Volume 10, Issue 4
Preben Kaarsholm (ed). Violence, Political Culture & Development in Africa. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2006. 208p.
This edited book volume consists of 10 chapters: an introductory chapter, a comparative chapter on state collapse in Africa, plus eight case study chapters on countries as far apart and politically diverse as Rwanda, Darfur, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, South Africa, and Liberia. The contributing authors to this volume – all attached to universities in the Global North, all of whom attended a workshop at the Hotel Romantik on the Danish island of Bornholm in 2002, sponsored by Roskilde University and the Danish Centre for Holocaust and Genocide Studies - include scholars trained in and writing within the fields of history, anthropology, development studies, and political science.
The introductory chapter by the editor situates the individual chapters in the context of the ‘third wave of democratisation’ unfolding in African countries since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. While this wave has seen an increase in competitive legislature elections across the continent, it has also occurred in the context of violent conflict, war, genocide, state failure and collapse, and the disintegration of social orders. This book, as the editor notes, aims at contributing to the scholarly debate regarding the contemporary political situations and the “contradictions of development” (p. 2) in Africa, by which is meant the empirical realities of “possibilities, stalemates and violence conflicts” on the one hand and the different scholarly “understandings of contradictions and capacities for change in African political cultures” on the other (p. 2). In doing so, the contributions in this volume are explicit about the need for historical approaches to contextualise both the empirical political realities in Africa and, self-consciously, the lenses through which these realities have been theorised.
The introductory chapter confronts the second aim of the book: that is, the lenses through which the ‘African’ realities have been understood. Starting with what is by now a very familiar and established line of argument, this chapter rails against a number of journalists and commentators for writing about Africa in a ‘negative way’. Correspondent Ryszard Kapuscinski and writer Robert Kaplan are deservedly singled out for their particularly biased and unflattering writings on and analyses of 'Africa'. Echoing an argument made as far back as 1996 by one of the contributors to this volume, Paul Richards, the introductory chapter criticises the likes of Kaplan for their Afro-pessimism, moralistic prejudice, generalisations, etc. The chapter proceeds to wonder aloud whether such normative evaluations found in less academic analyses of African individuals and societies - the 'heart of darkness' narrative - do not perhaps also influence scholarly writings on Africa.
Continuing with this line of argument, histories of economic underdevelopment and analytical concepts such as rent-seeking, personal rule, patrimonialism, neo-patrimonialism, clientelism, elite cronyism are exposed as leading to arguments and conclusions that may reinforce the ‘heart of darkness’ narrative. This is because these perspectives and concepts were developed by scholars inhabiting a different “conceptual universe” than the political actors and political cultures of the countries under discussion. Such a culturalist argument seems too easy to make without seriously considering what is meant by different conceptual universes and how such universes are construed or relate to the material and discursive conditions of industrial capitalism and colonialism, i.e. the conditions under which these concepts and perspectives developed and flourished. The flip side of such a culturalist argument is that it requires the authors of this volume to stress and emphasise (cultural) coherence and similarity between the incredibly divergent countries under discussion (they are all 'African' in some way or another). The editor tries to grapple with this dilemma through a critical discussion and attempted revival of the notion 'political culture', but more intellectual work is needed to sharpen this potential theoretical knife.
In this introduction, too many of the recent writings on Africa are dismissed as somehow belonging to this 'heart of darkness' narrative: the author finds 'echoes of stereotypes' in Mbembe’s work and of course Bayart’s influential phrase 'politics of the belly' does not sound all that positive either. Too easily, Chabal and Daloz’s work are dismissed as “heretic”. Rather than seriously engaging with the varying and new ideas these authors had put forth, they are too easily condemned for the assumed possible consequences of their analyses. Consequently, they are all lumped together in a category of the sinners perpetuating negative narratives about 'Africa'. Interestingly, while the editor draws heavily on Paul Richard's earlier work in developing this line of argument, Richard's own contribution to this volume, tucked away as the last chapter, moves beyond his earlier work on Sierra Leone by reviving Durkheim's arguments about the connections between forced labour, fatalism, violence and civil war.
Given the expected lengths of these reviews, I can only briefly point to few of the individual chapters, and my selection was influenced by my disciplinary background and appreciation of rich analyses of the histories and current dynamics of specific local political struggles and such struggle's links to regional and global dynamics. Alexander offers a reworking of some of her earlier collaborative work on Zimbabwe and, drawing on archival sources and life histories, makes some compelling arguments for the ways in which party political discourses and symbols in contemporary Zimbabwe draws on regional contestations, religious routes and shines, memories associated with land and gestures. Demonstrating in rich detail the local and particular ways in which narratives provide legitimacy to rulers, her chapter is a fascinating read given the current political contestations and humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe. Avoiding the explanatory line that favours seeing meaning and rationality in violence, she is careful to note that not all violence can be reduced to the struggle for power in a narrow sense; even struggles over identities and culture cannot be reduced to struggles over political power. Kaarsholm's chapter deals with local politics in Amaoti outside Durban, South Africa, and shows how good historical and social analysis provide us with a map through which to interpret contemporary local political struggles. Through a close analysis of the material and symbolic dimensions of historical and contemporary struggles between IFP/ANC/UDF structures in the 1980s, social class markers, social identities locally formulated by ideas about ethnicity, generational contestations, gender divisions, localist versus cosmopolitanist lifestyles, conservative versus modernist moral orientations, Kaarsholm expertly demonstrates a most important contribution of rich ethnography to political science. That is, showing in this instance, how "the politics of every life are not necessarily bound up symmetrically with the politics of parties and instead act themselves out in contestations between groupings and discourses that differ on the moral issues regulating the relationships between older and younger people and between men and women" (p. 155).
This volume makes an important contribution to the effort of developing comparative views on political events and processes unfolding across several African countries. The historical approach shared by most of the contributors demonstrates well the shortcomings of much journalistic analyses of violent conflicts and state failures. The chapters drawing on field research in particular illustrate the complexities of political cultures and the dynamics of local struggles in a global context, which to some extent undermines the theoretical bases of the sort of comparative work on which the introductory chapter is constructed.
Detlev Krige Rhodes University, South Africa