Sanjay Ruparelia holds the Jarislowsky Democracy Chair at Ryerson University in Toronto. His major publications include Divided We Govern (OUP 2015), The Indian Ideology (Permanent Black 2015), and Understanding India’s New Political Economy (Routledge 2011). Ruparelia serves as a co-chair of the Participedia network (participedia.net), associate editor of Pacific Affairs, and as an expert for V-Dem: the Varieties of Democracy Project (Sweden).
The sweeping victory of the Coalition Avenir Quebec in the recent provincial election has renewed public debate over the distortions generated by our first-past-the-post electoral system. Attempts to introduce some form of proportional representation have failed to win enough support in several provincial referendums over the past two decades. Yet the drawbacks of first-past-the-post, dismissed by Premier François Legault as simply the concern of “a few intellectuals,” should worry us all.
Winner-take-all elections, designed to produce majority governments, are likely to deepen executive overreach, political frustration and social polarization – key elements of democratic backsliding that are intensifying around the world today.
In theory, our system of electing a single representative who amasses a plurality of votes to serve a constituency has many advantages. First, it often rewards a single party with a majority of seats in the legislature, producing stable governments that have a greater chance of implementing their programmatic agenda. Second, first-past-the-post creates incentives for parties to court the “median voter” who reflects the middle of the ideological spectrum, which encourages moderation. Finally, electing a single representative to serve a particular riding creates a strong tie with its constituents, bolstering democratic accountability.
Yet these virtues, which our electoral system often fails to achieve in practice, co-exist alongside significant drawbacks. The political stability enjoyed by majority governments can encourage them to ignore or be less responsive to the preferences, values and interests of citizens who voted for other parties. That is the point of majority rule – winners earn the right to govern. Yet parties that capture less than half the vote clearly do not represent the views of the majority of voters, let alone citizens who did not vote because their ballots may have little impact in uncompetitive ridings. The willingness of our elected leaders to heed this fact, to exercise political self-restraint in pursuing their partisan agendas and tolerate opposing views, has arguably diminished in many democracies in recent years. Small vote swings can lead to massive seat changes and policy lurches over time, hardly a recipe for stability.
In addition, first-past-the-post does not automatically push aspiring politicians to pivot to the centre of opinion to gain broader electoral support once they have captured their party leadership. A fragmented electoral field with several parties contesting for power, which increasingly describes many established democracies around the world, lowers the threshold for winning. And in many democracies, the centre of gravity has arguably shifted to the right of the ideological spectrum in recent years, pulling nominally centrist parties with it. A mechanical rule that disproportionately rewards and punishes winners and losers in an election often fails to induce political moderation or represent voters’ preferences.
Finally, although the members of our Parliament and provincial parliaments are elected to serve particular constituencies, they are disciplined foot soldiers far more accountable to their parties. In recent years, the vast majority of candidates seeking party nominations in federal elections ran uncontested. Many elected representatives stress in private that robust political debates regularly take place within their party caucuses. Yet citizens would be hard pressed to know given how easily most of them submit to their party whip. Public dissent is rare for anyone who seeks greater political influence or a cabinet appointment.
The shortcomings of first-past-the-post increasingly apply to Canada. Our democracy already concentrates political authority to a far greater extent than other Westminster systems, given the disproportionate power of the prime minister, provincial premiers and respective party leaders.
Suffice to say, electoral systems based on proportional representation have their own limitations. Backroom intrigues and internal hierarchies can determine who is selected to represent the party in the legislature (yet this clearly happens in our system too). Fractured electoral verdicts frequently compel parties to stitch together ruling coalitions capable of winning a numerical majority that may not have campaigned together. And proportional representation is not a simple antidote to the erosion of democratic norms, institutions and practices. Many countries that use proportional representation electoral systems, from France and Italy to Sweden and Germany, have witnessed growing social polarization that reflects and fuels the rise of far right parties that threaten minority rights.
But the fact that we describe a first-past-the-post electoral system as winner-takes-all underscores its majoritarian character. In an era of growing executive overreach, social discontent and ideological polarization, where many citizens feel their votes do not count in the end, political majoritarianism poses a genuine hazard for our democracies. We should take it seriously.
This article is republished from the Globe and Mail with permission and first appeared on 02 July 2021. Read the original article here.
Paulin Hountondji is Professor Emeritus at the National University of Benin in Cotonou and is a Research Associate in Political Theory at the School of Social Science at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. He has published a number of influential texts on the history of African Philosophy, and is considered one of the most important figures in this field.
Kwasi Wiredu remains the greatest African philosopher. Until his recent death, he was the oldest and greatest, despite his almost shocking modesty. Although many – both before and after him – have published original works of great depth, his precision, nuance, rigor of analysis and, moreover, sense of humour, was incomparable.
A Ghanaian philosopher, Wiredu bowed out on January 6, 2022 in Tampa, Florida, USA, at the age of 90. He leaves behind a wife, the elegant and dynamic Adwoa[i] Gifty, 5 children, 11 grandchildren, 2 great-granddaughters aged 6 and 4 and a swarm of readers and disciples who will continue, from generation to generation, to feed on his penetrating views and his immense contribution.
Born on October 3, 1931 in Kumasi, Wiredu studied philosophy first at the University of Ghana in Legon, a suburb of Accra, then at the University of Oxford in Great Britain. He exerted considerable influence through numerous articles grouped in two collections:
Philosophy and an African Culture, a collection of articles from 1966 to 1976[ii]
Cultural Universals and Particulars Wiredu also edited:
A Companion to African Philosophy, with the collaboration of William Abraham, Abiola Irele, Ifeanyi Menkiti. And along with his compatriot Kwame Gyeke, he co-edited the book Person and Community.
It is a pity that he remains largely unknown in French-speaking Africa![iii] I heard about him as early as 1967, during a symposium organised by the African Cultural Society (alias Présence Africaine) and the Association of Scandinavian Friends of “Présence Africaine” in Denmark. He was already, I believe, head of the philosophy department at Legon and was represented at this conference by Martin A. Kissi.
Later, during my brief but fascinating stay in Kinshasa and Lubumbashi, which took place at the same time that Mobutu’s Congo was being renamed Zaire, the philosophy department accepted my proposal to launch a bilingual journal called the Cahiers Philosophiques Africains / African Philosophical Journal. I was editorial secretary. The first issue published, among other things, an article by the Kenyan philosopher Odera H. Oruka, who was at that time still known as Henry O. Odera. But there were no contributions from Wiredu.
My first real encounter with Wiredu was in 1972 when I permanently returned to Dahomey (present day Benin). One of the first initiatives upon my return was to create a structure for exchanges and discussion between black African philosophers of all sub-disciplines and ideological orientations. The idea was simple: until then, like their colleagues in other disciplines, African philosophers had prioritised vertical exchanges with their European and Western counterparts. But it was time to favour horizontal exchanges between Africans. I was young, I was daring. The roads in Nigeria were good and less dangerous than today. I drove to the universities of Lagos and Ibadan, to the University of Ifè – which has since been renamed Obafemi Awolowo University – where the late Olubi John Sodipo, then head of the philosophy department, edited a remarkable philosophical journal, Second Order. Then I went to Lomé and Accra. The University of Ghana guesthouse was comfortable. I was warmly welcomed by Wiredu. We shared the same ideas. Appointment was made for a meeting in Cotonou.
This meeting took place on January 3, 1973, in a modest classroom of the Protestant secondary school in Cotonou then directed by the late Samuel Akle, himself a philosopher, the constituent assembly of an association called the Inter-African Council for Philosophy (IACP).
Olu Sodipo was elected president, Abdoulaye Elimane Kane, from the University of Dakar, 1st vice-president, Wiredu was 2nd vice-president, Aloyse-Raymond Ndiaye from the University of Dakar general treasurer, Odera Oruka from the University of Nairobi Assistant General Treasurer and myself Secretary General. The IACP immediately requested and obtained its affiliation to the International Federation of Philosophical Societies / Fédération Internationale des Sociétés de Philosophie (FISP), an institution which organizes the World Philosophy Congress every five years in conjunction with UNESCO.[iv] The IACP was thus de facto affiliated, through FISP, to the International Council for Philosophy and Human Sciences / Conseil International de la Philosophie et des Sciences Humaines (CIPSH) based in Paris in the premises of UNESCO, and whose Secretary General was then Jean d’Ormesson of the French Academy.
It was out of the question to transfer the African Philosophical Journal to Cotonou as it was rightly claimed by the National University of Zaire (UNAZA) as its inalienable property. We therefore created a bi-annual publication, Consequence: journal of the Inter-African Council for Philosophy. The first issue contained, among other texts, the French translation of an article by J. E. Wiredu (as he was still known at the time)[v] previously published in English in Universitas, an inter-faculty journal of the University of Ghana.
At the end of the 1970s UNESCO decided to launch a vast survey of philosophical teaching and research in the world. The head of the philosophy division, Moroccan scholar Mohamed Allal Sinaceur, asked me to carry out this survey for French-speaking Africa. An Anglophone scholar was needed to conduct the same survey in English-speaking Africa. It was Wiredu.
The lessons of this double investigation were to be drawn during a UNESCO experts’ meeting organized in Nairobi in June 1980. Wiredu presented a remarkable paper, in which he urgently called for a ‘conceptual decolonization’, no more and no less.[vi] For him, a multitude of concepts and statements that seemed self-evident as long as they are stated in European languages were simply unthinkable in African languages. The universality of these concepts and statements were therefore only a false universality.
A very simple example of this is the Cartesian cogito. Instead of this inaugural certainty on which Descartes intended to have found the whole edifice of knowledge: ‘I think, therefore I am’, the Kenyan John Mbiti found it more natural to say: ‘I am because we are. And since we are, therefore I am’.[vii] Before him, Senghor had formulated what seemed to be the reaction of the Black African to the cogito: ‘I feel, I dance the Other, I am’. Alexis Kagame had shown the incongruity of the expression ‘I am’, which remained unintelligible in the Bantu languages as long as it was not supplemented by determinants that give it meaning: I am this or that, I am such place, etc.
Wiredu, in turn, took specific examples from the Akan languages to relativize and put in their proper place some of the most classic notions of the Western philosophical tradition. And at the end of his communication, he launched this appeal in the form of a manifesto: ‘African philosophers, let us learn to think in our own languages!’
I have never forgotten this lesson from Wiredu. It came to meet my militant convictions on the need for rehabilitation and development of African languages. But what Wiredu shows is that this claim, which at first sight is simply political, refers to an infinitely deeper issue; that beyond political, economic and cultural decolonization, the most radical issue is conceptual decolonization.
The Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o [viii] will say the same thing differently when calling for ‘decolonizing the mind’.[ix] Suiting the deed to the word, he will say his ‘farewell to the English language’ and will henceforth write novels and plays in his mother tongue, Kikuyu, or in his vernacular language, Kiswahili, even if it means leaving it to others the care of translating them into English if they deem it useful.
Born on January 5, 1938, Ngugi is six years younger than Wiredu. In a way, the latter didn’t go that far. He did not say goodbye to the English language. He has not resolved to write now only in his mother tongue, Twi, or in another Akan language. But the difficulty was not the same. Because philosophy is not literature. Telling is one thing, thinking is another. Telling a story, real or fictional, in an African language is different to analysing problems and forging the right concepts for this purpose.
In line with what Wiredu wanted, 15 years ago the African-Canadian philosopher Chike Jeffers remarkably solicited several African philosophers to write original articles in their languages. The young academic won his bet. The result was a multilingual collection where the original texts appeared on the left and the English translation on the right.[x] A preface by Ngugi wa Thiong’o written in English, inevitably, opened this collection where texts written in seven African languages followed one another. Wiredu’s closed the collection. Its original Twi title, Papa ne Bone, translated into English as Good and Evil. [xi]
Beyond the Legon campus, Wiredu has enjoyed national influence in his country. Philosophy and an African Culture was originally the title of his acceptance speech at the Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences, delivered in October 1976, before it became the title of a book of which this speech constituted the first chapter.
Beyond Ghana, he radiated on the continent, lecturing in various countries in sometimes restricted frameworks, as in Benin, or in broader frameworks as in Abidjan, Nairobi and elsewhere. In 1984 he carried out a visiting professorship at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria.
Beyond the continent, like many African academics, he yielded to the attraction of America. Contributing to the influence of Africa, Wiredu has carried out teaching assignments at the University of California in Los Angeles, at the University of Richmond in Virginia, at Duke University in North Carolina. Since 1987, he held a permanent position at the University of South Florida in Tampa, where he became a Distinguished Professor.
The patriarch is gone. As part of the fourtieth day ceremonies, a solemn tribute was paid to him at Legon under the joint aegis of the University and the Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences . Both institutions have claimed him. Africa has claimed him. It only remains for us to fully integrate him into our intellectual heritage and to continue his fight.
[ii] French readers are tempted to translate: “Philosophie et culture africaine – as if the English title were: Philosophy and African Culture. The indefinite article (an African Culture) clearly indicates that it is a specific African culture, the Ghanaian culture, and more precisely, as the contents of the book show, the culture of the Akan.
[iii] Lucien Gagni, now philosophy teacher in a high school in Parakou, North Benin, prepared under my direction and defended in 2009 at the University of Abomey-Calavi an excellent dissertation for a diploma of advanced studies (DEA), which has remained unpublished, on Kwasi Wiredu : presentation, commentary and partial translation of Philosophy and an African Culture. In addition, we will read with interest an exhaustive and critical study of Wiredu’s work published by a Nigerian academic, Sanya OSHA: Kwasi Wiredu and Beyond: the Text, Writing and Thought in Africa. Dakar: CODESRIA Press, 2005
[iv] The general assembly of FISP is held every five years within the framework of this congress. On this occasion FISP renews its steering committee. Wiredu was thus co-opted at the 18th World Congress in Brighton (Great Britain) in 1988 and reappointed for a second term at the 19th Congress in 1993 in Moscow. Aloyse-Raymond Ndiaye was co-opted at the 20th Congress in Boston in 1998 and reappointed for a second term at the 21st Congress in 2003 in Istanbul. I myself was co-opted in Istanbul in 2003, reappointed for a second term at the 22nd Congress in Seoul in 2008 and for a third and final term (now authorized by the rules of procedure) at the 23rd Congress in Athens, Greece, in 2013. Since the 24th congress meeting in Beijing in 2018, the CIAP is represented by Suleyman Bachir Diagne
[v] J. E. = Johnson Emmanuel, as he told me at the time.
[vi] Kwasi Wiredu, “Philosophical Research and Teaching in Africa: Some Suggestions (Toward Conceptual Decolonization)” in Teaching and Research in Philosophy: Africa. Paris: UNESCO, 1984
[vii] See John Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy. London: Heinemann, 1969
[viii] Like Oruka and Wiredu, Ngugi also changed his name. He was initially known as James Ngugi.
[ix] Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Decolonizing the Mind. The Politics of Language in African Literature. London/Nairobi: Heinemann Educational, 1986
[x] Chike Jeffers (ed.), Listening to Ourselves: Multilingual Anthology of African Philosophy. New York: State University of New York Press, 2013
[xi] The exercise is not that easy. I had also been asked, but I was unable to complete my article on time. And despite the encouragement of Chike Jeffers who promised to publish it separately, I still have on my computer since 2009 this unfinished article which I had titled in Gungbe (the vernacular language of Badagry, Nigeria and Porto-Novo, Benin which is very close to Fongbe, the Fon language spoken in Benin and all other Gbe languages wherein a language is called Gbe): “Núdodíndín: dagbe kaví ylankan? (Curiosity, value or counter-value?)
Nic Cheeseman is the Professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham. He was formerly the Director of the African Studies Centre at the University of Oxford. His research addresses a range of questions such as whether populism is an effective strategy of political mobilization in Africa, how paying tax changes citizens’ attitudes towards democracy and corruption, and the conditions under which ruling parties lose power
Sishuwa Sishuwa is a Post-doctoral Research Fellow on Political Parties in East and Southern Africa at the University of Cape Town in South Africa and a Lecturer in African History at the University of Zambia. He holds a PhD in Modern History from the University of Oxford. His scholarship locates current political developments in a historical context, showing that the roots of contemporary democratic politics in Africa lie in the early post-colonial and even late-colonial periods.
It has become common to argue that most Africans are not that committed to democracy. Commentators often suggest that Africans care more about development than democracy, and that voters – especially those in rural areas – don’t really understand democracy. They would thus happily trade away their political rights for a “strong man” who can get things done.
This narrative has proved to be durable despite being wrong.
In our new journal article for the Keywords series of the African Studies Review, we investigated three issues. First, is there support for democracy in Africa? Second, what kind of democracy do people want? Third, why are the desires of African citizens so often silenced?
Drawing on survey data collected by the Afrobarometer between 2016 and 2018, we show that strong majorities think that democracy is the best political system for their country.
Contrary to claims that “Western style” democracy is “unAfrican”, we find widespread support for a form of consensual democracy, which combines a strong commitment to political accountability and civil liberties with a concern for unity and stability.
Support for democracy remains strong
Democracy in Africa has come under considerable pressure over the last decade. Satisfaction with the way that democracy is performing has fallen. This is in part due to a decline in public confidence in the quality of elections – how free, fair and credible they are.
We argue that this has only had a modest impact on support for the principle of democratic government, in part because African citizens continue to view authoritarian rule as a worse option. Of the 35 countries surveyed, the proportion of citizens who suggested that non-democratic political systems might be preferable only exceeded 20% in eSwatini and Malawi.
Even in states in which the reintroduction of multiparty politics has been associated with political controversy and conflict, such as Cote d’Ivoire, Togo and Uganda, more than three quarters of citizens say that democracy is preferable.
It is, therefore, time to stop doubting that African citizens want democracy, and start asking what kind of democracy people want. We argue that there is widespread demand for a form of consensual democracy, in which a desire for elections and checks and balances on those in power goes hand in hand with a concern to maintain national unity.
Consensual democracy has four main features:
We show that the vast majority of Africans support selecting their government through multi-party elections. Three-quarters of those surveyed agreed that
We should choose our leaders in this country through regular, open and honest elections.
Almost 65% also agreed that “many political parties are needed to make sure that (the people) have real choices in who governs them”. Most rejected the idea of one-party rule.
Our article also shows that most Africans want political accountability and the rule of law. Over three quarters of respondents agreed that
The constitution should limit the president to serving a maximum of two terms in office.
Only 34% agreed that the government getting things done was more important than being accountable to citizens.
Civil liberties and political rights
Respondents also wanted to be able to express their own opinions and engage in political activities. Over three quarters (76%) agreed that a citizen’s freedom to criticise the government was “important” or “essential” for a society to be called democratic.
This extends to the right of association, with over 60% of individuals believing they “should be able to join any organisation, whether or not the government approves”.
Strong support for rights, elections and accountability goes hand-in-hand with a concern to prevent “excessive” freedom and competition, lest they lead to disunity and instability. Many citizens worry about violence around elections; they want parties to put aside their differences and work for the common good.
Most respondents were therefore against the use of street protests to settle disputes, even though they often sympathised with protesters’ aims.
The exceptions that prove the rule
There are of course variations in how people feel about these issues, both across the continent and within countries.
Respondents in eSwatini, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi and Mozambique were less committed to elections, but only in Lesotho did this drop below 50%.
Namibians and South Africans were more willing to trade accountability off against efficiency – perhaps because of majority support for the ruling party.
Yet, what is striking is the consistency of support for the four pillars of consensual democracy across the continent. What does this mean for African politics? Why is this reality not more accepted?
Our article outlines three key episodes in which support for democratic government has been silenced. We also identify vulnerabilities that authoritarian leaders could exploit.
Yet, as our study shows, the overwhelming majority of Africans support consensual democracy.
The argument that multi-party politics is incompatible with African ways of life stretches back to racist colonial officials. It was also used by nationalist leaders to justify creating one-party states after independence. But it is not true, and has become a lazy excuse for authoritarian regimes that are neither popular nor legitimate.
In a decade in which activists have risked their lives to advance democratic causes in Algeria, Angola, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, eSwatini, Ethiopia, Gambia, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, Sudan, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe, it is time to recognise that most Africans do not want authoritarian rule.
It is both misleading and patronising to suggest that democracy has somehow been imposed by the international community against the wishes of ordinary people. Instead, it has been demanded and fought for from below.
Terrell Carver is Professor of Political Theory at the University of Bristol, UK, and Research Associate, SA UK Bilateral Chair in Political Theory, University of the Witwatersrand. His research and teaching bring together discourse and visual analysis; studies in sex, gender, sexualities and masculinities; and decolonising approaches to the political economy of contemporary great-power politics.
Anglophone political economy has for some time tracked the financial circulations of Chinese investment, particularly in the selection of nation-state ‘partners’ on the African continent. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is thus portrayed as a new player in the great-power imperialisms of exploitative commercial enterprises through which capitalist modernity arrives, whether local people like it or not.
Characteristically this kind of ‘development’ is welcomed by some, who see the national future, and in many cases their own personal gain, aligned – at whatever level of wealth or poverty – with Chinese money and power. And of course there are those who resent and reject these ‘opportunities’, treating them as ‘throffers’ – threats you can’t really refuse.
That pattern of state-driven aggressive and extractive commercialism dates to the fifteenth-century era of voyages and conquests. These ‘exploratory ventures’ have been recorded as such in heroic anglophone histories of industrialised modernity and swash-buckling derring-do. However, in the last few decades the dial has turned from celebration and exculpation to excruciating exposé and mumbled apologies.
The international settlements at the close of World War II (itself a great-power ‘Allied’ historiographical construction) set out a decolonising/nation-building requirement that was enforced on some empires, notably the British and French, but also on the remaining Spanish and Portuguese ‘possessions’. Any number of those political processes are still on-going and disputed at any number of levels, and there are many struggles defying any simple West-East or South-North framing.
Some of these ‘loose ends’ are major geo-political threats, as anglophone and similar perceptions style them, e.g. the Korean peninsula, where the ‘Cold War’ continues. Others are easily marginalised as dots-in-the-ocean, e.g. Falklands/Malvinas. Réunion. There are a number of self-legitimated continuing colonisations, a status where the Falklanders overlap with Bermudans, for example. Because these ‘hangers-on’ stall the postwar decolonising agenda, the politics of these places annoys the UN.
There are also ‘conflict zones’, where the withdrawal of colonial forces allows and encourages other domestic and regional interests, whether bent on irredentism, colonialism or liberation, e.g. Western Sahara, Madagascar. Anglophone historiography characteristically locates colonialism and its consequences well outside Europe and North America, though this geographical binary should be resisted: Ireland and Bosnia-Herzogovina are also in the colonial legacy. Colonialisms are processes, rather than places.
This pattern of power-struggles, which are always internal/external in relation to the nation-state/inter-state political framings, has played out across the African continent. And it is much the same set of stories that eurocentric histories locate in Thucydides as a point of origin: rival colonial powers fought each other via sponsored factionalism within and over their colonial enterprises.
Today’s supposedly non-colonial great powers – in the global politics of the G7/G20, IMF, NATO, Davos and similar hierarchies of wealth, power and military might – are now stuck on the horns of three dilemmas: crimes against humanity for genocidal conquests; charges of inhumanity in pulling armed forces out ‘prematurely’ and creating power-vacuums; well substantiated allegations that ‘aid’ programs and ‘trade’ agreements enforce economic and political dependency.
Returning briefly to the fifteenth century, when imperial policies in China, Japan and Korea enforced increasingly heavy restrictions on trade with ‘outsiders’, and when the ‘opportunities’ afford by exploratory voyages were wound up by imperial orders, we set the scene for the apparently sudden twenty-first century appearance of ‘China in Africa’.
But what are we actually looking at? The Chinese government, the Communist Party of China (CPC), and their attendant corporate enterprises of course value their commercial secrecy, as does everybody else in the global economies of national competitions.
However, there are economic data-bases and political studies to tell us what there is to know. Generally these are framed to suit specialist audience-interest in economics or/and foreign policy, though with the PRC the two are quite conveniently self-identified with each other.
Many other countries are quite content to have their ‘internal’ disputes on both counts – economic policy and foreign policy – aired in the international anglophone press. And they are also prepared to apologise and ‘reform’ when unauthorised downloads and whistle-blower-leaks reveal their shabby secrets to the world.
However, the PRC/CPC drums up domestic strength by playing the ‘strong China’ and ‘no disrespect’ cards, drawing very easily on local historiographies of national humiliations, foreign occupations and horrendous invasions. From that perspective Japan as an imperialist power falls into the same bracket as Britain, France and Germany, as do the Americans, given their adoption of Formosa/Taiwan as their protectorate.
Moreover the PRC/CPC has no difficulty when it is constructed as a ‘threat’ to current economic/political strengths elsewhere in the ‘global order’. Playing the great-power game suits the PRC entirely, so becoming a threat to the biggest – the USA – is just the job. And China is well versed in divide-and-rule. Since 1978 their unprecedented and meteoric rise up the OECD index has resulted in large part from careful management of trade agreements, e.g. with Germany and Japan.
So far, so conventional. But is this the whole picture? What else is going on here? To get another view we need to get outside the usual boxes – way outside the boxes.
Paul Amar (2021) directs the queer eye very straight at our target. His article ‘Insurgent African Intimacies in Pandemic Times: Deimperial Queer Logics of China’s New Global Family in Wolf Warrior 2’ is an essay in ‘eversion’, that is, getting outside the box to look back in and thus see a different and complementary set of dynamics. Nodding to his prize-winning book (2013), Amar focuses on the ‘the archipelago of the PRC’s shipping, mining, and medical projects’, most particularly on the African continent (2021: 419).
However, what Amar fixes on isn’t conventional anglophone or similar ideas of ‘Africa’, which notoriously erase the diverse realities and histories of any number of struggles, projects, cultures, languages and communities that are situated on or near an enormous continent. Rather he fixes on how official Chinese culture constructs an ‘Africa’ in order to support its geo-political ambitions for influence and profit.
Unsurprisingly, but perhaps rather weirdly, China’s ‘Africa’ resembles the long-normalised tropes of ‘western’ colonisers. Those imaginaries and locutions are now highly suspect, at least to some anglophone audiences. In that light they are patronising, racialising, sexualising, infantilising and on down the line to dehumanising. But the Chinese tropes are also interestingly updated.
Understandably this isn’t what one sees in the statistical measures of geo-economics, nor what one views on the news or documentary media channels. In his article Amar shows us how Chinese commercial cinema makes ‘Africa’ visible for the home audience by using an uncritical genre: the blockbuster action-adventure, male-dominated, blow-shit-up, two-hour mainstream/malestream movie.
A straightforward, voice-over propaganda documentary covering Chinese ‘development’ policies and ‘humanitarian’ interventions in ‘Africa’ would have limited appeal, especially to China’s youthful millions. In a rapidly commercialising, high-tech/high-consumption, internationally oriented society the ‘modern’ generation – from the PRC’s perspective – is at risk. What better way to consolidate the national narrative, ethnic identity and moral mission than to present it in blockbuster mode?
Suffice to say the Chinese heroes’ shoot-em-up-bang battles with ‘white mercenaries, corrupt Asian businessmen, and local pirates’, undertaken as their brave warriors are ‘saving Africa from a ravaging pandemic’, is – for me, anyway – pretty much unwatchable (Amar 2021: 419). What Amar’s analysis of the movie shows us is how important ‘gender, race, and sexuality’ are to policy-makers in getting their messages across. To achieve that, they need to play on emotion-driven credulity and fantasy-driven desire.
Against that visual and aural onslaught, viewers would require considerable repression of their love for adventure, exoticism, danger, drama and cliché in order to generate any kind of critique. Academics can do that, but obviously the CPC presumes that semi-captive audiences won’t be so successful.
What is striking here is how successful anglophone and similar academic cultures are at excluding this kind of material, and that kind of approach, in the first place, however ‘critical’ their approach.
Amar’s article doesn’t present everybody’s ‘race, gender, and sexuality’, either. His ‘de-imperial queer analysis’ exposes ‘utopian gender and sexuality plots’ lurking ‘within seemingly conventional heteronormative or patriarchal popular-cultural texts’. Through this lens we see, within the movie, ‘a homoerotic model of rogue or “wolf” governmentality’, a ‘gendered haunting of supremacist humanism’ through which China protects the ‘right kind’ of rebels, and a dramaturgically legitimated queer kinship system of cross-racial adoption and bromance (Amar 2021: 420-421).
All this politically driven ‘Wolf Warrior’ queerness is of course safely displaced onto an ‘Africa’ of dramatic vignettes, and framed throughout as a very foreign adventure. Hence in no way could the movie be a cross-racial, multi-cultural, super-progressive template for anyone to imitate back home.
What, then, is the upshot of Amar’s explication de texte for anglophone readers? His analysis should make them even more suspicious of the ‘humanitarian-medical interventionism’ that passes regularly through parliaments and congresses in the richer nations, or alternatively in the same forums then gets subjected to budget cuts and spend-it-at-home subterfuges. And in the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, this yo-yo ‘us vs them’ debate resurfaces in very justified allegations of vaccine-hoarding and profit-seeking at the expense of poor nations and thus individuals.
That on-off binary framing, though, fails to speak to the more basic issues of political economy and cultural domination through which global inequalities have arisen – and are worsening – in the first place. Amar’s article exposes this very clearly, by taking anglophone readers abroad to China’s ‘Africa’. The article isn’t a critique of the PRC/CPC – it’s a critique of whiteness, where whiteness happens to look Chinese.
And the upshot for readers in and near the African continent? Most will have lived this great-power politics already, as objects within an imperial gaze, and subjects within an imperial context. No doubt it matters somewhat from which direction this comes, but not as much as each side would have it.
Amar, Paul. 2013. The Security Archipelago: Human Security States, Sexuality Politics, and the End of Neoliberalism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Amar, Paul. 2021. Insurgent African Intimacies in Pandemic Times: Deimperial Queer Logics of China’s New Global Family in Wolf Warrior 2. Feminist Studies 47(2): 419-49.
Albano Augustinho Troco is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow under the SA/UK Bilateral Chair in Political Theory. He holds a PhD in Political Studies from the University of the Witwatersrand. His research interests encompass issues on electoral politics, democratization and autocratization studies, secessionist conflicts and international relations.
Angola’s parliament recently approved a bill to review the country’s constitution 11 years after its promulgation.
President João Lourenço used his constitutional prerogative to initiate a review process by sending a proposal for revision to parliament in early March. His justification was that the supreme law of the land needed to be adapted to the current challenges facing the country.
These included the COVID-19 pandemic, the need to clarify some issues in the Constitution and the need to prevent some of the excesses from the presidency of José Eduardo dos Santos, his predecessor.
The revision introduces notable changes to the constitution. These include the clarification of the institutional relationship between parliament and the executive branch when it comes to political oversight. The 2010 Constitution was not clear on this.
Other key change is the institutionalisation of the independence of the Angolan Central Bank. The amendments would turn the bank into an administratively independent entity with regulatory powers separated from the president and the administration. It also includes involving parliament in the process of appointing the governor.
Under the current constitution, the president appoints (and can dismiss) the governor. The Central Bank is also administratively part of government and receives orders from the president in discharging its responsibilities.
Another change involves extending voting rights to Angolans abroad.
The changes also seek to resolve an ongoing bone of contention – how local government officials are selected. At present, the party that wins the general elections gets to appoint all the senior executive officials at national and sub-national levels (provincial, municipal and commune/district).
There have been efforts to change this in recent years. But the process has been delayed mainly by conflicting views between the governing People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), and opposition parties. The MPLA views the process – referred to locally as gradualism – in geographical terms. It envisages that local elections should start in selected municipalities and spread gradually to all municipalities. Opposition parties oppose this because it means that the ruling party will continue to appoint officials at all levels of governance for many years to come.
They argue that local elections should be implemented in all the 164 municipalities simultaneously. But that the transfer of responsibilities from the central government to local entities would take place as they get ready to take them up.
By and large, I think the changes being proposed are good. But I am of the view that the Angolan political elite lost an extraordinary opportunity to improve significantly the country’s constitution. The Constitutional Revision Bill fails to address crucial and divisive political issues effectively.
The most contentious of these is the extensive powers of the president, the method for his election as well as the fact that it leaves intact the way that local government is formed.
The extensive powers of the president
Contemporary constitutionalism emphasises the doctrine of the separation of powers. This means that the three arms of the state (executive, legislative, and judicial) are kept separate, while having certain powers to check and balance the powers of the other branches so that no arm of the state dominates.
Angola’s current political arrangement – as prescribed by the constitution – doesn’t match up to this. A raft of these flaws aren’t addressed in the amendments.
The Angolan constitution ascribes a wide range of executive powers to the president. It gives the position preeminence over the legislative and judicial arms of the state.
For instance, as the head of state, the president is considered to be the custodian of all executive power. Technically, there is no government but the president, who holds all executive powers. Ministers serve at his pleasure, assisting him in fulfilling his executive duties.
He can pass laws by decree, which means that he can bypass parliament in making them.
Additionally, the constitutional revision bill reaffirms a 2013 ruling by the Constitutional Court, which effectively prevents parliament from summoning ministers or other members of the administration without the president’s consent.
This results in a system with minimal or meaningless executive accountability to parliament.
The president has the prerogative to appoint the presiding and the deputy presiding judges of all the highest courts. He also appoints (and can dismiss) the Attorney General, the deputy Attorney General, the prosecutors of the Supreme Military Court, and members of the highest body of the judiciary.
Despite these extensive powers, Angolans don’t elect the president directly. This function is ultimately limited to the vagaries of party politics.
This is just one major flaw in Angola’s electoral system which, as currently constructed, undermines voters’ ability to elect political representatives effectively.
Firstly, it fuses executive and legislative elections, preventing voters from splitting their votes for the presidency and parliament. Secondly, it shields the top executive officer – the president – from the direct judgement of the voters.
Lastly, it bars independent candidates from standing for political office unless they are included in a party list that has been cleared to run in the elections.
Efforts to fix at least one element of what’s wrong – the ability for Angolans to vote for their representatives at all levels of government – have run into the ground. Opposition parties, which hold roughly 38% (70 out of 220) seats in parliament, want to see elections held in all 164 municipalities simultaneously. They also want power and responsibilities to be progressively delegated from the central government. This would include taxation, policing and infrastructure spending.
The government, however, believes that not every municipality is ready to take up these and other responsibilities.
The repeal under the bill on this issue doesn’t solve the imbroglio.
A shrewd political manoeuvre
The president has rejected previous calls for constitutional revision from opposition parties and civil society. His announcement of a review, in early March, caught the country by surprise.
From this perspective, the president’s decision can be seen as a shrewd political manoeuvre by getting changes within timelines that best suit him.
The first factor here is that the ruling MPLA currently has the necessary majority to approve any constitutional review alone. But that might not be the case after the general elections scheduled for 2022 when most expect the ruling party to lose its qualified majority, thereby losing its ability to approve the constitution alone.
The second factor is that Angolans will have to wait for at least five years – a condition set out under the constitution – until any further reviews of the constitution can be initiated.
This means even further delays in Angolans being able to craft a constitution capable of uniting them around a common project of society.
Albano Augustinho Troco is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow under the SA/UK Bilateral Chair in Political Theory. He holds a PhD in Political Studies from the University of the Witwatersrand. His research interests encompass issues on electoral politics, democratization and autocratization studies, secessionist conflicts and international relations.
Angola has a unique electoral system. Its main peculiarity is that it involves voters electing the president, deputy president and members of parliament simultaneously with a single mark on a single ballot paper.
This has a negative impact on the quality of the country’s representative democracy. It prevents voters from voting differently for the president and members of parliament. And it reduces the ability of voters to hold elected representatives to account besides keeping them in office, or voting them out every five years.
Hence, the need for reform.
An alternative electoral system would have the following components. It should provide for the direct election of the president. And it should allow for the representation of Angolan communities abroad. In addition, seats in the legislature should be allocated through direct election of representatives from constituencies combined with compensatory seats for political parties in proportion to their overall outcome.
How does the system work?
Angola uses a closed-list proportional representation electoral system. Voters cast ballots for lists of candidates drawn up by political parties. Parties are then allocated seats in the legislature in proportion to the share of votes that they receive at the polls.
This electoral system is used widely elsewhere. Examples include South Africa and Portugal.
The specific variant used in Angola is outlined in the country’s current constitution. It was approved in 2010 to replace the interim constitution, which had been in effect since 1992.
The constitution states that the individual occupying the top position on the list of the political party or coalition of parties that receives the majority vote is appointed president. The individual next on the same list becomes the deputy president.
The 220-member National Assembly is elected on a two-level constituency: 130 candidates from a single national constituency and 90 candidates from 18 provincial constituencies (five per province). The national assembly is unicameral.
Advantages and weaknesses
There are several advantages to the closed-list proportional representation system.
One is its simplicity. The design of ballot papers allows even illiterate voters to make effective choices. It is also fair in that political parties get seats according to the proportion of votes that they receive at the polls.
It also promotes inclusiveness. It ensures that political, gender, ethnic and other minorities are not excluded from the legislature.
But, as a political scientist and a student of Angolan politics, I am of the view that the current system undermines voters’ ability to elect political representatives effectively.
Firstly, fusing executive and legislative elections prevents voters from splitting their votes for the presidency and parliament. This forces them to choose a president and a deputy president from the party with the majority in the national assembly.
Secondly, the electoral system prevents voters from electing the president directly. Yet Angola has a presidential system of government with an all-powerful presidency that exercises executive powers without effective checks and balances.
Here Angola deviates from the norm. In countries that adopt presidential systems of government, the executive does not get its legitimacy from the legislature. That is why it is elected directly by the voters.
Thirdly, voters cast ballots for party lists rather than individual candidates. This arrangement privileges political parties rather than individuals in the political process. This means that, once elected, representatives are not personally accountable to the electorate because they aren’t directly linked to any territorial constituency. Rather they are beholden to party leaders who hold the power to compile the party list.
This results in a massive accountability deficit in the political system.
In addition, the use of party lists bars independent candidates from standing for political office unless they are included in a party list that has been cleared to run in the elections. But giving effect to this is extremely difficult. Realpolitik prevents parties from choosing independent candidates at the expense of party members in good standing.
There is also the practical use of the two-level constituency – provincial and national – instead of a single national constituency.
The adoption of the 18 provincial constituencies, which goes back to 1992, is premised on the idea that all provinces need to be represented at the national assembly. But this does not make sense, as Angola is a unitary state, with a unicameral parliament.
Among Lusophone countries, which inherited this system from Portugal, Angola is the only country that introduced the national and provincial level constituency system.
There are no provincial legislatures and no functional or formal distinction between parliamentarians elected at the provincial level and those elected at the national level. They all represent the whole nation, and should all be be elected from a single national constituency.
There are several types of electoral systems and each has advantages as well as disadvantages.
A system that best serves democracy in one country might not work in another country. Hence, the best electoral system for a country must be informed by its particular history, social cleavages and political realities.
In the case of Angola, this means breaking with the past to end the persistence of adverse practices. These include the unchecked executive power, concentration of state resources in the hands of a small politically connected elite, widespread corruption, a culture of impunity in which those in authority get away without being punished, and a government that is not responsive to the needs of the population.
In my view, the best way to address these issues is reforming the current system. This would require a return to the direct election of the president by voters and the reinstatement of a constituency for the representation of Angolan communities abroad. This was stipulated in the Constitutional Law of the Republic of Angola, an interim document revoked in 2010.
In addition, the 18 provincial-level constituencies should be scrapped. There is no practical reason for their existence. A constituency element should be added to ensure the direct election of deputies and compensatory seats introduced for the representation of political parties in proportion to their share of the votes.
The resulting mixed electoral system would promote accountability through the direct election of representatives from constituencies. It would also ensure the proportional representation of political parties.
Stephen Temitope David is a postdoctoral fellow in the Chair for Historical Trauma and Transformation at Stellenbosch University. He holds a PhD in Literature from Stellenbosch University and a master’s degree in African Literature from the University of Ibadan. His research takes the Nigeria-Biafra Civil war and its afterlife as a point of departure in examining the links that exist between nostalgia and political violence in African countries with emotionally charged histories. He is also interested in the marginal voices that come to the fore when grand narratives of violence are unsettled by paying attention to the ways in which axes of identity such as gender, class, sexuality, race and dis/ability intersect to generate distinct experiences of violence and trauma.
The #EndSARS protests started as a citizen-led online movement before it spilled onto the streets of Nigerian cities, called attention to the murderous activities of a special unit in the police called Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). Due to its strategic position as the nation’s commercial hub, Lagos was at the centre of things as the protests grew in intensity. As pockets of leaderless protests which were mostly organised on Twitter began to spring up in parts of Lagos, protesters started converging around the Lekki Toll Gate, which became almost like Egypt’s Tahir Square. At the toll gate, which serves as a portal to Lekki, a gentrified part of Lagos, protesters sang protest songs, listened to stories of brutal, and sometimes deathly encounters with the Nigerian state, and collectively mourned those who had been consumed by the state’s necropolitical exercise of power (See Mbembe’s Necropolitics). Eventually, the toll gate assumed symbolic importance as the heart of the protests; a massive stage was set up where several activists came to address protesters, and musical artists also staged short performances for those present. The atmosphere was generally peaceful and celebrative. Events at the toll gate were livestreamed on social media platforms as well as by mainstream media houses. A community of care where the most vulnerable were catered for started budding among those at the toll gate. The highlight of events at the toll gate was a candle light vigil where pictures of those who died in the hands of the police were displayed and their names collectively chanted – to invoke their presence and weave their memory into the realm of cultural memory where worthy ancestors are granted eternal board. Given that events at the vigil were beamed live across the world, and against the backdrop of the George Floyd protests in the United States, it is possible to argue that the vigil courted a form of transnational mourning space for those murdered.
On the 20th of October 2020, the army was deployed to the toll plaza in a bid to disperse protesters who had positioned the place as the nerve centre of the protests. In the end, many protesters were gunned down by the army. The killings not only make legible the human cost of unbridled impunity and injustice as well as the way Nigerians encounter the state as a destructive force that seeks to cadere its citizens, to “fall its citizens” (Adebanwi and Obadare 2010); it also called attention to the “imposed code of silence” (Ejiogu 2012) with which the government governs public remembrance. Hence, in a memorial landscape that is as arid as the Sahara, converting a toll plaza at the heart of Lagos state into a memorial to those killed by the state and its agents becomes a radical, ‘Antigonean’ form of politics (See Sophocle’s Antigone). It is this ritual of mourning and remembrance and the kind of radical memory work it does that this piece seeks to think through. Given Nigeria’s poor culture of public mourning and memorialization, especially when it concerns victims of state violence, it is important to pay closer attention to the citizen driven form of memorialization performed at the Lekki Toll Gate.
Nigeria’s fraught history of violence, of coups, countercoups, murderous ethnoreligious clashes, a civil war and daily killings by terrorists has created a nation-space haunted by teeming restless ghosts. These ghosts whose voices the country has mostly refused an audience have a membership that goes as far back as the colonial genocidal pacifications carried out in places like the Benin Kingdom and Opobo. Although they are denied narrative presence within the country’s historiographic landscape in the spirit of ‘moving on’, these spectral presences have been granted some narrative agency within Nigeria’s creative landscape; from literary narratives like Chris Abani’s Song for Night (2007), Ben Okri’s The Famished Road (1991) to Eedris Abdulkareem’s angst-laden song, “Jaga Jaga Reloaded” (2021), these ghosts have persistently staged an insurgent demand that they be listened to. Thus, during the #EndSars protests when the toll plaza was positioned as a portal where the past could bleed into the present, these spectres stormed out to claim the narrative space they were offered. Thus, the toll gate was transformed into a space where restless ghosts of the past could be listened to, and forcefully reinserted into the nation’s memory landscape. This effectively transformed a thoroughly capitalist zone of operation into a memorial to those ungrieved/ungrievable lives who were considered disposable. In a sense, unbridled capitalism is confronted with the violence it wants us to forget but which haunts it perpetually. It also served as an opportunity for being with spectres that continue to haunt the postcolony but whose stories remain silenced, their names unspoken and the grief of their loss locked in dark, private chambers. By opening a portal to these ghosts whose presence bear witness to the incorrigibly violent nature of the state, the protesters had radically ruptured the government-imposed sense of progressive history and time, and the desire to claim a more ethical use of force than their military predecessors. Thus, in asserting the grievability of these ghosts their belonging is reclaimed (See Butler’s Frames of War), and an affective community where their status as “having been” is acknowledged (See Ruin 2018).
Shari Epel (2020) calls attention to the reparative value of such rituals of mourning in a chapter titled “How do We Talk of Bhalagwe?” Writing about the exhumations and reburials that her organisation arranged for victims of the Gukuranhundi massacres, she observes that as the bones of the dead were being exhumed, their memory began to emerge from the archive of silence; relatives who had remained silent about their loss suddenly felt the need to retrieve pictures of the departed from dark spaces where they had kept them. The process also created an avenue for remembering, talking, celebrating and reinserting the dead into cultural memory as vibrant members of the community. In a sense, by being with, and listening to the dead whose bones were being exhumed and re-membered, both the living and the dead found some form of repair. This is also true for what happened at the Lekki Toll Gate; although the place was not a place of burial in a literal sense, and there were no exhumations there, the candle light vigil not only transformed the site into a memorial to those who had died as a result of state violence, it also created a space where those ghostly presences could be summoned through ritual acts such a collective incantatory invocation of their names whilst displaying their pictures on large screens, which reparatively reinserted them into memory. In this sense, memory of the dead becomes a potent tool for mobilization; politics is then positioned as a realm comprising the living and the dead.
As shells of the live rounds used to mow down Lekki protesters were being harvested as proof of the wanton killings that occurred there, frantic moves geared towards reopening the toll gate began in earnest. This represents an attempt to enforce another round of collective forgetting which helps whitewash history; in the end this makes it impossible to demand justice from the state. However, many Nigerians have continued to resist such attempts because within protest memory the toll plaza had become sacralised as a place of mourning and re-membrance. In the end, the state’s murderous move, which represents yet another episode in the long history of violence that has been the bane of the country, succeeded in adding more voices to the coterie of restless ghosts that travail the country’s haunted landscape. Those angry voices continue to murmur from the dark. And to engender the kind of “empathic repair” (Gobodo-Madikizela 2020) needed to start the journey to a liveable future, we have to be ready to be with, to listen to, and heal the dead. We should hearken to the words of Avery Gordon (1999) that we must reckon with those absent presences and offer them “a hospitable memory out of a concern for justice” (64). Hence, for the sake of justice we must like Horatio be ready to speak to them, to the presences that lie in the shadows; and like Odysseus we too must listen to dead Tiresias in charting a way to the future.
Abani, Chris. Song for Night. Akashic Books, 2007.
Adebanwi, Wale and Ebenezer, Obadare, editors. Introduction: Excess and Abjection in the Study of the African State. Encountering the Nigerian State. Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, pp. 1-28.
Butler, Judith. Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? 2009. Verso, 2010.
Eppel, Shari. “How Shall We Talk of Bhalagwe? Remembering the Gukurahundi Era in Matabeleland, Zimbabwe”. Postcolonial Haunting: Transforming Memories of Historical Trauma, edited by Kim Wale, Gobodo-Madikizela, Prager. Palgrave Macmillan, 2020 pp. 259-284.
Gobodo-Madikizela Pumla. “Aesthetics of Memory, Witness to Violence and a Call to Repair.” Postcolonial Haunting: Transforming Memories of Historical Trauma, edited by Kim Wale, Gobodo-Madikizela, Prager. Palgrave Macmillan, 2020, pp. 119-149.
Ruin, Hans. Being with the Dead: Burial, Ancestral Politics, and the Roots of Historical Consciousness. Stanford UP, 2018.
 Several states have set up judicial panels to investigate the atrocities committed by SARS. While one could read this as a way of listening to ghosts in order to heal the dead, there have been several allegations that the panels are merely performative spaces where forms of “deaf listening” (Jolly 2012) are being practiced. Relatives of dead victims of police brutality have expressed doubt concerning the possibility of getting any form of justice.
Dr. Madalitso Zililo Phiri is a critical Black Studies scholar. Phiri was inaugurated into scholarship by a life-long fascination with politics, society, and world history and his research program pursue three complementary lines of inquiry: comparative social policy (in South Africa and Brazil), race and the political economy of development (especially in Africa), and Black radical thought. His publications include refereed journal articles, book chapters, and opinion pieces in internationally accredited periodicals such as the Journal of Southern African Studies (JSAS), Black Agenda Review, Africa Insight, and the South African Journal of International Affairs (SAIJA).
In South Africa, the Covid-19 pandemic has served to reify the manifold inequalities emanating from the country’s histories of colonial domination, Black genocide, and anti-black racism. But South Africa’s current social crisis is further exacerbated by internal perceptions that it has been inundated and infested with illegal immigrants who have eroded the country’s social fiber. It is a perspective that oftentimes leads to physical violence. Trucks driven by foreign nationals have been burned and there have been arrests and extra-judicial killings of ‘illegal’ workers, gardeners, and small shopkeepers from countries including Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Somalia.
While such violence threatens to further polarize working-class communities, it also highlights the key existential and political problem of twenty-first century South Africa: that of the nature of the relationship between South African citizens, the belonging and inclusion of foreign nationals, and the post-apartheid polity. As a Malawian national with a Pan-African orientation living in South Africa, recent anti-immigrant actions have, for me, pointed to a need to understand the origins of the formation of the colonial nation-state, with the aim of dismantling it, as a means towards forging a more expansive and inclusive idea of citizenship.
Several dates are crucial to understanding how aspects of colonialism and Black resistance were at odds in shaping the trajectory of South Africa. These dates are 1910, 1912, and 1913. The year 1910 saw the formation of the Union of South Africa, whose sole aim was to unite the antagonistic British and Dutch (Boer) territories to exclude Black Africans from participating in this newly formed state under the guise of the mission civilisatrice. By contrast, 1912 saw the birth of the African National Congress (ANC) whose sole aim was to resist the exclusivist, colonial, and imperial idea that South Africa would be governed by privileged White citizens. If these two dates bring to the fore the origins of state bifurcated by White supremacy and resistance to it, then 1913 further consolidated ideas of difference and White economic privilege through two pieces of legislation: the Land Act and the Immigration Act.
The Land Act of 1913 instrumentalized the dispossession and economic destitution of Black Africans. In the same year, on May 8, 1913 the colonial parliament passed legislation that banned the recruitment of migrant workers from areas north of latitude 22 degrees which included British governed territories like Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Nyasaland (Malawi) and the Portuguese colony of Mozambique.
The Immigration Act of 1913 has received less attention than the Land Act because contemporary contestations on redistributive politics in South African have focused on expropriation of land without compensation. However, both land dispossession and exclusive migration policies were produced under the epoch of a violent colonial modernity, and their consolidation in the colonial era were in the service of British imperialism. The Immigration Act of 1913, I argue, with its ban on the “tropical native,” was a progenitor of contemporary violence toward African nationals in South Africa. Banning the tropical native served to cement the ideas of exclusive citizenship that has shaped South Africa’s post-apartheid migration policies. It is no coincidence that the colonial regime fused land dispossession and banned the “tropical native” in the same year.
That violence, has been central to contemporary state making in South Africa, has been extensively documented, especially through the construction of ‘Nativism’ as a theory. Mahmood Mamdani distills ideas of White supremacy and segregation that are foundational to institutional state making by engaging with Jan Smuts’ policy of Nativism. Smuts suggested, “The British Empire does not stand for the assimilation of its peoples into a common type, it does not stand for standardization, but for the fullest freest development of its peoples along their own specific lines”. The mythical racial foundations of inclusion and exclusion in this newly formed union had been drawn. As Frantz Fanon conveys, colonial modernity has been adept at creating two centers: the universal “Man” and the bastardized “Other”. By this logic, the bastardized “Other” is perpetually condemned into the “zone of non-being”. More recently, Mamdani has argued that the global project of carving out the world into a European image was first experimented in Europe and the Americas.
Similarly, the modern South African state was founded on the premises of ethnic cleansing and perpetual servitude of the “tropical Native” and the “South African Native”. Both are produced and reproduced to serve imperial labor demands in an economy that excludes them. South Africa’s ban on migrant workers from its northern neighbors created an environment for illegal migration to thrive; thus, we can better understand the phenomenon of poverty, unemployment, low wages, wars, and other factors that compel people to move from one country to another. This challenges current narrow nationalist populism that is insurgent and resurgent across Western countries and several African countries. Rather, the existence of a legal prohibition of any human activity almost always creates a field of illegal practices.
South Africa recently passed a new law in response to growing concerns in the country about its ‘porous’ borders. This became more topical when a Malawian who was living in South Africa and purporting to be a Christian prophet clandestinely escaped the country while facing charges of money laundering and racketeering, much to the dismay and embarrassment of South African authorities. Talk radio was filled with racist and xenophobic rhetoric that finds frequent expression in phrases like “we in South Africa” and “those people from Africa”. Figures on illegal immigration tend to be exaggerated and dated. According to 2011 figures from Statistics South Africa, legal migrants were about 4.2% of the total population, or about 2.1 million people. Over 75% come from across the African continent, with the majority (68%) from within the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region. Over 45% of those from the SADC region were Zimbabweans.
In contrast to the current discourse about legal and illegal immigration, radical Pan-Africanists aimed to unmake the racial hierarchies that have been solidified by European colonial modernity. It is common for people to superficially invoke Nkrumah’s ‘Africa Must Unite’ thesis by referring to ethnic and linguistic homogeneities across the Southern Africa sub-region and using tropes like “we are all the same” and “we should just unite”. The nation-state, however, continues to lure us into its symbols of belonging and exclusion, including sovereignty, currencies, national anthems, cuisine, linguistic identity, religiosity, music, art, sport and complex collective histories that define what and who we are.
Fanon’s admonition in The Wretched of the Earth helps us understand the contemporary trap: “[S]o comrades,” he averred, “let us not pay tribute to Europe by creating states, institutions and societies which draw their inspiration from her”. South Africa’s path toward the transcendence of a violent, exclusionary national state is the creation of a Pan-African federation that stretches across the Southern African sub-continent. This redivision would not be predicated on the Southern Africa Development Community, which retains neocolonial political and market imperatives. The Pan-African federation might geographically redraw colonial constructed borders and identities on three geographical fronts: South Africa-Namibia-Angola, South Africa-Lesotho-Swaziland-Botswana, and South Africa-Zimbabwe-Mozambique-Malawi-Zambia. Adom Getachew reconstructs this model in her discussion of Kwame Nkrumah’s and Eric Williams’ vision of postcolonial federation. For them, regional federations would overcome the postcolonial predicament by creating larger, more diverse domestic markets, organizing collective development plans, ensuring regional redistribution, and providing for regional security. Such a federation would help to overcome the current postcolonial predicament because, as Ndlovu-Gatsheni and Mhlanga suggest, “borders as political and social creations rather than natural phenomena, must be open to negotiation, re-construction, re-drawing, contestations, acceptances and total rejections”. This is, in part, the promise of Pan-Africanism.
This article was first published by Black Agenda Report on February 24, 2021.
Albano Augustinho Troco is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow under the SA/UK Bilateral Chair in Political Theory. He holds a PhD in Political Studies from the University of the Witwatersrand. His research interests encompass issues on electoral politics, democratization and autocratization studies, secessionist conflicts and international relations.
Angola is the only southern African nation that has not introduced a system of elected local government. This, 45 years after it made constitutional provisions for the establishment of this important tier of government.
Even without the pandemic, local government elections would not have happened this year because Angola’s National Assembly has not approved the necessary legal framework. The framework, which was expected by mid-August this year, would have supported the gradual implementation of local government functions.
This, in my view, is part of a deliberate delaying strategy by the ruling party, the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), to maintain a system where the central government appoints all officials at sub-national levels. The introduction of local elections would see the ruling party lose its monopoly over local government for the first time since independence.
Angola’s system of governance
Angola has four levels of government – national, provincial, municipal and district (comuna). The last three enjoy little policy, budgetary or fiscal autonomy because of a rigid top-down relationship with the national government based in Luanda.
Central government effectively appoints all senior officials at the three lower levels. The president appoints the 18 provincial governors. They in turn appoint the 164 municipal administrators, who then appoint the 475 administrators of the districts.
Because officials at sub-national level are not elected by the people, they are politically and institutionally accountable to their hierarchical superiors, and, ultimately, to the president. Hence, sub-national government in Angola has always been remote from the people.
This governance system makes Angola one of the most politically and administratively centralised states in Africa. This heightens the zero-sum nature of national politics in Angola.
The party that wins the general elections gets to fill all executive offices with its own political appointees. These often also assume the chairmanship of the ruling party in their jurisdiction.
As a result, political parties that lose national elections can’t participate in local government. The People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola, which has been in power for decades, is the main beneficiary of this system. This practice will change once local elections are established.
Angola’s first post-colonial constitution referred to the concept of elected local government with administrative and fiscal autonomy. This constitution was enacted in 1975, the same year the country gained independence from Portugal.
Seventeen years later, a constitutional revision law postulated that state organisation at the local level should comprise two structures: elected local representative bodies (autarquias locais) and decentralised local units of the central government (órgãos administrativos locais).
The latest constitution of 2010 reaffirms the commitment to these principles. But it declares that the effective institutionalisation of local authorities will happen gradually.
A wide range of factors has hampered the implementation of these constitutional provisions. They include:
the 27 years of civil war between the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola and Jonas Savimbi’s party, Unita (1975- 2002);
the establishment of single-party rule by the ruling party along Marxist-Leninist lines, giving rise to a highly centralised and securitised state;
the institution of administrative de-concentration reforms. This means that the central government has the ability to transfer some of its responsibilities to local government units, without necessarily allowing for the establishment of elected representative bodies;
the introduction of the principle of gradualism in establishing a system of elected local representatives.
the use of delaying tactics to maintain the status quo.
The introduction of local elections would see the ruling party lose its monopoly over local government for the first time since independence. Thus, from a cost-benefit perspective, it can be argued that the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola does not have the incentive to implement locally elected government.
The party has delayed the implementation of a system of elected local representatives until the “conditions are right”. This would enable it to decentralise power without actually losing it.
For instance, in 2008, the Minister of Territorial Administration stated that local government elections would take place in 2011 after the constitutional changes of 2010. This never happened.
Similarly, in 2011 the ministry said that the country’s first local elections would be held by 2014, following a general election in 2012, and a population census in 2014. This too did not happen.
In 2016, the deputy president, Manuel Vicente, said local elections would possibly take place in 2021. Two years later President João Lourenço recommended that local elections be held in 2020. This came after consultations with the Council of the Republic (a constitutionally sanctioned body that advises the president on a wide range of issues).
The government announced that the local elections would start in selected municipalities, and spread to all municipalities by 2035. Opposition parties objected, and called for the simultaneous implementation of elected local government in all municipalities.
In August 2020, Parliament went into recess without completing the approval of the legal framework for the elections. The hope is that local elections will be held before the next general elections scheduled for 2022.
Consequently, the local currency has been devalued. This has raised public debt levels and external debt servicing costs. Meanwhile, foreign currency reserves continue to drop. This predicament could be used by the government to claim there is no money to hold local elections, further postponing the necessary development of local democracy.
For years, the ruling party has deployed delaying tactics to ensure that the central government appoints all officials at sub-national levels. The economy and current COVID-19 pandemic are simply the latest in a long series of excuses.
Laurence Piper is a Political Scientist at the University of the Western Cape interested in urban governance, democracy, and informality in South Africa and comparatively. His latest book is Democracy Disconnected:Participation and Governance in a City of the South, Routledge, 2019, with Dr Fiona Anciano. He is a past President of the South African Association of Political Studies (SAAPS) 2016-8, and a founding member of the Association for Political Theory in Africa (APTA).
The current spate of housing evictions in Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini seems especially malicious, not only because it is winter, but because of the assurance by national government that no evictions would happen in South Africa during the Covid-19 lockdown. City authorities argue that these are not evictions but rather efforts to stop land invasions initiated during the lockdown – a position that national government has endorsed. Whatever one thinks of this defence, it is cold comfort to those like Bulelani Qholani, yanked naked out of his home and left without shelter in the Cape winter rains.
Nevertheless, there is a point to the state’s case. Local government is much more concerned about the loss of land than illegal housing, and these evictions offer an important insight into the kinds of power at the heart of city rule in South Africa and beyond.
As argued in the recent book, Democracy Disconnected, city rule does not work like national government because city authorities are not sovereign over the people and places of the city. Rather they form part of a larger system of government where other spheres directly control key aspects of daily life. When the neighbourhood watch reports a crime to the police, it is engaging with national government. In turn, provincial government is responsible for the hospitals we go to for Covid-19.
It is really only over some basic services such as local roads, refuse collection, and street lighting that municipalities have complete control. Even then, the supply of electricity depends on the national parastatal, Eskom (enough said!). Furthermore, on the issues of greatest importance to most neighbourhoods around the country – jobs, crime, health, education and transport – local government is a bit player. The real policy-making power that impact on residents where they live does not lie with City Hall.
At the same time, our everyday democratic institutions such as neighbourhood associations, ward committees, ward councillors, city officials are connected to local government, which is great if the problem is fixing a pothole or refuse collection, but of little use if the issue is more important. Not having ward based politicians in provincial or national government further exacerbates this disconnect. Hence, in this everyday sense, local democracy is disconnected from the ‘power over’ the neighbourhoods in which people live.
But there is more to city rule than the divisions of powers between national, provincial and local government. In the analysis so far we have been thinking of political power as sovereignty in the western tradition – as the highest authority to make decisions over people and places. Following Thomas Hobbes and Max Weber, this conception of ‘power over’ law and policy is closely associated with having a monopoly on coercive capacity. It is the army and the police that ultimately back up the rule of law, and cities have limited powers over most laws and policies, and a small police force if any.
However, there is another way to think about power that is more relevant to municipalities, and that is the idea of power as a productive force – the ‘power to’ make society, and in the case of City rulers, the power to build houses, roads, harbours, airports, factories, communication infrastructure and so on.
This idea of power as productive is well made in many traditions of political thought, and a famous example is Foucault’s distinction in western history between state sovereignty as coercive control over citizens and state biopower as managing populations to enhance their biological wellbeing. If the destruction of shacks illustrates the former, educating people in social distancing and wearing masks to reduce the transmission of Covid-19 is an example of the latter.
However, in the context of city rule under conditions of democratic capitalism, loosely framed, Clarence Stone offers a more specific and empirically informed account of the centrality of ‘power to’, illustrating that the real challenge of city rule is generating and co-ordinating resources to literally build the city. As Stone argues, in a competitive capitalist system, government does not have all the resources to make the city on its own, and must seek out partnerships with business to build new houses, or malls, or ports, or factories, and so on. Economic policy thus profoundly shapes the distribution or resources among state and non-state actors, creating a massive co-ordination challenge. Consequently, a successful City Hall is one that can create mutually beneficial partnerships with other spheres of state, capital and residents to generate and coordinate the resources to make the city.
And so we return to the issue of evictions. In brief, ownership and control of city land is an important resource, and therefore a key source of productive power for City Hall to ‘steer’ the urban environment. This is especially pronounced across the Global South as high levels of urbanisation mean that cities must grow the built environment to accommodate a burgeoning population. Land is a source of productive power for City rulers in three ways.
First, control of city land also gives cities important influence when it comes to engaging provincial and national government over the building of new schools, hospitals, police stations, power stations and the like. This often takes the form of negotiating the exchange of land or changing land use rights. So important is keeping control of land that the City of Cape Town changed its practice to allow any department to veto the sale of city land, even against the wishes of the executive. This was intended to prevent possible short-term collusion between politicians and their business partners (Helen Zille, interviewed by author 26-09-2017).
Second, rents in the form of local taxes (rates) are a key source of income for the metropolitan municipalities in South Africa, alongside the sale of services, for example electricity charges. A case in point: the City of Cape Town earns about a quarter of its revenue from electricity sales, and about a fifth from property rates. Third, zoning policy offers municipalities a means of expressing productive power by controlling what various groups can do with land in the city – especially through offering commercial or industrial rights for business. (This may be an important, if informal, source of revenue for political parties too).
These three reasons are why land matters so much to cities. It is an important source of much of their power, now conceived in productive rather than coercive terms. Of course, coercive power remains important – not least to protect City control over land as shown by the recent evictions – because it is the access to productive power enabled by controlling land that matters most in the growing urban South.
In conclusion then, as tempting as it is to blame the evictions in Cape Town on the anti-poor attitude of the DA-led City (and to be fair they have some form here), the fact that it is also happening in ANC-run municipalities reveals a deeper cause. City rulers need land for rental income, to create partnerships with business to attract investment to add value to land and to create jobs, and as a key resource in engaging other spheres of the state in building the city. Only once we understand the importance of land to the power of City Hall, and rethink power in terms of production rather than coercion, can we understand the political will to evict poor people from land in the winter cold and during a pandemic.