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What might an African language of governance sound and look like?

A grasp of Africa in modern times that is “neither utopian nor fatalist”, as one commentator has it, is by no means an easy undertaking in today’s world of complexity-stripping, shopping-trolley approaches to development – in which policy-makers freely pick and choose theories that “rationalise existing political priorities to act, or to do nothing”, and in which “often what passes as knowledge is little more than the opinion”, prejudices and delusions of the wealthy and powerful who influence mainstream opinion.

On the flip side, though, the “history of progressive ideas related to development” indicates that these ideas originate where individuals and institutions position themselves outside mainstream schools of thought. This spirit of transgression has inspired the contributors to spotlight the ceaseless making, unmaking and remaking of state, governance and development in Africa. They re-establish the connection between theory and practice, and displace the opinion–policy universe of the last quarter of a century.

Another commonality is the perspective that no society develops on the basis of borrowed language and borrowed clothes. The approaches of the last 50 years of development – modernisation, dependency, structural adjustment, sustainable development, human development, post-Washington Consensus, good governance – have failed to deliver a viable basis for African economic and social development, which highlights the weaknesses of these approaches.

Accordingly, various commentators believe that any meaningful inquiry into society and change can only be pursued in the language of the specific society in which it is conducted. They reject ideas of social behaviour and change derived from some universal theory or ideology formed outside that society, and they repeatedly raise the question of why Africa’s leaders and civil societies allow themselves to become beholden to the principles of outsiders.

All the contributors also share an acute sense of the “presence of history”. Following George Orwell’s dictum about history as social construct (“Who controls the past, controls the future. Who controls the present, controls the past”), they are united in the belief that history need not repeat itself and that the millions of Africans born and reared in the aftermath of colonisation need not lose sight of their own histories in a global culture that is increasingly homogenised.

What might an African language of governance sound and look like? And what “powers” should be assembled to shape it? On the one side are the many external forces that, in Thabo Mbeki’s words, are “convinced that Africa is directly and immediately relevant to their own exclusive interests, which do not necessarily have anything to do with the welfare of uplifting of the African people”. Then there are the “narrow national ruling elites” – a “bureaucratic and comprador bourgeoisie and its attached political class” that wield state power to facilitate external plunder, exploitation and mutual, often undeserved, enrichment.

It is not only this bourgeoisie’s complicity in the incessant reproduction of multiple, old and new cycles of accumulation by dispossession that is dispiriting, but also the discourses and techniques they employ to justify their rule, predation and neoliberal hegemony. Paradoxically, this includes the mobilisation of the masses to support and legitimate their plundering. In numerous African countries, we have seen state capture by charismatic “good men”, who trade on their struggle credentials, history and virtue to anoint themselves as liberators, saviours and the sole representative of the majority and its aspirations.

This capture of the state by these “men of special insight” is normally preceded by or runs parallel with the co-option and demobilisation of civil society, which sets the scene for them to appropriate and reconfigure the public realm in specific discursive forms. At the base of this is the elaboration of development “visions” packaged in both elegant and inelegant linguistic and semiotic construct(ion)s, championed with missionary zeal – a “gospel of prosperity” that will deliver to all people.

These visions are majestic, couched in fulsome language and terms of inclusive development, renaissance and renewal – derived from theories and ideologies largely of their own making – but marketed as the magic carpet that will transport the masses to freedom, justice and democracy. Rarely, though, do these grand constructs correspond to the real world experiences of the majority poor who inhabit the slums. But they skilfully unite elite aspirations and interests with those of the masses. It is in this sly and subtle bourgeois colonisation of civil society that (global) accumulation by dispossession, national political dispossession and the internalisation of imperialist reform agendas are secured and delivered.

If this is one leg of the grander problem confronting the search for a shared vocabulary, the other is “epistemologies of certainty”, in which there are clear readings of the world that can be translated into policy and action in a development discourse in which Africa is seen as acutely dysfunctional.

In contradistinction to this moral universe, I would place at front and centre the insights, knowledge and expertise of Southern scholarship on Africa, its situation and the trinity of state, governance and development. For too long this scholarship has been relegated to the margins by international publishers, committees, agencies and missionary organisations, as well as business and investment houses.

Of central concern is the experiences of loss and despair and the unmaking of institutions and social orders; the carrying forward of rupture into postcolonial social order; the significance of culture, clientelism and patronage in social structures, politics and institutions; the social machinery that allows rich countries to perform the function of global metropole; the replication of the North’s governmental and epistemological apparatus within the social relations of the periphery; and the emergence of new social actors in struggles with – and within – the social machinery.

Embedded in this alternative moral universe, I broadly address, in my new book State, Governance and Development in Africa, the matters of who Africa belongs to, “borrowed clothes” and the mechanics of state construction and state intervention. It focuses on the perils, potentials and possibilities associated with the unmaking, making and remaking of institutions and sociopolitical orders refracted through the lenses of history, theory and empirical record; the impacts on governance and development of Sino-African engagement and donor lending. It reflects on profound demographic changes (the youth bulge) and their implications for political stability, and the limitations, perils and possibilities of single-party domination. It examines matters of state-building and institutional reform under conditions of regional and everyday violence.

Any renewal of political pluralism and citizenship, it is argued, must of necessity redress postcolonial models of accumulation and their daily and structural, violent exclusions. It weighs up the internal dynamics, forces and relations that positively and negatively impact citizenship, democracy, urban development and institutional-building/reform, and addresses the intersect of global realities, African politics and renewal; and highlights how new opportunities afforded by savvy resource rent extraction and alternative economic pathways are squandered by commission, omission, neglect and realpolitik.

The prospects are not promising for three reasons. First is the complicity between modern knowledge and modern regimes of power which relegates the developing world to the minor status of consumers, rather than producers, of modernity. The West posits itself as the “creator and distributor of universal knowledge” that guides this (hyper-)universal (hyper-)modernity in the domain of economy (exploitation of labour and appropriation of land/natural resources), authority (government, military forces), gender/sexuality and knowledge subjectivity. Put simply, more often than not Africans are props in the West’s fantasy of itself.

Second, if in the current juncture there is a “dearth of future scenarios strong enough to galvanise the imagination of a great number of political actors”, complicating matters is the mingling of the structural power of colonialists, colonialism and world-system forces with the ascendancy of postcolonial (mega-)projects that “may [both] congeal and prompt the nationality of power”.

Third, and animating and activating both of the above, is a new form of imperialism – Western NGOs that impose measures of governance which in fact reproduce and extend global capitalism. Different from the past – direct control – they are a form of imperial governance which insinuates itself into the economy, politics and society.

Swimming against this tide seems hopeless, but only so if we chain our imagination of the present and the future to existing social power relations. If the imagination is radical/progressive – harnessed to the articulation, championing and making of another world – it always critiques and resists the status quo; challenges and pushes institutions that solidify imposed collective imaginations; rails against the “teleological assumptions of militancy’s inevitable failures” and revives modes of imagining that might transform devastating histories into inspiring accounts of possible change.

The empirical experience suggests that there are workable and viable alternatives. There are several examples of developing countries which have defied the core aspects of “good governance” – keeping the state in the economy, supporting policies that narrow the gap between the rich and the poor, giving preference and support to domestic producers, and direct cash transfers – and which have succeeded.

This will happen only if we re-appropriate our stolen past and resist our “foreclosed future”. Epistemic disobedience, independent thought and antipodean obliteration of the fantasias/nightmares scripted and imposed by the development politburo are the guts of an alternative language and vocabulary of constitutive power.

To conclude, the fundamental features of our world, societies and polities are not natural/given because the “facts” of our world are far more creative than the (social) constructions of our dull and boring imaginations and theories. We must always be alert to the limitations of elite rhetoric and agnotology, and awake to the relationships between theory, practice, policy and ideology.

This is an edited extract from State, Governance and Development in Africa, published by UCT Press. Dr Firoz Khan teaches in the School of Public Leadership at the University of Stellenbosch

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