/ 6 February 2024

South Africa and Palestine through Mamdani’s prism of decolonisation

Graphic Tl Hlela Palestine Twitter 1200px
(John McCann/M&G)

In his most recent work, Neither Settler Nor Native: The Making and Unmaking of Permanent Minorities, political theorist Mahmood Mamdani proposes a framework for decolonisation of the postcolonial world that moves beyond traditional notions of nationhood and political identity.

He argues that decolonising the post-colonial political order requires an understanding of history, where political identities are seen as impermanent constructions of power. By historicising political identities and challenging their permanence, post-colonial societies can unmake the conditions of the past and reclaim a just and egalitarian political order.

Decolonisation, for Mamdani, should thus be understood as “political equality under democratic decision-making”, which involves decoupling the idea of the nation from the state. 

As such, Mamdani contends that the key to decolonising the political is to strip away the nation as a “locus of political identification and commitment”. In its place, he suggests imagining a new political community that transcends the logic of colonial categories.

Such a political community acknowledges the structural tensions and historical violence embedded into the nation state and dynamically reforms them through a political process. Moreover, such a political community moves beyond exclusive forms of nationalism towards more inclusive and democratic models of governance. 

Political modernity as we know contained liberal and illiberal variants. In its latter iteration, it represented violent, imperial conquest through the colonisation of territories and the dispossession of indigenous people around the world. Mamdani’s analysis penetrates into several key historical case studies to make this point.

Most intriguingly, it sets up South Africa as a kind of exemplar that has achieved relative success in implementing the political framework he endorses. In acceding to the democratic transition rather than violence, South Africans developed a vocabulary of tolerance to settle differences through the politics of contestation and nation building. This, for Mamdani, constitutes a promising, albeit “incomplete success”.

South Africa’s success in the context of decolonising the political system involved significant political reforms, including the end of legal apartheid and the introduction of non-racial democracy. South Africans sat around the “conference table”, Mamdani states, and although conceding that the South African national project is mired with problems, South Africans used political engagement to open the door: “when politics displaces war, enemies become adversaries”.

Mamdani argues that the South African example provides a valuable framework for thinking about a solution for Palestine. He suggests that the end of apartheid in South Africa teaches us to appreciate more fully the challenge of the political and to craft a better understanding of decolonisation.

Political community and political identity, when viewed as “historical” rather than “permanent” or “natural”,  enables the reimagination of the boundaries of community and identity. History provides resources for seeing past identities of majority and minority, settler and native, perpetrator and victim. 

Mamdani intimates that a solution for Palestine requires a decolonisation of the political order akin to South Africa. It would involve the unmaking of the conditions that marked the unjust treatment and dispossession of Palestinians, a re-conceptualisation of power structures and a reimagination of the political.

This should involve a fundamental rethinking of the political order, based on a recognition of the historical and political context of the conflict and a commitment to transcending the logic of colonial modernity. There is no specific solution for this, but Mamdani proffers that “when it comes to the realm of politics, nothing can be ruled out as impossible”.

Dr Ayesha Omar is a Senior Lecturer in Political Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand and a British Academy International Fellow at SOAS, University of London. She is working on a new book project on developing Black Intellectual History in South Africa.