The making and unmaking of permanent minorities

Mahmood Mamdani’s new book asks how communities that have been enemies can heal. But does it succeed?

Nelson Mandela and members of the ANC listen to a UN Security Council debate on South Africa. Credit: UN Photo, Milton Grant, July 1992

There is no doubt that Ugandan political scientist Mahmood Mamdani’s new book, Neither Settler nor Native: The Making and Unmaking of Permanent Minorities (Harvard University Press, 2020), is a major effort towards an understanding of the untold and distorted history of the United States, and the consequences this mythologized history has had on other parts of the world, especially Sudan, Israel, and South Africa.  For this reviewer, however, the effort could have gone much further.

Mamdani’s objective is to analyze how the colonizers constructed or defined the way in which they should rule the colonized. In that sense, this book is a continuation of the argument in his previous books: Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism (1996) and Define and Rule: Native as Political Identity (2012). Whether the form is direct or indirect rule, the colonizers understood themselves as superior to the colonized. They were, by definition, civilizers. That phase is referred to, by Mamdani, as colonial modernity, and the period following independence is referred to as post-colonial modernity.

The book’s emphasis on the legal approach the colonizers took to defining their rule ends up downplaying the inherent and automatic violence that accompanied those historical phases of genocide (e.g. the Herero and Nama genocides in Namibia), industrialized enslavement, and colonization or fascism. By contrast, the post-colonial violence is presented as extreme. On closer examination of the historical record, the contrast between the colonial violence and the post-colonial violence is not as obvious as it is presented. All colonizers have always made sure that their histories get written according to their own views. As is well known, history does get written by the winners and they make sure that the narrative matches the civilizing mission.

As a political theorist, Mamdani pinpoints the problem (the contrast between violence) as the by-product of the nation-state structure imposed by the colonizers or settlers. In its place, he argues that, in order to avoid the extreme violence of post-colonial modernity, the protagonists have to agree to move away from the nation-state structure to an imagined political community that creates a level playing field, removing the hierarchical relationship imposed by the colonizing/settler legacy. The principal architects of this hierarchical relationship are listed as Hobbs, John Locke, Thomas Babington Macaulay, jurist Sir Henry Maine, Hugo Grotius, and Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda. In his summary of how the strategy operated, Mamdani implicitly downplays the extreme violence that went along with colonial modernity: “By inducing [local] elites to take the role of colonizer nation, colonizers hoped to inject a kind of Trojan Horse into subject societies.”

When colonies became independent, the colonizing practices of divide and rule created the conditions for extreme violence. As Mamdani puts it: “Contests over national belonging are at the heart of extreme violence in the post-independent period.” By contrasting the violence of colonial rule with the extreme violence of post-colonial rule, Mamdani ends up downplaying the former despite the availability of the evidence—among the most recent, the best known is Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghosts. The downplaying of the colonial violence is surprising given Mamdani’s own use of Sven Lindqvist’s Exterminate All the Brutes to illustrate the colonial violence in Africa.

Ironically, Mamdani indicates that, in fact, colonial violence was just as extreme as the post-colonial violence: “Like other nationalist projects, post-colonial nationalism has been deeply violent. Indeed, the violence of the militant nationalist project often felt like a second colonial occupation.” In order to buttress his point, Mamdani recalls a comment reported by the late professor Ernest Wamba dia Wamba, at the University of Dar es Salaam, quoting a peasant asking, after independence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo: “When will this independence end?” The quote is meant to prove that post-colonial violence was more extreme than the one exercised by the colonizers. That assessment is questionable, once the details of colonial violence are unveiled.

Yet, Mamdani does not hide the violence that was part and parcel of colonial modernity as illustrated by insurrections in India (1857), in Jamaica (1865), and in Sudan (1881-1898). In order to avoid the violence, the jurist Sir Henry Maine was tasked with crafting a type of rule that resorted to the natives as subject partners or collaborators tasked with maintaining law and order through indigenous or customary law, supervised by the colonial masters.

Mamdani ends up, seemingly, admiring the result: The genius of the British was not in inventing differences to exploit but in politicizing real and acknowledged differences by turning them into legal boundaries deemed inviolable and predicating security and economic benefits on locals’ respect for these boundaries.” 

As long as Mamdani restricts himself to the case studies, his argument seems to hold. For example, why didn’t the British approach work to prevent the Mau-Mau rebellion in Kenya, which led to extreme violence? To refresh my memory I went to an article published in the UK Guardian in 2016, about the brutality of the Kenyan Gulag. The British were not the only ones interested in erasing their colonial extreme violence. On Independence Day, the new prime minister Jomo Kenyatta asked his compatriots to “forgive and forget.” To his credit, Mamdani is not interested in simplifying a complex history by way of forgiving and forgetting. He explains: “I seek to theorize extreme violence as political, and thereby to argue that a crime-and-punishment approach is more likely to aggravate than to ameliorate this violence.

In his speech at Congolese independence in 1960, Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of an independent Congo (the later DR Congo) sought to present colonial rule for what it was, and then proceeded to tell the Belgians and the Congolese that now that the Congolese are independent, they could all work together, without acrimony. But the Belgians could not take any Congolese, prime minister or not, to paint their colonial rule differently from how they saw it: an altruistic exercise. The Belgians treated it as an insult.

Mamdani’s use of political theory is aimed not only at understanding the roots of conflicts, but also at how to bring them to an end in ways that are politically satisfactory to both sides. From such a perspective, it would have been useful to include the works and practices of authors such as Alain Badiou, Ernest Wamba dia Wamba, Peter Hallward, Cheikh Anta Diop, Günther Anders, and Varlam Shalamov, among others. To these authors, one should add organizations like AbahlaliBaseMjondolo (The Shack Dwellers) in South Africa, the Landless and Homeless Movements (MST and MTST) in Brazil, the Zapatistas Army of National Liberation in Mexico, and The Movement for Socialism-Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples in Bolivia, and so on. The common objective of these organizations and individuals has been to bring about political change through practices of liberation or emancipation politics. Their understanding of political theory is generated through their battles to transform the conditions under which they had been forced to live or survive.

Looking at the “Indian Question,” as Mamdani calls it, in the US, one can see that the focus of political theory promoted by Indigenous militants is not restricted to their own specific status. Nick Estes, a young Indigenous scholar, offers a vision of political theory that goes beyond their confrontation with the settlers, as can be seen from his book’s title: Our History is the Future: Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance. 

Although Mamdani is at pains to stress the importance of not falsifying history, it is obvious that any history can be seen, interpreted, and acted upon from different perspectives, including ones that do challenge politically the established nation-state narrative. Estes’ approach can be looked at as political theory, inspired by Philip Deloria, a prolific Indigenous scholar and, at one time, executive director of NCAI (National Congress of American Indians). For Deloria, Native Americans do not have to submit to the defining rules of the settlers: “We suggest that tribes are not vestiges of a past, but laboratories for the future.”

After several readings of Mamdani’s book, it seems clear that he has been more influenced by political theorists than by the cultural practices that emerged from the militants, whether they are Native Americans, Palestinians, or Africans. Holding on to tradition does not necessarily mean refusing modernity; it can mean going beyond the boundaries set by modernity.

Another young Indigenous scholar, David Treuer, commented on how not to look at Wounded Knee, by insisting that Black Elk’s mourning the death of a dream (at Wounded Knee) must mean “to us to do the next thing: to dream a new one.” To make sure that he, (Treuer) is not misinterpreted, he quotes Walter Benjamin:

To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it “the way it really was”…  It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.  In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from nonconformism that is about to overpower it… Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.

Later, in the text Treuer echoes Mamdani’s preference for political resolution of differences that do lead to survivors:

We are, in a sense, the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those hundreds who survived Wounded Knee and who did what was necessary to survive, at first, and then—bit by bit to thrive.

In this sense, through their activism they are showing how prescriptive politics can lead toward decolonizing, de-Nazifying, de-Zionizing political communities (as stated by Mamdani). From such an angle, the political community is no longer the US, but the planet.  In the process, they are practicing one of the lessons I learned from working with Ernest Wamba dia Wamba: politics of truth means overcoming any obstacle, including those that seem impossible at first sight.

Historical situations are not chosen. In the current times, humans are faced with the challenge of deciding which path to choose, between “civilization or barbarism,” as Cheikh Anta Diop framed how he saw the future of Africa, in his book of the same name, published in 1981. In its encounter with Europe, Africa lived through the barbarism of genocide, industrialized enslavement, colonization, fascism, and apartheid. What tends to be forgotten or downplayed is that all of the consequences of these phases are still embedded and active in the neoliberal capitalism currently dominating the world. Therefore, it should not come as a surprise that the colonial violence that reigned during colonial times increased during the post-colonial era. The end of any given historical phase, proclaimed or not, should not lead one to think that its consequences for the beneficiaries and/or the victims would automatically cease. The abolition of slavery in the Americas, for example, ensured that the benefits would be maintained through different devices.

With regard to Nuremberg, German philosopher Günther Anders made a similar point. As Jean-Pierre Dupuy pointed out in his preface to Anders’ Hiroshima est partout, Anders is the most disregarded Western philosopher whose biography and works should have drawn as much attention as his spouse, Hannah Arendt. The main reason for Anders being treated as a pariah, one suspects, stemmed from his pointing out the continuity between the Holocaust, the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the ensuing permanent threat to humans and life on the planet. For Anders, philosophizing was not enough; action to stop the turning of death into a permanent industry had to be constant. The refusal of the Nuremberg trial to include and reconcile with the mass civilian deaths of Hiroshima and Nagasaki proved that humans were headed for the apocalypse. Dupuy agreed, writing:

The threat posed by the worldwide death industry comes from the combined crises of climate, energy, the mad rush toward new technology, international terrorism, etc. From wherever one looks, it is obvious that knowledge of these threats, some of which are extremely serious, does not incite anybody to act. Why? Because we do not believe what we know, because we cannot bring ourselves to visualize the implications of what we know.

As a moral philosopher, Anders made others uncomfortable because he insisted on sharing his outrage at what he was witnessing: a laissez-faire attitude by humans in the face of a nuclear catastrophe that, sooner or later, would liquidate life on the planet. Wars became the reason for manufacturing weapons that would make killing “easier,” so to speak. Long before drones replaced guided missiles, Anders wrote:

The war by tele-murder that is on its way shall be the war most free from hatred that has ever existed in history. […] This absence of hatred shall be the most inhuman absence of hatred that has ever existed: absence of hatred and absence of any scruple will become one and the same.

With regard to how this mindset came to be, one should add the reinforcing ingredients of individualization, competition, hierarchization of everything: knowledge, race, gender, culture, etc. From such a perspective, the militant Native Americans see themselves fighting for the same kind of future as those—Palestinians, Africans, Indigenous peoples, immigrants, homeless, landless, poor people—who are fighting against the destructive devastations brought about by climate change, over-dependence on fossil fuel, militarization, racism, and capitalism. The consequence of such a reading prevents humans from grasping the continuities that have transformed the system into more than the sum of all of its historical phases, from genocide through enslavement, to fascism/colonization/apartheid and neo-liberalism.

The lesson from Günther Anders is that each destructive step of the dominant system paved the way to a more destructive phase. The destructiveness of capitalism is more than the sum of its historical parts. And, in the process, the possibility of surviving is consistently diminished.

I do not disagree with Mamdani’s theorizing and calling for transformative transitions that would ideally benefit all sides.  However, his reductive selection of historical evidence demonstrates why and how it is bound to lead to failure. The final phrases of the book’s concluding chapter could be understood as describing the obsolescence of the nation-state:

Political modernity led us to believe we could not live without the nation-state, lest we not only be denied its privileges but also find ourselves dispossessed in the way of the permanent minority. The nation made the immigrants a settler and the settler a perpetrator. The nation made the local a native and the native a perpetrator, too. In this new history, everyone is colonized—settler and native, perpetrator and victim, majority and minority.  Once we learn this history, we might prefer to be survivors instead.

So far, surviving under the conditions proposed by Mamdani has not been the best option. As one can see from the DR Congo and its meandering from independence to the secession of Katanga and Kasai provinces; then reuniting, changing its name for the sake of authenticity under President Mobutu. This trajectory should not hide the fact that, to this day, from within and from without, the country has been a constant target of balkanization. Scholars like Jeffrey Herbst and Greg Mills offered a solution: erase the Congo and carve it up among its neighbors. (I responded to the idea in Pambazuka News.) In the case of the DR Congo as, in fact, for the entire continent, the colonizing history opened the way to a never peaceful future thanks to global predators, be they nations or corporations. That kind of transition to independence could not but lead to a worsening of the violence that started during colonial modernity. In one of his poems, Aimé Césaire captured very well what had happened: “When the world shall be a tower of silence / Where we shall be the prey and the vulture …”

With regard to Israel and Palestine, Alain Badiou offered a solution by way of an interview published in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. It boiled down to stepping away from what the founders of Israel concluded: the Jews are “the” victims, and any group that does not abide by it, such as the Palestinians, shall be treated as “the” enemies.  In spite of formulations that drew criticisms (e.g. Palestinians and Jews must forget the Holocaust), Badiou never diverted from his insistence on the creation of a country in which Israeli and Palestinians would treat each other equally.

Unfortunately, the Middle East (among other many territories) has been treated as a sort of permanent laboratory for the maintenance of the world as framed after the Nuremberg Trial—to serve the interests of the dominant nation-states, and, within them, in particular, the military industrial complex. The functioning of such a paradigmatic world has been maintained by an ideological frame that was aimed at perpetuating the wars against the Indians under a new name: The War on Terror.

In the chapter on the Native American question, Mamdani relied a great deal on historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, while ignoring completely her other work, Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment . Yet, the latter provides a better historical source for understanding the role played by distorting the history of Native Americans in order to serve the narrative of white supremacists in the US.

In his final and concluding chapter, Mamdani argues that the way to resolve the failures presented by all the situations, is to practice a politics of decolonizing the political community. In other words, face the reality not as a nation-state construct, but as a political community. He illustrates the point, with regard to what happened in South Africa.

As the South African struggle showed, this requires a politics that refuses to accept the battle lines drawn by the adversary and is dedicated to isolating that adversary by providing its constituency with alternatives.

Mamdani prefers not to mention what happened at Lonmin’s Marikana Platinum Mine in August 2012, when 34 miners were slaughtered in cold blood. The miners were on strike for better pay, among other things. Cyril Ramaphosa, the current president, was at the time a member of the board of directors of Lonmin as the company approved the lethal methods used by the South Africa police. In this case a leading anti-apartheid figure takes the lead on an action which is straight out of the apartheid playbook.    Peter Alexander, Thepelo Lekgowa, Botsang Mmope, Luke Sinwell and Bongani Xezwi (2012) wrote: “As underlined in a statement on Marikana signed by several hundred South African social scientists, continuities from the apartheid era are profound.” As any observer can see on the African continent, the continuities between colonial and post-colonial government practices persist.

The second point that should be acknowledged is the role played by Cubans, MPLA military forces, SWAPO, Soviet military advisers in the defeat of the South African apartheid army, UNITA, and the US support at the battle of Cuito-Cuanavale. As Nelson Mandela pointed out during his visit to Cuba in 1991, the victory sounded the beginning of the end of the South African apartheid regime.

This book will be a landmark in trying to figure out how to transform the way humans relate to each other. As I read and re-read some of the chapters, it became clear that the objective was to promote healing between communities that had been enemies. From such an angle, it is difficult to understand why Mamdani ignored the works of those who have written extensively on that very theme, such as Cheikh Anta Diop, Théophile Obenga, Ayi Kwei Armah, and Yoporeka Somet, to mention a few. The focus of their individual and collective work on Africa has been, and continues to be, to heal and to recover from centuries of destruction. If Mamdani is analyzing the decolonizing process, how does he manage to leave aside these voices?

To view the post-colonial nation state as completely severed from its colonial legacies overlooks and simplifies the intricate connections that were maintained through the economic, financial, political, ideological, and cultural ties. As the COVID-19 pandemic evolves, will humans learn the necessary, urgent lesson that the hierarchization of knowledge, and of human histories, dehumanizes all humans, not just those who consider themselves superior?

Further Reading