Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

African Realism: Reconceptualising Notions of State Weakness in Western Thought

Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

African Realism: Reconceptualising Notions of State Weakness in Western Thought

Article excerpt


Ali Al'amin Mazrui (1977) drew a distinction between economic development and economic power. Because of the abundance of their natural resources, the countries of the Middle East and Africa have greater economic power in comparison to the Western world. The question, therefore, is what are the mechanisms preventing African nations from strategically utilising their economic power to overturn the human insecurity challenges confronting Africa? Mazrui argued that the global system is characterised by more stability than what at first appears. Thus, each country of the 'Third World' is a hostage of latent, imminent, or active instability within its borders. This state of affairs gives rise to a paradox of stability at the level of the international system, with internal upheavals characterising domestic political landscapes. Therefore, the 'stability' that Mazrui identified in the international system is more accurately revealed to be rigidity.

Mazrui compared the international system to a caste structure with four defining characteristics, including: heredity, whereby hereditary descent determines one's caste or racial membership; separation, whereby segregation characterises relations between different castes or races, with intermarriage a taboo; division of labour, whereby particular vocations or professions are associated with a particular caste or race, and principle of hierarchy, which determines one's societal rank and status.

Caste systems are highly rigid and provide little ability to transcend the demarcated boundaries, let alone overturn the system itself. Mazrui argued that it is the inflexibility of rigid systems that makes them vulnerable to abrupt revolutionary upheavals. Thus, rigidity should not be conflated with stability. The appearance of stability that characterises rigid systems is tautological, and thus, due to the resilience and continued sanctioning of custom over a protracted period of time. Rigid systems are strengthened by their prior survival as well as some degree of responsiveness to changing circumstances. Additionally, the international system and its veneer of stability are maintained partly through the drawing of a sharp distinction between caste and class, and their treatment as mutually exclusive categories. Mazrui himself upheld this dichotomy in his assessment of the international system as more like a caste structure, than a class structure.

Calling the above dichotomy into question is the case of the emerging economies or the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) coalition which highlights that social mobility and limited flexibility exist at the level of the international system. This is so even as "Southern" nations like South Africa and Brazil continue to be dependent on commodity exports, despite diversifying their revenue bases. Class adds much needed flexibility to rigid systems, because it allows those belonging to a low caste to establish a new status, despite the constraints they face. The acceptance of a dichotomy between caste and class obscures the mutually constitutive nature of these categories and serves to maintain the so-called "Westphalian" state system by providing a veneer of stability (Jakwa 2016). The latter refers to political sovereignty as a principle of international law whereby each nation has sovereignty over their territory and domestic affairs to the exclusion of all external powers, on the principle of non-interference in another nations' domestic affairs. Furthermore, each state is equal in international law, regardless of size in relationship to other states.

Mazrui (1977) distinguished between active, imminent and latent instability. Rapid changes and severe political uncertainty characterise active instability. The rise and fall of institutions, emergence and submergence of leaders and fluctuation in policies define it. Imminent instability refers to the absence of turbulence and expectation of its sudden eruption at any time. …

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