Vito Laterza: Beyond the vertical and the horizontal: personhood, in/equality and epistemological alterity in a Swazi company town

Welcome to a lecture by Vito Laterza, Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Oslo. 

After the seminar, coffee and snacks are served in our lunch room. The event is open to all, no registration required.

Lecture abstract:

The Piketty phenomenon has recently brought inequality to the forefront of public and academic debates, but anthropologists of southern Africa have been focusing on the topic for some time already. Questions of equality and inequality were central in the struggles for economic justice and human dignity by black workers and local residents in Enkopolwani, a Swazi company town where I carried out long-term fieldwork at the end of the 2000s. The town was run by white business missionaries from southern Africa and north America, as a social enterprise where economic activities like timber processing went hand in hand with orphan care.

The paper aims to review and develop the theoretical contributions of the growing literature on inequality and local conceptions of personhood in southern Africa, in dialogue with my ethnographic research. I argue that some of these views offer a narrow bidimensional understanding, positing egalitarian tendencies as inherently “outside” African societies, and glossing over the hierarchical fractures brought about by colonialism and contemporary forms of racial and gendered capitalism. 

Building on approaches that privilege reflexivity, conviviality and borderlinking, I explore the multidimensionality of concepts and practices of in/equality in Enkopolwani. I propose that we work towards a transversal epistemology that reverses the gaze on enduring structures of inequality that produce and exclude racial and ethnic “others”, and abandons alterity as the primary mode of ethnographic inquiry.


Vito Laterza is s a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Oslo. He received his PhD in Social Anthropology from the University of Cambridge. His work focuses on labour, political economy, energy, sustainable development and social and political mobilisation in southern and central Africa. He carried out long-term fieldwork in Swaziland on the intersections of politics, development and traditionalism, and more recently in South Africa on the university student protests (2015-2016).

His publications include: ‘Resilient Labour: Workplace Regimes, Globalization and Enclave Development in Swaziland’ (Journal of Development Studies, 2016); ‘Waves of Unrest: Wildcat Strikes and Possible Democratic Change in Swaziland’ (Berghahn book chapter, 2015); ‘Bringing Wood to Life: Lines, Flows and Materials in a Swazi Sawmill’ (Cambridge University Press book chapter, 2013). He regularly writes for international media like Al Jazeera English and Boston Review, and edits the Human Economy Blog.

Seminar contact: Keir James Cecil Martin


Published Feb. 2, 2017 9:55 PM - Last modified Sep. 14, 2018 11:42 AM