White Man's Rule

Mamdani, colonialism and the urban-rural divide haunting Africa

By David Whitehouse

Posted on April 22, 2023 08:00

 © Cover of ‘On the Subject of Citizenship: Late Colonialism in the World Today’
Cover of ‘On the Subject of Citizenship: Late Colonialism in the World Today’

Today it seems like a truism to say that weaknesses in African governance have their roots in colonialism, rather than deficient national political cultures. The idea was much less widely accepted in the 1990s. The change in assumptions is testament to the scale of the impact of the work of Ugandan political theorist Mahmood Mamdani, including among many who have never read anything by him.

A new collection of essays, including a short one by Mamdani himself, seeks to address the wide-ranging issues which his work raised but did exhaust. On the Subject of Citizenship: Late Colonialism in the World Today edited by Suren Pillay is published by Bloomsbury in London (2023). Contributors include Partha Chatterjee, Siba N’Zatioula Grovogui and Talal Asad.

Mamdani’s most influential work, Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism, appeared in 1996. Citizen and Subject argued that African post-colonial political communities have to be understood as the product of colonial rule, with the relationship between urban elites and subaltern rural communities at the core.

Africa’s urban centres were much more likely under colonialism to have access to democratic rights and European justice than were populations in the countryside. The end of European colonialism, for Mamdani, meant the removal of some of the racialised aspects of the urban-rural power disparity, but not the disparity itself.

This urban-rural division which the colonialists deepened and codified is a lasting feature of the post-colonial world. The huge differentials in the wealth and power of African cities and the rural hinterlands have increased, not diminished, over time.

In Africa as elsewhere in the Global South, the international system of states has almost always recognised whoever controls the capital city as the government of the country to which it lays claim, with no questions asked as to what is happening in the countryside.

Only a tiny number of the most ideologically eccentric regimes since 1945 have not been accorded this recognition, provided they have remained in control, using whatever level of force necessary, of the main urban centre.

Mamdani has always had his critics. His work focuses on the shared aspects of colonial experience, and pays little attention to the differences between European colonial powers. Though it simplifies things greatly to imagine that colonialism had a single responsible agency, there was in fact no such thing.

Britain and France had different aims and practices as colonial powers. The empires of Spain and Portugal were far removed from either in terms of historical timing and organising assumptions. The US, a little too loud in protesting its opposition to colonial states, was acting like one well before World War Two.

Non-state actors complicate the picture further. The idea of a single brand of “European colonialism” is, historically, no more illuminating than the notion of a homogenous “Africa.”

Catholic and Protestant missionaries had beliefs and goals which always conflicted with those of each other, and often ran counter to those of colonial states. More recent historical studies give missionaries a much more prominent role in European colonialism, but Mamdani has not paid them any attention.

Racial Hierarchies

Historical qualification of ambitious models such as Mamdani’s is always needed. As Abdelwahab El-Affendi argues in this collection, it’s hard to see how, for example, post-colonial dispossessions of Asians in east Africa were part of a pattern of “deracializing” politics which Mamdani’s model calls for, but does not prove.

Namhla Thando Matshanda writes that Mamdani’s model is applicable to Ethiopia, where the urban/rural divide is expressed as a division between the highlands and the lowlands, yet that this theme has to be understood in terms of Ethiopia’s specific political experiences both under Italian rule and during the Cold War.

South Africa, argues Steven Friedman, remains divided between urban and rural populations as Mamdani feared it would in the 1990s. Yet racial hierarchy in South Africa, Friedman says, has remained more entrenched than Mamdani’s model suggests.

The power relationships established by apartheid remain “stubbornly resistant to the change in state form.” Friedman further argues that Mamdani attributed more power to African post-independence political elites than they really held. Even after the end of flag colonialism, governments remained subject to Western economic power, in Africa and elsewhere.

Mamdani, then as now, sees South Africa’s experience not as an anomaly but a template which can be used to understand colonialism across the continent. This seems to mean disregarding whatever doesn’t fit his framework. Colonies such as South Africa saw the creation of large white settler populations which permanently transformed the areas where they lived.

Other colonies were managed by handfuls of administrators who came and went on short-term postings and were among the only Europeans on the scene. A more straightforward historical approach would be to compare South Africa with other white settler colonies such as Algeria, Rhodesia and Vietnam to find similarities and contrasts, rather than treating South African colonialism as akin to a blueprint for the continent.

Mamdani writes here that such objections come from those who have not yet found their “own cultivated garden in the patchwork” and that his original work was not intended to be history. His dismissal of evidence which doesn’t fit his model is easy enough, and means that he comes close to historical cherry-picking.

The point of the empirical criticism in the end is to seek to refine models and make them better, rather than to pull them down. As a political theorist, Mamdani’s influence is enduring, yet his work rests on a series of strong historical claims which historians will continue to test and contest.

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