Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Ethnicity, State and Democracy in Southern Africa: a historical perspective on rural-based nationalities

by Michael Neocosmos, 1994 (revised in 1998)

This paper constitutes an attempt to make some sense out of the vexed question of ethnicity in the context of a democratizing Southern Africa and in Southern Africa alone, although several of my observations may also be valid, with little or no modification, for other parts of the continent. Its objectives are limited to making some general observations on the historical development of ethnic groups, most of which I prefer to call nationalities for reasons which I shall make clear below. Evidently, a discussion of the history of ethnicity presupposes that ethnic groups do have a history, something which I take to be axiomatic.  
I am not concerned with those viewpoints which deny a history to ethnicity by seeing so-called 'tribalism' as either inherent in African society or indeed as a simple left-over from pre-colonial times (primordialism). The evidence for such a history is overwhelming. At the same time, I attempt to move beyond the histories (nationalist and statist in persuasion) which see ethnicity as simply a creation of the colonial state and/or reactionary as a matter of principle. Unfortunately for such conceptions, 'tribalism' did not disappear under the conditions of independence in Africa. Rather the trend has been for post-colonial statism to smash any demonstration of popular ethnic opposition as a threat to national unity, irrespective of the content of the demands (whether democratic or undemocratic) of such opposition. In actual fact, the sanctification of national integrity by the post-colonial state has always been rather hypocritical, as the state ruled partly by giving different nationalities (or other groups such as party members) differential access to resources. Therefore, the national claims of the post-colonial state itself have often been dubious, a fact which goes some way towards explaining its insecurity in this regard.

This paper builds upon arguments on the political economy of rural relations in Southern Africa which I have developed at length elsewhere (Neocosmos, 1993a). In this work, rural working people were considered principally economically, as petty-commodity producers and labour migrants for example. While this is in essence a valid procedure as commodity relations, especially under monopoly conditions, did systematically transform their conditions of economic existence, their modes of livelihood operate within, and are only comprehensible in terms of a history which was constrained by nationality divisions. To give a simple example, access to land (the main means of economic reproduction), is acquired generally through a chief or another state institution (such as land boards in Botswana for example) and provided only to members of an 'ethnic community', not to 'strangers'; in addition it is provided within a cultural context and thus its provision is governed by cultural prescriptions.

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