/ 20 August 2021

Review: Mahmood Mamdani on the ‘non-national’ state

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Scathing critique: Academic and author Mahmood Mamdani’s new book, Neither Settler nor Native, is a haunting meditation on the deadly political rituals and fires of the ‘politicisation’ of cultural and ethnic identity. (Photo: Chloe Aftel)

“Lost in 2021 fire.” So reads the bleak message on the University of Cape Town’s online library search engine when I try to access Mahmood Mamdani’s Citizen and Subject. I wanted to stretch my memory muscles by returning to Mamdani’s disruptive 1995 work on the crisis of postcolonial Africa. I needed Citizen and Subject as my climbing anchor, only to realise that the strange fires that destroyed the Jagger Reading Room in April had not spared Mamdani’s classic, which had been located in the African Studies Collection. 

This introduction into my review of Neither Settler nor Native, Mamdani’s latest work, is not so much about a book’s loss in fire and misplaced rage. Wits University Press and Princeton University Press in 2017 and 2018, respectively, have reprinted Citizen and Subject, a key foundational Mamdani text. 

His expansive body of analytical readings of history patently makes it clear that the violent sweep of political currents have, in the past, brought devastating human and archival loss. In her scholarship on the pioneering American female war correspondent, Margaret Fuller, literary scholar Sonia Di Loreto argues that “all archival work is linked to questions of loss, death, and the afterlife of papers and objects”. 

Often the dredging of the archive has displaced collective and individual memory, sometimes even stirring a torrent of storms. The “Mamdani Affair” at UCT is one such example, where, as the AC Jordan chair of African studies in the late ’90s, he had a bitter fallout with the university administration after sharing his radical vision of a transformative African history syllabus.

Neither Settler nor Native, is a formidable inkundla yamangwevu. It will undoubtedly contribute to the sharpening of debates across a wide range of disciplines, including social anthropology, history, the idea of the nation-state, sovereignty, borders, postcoloniality, and normative theory in international relations, to mention but some. 

The author draws from the work of TH Marshall, whose book, Citizenship and Social Class, published in 1950, assumed the nation as “a political community joined to the state”. On the other hand, Mamdani’s concerns are largely focused on locating dominant modern identities in their specific historical contexts, showing in the process how imperfections and abuses are inherent in both the colonial and the postcolonial state. 

“Whereas Marshall focused on the question of which rights citizens have, I shift to a different question, one explicitly political: Rights for whom?” What undergirds this concern is Mamdani’s observation that across epochs, the limitation of rights to citizens, or in the case of settlers, to themselves at the expense of others, is perilous and appears to be a recurring political laceration. 

“I came to think that we need to rethink not only justice but also the political order in which it is pursued. To obtain justice for victims necessitates an end to the conditions that marked them for unjust treatment, and that means decolonisation at last.”

For several decades now, Mamdani has been dredging the African archive through the cogent suction of history and his penetrating dissection of ubiquitous paradigms that blight scholarship on nativity, citizenship and colonial settlerhood. Neither Settler nor Native, like Citizen and Subject, When Victims Become Killers, and Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, continues Mamdani’s unflinching warning that every political ecosystem can catch fire and callously kill people. 

Neither Settler nor Native is testimony to the increasing interest in what the modernist social anthropologist Fazil Moradi calls “interdisciplinary studies on memory and remembrance of exterminatory violence”. 

In 1972, Mamdani was among thousands of Asians kicked out of Uganda by the British-trained despot Idi Amin in a violent act of “ethnic cleansing”. Despite Mamdani’s dire warnings about the dangers of many forceful “nation-formation” projects in his latest book, he does not have a bleak attitude towards Uganda, to which he and his wife, Mira Nair, have since returned. “Expulsions are not driven by people at the bottom; expulsions are driven by people at the top,” he told US Frontline TV journalist Omar Sachedina

Neither Settler nor Native does its bit to subject systems of power to rigorous critique. The interviewer calls it ‘inkundla yamangwevu’, in other words, Mamdani’s magnum opus. (Cover image courtesy of Wits University Press)

Yet, despite his hope for Uganda, Neither Settler nor Native is another haunting meditation on the deadly political rituals and fires of “politicisation” of cultural and ethnic identity. Mamdani’s critique on the key foundational tenets of the European state is scathing. “Nationalism did not precede colonialism. Nor was colonialism the highest or the final stage in the making of a nation. The two were co-constituted.” 

He passionately argues that the birth of the modern European state on the volcanic veranda of ethnic violence made this phenomenon an intolerant political modernity of brutal conquest and plunder of hope for the displaced and the persecuted peoples, minorities in the main. He is determined to dismiss homogenising narratives of colonial historiography that have been too obsessed with categorising “the civilising mission as direct rule and the methods that succeeded it as indirect rule”. 

Mamdani, in the mould of Miriam Makeba, Walter Rodney, Aimé Césaire, Steve Biko and others, lambast European modernity’s human rights crimes committed with careless abandon at the altar of “civilisation” against “uncivilised” native others. “The creation of a new political system did not happen in Europe after World War II. The victims and the perpetrators were separated by means of ethnic cleansing and the establishment of the state of Israel.”

He believes it is often the case that when the idea of nation carries with it a huge baggage of violent and essentialising epistemologies that these persevere, even in postcolonial states. A just dispensation “after postcolonialism”, should be a “non-national” state. 

Mamdani’s philosophical formulation is not fully developed in the book. Despite the widening gap between rich and poor, and the recent unrest in parts of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, he rightly describes South Africa as a key “decolonisation” battlefield. On the contrary, “the US is the founding settler colonial regime”. The latter point may be construed to be underplaying the role of slavery, the brutal trade in humans from Africa as possibly the most pervasive bedrock of US modernity, especially the early phase of its economic dispensation. 

Thabo Mbeki was introducing some magic and fresh herbs to the South African political garden, whose innocence has long been lost, when he made his iconic, “I am an African” speech. Mamdani argues the speech sought to broaden the idea of African identity, to include former white settlers in an inclusive identity. 

The speech, delivered on the eve of the historic adoption of South Africa’s democratic constitution, was an act of political “reconciliation”, peace and a shared new political identity. “Mbeki was announcing a transformative revision of history, in which it was not only Africans who were colonised — by the British and the Boers — but also the Boers. He was challenging South Africans to reimagine political identity, to see that political identity could be reimagined because it is a product of histories, not nature. If whites, too, could be colonised Africans, they too could be citizens of the postcolonial state.”

As he has over the years, Mamdani still maintains that, despite a rich and world-renowned legacy of resistance against apartheid, the stubborn building blocks of neoliberalism brought South Africa a morally repulsive model for addressing apartheid crimes against humanity. He charges that after reducing “the work of political systems to the work of individuals, as Nuremberg had”, ANC leaders who had “gained prestige” abroad, settled for the “least constructive mechanism of the post-apartheid transition: truth and reconciliation”. 

He argues that by focusing on a few individuals in the state security machinery, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission “ignored millions of black political prisoners and victims of ethnic cleansing, displaced from their homes into Bantustans”. 

Mamdani’s critique has been made by other scholars and social activists such as Tshepo Madlingozi, now the director of the University of the Witwatersrand’s Centre for Applied Legal Studies. Madlingozi argues that the “post-1994 social justice discourse and praxis reveals that the main pillars of the politics of social justice and its framework of recognition-incorporation-distribution are fetishisation of human rights, deification of the constitution, and veneration of civil society.” 

Clearly, as Neither Settler nor Native attests, there is a need to subject all systems of power and law to ongoing rigorous critiques. In politics everything can dry up like a raisin in the sun.