Academic journal article African Studies Quarterly

Who Ruled by the Spear? Rethinking the Form of Governance in the Ndebele State

Academic journal article African Studies Quarterly

Who Ruled by the Spear? Rethinking the Form of Governance in the Ndebele State

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

One of the earliest attempts to understand the ontology of African political systems and the forms of African governance is the collaborative anthropological work of M. Fortes and E. E. Evans-Pritchard. In this work, sweeping generalizations were made about diverse African societies to the extent that African forms of governance were divided into centralized and decentralized forms. Centralized forms were seen as undemocratic and decentralized were reduced to democratic governance. [1] The achievement of independence by African states that was attended by problems of deepening democracy and increasing participation of all citizens in political processes elicited new interests in understanding African political systems and why democracy was difficult to institutionalize in Africa. A number of explanations emerged including Eurocentric and Afrocentric pessimist paradigms that blamed African pre-colonial traditions for bequeathing authoritarian forms of governance and disorder on the continent. For instance, Patrick Chabal and Jean-Pascal Daloz linked the crisis of democracy with African culture that allowed for patrimonial forms of governance. [2] Chabal and Daloz emphasized continuities of pre-colonial political traditions across the colonial and postcolonial periods as important in explaining current failures of governance in Africa. To them, the crisis of governance in Africa is one of "modernity rooted in the deep history of the societies in which it is taking place." Sounding apologetic of the contribution of colonialism to the current failures of democracy in Africa, Chabal and Daloz argued that "time has long passed when we, Westerners, had to expiate the colonial crime of our forefathers." [3] Instead, they posited that the essential feature "most important to emphasize is the significance of continuities in the political practice from the precolonial period." [4] To them, colonialism failed to overcome "the strongly instrumental and personal characteristics of traditional African administration." Their conclusion was that African cultures were ontologically hostile to good governance and effective administrations. [5]

The thesis of continuities between precolonial political systems and African traditions into the postcolonial period is countered by scholars like Mahmood Mamdani and Peter P. Ekeh who emphasize the contribution of the legacy of late colonialism to problems of democratization in postcolonial Africa. According to Mamdani colonialism bifurcated colonial populations into citizens and subjects. This became the beginning of hierarchized citizenship determined by race within which white settlers enjoyed citizenship rights and Africans as subjects suffered under decentralized despotism called indirect rule with the African chief at its apex. [6] Colonialism ossified Africans' identities into rigid ethnic groupings and sealed these through legal coding. This created many problems for Africa. In the first place it meant that African nationalism developed as ethnic consciousness. In the second place, it created the intractable problem of the 'native' and the 'settler' which is sometimes termed the national question. [7] In an endeavour to install democracy, many postcolonial regimes concentrated on de-racializing civil space while at the same time reinforcing decentralized despotism inherited from the colonial state at the local level as recognition of African traditions and customary law. [8] Mamdani's arguments resonates with those of Peter Ekeh who argued that colonialism introduced two public spheres (one for whites and another for blacks) that resulted in Africans imbibing bourgeois ideologies, making them to "fight alien rulers on the basis of criteria introduced by them." [9]

My concern in this article is to rebut what I will call the 'continuities thesis' between precolonial systems of governance and the postcolonial because this gives ammunition to some postcolonial African dictators to justify their nonaccountable styles of governance and blatant violations of human rights on the basis of African tradition. …

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