Statement regarding need for sensitivity surrounding labels for South African ethnic groups by SASHG committee on 26/04/2019
We recognise that preferred identifiers (labels) for South African ethnic groups vary between individuals, groups, nations and organisations. This topic has been raised and discussed by the SASHG for over 10 years. In 2013, an attempt was made to come to an agreement within the SASHG membership, over which labels to use. No consensus has been reached, and it is unlikely that one will be reached without further discussion.
Whereas in the rest of Africa (and globally), the names of ethnic groups may not have negative connotations, in South Africa the different names for ethnic groups come from a past and an Apartheid regime that attached social imperatives. There has therefore been an understandable move away from using racial or ethnic based classifications, when it is inappropriate, and unless there is compelling reason to use them.
It is important to clarify that the use of any recommended nomenclature for population groups is to be more strategic in providing genetic/genomic/counselling services to the public in a resource-limited healthcare environment. The objective is to not legitimise the use of labels unnecessarily, but to improve deliverables in health. In the field of medical genetics, we strive to understand shared genetic material, especially where there is an association between such shared material and a disease phenotype.
In the absence of consensus on “appropriate” labels, and until such an agreement is reached, we (as the current committee of the SASHG) can only recommend that individuals and groups throughout the country consider and discuss this issue, and ensure that the terminology they are using is not offensive. In addition, it may be relevant to include some details on the location of recruitment including the Province, city, hospital etc. as this may be more useful than a single ethnic label.
If a label is used, it should be accompanied by an explanation of what it refers to and, importantly, why it is being used.
In conclusion, there is a need for sensitivity as some labels that are currently used in publications and presentations are not appropriate and could send out the wrong message to the South African public.