After Colonialism

Mahmood Mamdani is currently the Herbert Lehman Professor of anthropology at Columbia University, as well as the Director of the Institute of African Studies there. He is a citizen of Uganda, and most of his career as an academic and activist has been spent in Africa. His first book, The Myth of Population Control, on population control programmes in village India, was one of the first to question the orthodox view of population control in the Third World and has become a classic in the genre. The most recent of his many books, Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism, again deflates myths by pointing to the colonial origins of institutions widely regarded as being essentially traditional.

When Chandana Mathur and Nauman Naqvi went to interview him in his office, he was deeply engrossed in finishing the manuscript for his new book on the Rwandan genocide, its roots and aftermath. He remained good-humored when the batteries failed at the beginning of the interview, and panic descended on the SAMAR representatives. After half an hour of scurrying around 117th and Amsterdam for a new set of batteries, the interview finally got under way.

Chandana: We'd like to begin by asking you about the trajectory of your work. You began by writing about population control; how did you come to write a book which sets up a framework for understanding Africa's experience of colonialism?

Mamdani: Well, my most recent book -- though written in two years -- was really a reflection over the period from 1972, which was the Asian expulsion from Uganda, to the coming of power of the Museveni regime in 1986 and its political reforms (particularly the relationship between the peasants and the state), to the post-Apartheid transition in South Africa. So it really was an attempt to sort of work over my own experiences through that period of about a quarter of a century against the backdrop of changes within the African continent.

Nauman: Why do you emphasize the legacy of colonialism? What is the relevance of this question today for you?

Mamdani: Well the question came to me in two contexts. One is the context of the late 80s: the global context of the break-up of the Soviet bloc, and the local context of the guerrilla struggle coming to power. In the late 80s, the Museveni government came to power in Uganda and basically said, 'Okay, look, we cannot change the economic system, but we can make political changes. What shall we change?' And the response of the political left was basically paralysis, because we had no way of thinking of political reform outside of systemic reform, and particularly economic reform. So that set me thinking about the specifics of political reform, which confronted me with the political system face to face in the period 1986-1988, when I chaired the commission of inquiry on the local government system, which was basically a commission on rural power. And though I had worked in the countryside for about 10 years -- working on peasant movements and the agrarian question and things like that -- this was a very privileged view, because it was a view at a time when things were changing, and things were possible in the popular imagination which had not been possible before. People were willing to say much more and even see much more than they were before, and I realised that at the core of any kind of popular reform project would be a reform of political power as it had crystallized under the colonial period. The institutions of power, particularly the institution of chiefship, that's what I focused on. And of course, once you speak of chiefship, you speak of customary law, customary authority and the whole edifice of custom as it was constructed under colonialism.

Chandana: In the case of India, the political and religious right have begun to advance a critique of colonialism to justify actions like India's decision to go nuclear, the murder of missionaries, the so-called reconversion of non-Hindus, and so on. And given that you've written an account which basically traces Africa's crises today to the colonial past, is there any danger that your critique can be used in this manner by the right?

Mamdani: Oh, there's always the danger. Once you cook something and bring it to the marketplace, there's always a danger that it may be used by a variety of forces. And yet, unless you cook something and bring it to the marketplace, you won't be able to shape the market. I, like others, bring my own wares to a debate and try to influence the terms of that debate.

Chandana: But are there no safeguards in what you've cooked?

Mamdani: Well, you can cook something and hope it will prove nutritious. But as we know, poison is food in excess [laughs].

Nauman: I think what Chandana is driving at here is that could you say something about what in particular distinguishes your critique of colonialism from that of the right?

Mamdani: Well, in my part of the world, the right may not have the kind of critique that the right has where you come from. In my part of the world, the right has bought, lock, stock and barrel, the notion of custom as constructed by colonialism. And to that extent, the colonial project has been extremely successful: it has sold to the colonized its own notion of what was authentic about them, what was trans-historical about them, and what cannot be changed without being violated.

Chandana: What exactly was the notion of custom that was constructed by colonialism?

Mamdani: Well, look: modern colonial power presented itself in astonishingly arrogant terms when it began; in Kipling's phrase, the white man's burden. Colonialism presented itself as some kind of philanthropic, civilizational project, whereby the white race had gone out to civilize the darker races of the world. It was astonishingly arrogant, and at the same time, it was astonishingly naive, in that it painted the colonized with a single brush, and all colonial cultures as backward, to be treated as a tabula rasa, to be erased, and to be supplanted with an assimilationist Westernizing project. This naivete couldn't last long, simply because power was confronted by resistance. And the moment it was confronted by resistance... the strongest of the powers -- those with the greatest longevity historically -- were the first to learn, and that learning had to be analytical: to separate different tendencies among the colonized, different kinds of interests among the colonized, so as to tap colonial agency, the agency of the colonised. And that was the project of indirect rule, that being to clearly sift the authoritarian from the emancipatory tendencies amongst the colonized, and to harness the authoritarian tendency to colonial rule. So to that extent, the project of custom and the customary was never really about identifying which customs were traditional. It was much more about identifying which authority was traditional, and having sanctified a particular authority as traditional, hitching it to the colonial horse.

And that notion of custom, although it purports to be cultural, is not cultural at all. It is actually highly political. It is about a particular notion of power which -- sanctified as customary -- is power that can neither be held accountable, nor can be challenged. And it's a notion of power which is highly patriarchical, both in the sense of age, and in the sense of gender, and renders both juniors and women as rightless, or with minimal rights.

Now, my book was not, of course, about 19th century Asia where this realisation comes. I think it comes partly in Indo-China for the French, and in India for the British, post 1857. I mean, there's no single dividing line, but I think if there is one more important than others, it is probably 1857. At this time, it was brought out in the discussion in the British parliament that it was nonsense to think that this mutiny arose because of the bullets having an outer covering of either beef or pork, because this didn't stop the same troops from biting the same bullets and firing them at the British officers. It only stopped them from firing these at anybody else [laughs].

So it's really the search for allies on the one hand, and on the other hand, the need to disaggregate the colonized, because really, direct rule was based on a single legal universe. That legal universe was of modern law, Western law, imported and changed to suit the circumstances of the place. And within that assimilationist project there were a set of discriminations. So you were discriminated against on the basis of color, on the basis of race. The political consequence of this was to generate a racial consciousness on the part of those who were excluded, who were discriminated against, because when they asked themselves about the basis on which they were excluded, the only answer was race. And so it tended to generate a racialized majority increasingly, and that is what 1857 tended to show -- that this could even blur historically significant lines of division. The legal project of indirect rule was then to disaggregate this racialized majority into a series of minorities. In the African case, this disaggregation was supposed to be ethnic, so that legally there was no longer a single legal universe of modern law, but there were also constructed a series of parallel universes called customary law, each ethnicized, each enforced by an ethnically defined Native Authority, on a population confined to what was claimed to be an ethnic home. So indirect rule produced a dual identity: race became the identity of the colonizers, in a way, and ethnicity became the identity of the population defined as indigenous.

Nauman: In considering the argument that you're making and that you've made in your book, Citizen and Subject, one is struck not by the exceptionality of the African experience of colonialism in this regard, but rather its commonality with other colonial countries, in particular thinking about South Asia. As you're saying yourself, it was precisely from 1857 and events like 1857 -- what the British called "The Great Mutiny" -- that they learnt that the natives had to be governed in the name of their own customs. I was struck by how in British India itself one of the consequences of the process you describe was the emergence of the idea of the "martial races of India," an idea which has had a deep impact on, for example, the institutional character of the Pakistani army, and as a result the Pakistani state itself, which is today really the state of the martial races of India. Specifically, what are the comparable institutions in Africa, in the post-colonial African state?

Mamdani: Look, first of all let me point out that I think there are some important differences -- which is not to deny any resonances -- but there are some important differences. One crucial difference is that in the Indian or South Asian case, customary law was confined to the sphere of personal law. It could not be translated into landholding, because a whole series of land settlements had already taken place -- the zamindari settlement, the ryotwari settlement, etc. -- starting with Bengal, and then in South India. But except, I suspect, in a few places, in what were defined as "tribes" in India, and except in the North-West Frontier also, I think; in these places, it was almost sort of laboratory fashion. I haven't done much work on it, but I suspect that that is where they were hatched and became sort of generalized in the African case. So that in the African case -- unlike in most of South Asia -- you have customary law which is total, which has total reign, whether it's land or personal law, so that the colonized is completely containerized. There is simply no way of breathing outside this universe of customary law. That's the difference. Now, when it comes to martial races, well, of course, look: the Punjabis were the martial races in a sense, the original martial race, because that was the free peasantry, and that's what the British could rely on. Similarly, the martial races of Africa always came from those zones which were not the export zones, those which were not the labor reserves, those which were peripheral to the main import-export economy. And then, of course, you had the necessary regulations about whether it was height or weight, or whatever that tended to fit that particular group.

Chandana: When you were talking about the idea of the civilizing mission of colonialism in the past -- how do you compare that idea with the talk one hears nowadays about fostering development and democracy in the Third World?

Mamdani: Well, I think that unwittingly the civilizing mission had unintended consequences. The fact that we're sitting here is part of the unintended consequences [laughs]. In other words, it may have begun as the West having access to the rest, but it also ended up with the rest having access to the West too. So the present discourse on democracy -- which is slightly different from development, I would say -- is... I tend to see it as a mixed discourse. To the extent that it is a state discourse, (because it's not exclusively a state discourse,) to the extent it is, it's a modern version of the civilizing mission. But it is also a discourse that comes from outside the state and sometimes from those quarters that understand that the democratic struggle in different parts of the world is quite crucial for them too, in terms of outcomes of struggles right at home. And this notion of events boomeranging in different parts of an increasingly interconnected world is not an unusual notion anymore: Vietnam is probably the best known example, or Indo-China more broadly.

Nauman: In Citizen and Subject you also suggest -- in fact, this is an important argument of the book -- that, contrary to common understanding, the apartheid state in South Africa was the general form of the state in Africa. Could you elaborate on this point?

Mamdani: Apartheid followed on the heels of what was known as "segregation" in South African historiography, and "segregation" was the name given to the British colonial state. Actually even before the British colonial state, from the time of the Dutch settlers onwards. "Segregation" was basically predicated on the one hand, on racial segregation, and on the other, on racial domination. It was a colonial state based on direct rule. What was distinct about apartheid was not racial domination -- because racial domination had happened for several centuries in South Africa -- what was distinct was that apartheid parcelled out the countryside between a set of native reserves and native homelands, resurrected native authorities in each of these homelands, sanctified customary law on an ethnic basis in each of the homelands, and gave these authorities the right to enforce this customary law. So my argument was basically that the indirect rule that the British brought to Nigeria and Uganda and Tanzania in the early part of the century, that the French followed up with in Senegal and other colonies as they moved from assimilation to association in the 1920s, and the Belgians in the Congo in the 1930s, and the Portugese in Mozambique in the '40s, that's what happened with apartheid in South Africa. It was basically a clear understanding that simple race-based domination could not continue in the face of resistance, and that a way had to be found to disaggregate the native population into different ethnicities. Now of course, it was rather late in South Africa, because by that time South Africa was already semi-industrialized, over half the population was already living in cities, so it meant taking something like 6-8 million people from the urban areas and forcing them out into the countryside, into so-called "homelands". Instead of putting a damper on struggles, it tended to act as a catalyst, and freed struggles, because the last thing that people were likely to see that kind of compulsion as, was a return to a traditional customary life.

Chandana: I wanted to return to the specific historical context of Uganda. You'd mentioned earlier that the Asian expulsion was one of the things that set you thinking about the nature of the state in Africa. What were the larger questions that this experience raised for you, and how do you feel that they have been resolved within the framework that you've been describing to us?

Mamdani: The large issue that it raised in this kind of a situation is that of the necessary tension between rights and justice. In Uganda, for example, until independence, those who had received favorable racial treatment were people of Asian origin (Uganda never had many white settlers). Indirect rule made a distinction among the colonized, between those who were indigenous and those who were not indigenous. Those not indigenous were not supposed to have any ethnicity, they belonged to races. Ethnicity was said to be a feature only of indigenous peoples. The non-indigenous belonged to races. Races were carriers of civilization, ethnicities were supposed to benefit from civilization being brought to them. Ethnicity was about cultural diversity, race was about civilizational hierarchy, that's how the distinctions went in colonial law.

In that context, even though the immigrants from South Asia were part of the colonized populations, they were considered as races. So even though they were discriminated against in relationship to the British, they were relatively privileged in relationship to the indigenous ethnic groups. To begin with, they could live in towns. They could have access to private property, and then on the basis of private property, to banks. If you were indigenous, you had to live outside town. Even if you came to town on the basis of a permit, you couldn't own private property, not in land. And if you didn't own private property in land, you couldn't get a bank loan or a bank mortgage. You could not enter the trading sphere, or at least you had severe handicaps.

Now, with this kind of a past, the minute you had independence, you immediately had demands that the state must deracialize actively. It must not see itself as a neutral arbiter guaranteeing the equal rights of everybody, but it must actually favor those who have historically been discriminated against. That was one set of demands, that was the demand for justice. There was another set of demands, which came from those who had come from South Asia, who basically said 'We're citizens. And we must have equal rights'. So you had a clash between those calling for rights and those calling for justice. In this situation, the whole citizenship question became extremely politicized. So that you had thousands of people whose citizenship applications were simply not processed, you had a lot of popular demand that there should be no citizenship given out to people of South Asian descent, because people saw citizenship as entitlement. And there was strong opposition to entitlement for those who had been historical beneficiaries in the colonial period. Now this was part of the backdrop to the Asian expulsion of 1972, and of course, that's a question whose resonance went beyond the borders of Uganda. It's immediately relevant to South Africa right now. The same debates are going on in South Africa, the same demand for equal citizenship is coming from South African whites, and the same demand for affirmative action, entitlement, etc., is coming from South African blacks. So there was nothing uniquely Ugandan about that; that was the question that I was referring to. And I guess in the Indian context, the Mandal Commission seems to raise the same kinds of issues.

Nauman: Turning to the international context, in the immediate period after "decolonization", and thinking of relations between different postcolonial regions, there was a great deal of rhetoric about African-Asian solidarity for a couple of decades afterwards. Why didn't that amount to something in the international arena?

Mamdani<@$p>: Look, the basis of African-Asian solidarity was a common enemy, which was colonialism. And to the extent that direct colonial control, or vestiges of direct colonial control remained, wherever they did, the solidarity was evident. So, for example, with South Africa and the ANC, Namibia and SWAPO, there are still very fresh memories of solidarity. To the extent that the colonial period had receded in the background, to that extent, a fresh basis had to be laid for solidarity around more contemporary issues. To some extent, struggles like Vietnam in Indo-China did provide that, up to about 1975. With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, there has been less and less of that possibility. I would say now that events like Iraq, Yugoslavia, whatever different views different states have about each of these instances, there certainly is a common feeling of what American power can do to individual states that offend that power. I would say increasingly some sorts of lessons are being drawn from that, whether it's by the BJP in India, or by the Chinese, or by the North Koreans, whoever.

Chandana: What are the political mobilizations in Africa that seem to hold out most hope?

Mamdani: You're going to ask me about everything now? (laughs)

Chandana: Okay, we'll try and limit this. Do you want to talk about political interventions that you've been involved in?

Mamdani: Political interventions that I have been involved in. Meaning?

Chandana: You know, the political organizations that you've considered worth supporting, groups that you're involved with at the moment.

Mamdani: At the moment, hardly anything. I'm completely out of my depth and out of my territory here (laughs). My political involvements were always very local, completely local. You know, I grew up in Uganda, and went to school there and everything, and finished secondary school the year of independence. The relevance of that is that I was one of the twenty three who benefited from an independence gift that the U.S. government gave to the Uganda government, which were 23 scholarships. I was one of the 23 sent to the U.S. So I ate the fruits of independence, literally. Then I came back in 1972, a fiery militant nationalist, and was expelled as an Asian six months later. I found myself in a refugee camp in London, which I left six months later and went to Tanzania to teach. So from then on, I was actively involved in Ugandan political movements, from 1973 to 1979, against Amin. I returned to Uganda when Amin was overthrown, as everybody else did that I worked with, and stayed on in Uganda. There were different movements by the time Obote was in power. I chose not to go to the countryside, and did years and years of work mainly among railway workers, whether it was adult literacy, or political organizing, or whatever it was. Until 1986-87, after which I began to be more interested in thinking through a lot of issues which I had thought had already been settled. Instead of writing things which I could never put on a c.v. -- underground pamphlets or things with a pen name -- I began to write books, which I'd stopped writing in the '70s. My engagement over the last, I'd say, ten years has been much more intellectual. Still trying to make sense of the world.


This is a good information
I've been interested in this book since I first heard about it. My knowledge of South Africa is limited and I'm looking to learn more. Colonialism has always interested me.

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