Grasping the specificity of the political in Africa

Revisiting the Ugandan political scientist Mahmood Mamdani’s seminal book, "Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism."

Image Credit: Sean Jacobs

I first encountered “Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism early in graduate school, in a class I took for its intriguing title – “Colonial Law and the Modern State.” In that class, and then in “Major Debates in the Study of Africa,” we were guided by Mahmood through Citizen and Subject and through the literature that went into shaping it; I subsequently came out of graduate school under the impression that everybody who studies African politics spends weeks reading Henry Sumner Maine’s Ancient Law and Jan Smuts’s lectures. After that experience, it was perhaps inevitable that Citizen and Subject’s framework for grasping the specificity of the political in Africa would shape the intellectual trajectories of many of us in those classes – it certainly did mine – as well as of many of those who studied with Mahmood in the decades before and the decades since.

Citizen and Subject has been particularly close to my mind of late, for this term is first time I have actually taught the book. For the last few years, during which I worked alongside Mahmood at the Makerere Institute of Social Research in Kampala, Uganda, Mahmood was there to teach Citizen and Subject himself. But now, running my own classes on African politics at Cambridge University, I have realized how essential the book remains. It is unparalleled in its ability to re-frame the polarized and reductive debates that are still the substance of Africanist political science, just as they were 20 years ago – debates over concepts like clientelism, corruption, democratization, ethnic violence, or civil society. And so when students ask, “but what’s the alternative?” there is almost always some place in Citizen and Subject to point to.

The book’s pedagogical importance derives from its method: at each step, a dominant debate is identified and the common presumption shared by the opposing sides to that debate revealed. The book thus seeks “to problematize both sides of every dualism by historicizing it, thereby underlining the institutional and political condition for its reproduction and for its transformation” (299). What a salutary change it would be if this one sentence were to replace the inevitable litany of focus group discussions and key informant interviews found in the “Methodology” sections of too many African politics research proposals!

The book’s method, in turn, derives from its understanding of political reality. It identifies the contradictory nature of all movements, all struggles, all efforts at reform, whether by state or by society. It shows how those efforts are shaped by the political structures they seek to transform, and so may end up reproducing those structures in the very effort to overcome them. Politics is a field of dilemmas, and transformation is tenuous and partial even in the best of circumstances. So there is no singular revolutionary moment but always multiple, allied but contradictory, processes of reform, as the dilemmas of state and social power are identified and negotiated. But this also means there is always cause for optimism, always an emancipatory moment that can be identified, proclaimed, and redeemed. Politics thus has an ineradicable intellectual dimension, for, as the book puts it, “analytical failures can become political failures” (29) – but analytical progress can also, thereby, help enable political progress.

Citizen and Subject is a call for the reform of the study of African politics, and itself exemplifies that reformed discipline. It declares its endeavor as being “to establish the historical legitimacy of Africa as a unit of analysis” (13). The “starting point” in this “creation of a truly African studies” is thus to establish “the commonality of the African experience, [which] seems imperative at this historical moment” (31). Once this specificity of the African experience is grasped, genuinely comparative global studies can proceed.

The book seeks the content of Africa’s specificity by tackling head-on what is typically seen as the continent’s irreconcilable internal difference: South Africa. Taking South Africa as part of Africa, the book argues, can best reveal what is common to the continent as a whole. Its unwavering commitment to bring South Africa back in, however, remains as uncommon today as it was twenty years ago.

And so the question of South Africa and African studies remains imperative. In fact, the question has received fresh political impetus by #RhodesMustFall at the University of Cape Town, #OpenStellenbosch, and other struggles in South Africa, whose demand to decolonize knowledge by bringing Africa into the curriculum – thus establishing a genuine African studies in South Africa – is paired with demands for the broader decolonization of the university.

Citizen and Subject, of course, has decolonization at its center, and explores the dilemmas of the vast efforts after independence to decolonize civil society, including decolonizing universities and the curriculum. Indeed, the decolonization of knowledge production was the substance of state intervention and social struggle from Makerere to Ibadan for years. This history of actually existing efforts at decolonizing knowledge production in Africa, however, raises a complex question for today’s struggles in South African universities. We might ask whether, by framing the task of radically transforming the university and establishing African studies in South Africa as decolonization, today’s South African struggles risk being temporally out of joint with struggles around justice in knowledge production elsewhere in Africa.

From a perspective outside South Africa, to represent the demand for justice in knowledge production today as the need for decolonization may appear outdated or paying short shrift to the ambiguities of actually existing decolonization. Elsewhere in Africa, the key task in justice in knowledge production may appear differently: Mahmood has often framed the Makerere Institute of Social Research’s objective as being to study the world from Africa, and not to study Africa as divorced from the world. I see this project as an effort to fulfill Citizen and Subject’s call for genuinely comparative study, in which Africa is a unit of analysis, thus breaking free from the limitations of African area studies while not ignoring Africa’s specificity.

Former Mamdani students: Juan Obario, Suren Pillay, Manuel Scwhab and Adam Branch. Image: Sean Jacobs
Juan Obario, Suren Pillay, Manuel Scwhab and Adam Branch.

And so the efforts to establish a decolonized African studies in South Africa may need to engage with actually existing struggles over justice in knowledge production throughout Africa, past and present, if they are not to risk confirming South African exceptionalism – and African idiosyncrasy – in the very attempt to overcome that exceptionalism. This is precisely this kind of dilemma that Citizen and Subject helps alert us to in the broad process of decolonization. The effort to study the world from Africa may thus be the counterpoint that ensures African studies does not amount to an assertion of Africa’s idiosyncrasy. The South African student activists’ decision to put questions of intersectionality, patriarchy, and a living wage at the center of their agenda may represent this kind of counterpoint, opening decolonization up to analytical and political engagement beyond South Africa. Conversely, the demand for decolonization may be the counterpoint that ensures that “studying the world from Africa” starts from an engagement with Africa’s specific history and is not co-opted by neoliberalism’s “centers of excellence” and “world-class universities.”

Beyond Africa, the demand to decolonize knowledge and the university has resonated widely. In the UK, there is Rhodes Must Fall at Oxford and “Why is My Curriculum White” at the University of London. And of course, while Henry Sumner Maine and Jan Smuts may have been forgotten to students of Africanist political science, they are still very much present at Cambridge. The call to Decolonize Cambridge, to rethink the curriculum, to raise questions of access and representation, have increasing political heft in this post-colonialist context.

In many other places across the world with their own specific histories of relations with Africa, such as the Americas, the question of African studies is similarly provoking debates around justice in knowledge production. And perhaps the widespread rise in interest in the study of Africa globally, for instance in India, China, or Turkey, can lead the question of African studies to play a critical role in generating a broad re-thinking of global knowledge production and of the politics of the university. Critical debates around African studies – asking both about a decolonized study of Africa and a globalized study of the world from Africa – need to be cultivated in these many locations, thus helping to develop novel intellectual responses to the epochal political transformations we are seeing today. Which refers back to what I see as being the central lesson of Citizen and Subject: that it is the task of critical intellectual work to engage concrete political struggles, identify their emancipatory moments whatever their immediate limitations, and let this optimism help open the field of political possibility.


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A solidariedade socialista na Angola e Moçambique pós-coloniais tornou as pessoas queer invisíveis. Revisitar esse apagamento nos ajuda a reinventar a libertação de forma legítima.