Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Thinking beyond Divisions with Mamdani’s Citizen and Subject

Paddy O'Halloran

Conclusions to even the most thorough intellectual efforts often leave readers with more unresolved questions than answered ones.  Perhaps the writer shares in this dilemma, as well, arriving at ‘the end’ only to find themselves unsatisfied.  Maybe, too, it is fortunate for the long process of intellectual work that no question is ever fully answered, but it can be frustrating and difficult to accept in the short term.  However illuminating a line of thought might be, it seems that the only end it can achieve is an artificial one.  Mahmood Mamdani’s Citizen and Subject (1996) concludes in this way: with much more to say; with questions.  My point here is not to reiterate Mamdani’s thesis in that book, but to explore some questions that seem to arise from his argument in the hopeful interest of providing some basis for expanding on his project.

            In the last pages of Citizen and Subject, Mamdani offers this enjoinder: ‘The point is neither to set aside dualisms that mark social theory nor to exchange one set for another more adequate to describing the contemporary situation.  Rather it is to problematize both sides of every dualism by historicizing it, thereby underlining the institutional and political condition for its reproduction and for its transformation’ (1996, 299).  This is a view which has guided my own intellectual endeavors, currently with serious reflection on Mamdani’s work: How can we question the logic of divisions? Likewise, how can we challenge divisions, both actual and perceived? Most importantly, what is the shape of a politics that questions—and perhaps challenges—divisions?

            Extremely briefly, Mamdani’s argument is that formerly colonized African societies, including South Africa, were deracialized with independence but not democratized inasmuch as a colonially engineered bifurcation has persisted in which the urban was the site of civil society and citizenship and the rural the site of customary authority and subjecthood.  Following this dichotomy, and with the idea of problematizing dualisms and questioning divisions in mind, Mamdani ends Citizen and Subject by saying that it is in linking the urban and the rural that formerly colonized African societies will advance the processes of democratization which has largely eluded them (1996, 297).

            More recent literature on South Africa has repeated the necessity of providing this link in that country, both in intellectual work and through politics.  Hart and Sitas (2004) call for a more integrated approach to questions of the urban and rural in South Africa.  Research, they argue, has itself been largely bifurcated (2004, 32).  Similarly, Kepe and Ntsebeza write that there is a ‘marginalization of the rural’ in scholarship on South Africa (2012, 4-5).  It is important also that political movements that are able to connect the rural and the urban—positively—should be the subject of critical thought, study, and action.  ‘Although theory cannot by itself transform reality’, writes Mamdani, ‘without a theoretical illumination reality must appear a closed riddle’ (1996, 299).  After Mamdani, we are tasked with combining sophisticated theoretical work on the urban and rural with a transformational political project.

            Now I will suggest some questions that might be valuable to such work.  The first is drawn from the work of Partha Chatterjee in The Politics of the Governed (2004).  Writing about India, but with theoretical importance for South Africa and other countries, Chatterjee proposes a distinction between ‘real’ and ‘formal’ citizenship (2004, 4), in which only those with access to the former are fully rights-bearing citizens.  The latter group, often considered ‘encroachers’ and ‘polluters’ in the urban sphere are not a part of civil society, but of political society (2004, 140; 40).  Political society is the space of the ‘governed’ (of Chatterjee’s title), and its people make up ‘populations’. ‘Unlike citizenship’, Chatterjee writes, ‘which carries the moral connotation of sharing in the sovereignty of the state and hence of claiming rights in relation to the state, populations do not bear any inherent moral claim’ (2004, 136).  It is an easily observable fact in any city in the world that some urban people are not afforded the same, or any, access as ‘full’ citizens to the civil society institutions that are ostensibly urban.  As populations, lacking a moral obligation from the state, they are the recipients of services rather than rights, a reality seen in many South African cities (Chatterjee 2004, 136; Gibson 2011).  Likewise, we can say that not all rural areas, even in places where customary rule was instituted and persists, are the site, exclusively, of ‘subjects’.  What are we to make of this fact in light of Mamdani’s work? The line of bifurcation, certainly, is not neatly drawn.  Therefore, we could ask the questions: How do we account for those segments of society whose access to citizenship is not conterminous with their location in either the urban or the rural? Is there a ‘space’—not physical, but political, and in that way, transcending the spatial bifurcation—between civil society and customary authority, between the urban and the rural, that has characteristics of each and potential for linking the two?

            The fact of ambiguity leads to other questions.  The penultimate chapter of Citizen and Subject deals with the concept of ‘The Rural in the Urban’.  What new angles on the issue, if any, are available if we propose the reverse situation: the ‘Urban in the Rural’?  This is seemingly paradoxical, but the point is not a subversion or conversion of the urban or rural spaces into their opposites, so obviously we are not talking about the presence of large buildings in the midst of farmland, but rather about a conceptual and political re-perception of what those spheres mean and how they interact.  For inspiration we can look to the work of Norman Etherington, whose misleadingly titled history of South Africa in the first half of the nineteenth century, The Great Treks (2001), takes a unique approach.  Rather than writing another history from the point of view of the colonial archive, Etherington attempts a history that has as its vantage point a central location in the High Veld, a repositioning from which the colonial incursions of Europeans can be viewed from without, rather than nearly exclusively from within themselves, and from which ‘the agents of colonialism appear first as specks on a distant horizon’, challenging the ‘pernicious tradition of viewing South African history through the eyes of white colonists’ (2001, xiii).  He critiques, too, other methods (among them anthropological and linguistic) that, in trying to shift the focus away from the colonial report, ‘reproduce by other means the Us/Them binary opposition typical of colonial encounters….We have events, They have ways of life. We have history, They have culture’ (2001, xiii)—in the formulation of Mamdani’s study, ‘we are citizens; they are subjects’.  Does a method like Etherington’s, very loosely captured in the inverted idea of the ‘urban in the rural’, have value in the attempt to link these two spheres? Mamdani mentions the connection between ‘urban activism’ and ‘rural discontent’ (1996, 220).  Can we talk, after Chatterjee and Etherington, about urban discontent manifested in rural activism?  Taken further, might divisions through which we understand politics and political action not be appropriate to the circumstances that actually obtain and in which many, if not most, people make their lives?  The fact, detailed by Mamdani that people have ties and residences in both the urban and rural spaces makes this a compelling question. 

            Mainly, Mamdani’s argument about the bifurcation of societies deals with institutions of power and the reproduction of power: an ‘institutional segregation’ in the words of Jan Smuts, that ‘carries with it territorial segregation’ (Mamdani 1996, 6).  Since civil society is itself a site of power (especially if one considers the circumscribed nature of civil society discussed earlier), Mamdani asserts that ‘no reform of contemporary civil society institutions can by itself’ effect reform of the ‘decentralized despotism’ which is central to his work and which he proposes exists in many African societies (1996, 15).  Mamdani identifies two ways in which the urban and rural have been linked, what he calls ‘administrative’ and ‘political’ ways, but goes on to say that the former ‘turned out to be coercive’ and the latter resorted to clientelism (1996, 300).  It is the final point made in Citizen and Subject that the route to transcending the urban-rural divide cannot be on the same avenues built by power; ‘it is necessary to transcend the dualism of power around which the bifurcated state is organized’, in Mamdani’s words (1996, 301).  Considering again the ambiguity of the rural-urban divide visible in Chatterjee’s ‘political society’, the reimagining of historical narratives in the style of Etherington, we can ask some more questions.    One question that Mamdani himself asks is this: ‘If power reproduced itself by exaggerating differences and denying the existence of an oppressed majority, is not the burden of protest to transcend these differences without denying them?’ (1996, 8).  It is striking that the form of transformation he envisions is found in the phrase ‘burden of protest’, which would suggest, in the same vein as our discussion here, that it is outside of institutions of power—in the ‘oppressed majority’—that the mode of transformation must be sought.  Therefore, we can ask, what role do people not included or fully included in civil society have in theorizing the urban-rural division and initiating a transformation?—and it is my contention that they certainly have one.  In embarking on this reform, what will ‘protest’ look like? It is probable that protest itself must be reconsidered if a project of democratization that moves between spheres of institutional division is to be successful.  Such protest itself will likely be difficult to categorize.  Mamdani writes that ‘to create a democratic majority is to transcend’ the divisions organized by power, including the urban-rural divide (1996, 296), but this only leads to another question, and one which I will not attempt to answer here, which is about how to ensure that political action in this vein is actually democratizing.  What is the potential for democratic movements in the space between the urban and the rural?  What oppressive trends need to be identified and avoided?

            As a final note, it seems that we can turn towards certain elements of feminist thought, such as Ifi Amadiume’s and Nomboniso Gasa’s (1987; 2007), for important insights into theorizing the shifts that Mamdani presents as necessary and which are just hinted at in the form of questions here.  Nomboniso Gasa seeks to avoid the ‘kinds of binaries that are completely unnecessary and do not make sense of [in this case] black women’s experiences’ (2007, 214).  That is what we need to do in all politics.  The contributions of thinkers like Gasa are significant not only to an emancipatory project for women, but for how politics are understood and carried out more generally.  Both Amadiume and Gasa challenge discursive binaries in a way that is crucial not only to feminism but to all politics that aspire to be democratizing, as well as to re-envisioning and revising discourses with liberation in mind.  I want to restate a question I posed above, as it seems to encapsulate the work that needs to be done in expanding Mamdani’s thesis of twenty years ago and in thinking about a future for politics in South Africa and many other parts of the world that, through colonialism or other historical circumstances, face persistent divisions in the present: What is the shape of a politics that questions—and perhaps challenges—divisions?  If we hope to uncover aspects of the answer, we must keep ‘open’ the ‘riddle’, to use Mamdani’s term, of reality.


Amadiume, Ifi. 1987. Male Daughters, Female Husbands. London: Zed Books.

Chatterjee, Partha. 2004. The Politics of the Governed. New York: Columbia University Press.

Etherington, Norman. 2001. The Great Treks. London: Pearson Education Limited.

Gasa, Nomboniso. 2007. Women in South African History: They Remove Boulders and Cross Rivers - basus’iimbokodo, bawel’imil. Cape Town: HSRC Press.

Gibson, Nigel. 2011. Fanonian Practices in South Africa. New York: Palgrave and Macmillan.

Hart, Gillian, and Ari Sitas. 2004. ‘Beyond the Urban-Rural Divide: Linking Land, Labour, and Livelihoods.’ Transformation 56: 31-38.

Kepe, Thembela, and Lungisile Ntsebeza (eds.). 2012. Rural Resistance in South Africa: The Mpondo Revolts after Fifty Years. Cape Town: UCT Press.

Mamdani, Mahmood. 1996. Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.