How to think about colonialism

Contemporary approaches to the legacy of colonialism tend to narrowly emphasize political agency as the solution to Africa’s problems. But agency is configured through historically particular relations of which we are not sole authors.

Image Credit: Sean Jacobs

Though for many there is little dispute that colonialism “happened.” What that historical fact means for the contemporary lives of people across the world today is matter of  dispute, and not only amongst scholars. Those who were once upon a time either colonizer or colonized would more readily find agreement that some countries colonized other countries. Or more precisely, that some European empires colonized many territories.The  recent coronation of a new British monarch recalls that famous phrase that the “sun never sets on the British empire.”Simply put, the British Empire’s reach was so geographically expansive—it is said nearly 25% of the Earth’s land mass at its mightiest–that if the sun was setting in some part of the empire it was also simultaneously rising in another part of the empire.

The lights never went out, so to speak. Extending this luminous metaphor further, it was projected that the light of Enlightenment radiated by British civilization would also illuminate the darkness of consciousness amongst the colonized. But as signaled by British prime minister Harold Macmillan’s famous speech to the whites-only parliament of South Africa in Cape Town in 1960, the winds of change were to set the sun on the political rule of empires over colonies, at least as a legitimate political practice that had started in 1497, for the British. Chiding his white South African audience a tinge, Macmillan observed:

In the twentieth century, and especially since the end of the war, the processes which  gave birth to the nation states of Europe have been repeated all over the world. We have seen the awakening of national consciousness in peoples who have for centuries lived in dependence upon some other power. Fifteen years ago this movement spread through Asia. Many countries there of different races and civilisations pressed their claim to an independent national life…The wind of change is blowing through this continent, and, whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact.

The idea of national consciousness as the inevitable expression of freedom, in this account, first thought of and lived out in Europe, was now repeating itself in the rest of the world. This was how Macmillan’s liberal contemporaries had come to philosophize the relinquishing of political rule and trusteeship over “their” colonies. Liberal imperialists narrate decolonization as a benevolent act in the inevitable march toward freedom and the nation-state that liberalism would claim as its proud heritage to this day. It remains a narrative denuded of the actual story of liberal trusteeship and paternalism that violently denied colonized peoples their sovereignty for hundreds of years. My point in recalling this is to underscore the consensus by most people—erstwhile colonizer and colonized— that colonialism happened, but also that colonialism definitely ended. (With more nuance, a version of this argument can be found in the Cornell philosopher Olufemi Taiwo’s Against Decolonization, Taking African Agency Seriously.)

It has a start date and a terminal date: colonization ended with decolonization by the 1960s. Except in settler colonies, in territories such as Rhodesia, Angola, Mozambique, South West Africa, and South Africa. Well, yes it did end in that sense. But even in the very moment of hoisting up the new flag of national independence with exuberance, anti-colonial leaders like Nasser of Egypt, Nkrumah of Ghana and Nyerere of Tanganyika already began to talk of “neocolonialism,” the new form of colonialism they discovered, which tethered politically free countries to economically dependent relations with the former colonizing powers. It was a relationship they experienced immediately as a fetter on true independence and sovereignty.

Over the next decades, African political leaders preoccupied themselves with the processes of state formation, of building the national consciousness seen as necessary to produce new forms of communities that could unite around the nation. Charismatic political leaders, and the ideologies of development, offered symbols and programs around which to unite. At the same time, a generation of critical intellectuals and scholars drew attention to the limits that neo-colonial relations placed on the freedom of the freed states. Africa could not “develop” if development itself was being kicked at the shins from the very beginning.

Walter Rodney, the Caribbean historian and activist who found himself in the heady debates at the University of Dar es Salaam in the 1960s articulated the problem powerfully in How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Colonialism was formally over, but it held on to its mission and gains through a systematic relationship of economic dependency. Critical intellectuals in Latin America were coming to the same conclusions, and developed concepts such as “dependency theory,” articulated by historical sociologists such as Andre Gunder Frank to describe the historical phenomena they were living through.

At the same time, holding the postcolonial nation-state together was a challenge across many parts of the African continent, but also elsewhere right at the very beginning of decolonization as an expression of Macmillan’s celebrated national consciousness. Think of the slaughter that accompanied the fracturing of India through partition to produce two new political entities, a homeland for Muslims by the name of Pakistan, and the contested idea of whom India should be a homeland for, a question that features prominently in India’s current predicaments. There was also the secessionist impulse that produced the Biafra war in Nigeria (1967-1970). It was Julius Nyerere’s political dexterity that successfully welded Tanganyika and Zanzibar together despite the Zanzibari revolution.

The precarity of unity increasingly required a firm grip on political life and more centralized states. The suspicions of coups and palace intrigue further concentrated political powers, encouraging military rulers to take on political roles in the name of unity and development. New kinds of political figures emerged in this context—playing into the bigman theories of African politics were figures such as Idi Amin, Jean Bedel Bokassa, Mobutu Desire Sese Seko.

Another trajectory of post-independence leaders is symbolized by the lionized and tragic figure of Thomas Sankara, or the ideologically syncretic figures of Sekou Toure and Muammar Gaddafi; they represented a different kind of hope for radical nationalist commitments. The civil wars that took place in the post-independence period in Africa mobilized constituencies defined in some places by tribal solidarities, in other places by religious solidarities or combinations of either, and mapped onto territorial notions of who belonged. And often also inflamed by the Cold War.

When it came to intellectuals, the mainstream orthodoxies of those “studying Africa” as professional vocations—the policy experts and many mainstream Africanists of North America or Europe—looked askance at some of their colleagues, who tended to valorize the social reality of solidarities and consciousness of clan or tribe over nation and state. Africanist political science tended to lament the absence of national consciousness  as an antidote to a parochial consciousness. The future, as modernization theory wished it, would produce the modern individuated and supposedly abstract citizen of liberal political theory, unencumbered by tribal or religious identity. On the Western, Marxist-influenced left there was a lament too, less for the individual of liberal freedom but for the radical collective political subject united by class relations that was being fractured by the cultural/ethnic consciousness of tribal mobilizations.

But what a consensus about the historical fact of colonialism means in relation to understanding political life today remains a major debate. Political movements on the continent critical of the centralization of leaders and powers of states and political figures, increasingly identified the problems of contemporary Africa as a product of the agency of African elites and leaders. Disillusioned by the emphasis on state formation and unity at the expense of the people, while claiming to be in the name of the people, the answer to the problems for post-Cold War opposition movements resided in the panaceas of civil society and multipartyism championed in the late 1990s.

By the early 1970s analyses of the practices of states and leaders were understood through concepts such as corruption or neopatrimonialism; both are concepts that conflate descriptions of power with explanations of political practices. More elaborate descriptions of agency as the expression of pathologies of grotesque and even libidinal power would follow (for example in the writings of Bayart, and Mbembe). These arguments increasingly emphasized agency or the choices made by African leaders themselves as primary culprits, whether as participants in colonial rule or agents of their own dire fates as post-independence African societies.

Over time, this mode of critique produced two responses as solutions. First, a current wave  of well-meaning policies and think-tanks dedicated to leadership studies, and the need to produce more “ethical leaders.” The hope that leadership studies will solve Africa’s problems is an expression of an idea of agency. Second,  emphasizing agency by holding individual leaders accountable through criminalizing abuses of power—a response driven by a human rights approach.

The emphasis in many of these approaches is on the solutions to African political and economic predicaments, as primarily solved by African agency; where agency is interpreted as the choices individuals make in the present. These choices are understood as bad choices when political leaders derive private gain from public resources, and as good choices when political leaders act in the public interest. As formulations of political agency, these approaches tend toward a largely ahistorical understanding of political subjects and political subject formation because they think of agency and leadership outside of political and economic history. Colonialism in these analyses ended, as Macmillan declared, with political independence. For example, in the frameworks of human rights discourse shaped by criminal law, to try and explain why this or that practice or horrendous event is happening, or has happened, tends to be viewed as an excuse. Explanation and impunity have become conflated.

It was into this breach that some scholars of contemporary political predicaments weighed in across different geographical locations and out of different colonial experiences, to offer accounts of political predicaments in the present. When the Ugandan political theorist Mahmood Mamdani published his landmark Citizen and Subject in 1996, it was in intervention that sought to rethink agency by historicizing political identities and political practices. Rather than lament the absence of the liberal subject that could transcend tribe or lament the absence of a class consciousness that could repress tribe or race, Mamdani’s starting point was to ask how could we explain the politicization of cultural identity as the basis of solidarities that produced the violence of civil war and even genocide? Before offering a solution Mamdani compelled us to first ask, what is the problem? How do we understand the predicament that was politically manifesting?

As an approach, Citizen and Subject offered a way to think about colonialism, not as a specific experience or moment that happened in the past that is better left in the past, but as a historical phenomenon, with the legacy of late colonialism in the present. A legacy does not imply that we are prisoners of history, overdetermined by the past. But it implies that agency is configured inside of historically particular relations of which we are not sole authors or agents. The late Caribbean intellectual Stuart Hall might have described this analogously as “studying the conjuncture:”

A conjuncture is a period during which the different social, political, economic and ideological contradictions that are at work in society come together to give it a specific and distinctive shape…A conjuncture can be long or short: it’s not defined by time or by simple things like a change of regime – though these have their own effects… history moves from one conjuncture to another rather than being an evolutionary flow. And what drives it forward is usually a crisis, when the contradictions that are always at play in any historical moment are condensed….Crises are moments of potential change, but the nature of their resolution is not given.

What then is the relationship between colonialism as a historical fact, and the predicaments of our political present, our current conjuncture? Should the formerly colonized, both intellectuals and political leaders, dispense with colonialism as a presence in the present? Or should scholars and intellectuals encourage more rather than less reflection on the ways in which colonialism shapes political institutions and political agency, and the sensibilities and ways of thinking and knowing the world? These are questions that animate the chapters that have been gathered together in On the Subject of Citizenship: Late Colonialism in the World Today. In it scholars have considered contemporary political predicaments, for example: political violence in ethnic federations such as Ethiopia;  how European societies contend with their self identity as secular and tolerant in relation to postcolonial migrants; or how women as political agents are understood in relation to markets and patriarchy in Indian democracy.

Diverse as they are, the reflections could be considered as ways to think about colonialism in the present. They argue not just that we understand the global South better if we understand the relationship between the colonial past and our present better, but also that we understand modernity on a global scale better by understanding the historically specific ways in which every expanse of the earth, East and West, North and South, bears the trace, and the blood-stained signature of late colonial modernity.

A panel reflecting on this book will be co-hosted by Columbia University’s Department of Political Science, and the Other Universals Consortium based at the Centre for Humanities Research, on 23 May. The conversation will include Mahmood Mamdani, Talal Asad, Partha Chatterjee, Karuna Mantena, Siba Grovogui and Suren Pillay.

About the Author

Suren Pillay is currently a senior researcher at the Centre for Humanities Research, University of the Western Cape. From August 2023 he will hold the AC Jordan Chair in African Studies and directorship of the Centre for African Studies at the University of Cape Town.

Further Reading