The Nazareth Scotch: Dance Uniform as Admonitory Infrapolitics for an Eikonic Zion City in early Union Natal

Robert Papini
Southern African Humanities Vol. 14 (Dec 2002): pp 79-106


Uniform has been called a ‘fetish object’ which through ritual organisation helps nationalism’s ‘theatrical performance of invented community’ (McClintock, A. 1995: 374–375). In both male and female sectors of the Nazareth Baptist Church’s holy dances today, an overwhelming majority outfitted in neotraditional ‘IsiZulu’ uniform gives onlookers the impression of a standard-bearing ecclesiastical nationalism—a ‘Zulu Christian’ church. Drawing all ages, the men’s IsiZulu typically outnumbers by five to one the other male uniform—a syncretic ensemble known as ‘the Scotch’, whose more demanding dance means that men seldom remain in it beyond their twenties. Inspired by perspectives from postcolonial theory, this essay asks how, for an African-initiated church whose indigenising or inculturative character is most manifest in its dance uniforms, it might be possible to read this apparently anomalous Western derivation. If material culture is a communicative system (Eicher 1995), what meaning might a ‘fetishistic’ sacramental garb such as the Scotch hold for wearers and watchers— as sacred dance apparel, what prophetic hierography encode—in the drama of ritual liminality called by Victor Turner (1975: 111) ‘an exteriorised mystical way’? In resisting immediate decipherment, the uniform suggests the possibility that its originator intended, for what has become the most ethnically marked of ‘Zion City’ churches, something considerably more than mere improvising of tradition for a crude ethnicnationalist revival. I try to show here that in contemplating the Nazareth Scotch we begin, in Michael Taussig’s words, to ‘become aware of the West in the eyes and handiwork of its Others’. To invert in this way the familiar and persistent specular fascination of the coloniser with the body image, costume and persona of the Other, is for Taussig (1993: 246), ‘to abandon border logistics and enter into the “second contact” era of the borderland where “us” and “them” lose their polarity and swim in and out of focus’.