Being and belonging among White English-speaking South Africans

Doctoral Thesis


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University of Cape Town

White English-speaking South Africans - WESSAs - have been an understudied topic in general, and particularly within the discipline of anthropology. In this thesis, I take the reader on an autoethnographic journey of attempting to make sense of life in the suburbs of Cape Town, searching for the elusive middle-class WESSAs and trying to attain an understanding of who they are. What does it mean to be and belong among this fascinating subcategory of Africans of European origin? The thesis takes a novel approach to the topic by viewing it through Nyamnjoh's framework of incompleteness, which posits that humans are incomplete by nature and culture (and cultivation). This framework is based on West/Central African philosophy and draws inspiration from the writings of Amos Tutuola, whose storytelling and conceptual universe also informs this thesis. Two key issues emerging from my fieldwork are power and belonging. A complex interplay exists between these factors of life in Cape Town. On the one hand, I argue that middle-class WESSAs have significant power in my field-site in terms of social status, linguistic dominance as well as control of institutions and the built environment. This hegemony leads to exclusion, marginalisation and Othering of non-WESSAs and less wealthy people, especially people of colour. On the other hand, WESSAs' tendency to perceive their positionality as universal, and their quest for completeness of being, ends up causing alienation and rootlessness even for WESSAs themselves. The themes of rootlessness and non-belonging permeate this thesis, highlighting the detrimental nature of hierarchies of race and class even for those at the top. I join Nyamnjoh in his call for a convivial mode of existence which acknowledges interdependencies, interconnectedness and the inherent incompleteness of human life.