Nelson Mandela and how we talk about the state in Africa

I have heard the question posed again and again. But there may be a problem with the question, because it already presumes to know in advance what the problem of the state in Africa. It may be better to ask what effect Mandela has had on the idea of the state in Africa and what his leadership means for how we assess the state in Africa.

… The first point to recognize is that most states in Africa were formed as a consequence of independence struggles. State power followed long and bitter anti-colonial struggles, with the promise not only of building a nation, but also enabling a public sphere. The consequences of these struggles have had an enduring and lasting effect on the political formation of the state in Africa. The second is that many of these states came into being at the height of the Cold War. And the ideological struggles of the Cold War have had devastating consequences for the shape of African politics.

Mandela is one of the last in that generation of leaders to come out of this mileu and in some sense his lesson is an important one. He recalled what the struggles of the twentieth century were principally about. In the aftermath of a long twentieth century, he reminded us that Africa would have to change its concepts if it was to remain true to its anti-colonial convictions. His was a reminder that Africa could no longer rely on the scripts of the Cold War. The Cold War left in its wake mangled bodies and fractured subjects and political formations across Southern Africa. In fact apartheid was a project of the Cold War and its devastation was felt in Angola, Mozambique, Namibia, and Zimbabwe. If one thinks about apartheid and what its consequences were in Southern Africa those were the consequences of the Cold War. Liberation movements and post-independent states were marked by the effects of the Cold War.

What Mandela offered us was a possibility of re-inventing the concept of the political. We’ve got to think about other modalities for building democratic societies, one’s that are cognizant of the dehumanization of race and underdevelopment. But we have to think of these in ways that do not simply repeat earlier scripts of resistance. We need new scripts, new concepts and new questions.

But let me address the fantasy of the West that it is better off because it has a change of leadership every so often. To determine the importance of Mandela along these lines is to lower the bar on what we expect from our leaders. We should not measure a democracy in terms simply of a change in leadership. Rather, the health of a state should be measured in terms of leaders who leave office with a significant shift in political discourse that affirms and actualises as far as possible a theory of change. That’s the sign of great leadership…to leave behind a stronger set of possibilities in one’s wake.




Premesh Lalu

Premesh Lalu is professor of history, Centre for Humanities Research at the University of the Western Cape and the author of 'The Deaths of Hintsa' (HSRC Press, 2009).

  1. Hmm, I don’t understand how “apartheid was a project of the Cold War.” It seems to be that colonialism preceded (and endures after) the Cold War, so how could it be a “project of”?

    I personally don’t think a good measurement of a healthy state is one based on “political discourse” “a theory of change” or any other ideals. I think one should measure concretely how much more or less power oppressed people have. Are unions strengthened or police? Is the gap between rich and poor decreasing or increasing? Are farms in more or less hands? Do corporations have more power or working people and structures? Is more land distributed back to its original owners or less? Are the country’s rich resources benefiting more people or less? In 10 years we might find South Africa has a lot to learn from Zimbabwe (or not), but we need concrete, actual measures to measure this.

  2. The concept of the state is not reducible to a mere calculation. States are also nurtured through idealism and thought, and intellectual traditions. Dorris Sommer’s wonderful Foundational Fictions is a crucial text to consider here. But also think of Ben Anderson’s Imagined Communities, which supplements the story of the state with the story of the nation. By both accounts, the state that Kate Sanner wants for Africa is merely one that is a copy of the state-form that the whole world now mistrusts. Anderson will later refer to this state that ensued with print capitalism as founded on a principle of seriality, while Partha Chatterjee will question the derivative concept of the nation. We may now have to ask about what has become of the state that was reduced to a mere calculation, the biopolitical state that sought to calculate life and its mechanisms, only to leave us with the fate of abandoned populations. This is the state that makes one-hundred and one promises, only never to live up to a single one. Perhaps, what we need, beyond calculation is a different concept of the state and its relation to society. We need to forge states of principle and ideal, not just the promises of delivery – which it should be doing anyway. This is why Derrida for example distinguishes between forgiveness in SA that was a matter of calculation, and forgiveness that was a pure forgiveness, one that was the forgiveness of the impossible. While he does not deny the place of the former in the transition from apartheid to the post-apartheid, he does require us to consider the principle of forgiveness that exceeds calculation. See his lecture at the University of the Western Cape in 1998 for example. This is a hasty half-baked response. It will require further thought and elaboration.

    As for apartheid, I would suggest we return to Aleta Norval’s Apartheid’s Discourse…

  3. For a taste of the Derrida lecture in SA, see…but it is also available in the Sundance film, Derrida…

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