Table of Contents

ETHNOCULTURE  (Vol.1, 2007 pp. 27-38)


Michael de Jongh

University of South Africa


The 11000 hectares of land which today comprises Buysdorp (‘Buys town’) is situated in the foothills of the remote Soutpansberg (‘Salt Pan Mountain’) of the far northern Limpopo Province of South Africa. A hybrid community of some 300 individuals (de facto) or a few thousand (de jure), the Buys people have been confronted with successive political dispensations over the years. Having over decades developed autonomous structures and procedures of local governance, the ‘fit’ with the pre-1994 South African government was as comfortable as it was unacceptable to the new post-1994 democracy. Still, their history of interaction and intermarriage with surrounding communities have shaped perceptions of phenotypical and genotypical singularity and resulted in strategies to articulate their autochthony in order to define their ethnicity and to develop a kind of ‘moral geography’, their model of space, of their land (De Jongh 2004:86, 90).

These progeny of Jean du Bois, a French Huguenot who arrived at the Cape in 1688, but more particularly of his great-grandson Coenraad de Buys, were in 1888 granted this exclusive tract of land by President Paul Kruger for services rendered to the Transvaal Republic. An uncommonly tall man with unusual strength of character, Coenraad de Buys married or cohabited with several indigenous women, including the niece of the great Matabele king, Mzilikazi, and left an indelible imprint on the late 18th, early 19th century human, historical, political and socioculture landscape of South Africa. Three of the nine offspring of this latter union, the brothers Michael, Gabriël and Doris, played a decisive role, not only in the establishment of Buysdorp and the early dynamics of the region, but were eventually instrumental in the development of a value system of exclusivity despite a lifetime of intensive involvement with other people in the area (De Jongh 2004:86).

The contemporary challenge is, not only for the Buys people and the surrounding communities, but for the current local, provincial and national governments to negotiate, shape and reshape and then to apply processes for equitable policy development – toward models that would articulate identity, ethnicity and place, and hence diffuse dissention and simmering antagonism.


Scholars of ethnicity conventionally and logically deal with the phenomenon contextually, particularly in accordance with the predominating socio-political climate and considerations of the time. This applies both to the socio-political environment in which the researcher finds her/himself and that within which the group(s) or community (-ies) studied are embedded. This is clearly because ethnicity manifests itself according to a particular setting and as part of a particular historical process.

Given this, South Africa has been a kind of case study of whether and when political struggles become ethnicised or when ethnicity becomes mobilised (or even racialised) for political ends (Adam 1995:460). For this same reason the scholarly debate on ethnicity in the apartheid state stagnated. Many scholars studying South Africa went into a relative state of denial because serious attention to ethnicity could be perceived as doing the government’s intellectual work for it (Bekker 1993:26), or as giving unwarranted status to, or reinforcing ethnic divisions, or endorsing the ideological underpinnings of apartheid. Hence such scholars rather employed representations of South African society constructed on the basis of theories which use other ideas, those of race, class, nationalism and state, i.e. arguing that the identities and images of their society are, by South Africans, mainly structured by these (Bekker 1993:3). The political reasons were simply that it was just as logical for the government to stress ethnicity for purposes of ‘separate development’ as for opponents to play it down (Bekker 1993:98-99). The ‘political correctness’ of avoiding the issue was of course counterbalanced by scholars functioning in conformity with government policy and who accentuated reified or essentialist explanations. On both counts ethnicity, both the term and concept, became devalued because not only the citizens, but the scholars as interpreters of the prevailing dynamic were interpreting and functioning within the web of current historical circumstances in South Africa.

South Africa now has, arguably, one of the best constitutions in the world. In its Bill of Rights it enshrines the rights of an individual and the equality of people (The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996: Chapter 2[9]). It also recognises the right of everyone to use the language and participate in the cultural life of their choice – and specific reference is made to “cultural communities” and the right “to enjoy their culture” and “to form, join and maintain cultural …associations…” (1996: Chapter 2[30, 31]). And, concomitantly in the course of twelve years of democracy, the issue of difference, often in the form of ethnicity, has again been coming to the fore and is being thrust onto the agenda of scholarly discourse.

On the face of it one might seem to be confronted with two irreconcilable principles. The fact is, that now that difference is no longer legislated but seemingly accommodated, voluntary identification with distinctive background, race, ethnic group, community, has become an overt reality. A recent survey has shown (Future Fact People Scape 2004) that although South Africans are increasingly identifying as ‘South Africans’, 36% still identify as ‘African’, black, white, coloured, Indian, Zulu, Xhosa, English or whatever. And these responses were not even obtained with reference to a particular situation or issue.

Land claims on a wide front are now being articulated on the basis of community/tribe/identity. Right-wing Afrikaner advocates of a volkstaat have transformed their requirements of birth into the volk, or of racial similarity, into more sophisticated cultural or ethnically-based criteria and some have acquired, and now reside on, their own exclusive land, Orania. The indigenous Griqua have made significant progress toward government recognition and members of one group have regained their exclusive rights to a tract of land in the Free State Province, Oppermansgronde (Opperman’s Lands). Although the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party has lost ground in recent elections, the narrow ethnic nationalism of Zulu cultural survival or revival, particularly in rural KwaZulu-Natal, is active. And so one can go on, but this brings me to my case study and to case studies as such.

I am of the opinion that the identity/ethnicity discourse, not only in South Africa, but internationally, should explicitly be brought to the fore again and should go into the inductive mode. The specificity of detailed case studies, an analysis of their contextual characteristics and then comparison on a wide front in order to determine common principles, shall facilitate more efficacious policy and practice. In this article, hence, I seek to ‘unpack’ ethnicity, indicate its distinctive South African history, present a rather singular ‘test’ case study and then to suggest possible policy considerations. For the very reason that the Buysdorp example is uncommon, even by South African standards, it challenges one’s analytical and heuristic skills to a more considerable extent.1

Case study: The Buysdorp community

Buysdorp (‘Buys Town’) is in many ways a misnomer because it has a distinctly rural character, with homesteads and smallholdings scattered over 11000 hectares to the extent that many are not within sight of each other. The tract of land comprises four farms, Buishoek, Buysdorp, Buisplaats and Mara and the Buys ‘family’ (as they refer to themselves and this includes the extended family of Buys descendants plus affines) have allocated themselves 260 allotments of 100 x 200 metres each on three of these farms, the fourth being leased to an ‘outside’ farmer. The plots are for building a house on, and for cultivation – water for irrigation is obtained from perennial streams (now piped) fed by fountains in the towering Soutpansberg (‘Salt Pan Mountain’, named for a salt pan to the west of its extremity). The residents also have access to communal grazing and may rent additional land for cultivation. Die Plaas (‘The Farm’ as it is referred to by the locals) includes both the mountainous, fairly high rainfall area of lush trees and bush, and sprawling sweet-veld plains offering grazing for livestock (De Jongh 2004:87).

As was alluded to in the preamble, and set out in more detail elsewhere (De Jongh 2004:86-89), an understanding of Buysdorp is deeply rooted in its historical context. The process of ‘the making of Buysdorp’ was set in motion as long ago as 1688 when Jean du Bois, a wine farmer from Calais in France, arrived at the Cape with the French Huguenots. He married a French woman, and his son Jean and grandson Jean (sometimes known as Jan) married Cape Dutch women. This last marriage produced a number of offspring including a son, Coenraad (du Bois/du Buis/de Buys/Buys) who was born in 1761 on a farm near Montagu. This Coenraad is generally regarded as the stamvader (progenitor) of the Buys people. By all accounts a formidable man, he left an indelible, often disruptive, mark on the historical, political and sociocultural landscape of South Africa.

Coenraad Buys, a man of uncommon height, nearly seven feet tall, with an engaging personality and presence, had a chequered career. He was at different times an adventurer, elephant hunter, farmer, outlaw (as per the British administration at the Cape), outcast, rebel, facilitator and interpreter for missionaries, cattle rustler, leader of a revolt, confidante and advisor to a powerful Xhosa chief (Ngqika) and even instated as chief of one of the northern interior tribes.

In the course of his wanderings in Southern Africa, Coenraad de Buys married, or cohabited with, several local women. One was Maria van der Horst (‘from the Cape’), another the then young Xhosa chief Ngqika’s mother and yet another Elizabeth, the niece (some sources indicate sister) of Mzilikazi, the Matabele king. Michael, the second born of their nine recorded offspring, eventually was the first recognised leader of the Soutpansberg Buys people in their present whereabouts. Together with his older brother Gabriël and the younger Doris, he was destined to leave an enduring imprint on the region (De Jongh 2004:87). It was during their sojourn in these far northern parts that Coenraad’s wife Elizabeth died of fever. An already old, and for long unwell Coenraad was distressed. He undertook a last journey to Mozambique and asked his sons and their families to wait for him at the border, the Limpopo river. He never returned.

Michael, Gabriël and Doris, with their families as well as other Buys, at first settled on a farm at Goedgedacht and later at Kranskop in the Soutpansberg. It was to these places that Michael arranged for a Scottish missionary couple, Reverend Alexander MacKidd and his wife, to come to live and to work amongst the Buys people and this they did from May 13, 1863. It was in fact this missionary who facilitated their access to these farms which belonged to neighbouring farmers. Michael often related how his father Coenraad read to the family from the Bible and prayed, and this made a profound impression on him. Ironically though, the Buyses had by now, in general, Michael included, adopted the practices of the local black communities, polygyny included, circumcision being the only one strongly discouraged by him. He soon forbade his children to marry more than one wife, although he ‘took’ some 20 women in the course of his life – he did however eventually relinquish all but one of these wives. Both the influence and the demands of the mission and the missionaries resulted in the Buyses increasingly rejecting what was regarded as black/heathen customs and practices. They furthermore regarded themselves as superior and demanded to no longer be part of a mixed congregation and to be educated separately and not in Sotho but in Dutch.

Michael Buys was concerned about the future of his offspring. At all costs he wanted to prevent further ‘verswarting’ (blackening) and purposely endeavoured to ensure that marriage should only take place between ‘those of a kind’. In his view whiteness of skin was the Buyses most important asset (Lombard 1977:105).

At least two factors may have fomented this attitude. The constitution of the Zuid­-Afrikaansche Republiek at that time stipulated that no ‘coloured person’ may enjoy civic rights. The Buyses however, because of services rendered to the State, received several rights denied blacks, e.g. the right to carry guns. Secondly, Makhado, the Venda chief in the area at that time, refused to allow missionary ministration to his people and also refused to hand over rifles obtained from traders. Michael Buys acted as facilitator between Makhado and the Boers/Missionary but negotiations failed and the mission station was subsequently attacked and burnt down by the Venda. The Buyses then joined the missionary Hofmeyr in seeking refuge in the Boer encampment and hence were again seen to take sides (De Jongh 2004:88).

A church and a school were eventually built and a succession of missionaries ministered to the Buyses – a number of trained and dedicated evangelists furthermore came from their ranks (Hofmeyr 1890:14, 77; Lombard 1977:54). It was Michael Buys, at the age of 76, who eventually led a delegation to President Paul Kruger in Pretoria to apply for land for his people. It thus transpired that the present 11000 hectares were granted to the Buyses for ‘services rendered’ to the then Transvaal Republic. The land now known as Buysdorp, was at first named after the Biblical Mara (still the name of one of the four farms, and the primary school is called ‘Mara Primêre Skool’ – many Buyses still refer to their ‘place’ as Mara), place of bitterness, because of the hardships endured by the ‘family’ (De Jongh 2004:87).

These ‘services rendered’ stemmed from early cooperation with the Voortrekkers (Boer pioneers) advancing into the region, and the establishment of a pioneer village, Schoemansdal, close to where the Buyses were settled. The Buys brothers, particularly Gabriël and Doris, acted as guides and interpreters for the Voortrekkers and hunted and generally lived in close association with them. Eventually, despite a long history of amicable relations with the local black communities, in fact intermarriage with them and in many respects adopting their way of life, even to the extent of being appointed as chiefs and petty chiefs in these communities, the Buyses fought on the side of the Voortrekkers and later the Boers in their skirmishes with the Venda and other local people.

With the British annexation of 1871 many of their semi-privileges and semi-rights were taken away from the Buyses as they were now again regarded as belonging to the category ‘natives’. Perhaps it is no wonder that they cast their lot with the Boers against the British in the First Anglo-Boer War (1880-1881), but particularly during the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). Although the Buyses did not see active service in this war – they acted as wagon drivers and attendants – 158 of them ended up in the Pietersburg (now Polokwane) concentration camp where a number of them, ranging in age from 2 months to 80 years, died.

As the blacks of the region were generally perceived to be associated with the British cause in this conflict, the Buyses, who had endured hardships with the Boers, also at the hands of these very same blacks, deliberately gave momentum to the inclination and movement toward functioning and being regarded as a distinctive community. The whites though, and particularly the Afrikaners, were inclined not to make this distinction, i.e. between the blacks and the ‘coloureds’ (as they regarded the Buyses) – particularly as the latter had adopted many of the black customs. The Buyses thus increasingly perceived themselves as a group of their own, in a kind of ‘middle world’, dependent on their own devices if they wished to devise a future for themselves (De Jongh 2004:89).

The realities of the contemporary context

Buysdorp gradually attained all the outward signs of sedentist living. In addition to the cultivated lots, (mainly for maize and vegetables), irrigation canals and roads, churches (Verenigde Gereformeerde Kerk – United Reformed Church and, much more recently, the Apostolic Church), school building(s) (the ‘Mara Primêre Skool’ and the prefabricated classrooms of ‘Mara Base’ – on the same grounds but for the Thalane [black] community who have been the Buysdorp labourers for decades), a community hall (‘President Paul Kruger Gemeenskapsaal’), shops (‘Gemeenskapswinkel’ – Community shop, Tavern and a general dealer), post office building, clinic (the old parsonage), police station (seen as ‘outside’ and situated next to the tarred thoroughfare), an extensive cemetery and the school’s sports field with a small pavilion, have been erected or developed. From the mid-1900s the original wattle-and-daub huts gradually gave way to permanent brick houses. These developments were due to their own endeavours and generally funded from their own resources.

Also on Buys land but to one side, is the Thalane settlement, a small community of 38 Venda- and Northern Sotho-speaking families who have provided domestic and agricultural labour for the Buyses for generations, but have never enjoyed the privileges of permanency. Although provision for the schooling of their children has been made it is in a separate prefabricated building on the school grounds. Representatives of the Thalane community argue that they have not only lived and worked there since early times but that the forebears of some of them were the original occupiers of this land along the Sarakalala river (also the name of one of the first chiefs in the area). They are increasingly demanding the right to build more permanent houses in addition to all the other expressions of entitlement. The Buys point of view is that the people of Thalane have always been labourers on private (Buys) land and hence have no such legitimate claims. They, the Buyses, furthermore have title deeds to confirm ownership of their farms.

I managed to obtain copies of documents inter alia entitled Crown Grant No 80/1909 which seems to affirm that the land in question had been “ceded and transferred” to Coenraad, Jeftha and Benjamin Buys, “in their capacity as representatives of the Buys Tribe” by the Deputy Governor and Minister of Lands on behalf of His Majesty Edward the Seventh. It is also indicated that they shall “possess [this land] in perpetuity” (De Jongh 2004:89).

There are currently three separate land claims (or intentions in this regard) against the Buyses, by the Sarakalala family, Kutama residents and Sintumule residents. All of these are either current or former residents on part of what is today Buysdorp-demarcated land. However, for these claims to receive formal consideration they should have been lodged by 1998, although administratively the effective date is 2000. More importantly, though, only claims with reference to post-1913 resettlement/dislodgement/removal are accepted as legitimate (this ‘cut-off’ date is derived from The Native Land Act [Act 27/1913]). The only recourse for the claimants would probably be for restitution which is derived from residential rights, i.e. residence on land for more than 10 years.

Autonomous structures and procedures of governance were furthermore also developed. Thus Buysdorp is managed by a Management Committee of five males. The Management Committee is an instrument of the Family Council, and instruments of the Management Committee, in turn, are the General Assembly, the Upper House, the Ceremonial Family Heads and the Secretary. Family members above the age of 18 years who hold lots, or who are married to the holder of a lot, have the right to vote. The descendants (over 18 years of age) of lot holders who live on their parents’ lot as well as their legal spouses who live on the lot with them, likewise may vote.

The Management Committee controls the allocation of lots. To qualify one has to be born a Buys, be descended from a Buys or married to a Buys. Only those who qualify are allocated sites or granted access to agricultural or grazing land and are allowed to erect permanent structures. The committee furthermore imposes taxes (R60,00 [± $8,20] for those living there and R120,00 for those on the ‘outside’). It is also their responsibility, amongst other things, to see to the interests of the ‘family’, the care of roads and fences, the provision of water, the maintenance of the cemetery, the issuing of hunting permits and labour issues in general.

Very much a case, hence, of lords of the manor. But then came the national democratic election of 1994, the efforts of the Municipal Demarcation Board and the subsequent local government elections. Before 1994 the whole concept of an own piece of land managed and controlled by the community itself sat quite comfortably with the then government. Now the Buyses suddenly found themselves in Ward 1, one of the largest electoral wards in the country, and one of 35 such wards resorting under the Greater Louis Trichardt (now Makhado) metropole. They are grouped together in this ward with rural Venda villages, white farmland, townships on the outskirts of Louis Trichardt/Makhado and parts of the town itself. They are represented by two councillors elected by some 5000 registered voters and neither of these two members do they regard as ‘theirs’. They claim that the Mayor and councillors do not recognise or acknowledge the Buysdorp management structures or representatives – that they have in fact arranged meetings in their domain without as much as prior consultation (De Jongh 2004:89).

While there are today some 300 Buyses living permanently in Buysdorp, there are thousands in diaspora. This is a reflection of realities, practical imperatives and selective idealism and even opportunism. Older children, for more advanced schooling, and young to middle-aged adults, for work opportunities, have to move to the nearest town, Louis Trichardt/Makhado (some 60 kilometers away) or beyond. The children come home over week-ends or holidays and the adults also visit periodically or for festive or life-cycle celebrations – but the older kin by so doing, significantly, actually or symbolically affirm their birth-right to an allotment on the farm. Such visits also give some substance to the ideal of ‘this is really where I wish to be, to live’, a ‘dream of home’.

The Buyses currently living in Buysdorp are generally positive about themselves and their place. The older people remember with nostalgia their days of travelling by ox wagon and growing up there. Although they do have their domestic political squabbles as regards the management committee and the ‘threat’ of outside control, they appreciate the peaceful life, congenial community activities and the fact of their own property with its game, beautiful mountain and streams. They can furthermore cultivate their land and the levies are modest. However, they are concerned about the land claims, that they do not see the young people frequently enough due to work or study commitments elsewhere, the demands of the Thalane community with the resultant tension and ‘outside’ interference in their schooling system entailing, for example, the appointment of teachers who can only teach their children in English and not their preferred Afrikaans.

A project initiated by senior anthropology students in my department and focussing on the school children, confirmed generally positive attitudes and perceptions on their part. Learners from grade 1 to 8 were drawn into the study and the methodology included essays and drawings depicting ‘Buysdorp’. The results were strongly people­-oriented, depicting smiling faces, family, and mind-maps of friendship networks. The environment also featured strongly, with house and home and church prominent, but set in the mountainous and sunny environment and always with flowers, plants, trees and wild-life prominent. Some of the older children did complain of week-end boredom, gossiping by people on the Plaas (farm) and the uncertainty of having to go elsewhere for schooling after grade 8.

Finally, a collaborative DNA-Genetic testing project (with the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg) presently being undertaken, also seems to confirm positive self-perceptions. While the project is only incorporating the y­-chromosome, i.e. the male line, the response and cooperation from the Buyses, almost without exception, was keen – even enthusiastic, in the sense of wishing to determine/confirm their Jean du Bois/Coenraad Buys ancestry and, by implication, their distinctiveness.

Unpacking ethnicity

Ethnicity, terminologically and conceptually, can be meaningfully reflected upon only as a dynamic notion. It comes to the fore only in interaction between groups of people, more particularly in the attitudes, attributes and perceptions of those who regard themselves to be distinct and of others who similarly regard them to be different – a recognisable ethnic group. In a sense then ethnicity can only ‘happen’ when sets of people who are consciously groups are in contact with each other and differentiate themselves and the ‘other’ on the basis of some markers or criteria, be it sociocultural and/or sociobiological.
I have already alluded to the fact of, and reasons for, scholars in South Africa either going into a kind of denial mode as regards ethnicity or getting bogged down in essentialist or primordial arguments. Interpretations of ethnicity have been wide-ranging at the best of times, world-wide, but particularly so in Africa. Thus the reasoning included amongst others:

  1. Africans are by nature ‘tribal’
  2. Ethnicity is a result of colonial divide and rule
  3. Interaction in industrial locales led to a development of stereotypes of groups and these highlighted and strengthened culturally defined distinctions among peoples
  4. Uneven development in colonial territories resulted in mobilisation of support along ethnic lines to maximise opportunities for access to resources and power after independence (i.e. ‘instrumental’ ethnicity)
  5. Psychological security and ethnic identity provide a comforting sense of brotherhood (i.e. a primordial explanation) (Buijs 1991:3).

As Buijs indicates, all of these have inherent weaknesses, e.g. what about ethnicity as a post-colonial construct? Why does ethnic consciousness develop unevenly in the same country? (Even after both the colonial [apartheid] governments and the anthropologists have gone!) What about such consciousness beyond the urban or the workplace? How to explain the appeal of ethnic identity for ordinary people? How is ‘backward-looking’ ethnicity to be reconciled with future-oriented ethnicity initiatives and strategies?

It would seem that it is opportune to, in a sense, ‘unthink’ and then to ‘rethink’, or ‘unpack’ ethnicity in terms of recent realities and then to reassemble it. However, to keep a grip on the phenomenon I feel comfortable to perceive ethnicity as the dynamic which may stem from groups (entities by virtue of self-perception and/or as perceived by others – ‘perceptions’ vis a vis ‘institutionalisation’ is of course a further matter) of people in contact or juxtaposition and/or interacting with each other in a shared environment or sociopolitical context and that such groups or entities are historical communities with sociocultural similarities and with shared interests, intentions, a sense of belonging and an awareness of common symbols or legends of descent.

Importantly, the specificity of ethnic communities and hence a particular brand of ethnicity, derives from the history of each. Ethnicity is then also an expression of the historically evolved particular memories by which members interpret and give meaning to their world (Adam 1995:464). In this regard Carolyn Hamilton (1999:47) sounds an important warning, namely that where the construction of ethnicity by apartheid ideologues in South Africa involved the division of people into distinct cultural-linguistic groups and sought to confine them in homelands­, the new politics of identity, though rooted in claims of autochthony and ancestral lands, operate in fluid frontier zone-like conditions, in which identities are situational and hybrid. Identities can, and are, furthermore manipulated and it follows that my emphasis is on process not group, i.e. peoples’ lived experience (Barth 2000).

It is also useful to distinguish three levels of ethnicity – the first applies to individuals and ethnic identity, the second to ethnic communities, and the third to the state, whether in the form of local, provincial or national government. This helps to separate analytically the role of socialisation and education and the changing nature of ethnicity at the first level, the second where the emphasis is upon sociocultural differences and a sense of an historical community and the probable persistence of ethnic allegiances, and the third where policy or official dictates come into play.

In a plural society like South Africa such distinction facilitates analysis of individual identities and their genesis and an historical analysis of the origins and elaboration of the different and changing ethnic consciousnesses which mould or influence these identities. Also one form of ethnicity needs to be considered in relation to other forms (second level) or in relation to other forms of identity (first level) (Bekker 1993:12, 13), as well as the role of a constitution or policy in their interplay.

Space and place have long been devalued in anthropological theory and analysis. This has been more so in the identity and ethnicity discourse. Particularly mindful of the case study at hand, that of the Buyses, it is important to bring the criterion or variable of land to the fore. The problem presented itself because, paradoxically, the meaning of place often seemed to go without saying, or because of an earlier notion that there is an immutable link between the people (and their culture or identity) and a particular place. As scholars we are situated in place as we are in time or sociocultural context. The people we study more often than not, more so. They have a more immediate and full relationship with place in the sense of retaining more local control over their physical and sociocultural landscapes. Place should hence be conceptualised as more than a physical setting or passive target for primordial sentiments of attachment. Places are politicised, socioculturally relative, historically specific, local and multiple constructions – an anthropological study of place thus relates to experiences of living in places, of identifying with places and constructing identity in such places (Rodman 1992:640). “(A) place comes explicitly into being in the discourse of its inhabitants” (Berdoulay cited in Rodman 1992:642). Place features prominently in a form of ethnicity. Thus the assertion of locality is a manner of political resistance (Bohlin 1998). This has been referred to as “locations of struggle and communities of resistance” (Keith and Pile 1993).

So place or land does not only have physical implications but also, importantly, issues of a sociocultural nature – such as belonging, identity and placement – are also rooted in particular contexts resulting in contested and conflicting interpretations of space and place. Further implications include: differential and unequal expressions of power and authority; possible mutual interest and co-operation; feelings of nostalgia and remembrance; but also conflicting claims of land ‘ownership’, use and access (cf Cohen 1982). Place is simply one of the most important ways of describing and defining local identity – it (land/landscape) thus may have certain (changing) physical characteristics, but also very different sets of symbolic meaning. Place is distinct and space is a kind of conceptual map that orders sociocultural life.

Articulating and negotiating place, identity, ethnicity

The community which the three sons of Coenraad Buys, Michael, Gabriël and Doris, established in the Soutpansberg more than 200 years ago has since undergone many transformations. As I have indicated elsewhere (De Jongh 2004:90):

Over a number of generations they had become integrated into, and very much part of the autochthonous South African humanscape and culturescape - to the extent that an early source (Van Warmelo 1953:47) quotes a Birwa (in the far northern Limpopo Province) tribal spokesman as saying, “The Buyses are our sons-in-law, they are the descendants of Sekgôbôkgôbô (Coenrad Buys) the elephant hunter”. Not only did they initially almost exclusively marry or co-habit with local black women, they also adopted their language and their ways. Many of the early sources for example, refer to the Buys ‘tribe’.
More or less from the time of their first involvement with and the influence of the missionaries and their interaction with the Voortrekkers/Boers however, they gradually seemed to adopt a deliberate strategy of ridding themselves of ‘native ways’ and of accentuating their characteristics as a singular community. Even today they call attention to practices they have only recently relinquished, e.g. the holding of a wake before a funeral, digging a grave only on the day of a funeral, etc.
In many ways they have come to regard themselves as a people of a middle world; accepted fully by neither the blacks nor the whites, and they perceive themselves to be under siege. It is ‘we’ versus ‘they’, and the ‘they’ includes the government, municipality, the black individuals and communities contesting their land, journalists, writers and all strangers. Their suspicion of such organisations and people is rooted in the knowledge that these outsiders want to take the control of Buysdorp away from them, that they want the Buys land, that they visit and chat to them and then go away and write about a “Village where Verwoerd’s (a previous prime minister and apartheid mastermind) spirit lives on” (Sunday Times, 2 October 2000) or a “King of the Bastards” (Millin 1950).
The people of Buysdorp have thus embarked on a strategy of both identity politics and the politics of identity. In attempting to draw a distinction between these two analytical, orientations, Hill and Wilson (2003:2-3) admit that they overlap in real terms and the Buysdorp material seems to demonstrate this. It is suggested that ‘identity politics’ refers to ‘top down’ processes whereby various social entities attempt to mould collective identities, based on ethnicity, race, language and (importantly in this case) place, into relatively fixed frames for undertaking political action. It is also a way to view how culture and identity, variously perceived to be traditional, modern, local, religious, ethnic or whatever, are articulated, constructed, invented, etc. to achieve political ends.
‘Politics of identity’ again refers to a more ‘bottom up’ process through which local people challenge, subvert, or negotiate culture and identity and contest structures of power that constrain their lives (Hill & Wilson 2003:2). Thus more a matter of political practices and values that are based on subscription or ascription to various social and political identities. Various political, economic, and other social pressures that would mould collective identities based on ethnicity, race, language, and place are in reality contested and confounded by peoples’ abilities to juggle multiple, often contradictory, identities - and we have seen this in the case at hand.

The Buyses furthermore, though hybrid in every sense, are indigenous, and despite the legacy of Coenraad Buys, perceive themselves as such. According to the principles devised by the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations they do ‘qualify’ on almost every count (Kenrick and Lewis 2004:4):

  1. priority in time, with respect to the occupation and use of a specific territory
  2. the voluntary perpetuation of cultural distinctiveness
  3. self-identification, as well as recognition by other groups and by state authorities, as a distinct collectivity.
  4. an experience of subjugation, marginalisation, dispossession, exclusion or discrimination.

For the Buyses, only the first principle is a matter of contention, but to understand their situation requires that all the principles be applied in terms of relationships and processes, rather than as abstract categories (Sangestad as cited by Kenrick and Lewis 2004:6-7). These same authors conclude that in Africa, the term ‘indigenous’ is best understood relationally – this emphasises the positive resilience of the sociocultural practices by means of which people like the Buyses experience their relationships with their land, resources and other peoples. They furthermore point out that both ‘essentialists’ and ‘revisionists’ (e.g., in the so-called ‘Kalahari Debate’) obscure the dynamic and relational nature of social life, in which people draw on their own sociocultural resources in the interplay between creative autonomy and the constraints of dominating forces.

The Buys cause is essentially based on space, on ‘their’ land. The Buys model of their space, the land, the local, is firstly based on their perception of reality, i.e. entitlement. It is also, however, a value-based conception of a particular embodied place, one which is increasingly susceptible to ‘outside’ forces, processes and events, a kind of ‘moral geography’ (cf Holtzman 2004). The legality of their claim to the land is being disputed, but they have produced documentation to this effect. Over and above the legal side though, the Buyses have made a distinct cultural imprint on the land, in a sense have created their own culturescape (Mulk & Bayliss-Smith 1998:361-362) over generations. Their particular, even peculiar, economic, educational, religious and governance systems are there for all to see. The ‘family’-based governance structures are examples of these. Likewise, the franchise and access to lots and grazing land is Buys-kinship determined. Although the Mara Primêre Skool has to teach a curriculum prescribed by the Provincial and National Departments of Education there is still a distinctly parochial ‘feel’ to the instruction. An idiomatic version of Afrikaans is used and services held in the Verenigde Gereformeerde Kerk are distinctive, as are associated practices, e.g. should a wedding take place, the tacit understanding is that everybody in Buysdorp is invited and welcome. Stemming from all this they question, and contest, the right of others to encroach upon their domain.

Policy and practice

Most definitions of policy amount to more or less any overall plan or course of action adopted, as by a government or political party, designed to influence and determine immediate and long-term decisions or actions (Ervin 2000:40). Although policy is more often than not associated with government, i.e. lawmaking, bureaucracy, and other legal or administrative actions, it involves much more. Policy also suggests plans, principles, guidelines, directives, intentions and an anticipation of future actions and results or the avoidance of undesirable circumstances. Significantly, policy assumes that thoughtfully directed social action can lead to desirable outcomes (Ervin 2000:41-42).

Policy formulation and implementation are complex social processes that extend beyond visible legislative and bureaucratic spheres – policies always emerge out of a much wider and deeper context of social action and cultural expectation. It is about values, ideology, competing interests, power, the power holder’s agenda, expectations and peoples’ sociocultural assumptions through which they seek more desirable outcomes in their interactions with others and the environment (Ervin 2000:43; De Jongh 2006:8).

Given these considerations it would have seemed that the South African constitution (cited earlier) and any number of international declarations, charters and conventions provide a framework for the design of policies which could accommodate both the aspirations of self-identified and historically vindicated ethnic communities and the necessity of mitigating friction fraught with intergroup interaction. To cite but one such convention:


Article 1

1. This Convention applies to:

(a) tribal peoples in independent countries whose social, cultural and economic conditions distinguish them from other sections of the national community, and whose status is regulated wholly or partially by their own customs or traditions or by special laws or regulations;

(b) peoples in independent countries who are regarded as indigenous on account of their descent from the populations which inhabited the country, or a geographical region to which the country belongs, at the time of conquest or colonisation or the establishment of present state boundaries and who, irrespective of their legal status, retain some or all of their own social, economic, cultural and political institutions.

2. Self-identification as indigenous or tribal shall be regarded as a fundamental criterion for determining the groups to which the provisions of this Convention apply. (1989, Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention).

The overriding ideology of non-racialism however, regardless of the provision made in constitutions or conventions for traditional or indigenous or ethnic communities, rejects an ethnic nation in favour of a civic nation, based on equal individual rights, regardless of origin, and equal recognition of all cultural traditions, in the public sphere. The civic nation is based on consent rather than descent. Citizenship in ethnic nationalism on the other hand is based on blood and ancestry (Adam 1995:459).

While it is accepted that the majority governs in a democracy, such government in a mature democracy should not entail a majority dictatorship. The rights of minority parties for example, should not be curtailed and even more so, the rights of ethnic minorities. This principle, as we have seen, is not foreign to constitutions and international manifestos. Where the ruling party in South Africa, the African National Congress, embarked on its road to recognition and democracy with its Freedom Manifesto in 1955, voices are now being heard for a Minority Manifesto – these minorities being ethnic minorities.

Further to such apparent contradictions, policy-making intended to accommodate potentially countervailing ethnic aspirations is faced with a number of other vexing considerations. Often group-specific frustrations that underlie the quest for belonging make it difficult to pin down ethnicity as an intrinsic cause. The search for community may simply be expressed in ethnic identification. As no two self-identified communities are alike and historical experiences are disparate, analysis can only identify broad collective practices and historical circumstances that make a community more receptive to ethnocentrism compared to others who opt for a more individualistic world vision (Adam 1995:463).

Ethnicity is also different from many other historically shaped community characteristics in that it can be manipulated. Ethnic identity changes both in response to the community members’ own real and perceived needs, both instrumental and symbolic, but also in response to imposed identities by outsiders. Regardless of whether a community is stigmatised or accepted, marginalized, ignored, discriminated against or treated equally by the dominant majority – it affects self-perception differently. The extreme fluidity of ethnicity is distinct – no general theory of an essentialist ethnicity can thus be contemplated when multiple and hybrid identities interact within a constantly changing context – ethnicity is simply contingent (cf Adam 1995:463-464).

Given that community histories often differ, the traditional rationale that underpins ethnicity can differ markedly. Successful ethnic mobilisers are hence sensitive to such underlying collective perceptions. They reinforce existing folk wisdoms as well as construct new meanings for constantly changing realities. They are moreover successful because they articulate broadly existing sentiments, and upon which they build – they exploit needs rather than lead. Importantly hence, the notion that ethnicity constitutes a mere invention, contrived and constructed by manipulating elites must be counterbalanced by a focus on the ethnic realities that mobilisers cast into sharp relief (cf Adam 1995:463).

Policy-making geared for nation-building should clearly not only perceive ethnicity as an obstacle. Ethnicity should also be seen as a repository of community culture, an outcome of historical process and as a haven of comfort for an individual in an environment regarded as hostile. To deny the existence of ethnicity or to denounce ethnic communities as reactionary can only jeopardise endeavours toward nation-­building. Adam (1995:464) cites Ake as warning against the trap of only regarding “ethnicity as a problem or constraint on democracy” and insisting that “every aspect of social transformation has to come to terms with ethnicity”.

To go to the extreme of recognising ethno-nationalist demands at will would also not be viable. Even if ethnic communities are allowed to exercise self-determination within the confines of a Bill of Rights, there clearly are practical considerations as regards the number of such viable sovereign mobilised entities.

Another consideration is that while individuals cannot escape their ethnic heritage (even though it may be invoked or imposed by others from ‘outside’), they do conventionally adopt multiple identities according to circumstances or context. Sociocultural ethnicity may merely serve as a backdrop to multiple roles and respective self-perceptions, not as an exclusive identity. Adam (1995:466-467) warns that “A dangerous ethnic nationalism exists when nationalists want to make their nation home only to their own, when exclusive zeal does not tolerate being yourself and when the individual choice of identity is subjected to the dictates of the group’s”.


The Buysdorp community experience once again has alerted me to the fact that there is much more to the conventional ethnicity phenomenon than meets the eye. It has again shown me that scholars, and governments, must proceed circumspectly when dealing with people who identify, and can be identified, as a distinct grouping – and that such identification is multi-faceted, even sometimes Janus-faced.

Accommodation is possible, many national constitutions make provision for this. I believe that the Buyses of this world can be acknowledged and allowance can be made for them, even in terms of, and recognising the integrity and the localism of their identity and ethnicity. Such a localised entity must however be subject to basic human rights principles and can never be absolutely exclusive. Sociocultural and sociopolitical permeability in this kind of case, though, should be managed while taking cognisance of the reality of privately owned land, together with the concomitant rights that such title entails.

The Buys endeavour is in many respects benign; to all intents and purposes they simply wish to be allowed to live and manage their lives in their own way. But this ‘way’ should not inhibit, or infringe on, the ‘ways’ of others.


1. The issues of identity politics, politics of identity, place and politics were broached in an earlier paper (De Jongh 2004) but are taken to new dimensions and more extensive analysis here.


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