Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Racism in South African genealogy

About a week ago someone remarked, on a South African genealogical mailing list, that he had found that some people were compiling "indexes" to some civil registers that had been made available for browsing online, But he had found that those indexes were not complete, and appeared to exclude those with obviously African names, and even those judged to be coloured. He queried this practice, and asked why an index should not be a complete index.

I had not consulted either the indexes or the records themselves, so I cannot say that I know for certain that indexers have been excluding entries on the grounds of perceived race, but I did say that, as a matter of principle, I thought that partial indexes would be worse than useless, particularly if there was no indication that they were partial, and no indication given of the criteria for inclusion or exclusion.

I was rather surprised by the the vehement response on the part of some participants, who saw this as an unfair attack on those who had so unselfishly given their time and energy to providing indexes for the use of researchers, and praised them for what they were doing, and said that they should not be deterred by those who questioned the exclusionary practices. Those who questioned these practices were labelled "grumpies", which seemed to be regarded as a sufficent defence of the practices themselves. It was basically an attempt to evade the issue, thus making it clear that there is a great deal of racism in South African genealogical circles.

The racism has been there for a long ntime.

When I first became seriously interested in genealogy, when I got married in 1974, I joined the Genealogical Society of South Africa (GSSA). It soon became apparent that the main focus of the society was was the genealogy of white Afrikaans-speaking South Africans. That was the genealogy of "the South African nation". English-speaking South Africans were very much second-class citizens, and the attitude towards them was rather condescending. Including black South Africans was unthought of and probably unthinkable to those who ran the show. And it seems that those attitudes persist in some genealogical circles in South Africa even today, and they try to justify them by calling those who question them "grumpies".

Perhaps someone could write a doctoral thesis on racism in South African genealogy, and maybe do a comparison with the Nazi Sippenbucher in Germany.

Quite apart from the question or racism, however, there is the problem of being honest (or dishonest) with the historical record. Omitting records in a public index is a form of falsification, as is adding false records, in the way this article describes.

There has been some discussion of that article in the soc.genealogy.britain newsgroup, and one poster there said it didn't matter if the records were falsified because genealogy is "only a hobby".

It may be "only a hobby" to some people, but genealogy is also an ancilliary science of history, and the study of genealogy can reveal a great deal about political, economic and religious history. You want to know why such-and-such a firm in Port Elizabeth exported the products of such and such a town in the Karroo? Because the biggest shopkeeper in that town was the brother-in-law of the owner of the firm in Port Elizabeth. In politics, nepotism is rife and always has been. In religion, you can see missionaries go to a place and start a church, and as it grows, many of the new members are relatives of the first members.

The role of the Msimang family in the growth of Methodism in both Natal and Swaziland is of interest to church historians, and their activities had political and economic repercussions as well. Now if someone decides, on the basis of a personal whim, or racism, to omit members of the Msimang family from a public index, they could mislead historians who are interested in more than just genealogy for its own sake. It's more than "just a hobby".

I once, in the course of a historical research project, interviewed a lot of black Anglican clergy in Zululand, and I asked them about their family history. One of them said to me, "We Zulus think we know a lot about this, but we don't."

I would like to see more South Africans, of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, become interested in genealogy and see that "the South African nation" is indeed a rainbow nation, and if that makes me a "grumpy", then long live grumpiness.


Anonymous said...

excellent - well said. There plenty racism but also sad that we don't see more ethnic genealogists around but I do see them coming.

Jim Lannin said...

I live in Central Florida, USA. I am building a Genealogy Links Portal. Today, I have been building my page on South African Genealogy Resources. I had already been coming to the conclusion of the existence of a pattern of racism in South African Genealogy circles. This is not so much because of what I have found, but rather what I have not found.

Here in the US, many of our citizens with African heritage are anxious to learn about their ancestry, but can't, because of poor record keeping by slave owners and slave traders, and the perception by whites of European descent that they weren't important enough, anyway.

These folks are starved for the knowledge of their historical origins. With genetic genealogy, we are now beginning to learn some of the missing history, but we will never learn all of it. It is a real shame!

Weeding out of "irrelevant" or "insignificant" data is a crime of omission, every bit a evil as a crime of commission. We need the whole picture to properly view society and know its history.

Anything else is just living a lie.

I hope I encounter significant and quality genealogical information for people of non-European descent in my research of South Africa's genealogical resources.

I am not anonymous. I am grumpy, and proud of it.

James Chadwick said...

Racism has snatched many innocents lives and beauties from South Africa. It is enough now, Racism should be stopped at once now.
South Africa News Online

Iain Scott said...

Steve, I note you appear to be managing my family tree on MyHeritage. I don't know what our family connection is, and I am not a subscriber to MyHeritage, although I am on Geni. Most of the information you have on my immediate family is wrong, including the spellings of our names. How can I get in touch with you?

Steve Hayes said...

Iain Scott,

Somewhere on this blog there should be contact information for me. I'm not sure where because I'm trying to catch up after Telkom cut us off for two weeks. I have no access to My Heritage -- they say I have too many people in my database, but they took it from Gencircles without asking me, so if it's too big it's their fault.

Iain Scott said...

Righto, I'll look for your contact details. Sorry about your connection problems! Thanks Steve.