of president de Klerk and activist Mandela (Ross, 2008). Nevertheless, apartheid’s legacy can be felt to this day. South African cities reflect ongoing racial segregation and unequal distribution of amenities and accessibility. In fact, some apartheid planning laws are still used for land development today (Berrisford, 2011).
With the effects of apartheid still visible, the history of South Africa’s racial segregation shall warn us of the devastating consequences of not only mobilising difference, but creating it to begin with.
By Konstantina Vardavoulia
Arndt, Jochen S. 2018. What's in a Word? Historicising the Term 'Caffre' in European Discourses about Southern Africa between 1500 and 1800. Journal of Southern African Studies 44(1): 59–75. DOI: 10.1080/03057070.2018.1403212
Berrisford, Stephen. 2011. Unravelling Apartheid Spatial Planning Legislation in South Africa. Urban forum (Johannesburg), 22(3): 247–263.
Boram-Hays, Carol. 2005. Borders of Beads: Questions of Identity in the Beadwork of the Zulu-Speaking People. African Arts 38(2): 38-49+92-93.
Dubow, Saul. 2010. South Africa: Paradoxes in the Place of Race,’ in Bashford, Alison., and Levine, Philippa. (ed.)The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 274-288.
Davis, Matilda., Deak, Timea., Nebout, Laura., and Patel, India. 2021. Ethnography final report. ARCL0132: Collections Curatorship. Internal UCL Report [Unpublished].
Magwaza, Thenjiwe. 2002. The Conceptualisation of Zulu Traditional Female Dress in the Post-Apartheid Era. Kunapipi, 24(1-2): 193–204. Available at: https://ro.uow.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1496&context=kunapipi#page=196.
Nettleton, Anitra. 2014. Women, beadwork and bodies: The making and marking of migrant liminality in South Africa, 1850-1950. African Studies 73(3): 341-364. DOI: 10.1080/00020184.2014.962874
Posel, Deborah. 2011. The Apartheid Project, 1948–1970, in Ross, Robert., Mager, Anne K., and Nasson, B. (ed.) The Cambridge History of South Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 319-368.
Ross, Robert. 2008. A Concise History of South Africa. Second Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Singh, Jerome A. 2008. Project Coast: eugenics in apartheid South Africa. Endeavour (New series) 32(1): 5–9. DOI:10.1016/j.endeavour.2008.01.005
LDUGC-040ACCESSION NUMBER: A unique identifier assigned to, and achieving initial control of, each acquisition. Assignment of accession numbers typically occurs at the point of accessioning or cataloging.
Hair Colour Gauge, UCL Science Collections (Galton Collection), 1905.
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LDUGC-095ACCESSION NUMBER: A unique identifier assigned to, and achieving initial control of, each acquisition. Assignment of accession numbers typically occurs at the point of accessioning or cataloging.
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