Q&A with Mahmood Mamdani
Chronic: Your book Define and Rule: Native as Political Identity is a short but fascinating study on the development of key terms in colonial administration, specifically ‘tribe’ and ‘native’. You argue that these terms become important in developing indirect rule and rather than (British) colonialism depending on the strategy known as ‘divide and rule’, it seeks to ‘define and rule’.
Its key feature is the invention of customary law, different from civil law, the former being the regime of administration by which notions of ‘tribe’ and ‘native’ solidifies and by which differences are emphasised. Again, it’s a fascinating read and one can’t do justice to the interesting historical details supporting your arguments in this summary. Could you reiterate what the key points are that you yourself take from this book?
Mahmood Mamdani: The book focuses on two key historical moments, one colonial, the other post-colonial. The colonial moment captures the shift in governance in the aftermath of the wave of anti-colonial resistance that began with the Indian Uprising of 1857. The shift was known as a reform that emphasised downplaying the old ‘civilising mission’ in favour of a regime of ‘law and order’. The difference was as follows: ‘civilising mission’ involved the spread of a rule of law, whereby law was considered synonymous with civil law specifically, or European law broadly; in contrast, the pursuit of ‘law and order’ involved the creation of ‘customary law’ for statutorily defined groups. The statutory definition was sometimes totally arbitrary (as with some ‘tribes’), and at other times took existing notions of difference as its point of departure. At all times, however, it totalised identities, as cultural, legal, administrative and even political. The re-definition reified difference through the force of law, and created administrative systems and units (‘native administration’) that corresponded to these identities (‘religions,’ ‘castes,’ ‘tribes’). Thus, the title, Define and Rule.
Chronic: You single out Julius Nyerere as the one anti- and post-colonial politician who resisted the legacy of British indirect rule – who sought to have law focus on the individual, rather than the complications of customary law which saw the subject as group-bound. Otherwise, to what extent has Africa escaped this legacy, this language by which its people were ruled?
MM: The post-colonial is the second historical focus of the book. Someone reading Mwalimu Nyerere’s parliamentary speeches on the subject is likely to mistake him as a liberal preoccupied with questions of individual freedom vs group identity. He was a liberal but not just that. The problem with understanding him as a liberal is that Nyerere’s preoccupation was not with dismantling group identity as such, but with particular kinds of group identities – customary identities – reproduced through colonial law. Nyerere’s project was not one of eradicating (African) tradition in favour of (Western) modernity. Rather, it sought to craft a modernity out of a historical process that was not only pre-colonial and colonial, but also anti-colonial.
Chronic: Indirect rule, with its division between civil law and customary law also had an impact on land tenure because definitions of ‘tribe’ depended on definitions and demarcations of a ‘homeland’, and vice versa. One imagines that, as there are other colonial legacies that persist following independence, a legacy of customary land tenure practices persist?
MM: Pre-colonial Africa did not have a single form of land tenure that can be labelled ‘customary’. Nor am I aware of places where a form of tenure remained unchanged through time. There is now plenty of research showing that individual forms of tenure existed alongside group forms in many parts of Africa. I cited some of this evidence in Citizen and Subject; I also gave a detailed account of forms of tenure in the Sultanate of Dar Fur in Saviors and Survivors. Colonialism spread two related fictions: that individual forms of tenure did not exist in pre-colonial Africa, and that group tenure was everywhere synonymous with tribally-held land. Both were meant to legitimize the creation of ‘tribal homelands’ where land would be under the authority of ‘customary authorities’.
Chronic: In South Africa, land redistribution is again circulating in public discourse as an area which has been neglected by the post-apartheid government. When it comes to land tenure, what might be the legacy of that split between civil law and customary law in South Africa?
MM: The big question in South Africa, as in all former settler colonies, is the question of settler-held land, historically usurped by settler power and sanctioned by settler law. The project of reconciliation – in my view a worthy project – has been instrumentalised by these beneficiaries of settler colonialism to obscure this history and instead defend their ill-gotten gains as a fundamental right inscribed in the Bill of Rights in the new constitution.
Chronic: How do you view the emergence of political organisations such as the Mombasa Republican Council, which claims to transcend ethnic divisions by uniting through religion? Do these groups challenge the legacy of indirect rule?
MM: I dealt with this question in Citizen and Subject when writing of ethnically-based organisations. My point of view is that we must have a historically informed view on these organisations, whether ethnic or religious or even racial. Ethnicity and religion, like race, have not only been so many forms of power; they have also been forms of resistance to power under historically specific conditions. That understanding needs to be the starting point of any critical analysis.
This piece originally featured in the Chronic (April 2013 edition), available here. Stories range from investigations into the business of moving corpses to the rhetoric of land theft and loss; from latent tensions between Africa’s most powerful nations to the soft power of the biggest satellite television provider; and from the unspoken history of Rushdie’s “word crimes” to the unwritten history of PAGAD. It also investigates crime writing in Nigeria, Kenya and India, takes score of the media’s muted response to the ‘artistry’ of the World’s No1 Test batsman, rocks to the new sound of Zambia’s Copper Belt and tells the story on one man’s mission to take down colonialism’s monumental history.