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  • Ivor Chipkin

Prejudices about what drives politics in SA and Africa

Updated: Aug 27, 2019

Below is an extract of a new essay, 'Sovereignty and Government in Africa after Independence' that has come out in the journal Social Imaginaries (Social Imaginaries 4.1 (2018) pp. 113-131). Please contact me on for the full essay.

There I argue that scholars and commentators on African 'politics' rarely take seriously the role that political ideas play in political developments. Three prejudices are at work:

"What has proven especially controversial [is] the argument that ‘state capture’ betrays a political logic. [...]

This particular skepticism aligns with an incredulity of theoretical provenance, arising from general tendencies in contemporary studies of African politics. Three, in particular, are worth briefly calling out.

The first is a racist epistemology that reduces black politics to the politics of the libido, that is, to the pursuit of bodily pleasures largely indifferent to values or ideology. This prejudice informs much media commentary in South Africa and elsewhere in the world, especially the United Kingdom, about events here. In 2010, for example, the British High Commission was forced to apologize for reports in the tabloid press about President Zuma as a ‘sex obsessed bigot’ and a ‘vile buffoon’ (Smith 2010). Locally, we see traces of it in the idea that the President is a naïve fool, manipulated by the unscrupulous Gupta brothers for a few pieces of silver.

The second has a Fanonian inflection though its roots lie in developments within ‘Western’ Marxism in the post Second-World War period (Althusser, in particular). In the formulations of negritude, the ‘Black politician’ is a figure produced (as a subject) in relation to whiteness so that he or she is not really able to say anything authentic or original at all. In the work of Achille Mbembe, for example, the postcolonial politician is little more than a zombie: a monstrous figure devoid of life and creativity (Mbembe 2001, p.104). He or she is certaintly not to be taken seriously for his or her political thinking.

The third arises from a reduction of politics to the political economy. An excellent example of this mode of argument is Bayart’s in La politique du ventre. The secret of politics is given by the character of ‘African civilisation’: ex- tensive and itinerant agriculture, reliance on the energy of animals, water and wind, low productivity, poor ability to generate surpluses, weak demographic pressure, spatial mobility and scarcely individualised appropriation of land (Bayart 2009, pp. 34-35). In this context, African politics becomes the extrac- tion of rents through ‘extraversion’—the resources available from positions of power in the State. Politics as a contestation of ideas about how we live together and the institutions that we build to make this possible is secondary to the ‘politics of the belly’.

What these three approaches have in common is the negation of African politics as a sincere relation to ideas and concepts, that is, to fundamental problems of politics per se".

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