Academic journal article Africa

Seen from Below: Conceptions of Politics and the State in a Botswana Village

Academic journal article Africa

Seen from Below: Conceptions of Politics and the State in a Botswana Village

Article excerpt


Based on the contentions that rules cannot determine practice, and that the state is only a composite reality that needs to be analysed as a part of a wider socio-cultural totality, this article investigates how the state, as government and political practice, functions in a village in Botswana. Consequently, lay villagers' attitudes to the state and hence the issue of legitimacy become focal points in the discussion. It is argued that what is conceptualised by most villagers as the state is not co-extensive with its formal boundaries. Rather, it is associated with that which is 'modern' or 'European' and hence seen to be alien. This means not that the state is conceptualised in merely negative terms but rather that it achieves its legitimacy less on ideological grounds than from its role as a generous patron. This is due to the state's extraordinary wealth. It is argued that this form of legitimacy to some extent defines the roles it can play and makes it in some ways vulnerable but, on the other hand, enables the state to buy time to develop a political and administrative system that steers it clear of the common miseries that most other African states face.


Cet article, qui se base sur les assertions selon lesquelles la regle ne peut determiner la pratique et l'Etat n'est qu'une realite composite qu'il convient d'analyser dans une globalite socioculturelle plus large, etudie le mode de fonctionnement de l'Etat, en tant que pratique gouvernementale et politique, dans un village du Botswana. La discussion est ainsi centree sur le comportement des villageois profanes a l'egard de l'Etat et donc sur la question de la legitimite. Elle affirme que ce que la plupart des villageois conceptualisent comme Etat n'est pas co-extensionnel a ses limites formelles. Au lieu de cela, ils l'associent a ce qui est "moderne" ou "europeen" et donc considere comme "etranger". Ceci signifie non pas que l'Etat est conceptualise en termes purement negatifs, mais qu'il obtient sa legitimite non pas pour des raisons d'ordre ideologique mais essentiellement pour son role de bienfaiteur genereux. Ceci est du a l'extraordinaire richesse de l'Etat. L'article affirme que cette forme de legetemete dans une certaine mesure definit les roles qu'il peut jouer et le rend a certains egards vulnerable mais, d'un autre cote, permet a l'Etat de gagner du temps pour mettre en place un systeme politique et administratif lui permettant d'eviter les grandes difficultes auxquelles sont confrontes la plupart des Etats africains.

Wittgenstein's general dictum that 'no course of action could be determined by a rule, because every course of action can be made out to accord with the rule' (1968: para. 201) and therefore 'the practice has to speak for itself (Wittgenstein, 1979: para. 139) relates logically to Foucault's claim that to govern is 'to employ tactics rather than laws ... to use the laws themselves as tactics' (1979: 13). Relating to the formal and constitutional aspects of the state is thus only a necessary but in no way sufficient condition for understanding how real systems of government work. Rather, focus should be on motivated practices related to the state--practices that are defined by those applying them as rule-following but nevertheless contested and unpredictable because interpretations are products of positions and interests.

Furthermore, and again in the words of Foucault, 'the State is no more than a composite reality and a mythical abstraction whose importance is a lot more limited than many of us think' (1979: 20). Instead of limiting oneself to the analysis of 'state' practices, it is therefore crucial to look at the linkages between what is defined as the state and that which is said to lie outside it. Hence, to understand real, localised socio-political processes it is important to focus on how specific constitutions (i. …

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