Nelson Mandela and how we talk about the state in Africa

It may be better to ask what Nelson Mandela's leadership means for how we assess the state in Africa.

The Nelson Mandela Capture Site in Howick, South Africa (Photo: Ashim D'Silva, via Unsplash).

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.


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