Open Letter to Ms Thuthukile Zuma

Open Letter To Ms Thuthukile Zuma

By Mandla Zibi

 I wish to congratulate you for a unique achievement in the annals of our young democracy. You have struck a mighty blow against the forces of ignorance and prejudice.

 Millions of words have been wasted on whether or not your appointment as Chief of Staff of the Department of Posts and Telecommunication was a blatant case of political nepotism. Yet all have missed the issue staring them in the face. And the issue is this: for the first time ever in our youthful dispensation, the absolute relevance and strategic importance of Anthropology in high government echelons has been acknowledged!

Although I must confess that, politically, your father and I do not see eye to eye, I cannot help but admire you in this matter. Throughout the whole brouhaha, during which once again our punditocracy has been barking up the wrong tree, you have maintained a dignified silence. Here you have truly been your father’s daughter, Ms Zuma.

On behalf of  all those Anthropology graduates, condemned to wander the streets, barred from gainful employment and doomed to sit at home twiddling their  thumbs while the affairs of government and society cry out for their innovative interventions, I say good shot Ms Zuma!  

To all those who have asked of your appointment; what has Anthropology got to do with telecommunications, with managing staff, with budgets?

My answer is: are you kidding me? Haven’t you heard of digital or tech-anthropology?

Who still thinks Anthropology is only the study of some benighted tropical ‘tribes’ far removed from our 21st century lives, when Anthropologists are right  there at the cutting edge of investigations about how the poor and the marginalized, for instance in India, adopt and adapt ICT to survive and lead flourishing lives?

Farmers in Africa are using smartphones to dramatically increase their harvests and improve access to alternative markets, an instance where the past and future meet in beautiful harmony, and where Anthropology is performing the role of cultural broker.

What else is communication but an activity whose development and excellence is rooted in the individual and collective socio-cultural choices people make in line with the material spaces they occupy?

And what type of research tool is more practically suited for the purpose than ‘participant observation’, the hallmark innovation of Anthropology itself, from whom almost all branches of social science have borrowed?

Participant observation is an approach where you become part of lives of those you want to study. For an extended period of time you literally become them: you live, work, eat, and share almost everything with them. The kind of knowledge gained from this encounter can be far more valuable than your usual methods of social science research, such as questionnaires, focus groups, and others.

Indeed the celebrated social psychologist, Robert Cialdini, essentially relied on this tool for researching his disturbing book, Influence. "I was able to penetrate advertising, public relations and fund raising agencies to examine their techniques. Much of the evidence presented in this book, then comes from my experience posing as a professional in a large variety of organisations dedicated to getting us to say yes," he says.

Perhaps we South Africans tend to undervalue this academic discipline traditionally (pardon the pun) seen as focused on ‘culture’.  I remember back in the day when fellow arts students took Anthropology as a ‘filler’ because it was seen as easy.  Perhaps understandably, because of our mental colonization, our culture embarrasses us. By reminding us of our backwardness, Anthropology comes across as something of a fake academic activity. We fail to see ‘culture’ as a material resource absolutely crucial for life now.

Anthropology, in its wide focus, combining holistically all facets of the human being; material and spiritual, rural and urban, public and private, brings with it  human insights that other perspectives, in their narrower focuses, may not.

 Ms Zuma, your appointment has brought focus on a much misunderstood but vital area of human activity. That is ultimately of more enduring social value than the passing fulminations of our pampered twitterati.