Ageing and old age in pre-industrial Africa: elderly persons among 19th-century Xhosa-speaking peoples

Andreas Sagner


Thusfar, African gerontologists have not attended to precolonial ageing, except to subscribe to a timeless perspective rooted in modernization theorys 'golden age narrative.' This paper sketches some dimensions of the ageing experience in a pre-industrial African "nation, the Xhosa-speaking societies in South Africa. It begins with a reconstruction of precolonial residence patterns and the economic status of elderly persons before it turns to the issue of cultural representations of ageing and old age in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Notwithstanding the intimate association of (male) ageing with accumulation of economic resources, the belief in ancestors functioned as a fundamental instrument by which old-age authority was upheld, apart from its colouring the very notion of Xhosa old age. Having examined the religious basis of the ageing experience, finally the gendered nature of old-age security is discussed. In a nutshell, it is argued that even though age was different in social and cultural terms and was thus an important aspect of any individual's identity, age alone never defined any persons economic status or social identity. Gender and kinship, but also biographically conditioned factors, affected the experience of old age. The notion of old age as an abstract entity is a Western-based construct which reflects an ageist conception, i.e. (chronological) old age as the determinant of old people's identity, and the inadequate comprehension of other prime social processes that moulded the lives of elderly persons rather than the reality of old age in precolonial Xhosa communities.

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