Political Culture and Nationalism in Malawi: Building Kwacha

By Terretta, Meredith | The International Journal of African Historical Studies, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Political Culture and Nationalism in Malawi: Building Kwacha


Terretta, Meredith, The International Journal of African Historical Studies


Political Culture and Nationalism in Malawi: Building Kwacha. By Joey Power. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2010. Pp. 332. $85.00/£50.00.

Historian Joey Power probes the ways in which Nyasaland's colonial past shaped late colonial and early postcolonial political processes during and just after the liminal transition to independent nationhood. In so doing, Power historicizes local and territorial political issues and practices during a period of nation-building, and describes the interactions between political leaders of territorial notoriety and their constituents: women, youth, laborers, planters, traditional chiefs, civil servants, and cultural or religious associations. But rather than start after the Second World War, Power begins Chapter 1 with an account of popular anti-colonial uprisings or rebellions that took place in the early twentieth century, culminating in the Chilembwe rebellion of 1915. She does so with an eye to establishing the factors that pushed inhabitants to protest colonial injustices. These included the artificiality of "traditional chiefs" appointed and sustained by the colonial administration; the expropriation and unequal distribution of land; systems of taxation that penalized African entrepreneurs and planters while favoring white settlers; and colonial policies that funneled the labor supply onto white-owned farms while leaving African planters unable to compete. Power begins here because the Chilembwe uprising is part of the collective memory rekindled on the eve of Nyasaland's independence as protests of the injustices of colonial rule resurfaced in 1953.

In Chapter 2, Power demonstrates the overlap between "native authority structures" comprised of chiefs, and the Western-educated elite involved in interethnic, "native associations" during the interwar period. In 1944, the latter formed the Nyasaland African Congress (NAC), a political organization representing the interests and goals of clergy, civil servants, small-scale planters and entrepreneurs, and wage workers, as well as those of traditional chiefs seeking "legal reform or new avenues for economic accumulation." In this chapter, Power collapses the conventionally assumed either-or dichotomy between "traditional" and "modern" in African political processes. Although the NAC membership was comprised of Christianized, capitalistic, and Western-educated elite, these "modern" identities did not engender a rejection of ethnic or "tribal" identity. In fact, '"tribal polities'" remained "part and parcel of the NAC agenda" (p. 33). By engaging the notion of clan or "tribe," insists Power in Chapter 3, NAC politicians parochialized national politics and used ethnicity as a mobilizing factor. Local affairs became politicized on a national scale, as political leaders responded to the concerns of their constituents throughout the territory. Because of the salience of tribe as an organizing factor in colonial Nyasaland, only by linking national politics to the parochial could they be made relevant to the population at large.

In Chapter 4, Power examines the rallying force of grassroots mobilization against the Central African Federation established in 1953 to bring together Nyasaland with Northern and Southern Rhodesia. Viewing Federation as the harbinger of white settler nationalism and white minority rule, Nyasaland politicians mobilized against the project by launching a noncooperation campaign. A rejection of Federation became, according to Power, the defining factor of Malawian nationalism as politicians portrayed all issues provoking popular discontent throughout the territory's various regions, including land hunger, unpopular agricultural and natural resource rules, and the labor tenancy system known as thangata, as stemming from Federation. …

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