Protecting the borders: etiquette manuals and ethnology in the erstwhile South African Defence Force

Published in: Anthropology Southern Africa
Volume 40, issue 3, 2017 , pages: 157–171
DOI: 10.1080/23323256.2017.1345642
Author(s): Robert GordonAnthropology Department, South Africa


This paper describes the rise and fall of the Ethnological Section of the South African Defence Force (SADF) and examines two inter-related conundra: Why were senior policy makers’ pleas for officers’ courses in ethnology unsuccessful when the SADF had large numbers of ethnologists in its employ? Second, why were they fixated on etiquette manuals which were, content-wise, often laughable? On the available evidence, I suggest that the raison d’être for the use of ethnologists was to encourage white soldiers to accept black fellow soldiers and to improve relations with the local populace. However, rather than promote good relations, the etiquette manuals frequently reinforced the racial order because of their ambiguity. The SADF ethnologists’ insistence on the rigid adherence to etiquette also laboured under the delusion that compelling dominant parties to behave politely would solve the problems arising from structural inequality and exploitation. For their part, senior officers dismissed these poorly qualified ethnologists as impractical and lacking credibility, limiting their use in strategic and tactical operations.

Get new issue alerts for Anthropology Southern Africa