The African State: Development and the Common Good

Paulus Zulu | PASS Academician

The African State: Development and the Common Good

Maurice Webb Race Relations Unit, University of Kwa Zulu Natal

1          Introduction

The formation and character of modern African states present more complexities and nuances when compared to states in other parts of the world. The shape and character of the state derive from diverse influences, the colonial heritage, ancestral political traditions and ideological contestations internal and external, particularly of the Cold War, all of which have tampered with the evolutionary processes causing fractured histories and contradictory trajectories. Secondly, while certain commonalities, for instance, “developing, underdeveloped and poor states; or for that matter, failed states” occur with such rapidity in Africa that it becomes almost axiomatic to refer to an African state, huge differences exist. There are variations between Sub-Saharan and North African states in ecological, historical and religious experiences. For instance, while North Africa has a Mediterranean culture and a strong Arab influence, Sub-Saharan Africa does not. What dominates in Sub-Saharan Africa is a post-colonial culture intermingled with traditional cultures, where the colonial dominates in terms of the economy, religion, statehood and governance. However, one common denominator, colonisation, exists in almost all African states. With the exception of Liberia and Ethiopia, all African states or nation-states, whichever the case may be, have experienced colonialism for considerable varying periods, the last being between 1884 and 1957. This gave rise to a specific brand of nationalism almost common among all post-colonial states.

The brand of African nationalism that led to the emancipation of African states from their European colonisers did not create nations, although it succeeded in attaining “liberation”. Therefore, the legitimacy of the nation and the legitimacy of the state were not necessarily coterminous.[1] Amira Kheir contends that the ideology of a nation as the sole natural political formation upon which states are built set the nation-state as the ideal. The African nation-state was thus a creation of contrived national identities first on the European model of states, and secondly upon a contrived nationalism deriving from the nationalism of independence movements. These two processes result from the colonial experience and exclude the precolonial conception of the state. Kheir, therefore, maintains that the post colony represents “arrested development of internal political formations” by colonial powers in the belief that this represented “a model of statehood and political and economic development of post-enlightenment thought”. The result was interference with the natural progression leading to the hindrance of unitary formation of identities creating disparate and competing claims to nationhood.[2]

Mamdani goes beyond the political economy model and historicises the African post-colonial state, particularly the reproduction of racial and ethnic identities through the bifurcated conception of citizen and subject. “The colonial state divided the population into two: races and ethnicities. Each lived in a different legal universe”, with races constituting civil society while ethnics were subjects under customary law. While colonists and other non-natives were citizens and enjoyed rights albeit unequally, natives as subjects of customary law were subjects of “non-circumscribed” power for “custom was enforced”. Besides, “each ethnic group had to have its own law”. By drawing a fundamental distinction between indigenous and non-indigenous persons, and subjecting indigenous persons to customary law, colonial law reinvented ethnicity. This was simply because “In the indirectly-ruled state, there was never a single customary law for all natives. For customary law was not racially specific. It made a horizontal distinction in law, between different ethnic groups. This was not a cultural but a legal distinction”. Above this, rights belonged to non-natives. Therefore, “Nationalism was a struggle of natives to be recognised as a trans-ethnic identity, as a race, as ‘African’, and thus – as a race – to gain admission to the world of rights to civil society which was a short form for civilised society”.[3] This clearly locates the dilemma that the African nation-state was to encounter post-independence, and has continued to the present. Thus, while colonialism did not invent ethnicity, as Bellucci maintains,[4] the formalisation and further, legalisation of ethnicity rendered ethnic sentiments more salient thus entrenching new identities which were to create problems for the independent nation-states. The consequence is that most African states still experience challenges experienced by pre-state formations, ethnicity, religious conflicts, social and political strife arising from inequalities and inequity in the distribution of resources across regions and social strata within the state.

There is almost consensus that the raison d’être for European colonialism in Africa was to exploit the vast natural resources that Africa as a continent possessed. However, despite the much-vaunted natural resources, more states in Africa rely on donor funding, or loans from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), than is the case with those considered socially and economically independent. Economically emasculated, and politically compromised, the African state plunged into political and economic demise especially in the face of economic progress in the contemporary international or global economy. For instance, as reflected in the Human Development Index (HDI), the most advanced state in Africa, the Seychelles, has an HDI of 0,797 and occupies the 62nd position in the world, while the least developed, Niger, lies at position 189 in the world with an HDI of 0,354. Of the 53 states in Africa, 19 reflect an HDI of under .50 while only 13 have an HDI above 60.[5]

On top of this are claims that besides experiencing some of the healthiest annual growth rates following the great depression of 2008, “Sub-Saharan Africa remains one of the most unequal regions globally”.[6] The publication lists “the limited distributive capacity of the state, which often manifests in the ‘natural resource curse’ the urban bias of public policy, and ethnic and gender inequalities among the three basic drivers of inequality”.[7] Fonchingong cites Edigheji as attributing Africa’s development predicament to “the institutional nature and institutional perspective of the African state since independence that account for the continent’s poor social and economic performance”.[8]

Since independence, starting from the early 1960s the African nation-state has experienced vicious cycles of instability, poverty and sustained underdevelopment, rendering analysts to refer to the African nation-state as a fragile construction. Commenting on the political fragility of African states, Barka and Ncube attest that the period between 1960 and 2012 witnessed over 200 military coups d’état with 45% of them being successful and resulting in a change of government. They aver that, “Of the 51 African states selected in our sample, only 10 countries have never experienced a coup d’état”.[9] Remarkably, all the non-fragile states by this measure are in the top 20 positions in Africa with regard to the Human Development Index with six – Mauritius, Tunisia, Botswana, South Africa, Egypt and Morocco, in that order – sitting in the top ten positions. Only Malawi, n. 36 and Eritrea, n. 43 have HDI indices of below .50. The authors proceed to state that in the past 52 years 80% of African states have experienced at least one coup or failed coup attempt, and 61% have suffered several military coups ranging from two to ten in number”.[10] This locates the African state in a very tenuous position regarding development, an attribute axiomatic in attaining universal destination of the goods of the earth. Admittedly, the African state in the context of modern nation-states is of recent origin. However, notwithstanding its maturity, the position calls for a close look at the conditions that militate against peace and stability and development in the African nation-state.

Theoretical Framework

This paper examines the role of the African state, and particularly the nation-state in development, where the level of development is functional to the state’s capacity to effect universal access to the common good. The paper makes a distinction between the state and the nation-state maintaining that only a politico-legal requirement is necessary for the formation of the state, whereas in the nation-state, affective feelings of identity with and belongingness to the legal entity are a precondition for its sustainability. A homogeneous political culture, at least, with regard to the political system and the state’s capacity to deliver services to its constituencies, is necessary to avoid citizen alienation from the state and its programmes. On the contrary, contending institutional cultures and the state’s performance may militate against the sharing of a common vision of the state, what Sandel calls “an animating vision of the good society and the shared values of citizenship”.

The theoretical position taken in this paper is that the state’s ability to deliver the common good is a function of its organizational integration or social cohesiveness. Added to this is the level of socio economic development in the state. Integration reduces the number of competing demands on the state thus enabling the state to focus on the key issues facing government as the principal allocator and distributor of goods and services that constitute the national wellness of citizens. Numerous competing demands arising from the diverse elements constituting the state, where diversity evokes negative or competing conceptions of the other, impede social and economic development in the state, thus depriving the state of the very requirement for effective performance. This constitutes a vicious cycle, which in turn increases the state’s dependence or sectional forces. Thus, racial, ethnic and religious competitiveness to name a few, have consistently weakened the state’s capacity as the various segments vie for hegemony.

2          Historical Perspective

The African nation-state has undergone a radical metamorphosis shaped by changes in the mode of production from a subsistence non-monetary precolonial economy with limited trade in some regions to a commercial internationalised economy, and finally to a global capitalist economy. The greatest catalyst to these changes was European expansion culminating in the creation of new state boundaries, encompassing new polities and a new state administration predicated on the European system. The evolution of the African nation-state took phases, each determined by changes in political relations between the indigenous system and the colonial power and later by the resulting politico-economic positions within the states themselves. The predicament of the African state in development falls within these evolutionary forces.

2.1      The Pre-Colonial State

While there are contending versions of African nation-states pre-colonialism, what appears to be the common narrative is that despite differences in form and magnitude, the organizational and social relations were hierarchical, hence, “they acknowledged social divisions” and “were aware of the mechanisms of domination and exploitation”.[11] While ‘patriotic’ authors paint a picture of communal egalitarianism mainly because of the social system that encouraged exchanges of gifts, this paper concurs with Bellucci in observing that “In gift economies of segmented, little stratified societies, the giver assumes superiority in relation to the receiver”.[12] The Nguni society in South Africa is a case in point, where it was common practice for relatively well-to-do individuals to provide economic support to the poor to create own wealth through the practice of stock sharing (ukusisela), where a cow was availed as a loan to a stockless person. This was to enable the poor to raise their own stock, on a provision that every alternative calf born to the cow becomes the recipient’s property. While the benefactor demanded no fealty, relations between benefactor and beneficiary were never those of equals. Social and political organisation in pre-colonial states was, therefore, hardly expressive of an egalitarian society.

Religious symbolism and mythology were principal instruments of controlling and maintaining social organisation, and so was ritual. Similar to most agrarian or land-dependent pre-industrial societies, rulers believed in their divine ordainment, and wielded inordinate power over their communities. It was no surprise, therefore, that colonialism exploited both military superiority and elite collaboration to effect its mission. The view that Africans had no state formation but rather lived as loosely organised collectivities of clans and tribes is a misplaced observation. Bellucci, quoting Dizon, maintains that, “If we were to make a distinction between one type or another, the number of African states that have a separate political organisation {the empires, kingdoms, city states, chieftainships, or sultanates} would certainly be greater than that of societies considered to be without a state”.[13]

2.2 The Exploitative Colonial State

Explaining the problematique of the nation-state in Africa, Lloyd Sachikonye asserts “In the African context, the nation-state with a few exceptions derives a great deal of its territorial integrity from the colonial boundaries carved out arbitrarily in the 19th century”.[14] European colonial powers decided, based on their economic interests, to allocate unto themselves chunks of African territory at the Treaty of Berlin in 1884. Thus, on the stroke of the pen, new geo-political entities came into existence, with boundaries that took little account of the social, political and economic relationships of the indigenous nations that they were to colonise. In some instances, some populations were split across two or more territorial states. The modern African state is, therefore, both artificial and culturally diverse. Above all, economic and not socio-cultural imperatives predicated the geo-political and legal arrangements.

The articulation of the means of production and consequently the social wellness of colonial subjects contradicted the logic of the common good, with two production systems: the subsistence form for the indigenous people, and the capitalist form for the colonists. This arrangement ensured that the subsistence form subsidised the capitalist form for the benefit of the metropolitan power, where wage labour for the native populations became the operational norm. Bellucci articulates this position very aptly, “Access to a cheap labour force means that capitalism, through maintenance of domestic society, has at hand mechanisms of extracting a maximum from workers while paying wages below their real value. This is because the labour force, when not employed, ‘productively’ by capital, assumes tasks within domestic society”.[15]

Because accountability in the colonial state was to the metropolitan power and not to the local populace, a culture of democratic accommodation of the native populations did not exist. However, because of the hierarchical organisation of the pre-colonial state itself, this absence of accountability affected the indigenous elites more than it did affect the ordinary populace who remained subjects as before, without the existential experiences of citizenship. Admittedly, the system of production in the pre-colonial era had masked the power relations as, by nature, subsistence production is devoid of relations of exploitation. Further, in the absence of a monetary economy, occasional services to the indigenous elites operated more as ritual within a culture of the divine right of rulers than as ‘forced’ labour. Partly, this historical existential experience accounted for mass acquiescence in the oppressive and exploitative culture of the colonial state. On the contrary, the elite resented exclusion from the benefits of colonial exploitation, hence early resistance to the colonial state found expression in elite-led liberation movements seeking elite inclusion into the colonial state rather than agitating for the transformation of the entire system. The elite did not seek a change to or a destruction of the boundaries of the colonial state; they sought inclusion into state power. It was only after the Second World War, and essentially the promulgation of the Atlantic Charter of 1941, that the demand for self-determination gained traction.

The colonial state was, therefore, an enigma with contradictory trajectories on the political psyche of colonial subjects, particularly the elite. On the one hand, “the territorial and state frameworks established, notwithstanding their arbitrary nature, were of undeniable symbolic efficacy, and were accepted by the colonised population. Thus, isolated nationalities – Angolan, Senegalese, Mozambicans, and Malinese etc. – became references of identity for those peoples and for others”.[16] On the other, the emergence of African nationalism within colonial boundaries was the unintended consequence of the administrative juridical system created by the same colonial state. The emergent nationalisms transcended the original groupings and organised themselves along the lines of the ‘administrative ethnographic’ state. Besides the contradictory political trajectories, the developmental trajectory was equally problematic. Economists contend that investment in African colonies, by metropolitan colonial powers, especially Britain, France and Belgium, grew after the Second World War. However, political economists such as Bellucci, Cogneau, Dupraz and Mesple-Somps[17] maintain that this sponsored development facilitated the sale of more goods from the metropolitan markets, thus turning African colonies into consumers of goods from European markets while the exploitative relations remained intact. Thus, when the colonial state ended, in a wave of independence by African states at the beginning of the 1960s, the fundamental contradictions were still in existence, and most were to remain. The western legal framework co-existed simultaneously with traditional cultural norms. Furthermore, the hierarchical system remained intact with indigenous elites replacing their erstwhile colonial counterparts, making the post-colonial state not less authoritarian than its predecessor had been.

3.3      The Independent Developmental State

It is axiomatic that the modern African nation-state takes its logic from the European nation-state mode of a geo-political legal entity predicated on the notion of a common allegiance to the constitution existing simultaneously with affective feelings of belongingness. Olukushu and Laakso articulate this construction aptly, “At independence African governments set themselves the task of undertaking a vigorous process of nation-building with the aim of welding their multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-cultural, and multi-religious countries into one nation”.[18] Naturally, driven from one cultural model, the emergent nation-state could only assume a unitary nature. Whereas, the economic logic of the industrial revolution brought about the evolution of the nation-state in Europe, the African nation-state was to rely on the political logic to integrate the diverse elements that constituted it. Subsequent developments were to demonstrate the problematic of forging together diverse nationalities based on a contrived citizenship construed by outsiders whose sole purpose was to extract resources for their benefits, and cobbled together by indigenous elites whose appetite for modern grandeur had been whetted in the process.

The liberation honeymoon, together with the unifying ideologies from the top – Ujamaa socialism in Tanzania, authenticité from the Congo, Harambe in Kenya, and variants of socialism in Ghana and Guinea to name a few – together with the economic boom following liberation kept the nation-state intact for some time during the 1960s to the beginning of the 1970s. Further, leaders of the liberation honeymoon commanded reverence among the masses grateful for uhuru. In pursuing the nation-state project, the post-independent elite sought an equivalent of the European industrial revolution as catalyst, and embarked upon a vigorous social and economic “modernisation’ programme to ‘secularise’ society”.[19] The hope was that the programme would weaken ethnic sentiments and generate new identities and new affiliations. One of the most vexing questions on the integrity of the African state has been how to maintain the balance between imposed colonial boundaries that defied the empirical logic of nationalism on the one hand and depend on the erstwhile coloniser on the other, and simultaneously embark on a decolonisation programme. Practically, the ruling elite changed names, maintained the constitutional legal status quo, including the social relations between rulers and the governed, and attempted to drive a developmental project predicated on either the capitalist or socialist model.

All these demanded strong governments, in the words of Bellucci, “led by a single party or in thrall of a great leader with the capacity to conduct large-scale projects funded by English, French, Belgian, Italian, Soviet and Chinese resources among others.[20] At the social level, leaders of the newly formed nation-states resorted to nationalism, discouraging ethnic sentiments and yet relying on ethnic manoeuvres to maintain power, in a sense ‘recycling and reinventing’ societies within their colonial contexts” (Ibid). This was the modernisation thrust deemed as a catalyst to nation building, yet the reality could not have been more contradictory. Modernisation brought about a crisis inherent in the nature of colonial or ex colonial society precipitating the collapse of the developmental state. Internally, the states had scant capacity to sustain developmental projects, inability to manage the technologies applied, corruption in government and heavy reliance on foreign models, while externally global economic conditions imposed themselves on dependant immature economies. Further, articulating the subsistence economic model into a capitalist model imposed its own limitations.

Consequences of these developments were that the new states started to reverse the gains made at independence, with the result that the multi-party political framework collapsed, giving in to one party domination and the rise of authoritarianism. Socially, nepotism, clientelism, and corruption rose on the pretext that political pluralism encouraged cultural divisiveness and was, therefore, anti-nation-state. The consequence was that the legitimacy of the state started to diminish creating a vacuum, which further encouraged authoritarianism, in turn inviting more challenges to the state. With authoritarianism came fragility in the state followed by instability. For instance, of the coups d’état alluded to at the beginning of this paper, 67 successful and 74 attempted fell in the period 1960 to 1990. Besides capacity problems, which weighed on the state’s capability to deliver the requisite goods and services, the quality of governance, economic performance, the standards of living, respect for human rights and the degree of liberalisation and integration within the region, deteriorated. Ideological influences arising from competitive positions in the Cold War aggravated the situation. African states became pawns of both superpowers in the political divide. “The bipolar struggle between competing ideologies during the Cold War era heightened political tensions and scaled up military conflicts in newly independent African states”.[21]

Particularly, the economic collapse triggered by sharp downward price fluctuations in raw materials leading to diminishing terms of trade in African primary commodity exports, a rise in substitute products particularly affecting African minerals, the oil shocks of the 1970s – all of these leading to a balance of payment deficits – finally precipitated the debt crisis. Internationally, an ideological decline in Keynesian welfarism, together with the globalisation of the economy, led to a change in the policies of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. A new ideology of market and political liberalisation gained sway, leading to the imposition of structural adjustment programmes as a precondition to foreign aid and access to financial assistance by the two institutions. The failure of the socialist experiment in the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc countries strengthened the use of aid as leverage to liberalise African and other developing states both economically and politically.

3. 4     A Liberalised State

Dominant thinking in the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund was that economic and political liberalisation would facilitate the emergence and growth of an African bourgeoisie disciplined to the ways of the market and thus to genuine development. Laakso and Olukoshi refer to this as the “retrenchment” of the state.[22] Laakso contends that the Cold War had a great impact on the retrenchment of the African state. “Those who favoured liberal democracy paid little theoretical attention to the state because for them ‘the less the state the better’ was an ideologically given premise, and ‘the left assumed that the state was an instrument of oppression that had ultimately to be done away with’”.[23] This conversion of thinking together with the inherent fear of diversity, particularly ethnocentrism inherent in the colonial cobbling of the African nation-state, led to superficial research projects on the nation-state, and a failure to recognise that the crisis of the nation-state project lay in the constitution of the project itself.[24] The liberalisation of the African nation-state has not had the envisaged success beyond the holding of multi-party elections. Not much development has been realised as evidenced in the Human Development Indices of a majority of African countries, together with the Gini Co-efficient, almost thirty years from inception of the Structural Adjustment Programmes.

Democratic accountability, the cornerstone of democracy, still lags far behind in a majority of African nation-states, and further, the nation-state has not materialised except in very few instances such as in Botswana and Swaziland, both of which are, incidentally, mono-ethnic. Even in these cases, Swaziland is an authoritarian monarchy with hardly an enjoyment of civil liberties by its citizenry. In a number of states – Zimbabwe, Kenya, Cote d’Ivoire, Uganda, to name just a few – local opposition to the governing elite has been brutally suppressed, despite holding so- called “free and fair” elections. Even within countries that subscribe to the constitutionality of the state. as is the case in South Africa, Botswana and Namibia, for instance, there are glaring shortcomings in political accountability, as ruling political parties and leaders in government behave more like traditional monarchies than the elected officials they are meant to be. Conspicuous consumption by the political elite defies the liberation logic, and as the appetite grows with the eating so does corruption in the state, in turn exacerbating the deprivation among the poor, as resources intended for social upliftment end in the illegal coffers of the ruling elite and their associates.

4          The African Nation-State and Development

Development is, by its very nature, an evolutionary process that may take even centuries to mature. It entails not only development in the economy leading to the acquisition of material artefacts, but also includes a maturity in spiritual, intellectual, social and political culture leading to value consensus on the essence of humanity. The rapid globalisation of the world is probably Africa’s demise regarding problems that confront the African nation-state, particularly the psychological dimension. Developmental problems confronting the African nation-state, for instance, are not very different from those confronting developing Latin American or South East Asian nation-states. However, the social factors. including the experiences in the three regions. have not been identical. The “contemporary factor”, i.e. the simultaneous co-existence of universal elites in power, impresses on African elites, especially governing elites, that, as equals to their contemporaries in developed states, they are entitled to the same material trappings. As fellow president, the president of an African state feels materially equal to the presidents of an American or European state despite the inequalities in the material bases. State power thus becomes the avenue to material possessions, whereupon elites exploit any possible power base to prop them up to state power. Therefore, whatever problems African states have, the politics of incumbency mars the situation and thus exacerbates them.

To remain in power, incumbent African political elites have exploited pre-liberation sentiments such as ethnicity, regionalism and religion, the very sentiments they had sought to eradicate in the nation-state project, prompting labels such as nepotistic, clientilist, and other sectionalist references to accompany descriptions of the African state. The result of these mechanisms has been large-scale elite corruption, which has militated strongly against development, because corrupt regimes cannot deliver on the social contract. While such strategies keep the elite in power, they become mechanisms of social closure and are massively divisive. They hardly promote sentiments of belongingness among the outsiders and are anti-nation-state building. However, political incumbents do not only manipulate pre-liberation sentiments, they also use the power of incumbency to frustrate opposition to their quest for longevity. Olukoshi and Laakso refer to the tendency by African political incumbents to manipulate or postpone the entire political transition and refer to countries such as Cote d’Ivoire, Gabon, Chad, Cameroon, Zimbabwe, Zaire and Zambia where incumbent politicians did everything to frustrate or manipulate the holding of multi-party elections. They continue, “Not surprisingly, cynicism and apathy on the part of the voters has become a major dilemma confronting the political elite”.

[25] Further, because of poor education and overall underdevelopment in the electorate, political constituencies are vulnerable to exploitation by political entrepreneurs.


Earlier we alluded to the multi-ethnic and multi-religious base of the African state. Add to this the uneven pace of colonialism among the various ethnic segments within the cobbled nation-state. We can thus conclude that while Africa has political legal geographical entities as states, a vast majority of these are not nation-states. What exists are diverse multi-cultural and multi-ethnic aggregates sharing a common geographical space, united by a recent common history and paying allegiance to a political legal entity called the state. Components of these aggregates may share some or all elements of belongingness depending upon circumstance. For instance, some may share a common language, a common religion or for that matter, a common descent from some far-placed ancestry. Whatever the case may be, strong affective bonds exist among the membership. This is not to say that these attributes are dysfunctional to the nation-state, but rather to say that they represent the existential, and if appropriated discerningly, they constitute the building blocks of the nation-state. Hence Olukoshi and Laakso assert that, “ethnic identity and religious consciousness can, and do many times, carry important mental and aesthetic loads which give dignity to people and communities and that need a public space in which to be expressed in a context where space was previously denied”.[26]

The politicisation of identities has its roots in the belief by earlier protagonists of African nationalism that colonial powers had created ethnic and religious differences in an effort to divide and rule. Bellucci suggests, “The Europeans did not create ethnicity, though they did invent certain tribes and names that had not formerly existed”, and maintains that this created “an administrative and ethnographic state which gave its name and character to the native population”.[27] Paradoxically, ambitious African political elites utilise the same constructions as bases of support in order to attain their entrepreneurial objectives. The consequences of both actors, European colonisers and African political elites have had devastating effects on the populations such as, for instance, was the case with the Tutsis and the Hutus.

3.5     Reconstituting the Nation-State Project.

There is a recognition, especially among the intellectual elite in Africa, and to a less extent among the political elite as well, that Africa’s problems of development, and by inference, the unity of humankind and the universal destination of the goods of the earth, lie in the refusal by successive African regimes to embrace human diversity. Mandela’s conception of South Africa as a rainbow nation was an acknowledgement of union in diversity although it was short-lived, as the paragraphs below will demonstrate. Bellucci posits, “There are substantial characteristics of the African States … which, though at the root of their weaknesses, belie the idea that they are artificial constructs. Such historical experiences explain why, to date, neither secessionist movements nor the creation of new States have prospered”. Despite historical weaknesses since independence, maintains Bellucci, “the nation-state, however configured, has not been eclipsed”.[28] Such a recognition points to the tenacity of the African nation-state as presently constituted in spite of the problems it faces. This brings in the problematique in this paper. Is the nation-state a precondition for the common good and if so, what central attributes should it possess? Perhaps an answer to this question lies in an appraisal of the South African “nation-state” which is one of the most unchallenged in terms of composition, despite the diversity in its constituent parts. Among African states, South Africa, Botswana, Seychelles, Namibia and Mauritius are acknowledged democracies that have delivered, some however moderately, on the social contract. The choice of South Africa is that among others, it is the most multi-cultural and has a complex history that renders the formation of a nation-state very problematic.

3.6      The Case of South Africa

South Africa, despite its colonial span lasting for over three centuries, was the last African state to gain independence from an internal colonial power whose origins lay in Europe. South Africa attained its independence in 1994 when the African National Congress (ANC), the oldest African liberation movement, came into power and has continuously governed the country since then. South Africa’s demographics reflect a cultural mosaic of 56 million people with four major population groupings comprising 79.2% indigenous Africans, 8.92% Coloureds, 8.86% Whites and 2.49% Indians.[29] The racial classification is significant in understanding and explaining the national question and the political-cultural configurations regarding the nature and dynamics of the nation-state. Secondly, racial classification does not necessarily imply social cohesion within race as further segmentation, for instance ethnicity and language, exists within race. For instance, within the White race are the English and the Afrikaners as the main language groupings, while Africans have two main language groups, the Nguni and the Sotho, and two minor variants, the Tsonga and the Venda. Nor are Indian and Coloured groupings monolithic, as they too have a number of constituent variants. The Nguni have four major sub-groupings, while the Sotho have three. This is what makes South Africa a multicultural state. There is definitely a common allegiance to a politico-legal entity judging by the fact that neither have there been challenges to the state nor attempts at secession.

At the political level, the Constitution, anchored around a Bill of Rights, and a number of institutional checks and balances, appears to be the rallying point around which a common South Africanism exists, while socially the various segments, ethnic and racial, are very salient. Parallel to this, material circumstances have created economic segments rendering South Africa a class society with a Gini Coefficient varying between 0,67 and 0,70, making it the most unequal society in the world. Recognising the disparate constituents that comprise the South African state, Mandela created an ideological rallying point, the “Rainbow Nation”, reflecting unity in diversity. Leading personally and morally by example and in the spirit of creating an egalitarian society, and consequently a common citizenry, Mandela, for instance, even intervened when members of the national legislature did dare to raise issues of an increase in the salaries of parliamentarians. His rationale was that there was much poverty in the population to warrant showing restraint from wanting increased payments by the political elite. Such was the determination to create a nation-state that the national anthem had to reflect this unity in diversity. The anthem is multilingual, with the first section in the Nguni language drawn from the original hymn, which the ANC had adopted as an anthem long before liberation, and the second section in the Sotho language. The third is in Afrikaans drawn from the previous anthem, which the National Party government had adopted as the South African anthem on breaking away from the British Commonwealth; and the final section is in English. The new nation-state adopted eleven official languages, nine indigenous and two representing the former dominant white languages. However, English has become the most commonly used language of communication and in education across all sections of the population, mainly because of its universal applicability.

Despite the pretensions of a rainbow nation, the allegiance to the Constitution, a common economy and the use of the English language across all sectors of the population, and a relatively healthy educational attainment (94.4% described as literate by age 15), South Africa remains socially and economically a deeply divided society, and hardly a nation. Residentially, over 80% of rural residents are of indigenous African descent, and a majority of them are poor. Racial residential separation is also the norm among the urban population, with townships and shack settlements entirely black and poorly endowed with resources and amenities, while urban suburbs present the opposite picture. Subsequent to liberation in 1994, well-to-do Africans, mostly professionals and businesspersons, moved out of the townships to formerly white suburbs. This triggered a movement by wealthy whites into newly built expensive suburbs further from the Central Business District. However, with the legal abolition of separate residential areas, wealthy Africans followed into the newly created expensive suburbs thereby introducing a strong class character on top of race into suburban sociology. Massive shopping malls grew around the new wealthy suburbs, and although the poor are not barred from patronising them, the economics of consumption excludes them from these new endowments.

On top of the hierarchical residential configurations, social services are equally hierarchical. For instance, despite pretensions of universal education, school organisation is along race and class lines. Private schools and upper-class state schools are in suburbs or distant boarding schools and inordinately expensive, rendering education an exclusive class commodity. Well-to-do Africans have moved their children away from township and rural schools into city or town suburbs to Model C schools (formerly used by white children). Discrepancies in performance are glaring, with private and upper-class state schools demonstrating the superior qualities of an exclusive education while township and rural schools linger in the administrative and resource limbo, as well as a poor work ethic from teachers. Privatisation of opportunity does not end with education. Despite a universal health policy, performance of health institutions predicated upon economic capacity has privatised the provision of health. Unionism has aggravated the position as in an attempt to demonstrate the freedom of organisation, the South African constitution entrenched the right of workers to organise. South Africa has a very poor service ethos, and trade unions have taken advantage of this, demanding shorter working hours, breaks at work and using worker power to intimidate management. The result is a very poor work ethic in the public sector. Poor service in state health institutions has driven better-off South Africans into private health care. Endowed with medical aid services, better-off segments of the population patronise private health care services leaving the poor to endure challenging services in state health institutions. Literally, what makes South Africans less restive if not non-revolutionary is the privatisation of life that wealth purchases, and the illusion of freedom following the demise of apartheid.

While South Africa displays stability in government and shows no challenges to the integrity of the state, in its legal form, there are serious problems of accountability of the government to the electorate. The hubris of the African National Congress as the party in government has exacerbated the situation. Political and government systems are rife with corruption, nepotism and cronyism, resulting in poor delivery of services as corruption and ineptitude syphon much-needed funds for development and improvement in the quality of lives of the citizenry. So rife is corruption that presently a Judicial Commission of Enquiry into State Capture (a term that arose from attempts to reposition state-owned enterprises to benefit individuals in the ruling party), chaired by the Deputy Chief Justice, is conducting hearings into the malady. Simultaneously, two other judicial commissions have been created, one probing corruption in use of the Public Pension Fund, and the other investigating the suitability of two senior employees of the National Prosecuting Authority, the South African equivalent of the Attorney General, to continue occupying their positions, despite accusations of political partisanship in carrying out their legal duties.

The South African nation-state project contains contradictions showing both positives and negatives. Indeed a generalised feeling of South Africanism exists across all strata of the population. Yet, clear divisions exist across race and class and are visible in residential patterns, education, health, and a huge Gini co-efficient despite a strong state security system, which has alleviated poverty and created a sense of dignity among the poor. Inequity is pervasive across race and class lines in spite of policies such as Black Economic Empowerment, a version of mainstream nationalism, if white capitalism was not part of its conception, which equates economic indigenisation with emancipation, co-opting a segment of the African elite through preferential treatment when tendering for services to the state. Even the private sector has to observe the Black Economic Empowerment Code when purchasing services from private bidders or employing individuals into senior positions in their enterprises. In this way, it hopes to bridge the historical economic gap between the races. Mamdani alludes to the resolve by mainstream African nationalists to “reproduce the customary as the authentic tradition of Africa” in the hope to privilege indigenous over nonindigenous citizens.[30] Black Economic Empowerment was a product of thinking by white capital encouraged by this streak of African nationalism. This, however, brought in a twist that generated serious contradictions in the post-apartheid state and created conflicting identities.

Captured by the ambitious elites, Black Economic Empowerment has alienated both black and white citizens: the blacks because it has empowered the connected political elite; the whites because they regard it as reverse racism. Further, Black Economic Empowerment has alienated black from black, for instance indigenous Africans from Indians, because they believe that Indians have exploited their classification as black during apartheid and have, therefore, capitalised on the limited advantages accruing from apartheid’s preferential treatment of Indians against indigenous Africans. All this has not only widened the economic chasm between rich and poor blacks, it has also further divided the previously disadvantaged, creating further social stratifications. The question is: what sustains the South African nation-state project?

The transition to democracy ushered in a new political culture in the population, encouraged by a general psychological relaxation, which derived from civil liberties, an effective and democratic judicial system, respect for the rule of law and the hope that participatory democracy would usher in improvements in the quality of lives of citizens. The legal opening up of the system from the closed apartheid system was a great achievement that gave semblance to a nascent nationalism at least at the level of state institutions, while social life showed very little changes. Political affiliations in a multi-party democracy remained expressed in racial cliques as demonstrated in voting patterns at elections, but that was the only recognisable negative as ethnicity had never been a real threat to the politics of opposition, which had assumed power in the transition. United by the desire to co-exist within one state, both blacks and whites, at least, accommodated one another peacefully. There has not been a threat of civil war along race or ethnic lines in the post-apartheid transition.

Proponents of multi-culturalism in the nation-state project posit the creation of a framework to enable free participation by the electorate in decisions affecting their lives, addressing issues like federalism, the promotion of local administration, cultural autonomy, and proportional representation as building blocks of a nation-state. South Africa has all of these with the exception of addressing issues of federalism, which does not appear to be posing any threat to the creation of a nation-state. South Africa has even developed a civic identity expressed in an entitlement culture where citizens believe that the state has the duty to deliver the requisite goods and services befitting citizens. All this augurs well for the acceptance of the nation-state. Notwithstanding these positive affirmations, the South African state is engulfed in protest action such that the media has duped it the protest capital of the world. While protest reflects the democratic right of citizens, the problem lies in the expression. South African protests are notorious for their destructive violence. Protesting groups have burned buildings, including libraries, community halls and even schools; they have gone into hospital wards, overturned incubators in nurseries and ripped intravenous drips off patients’ limbs, and into operating theatres chasing away staff in attendance while patients are under anaesthesia. It is as if a nihilistic culture has overtaken the yearning for democracy before liberation. How to explain these contradictions is a quandary to both psychologists and political scientists.

4          Conclusion

The final question to address is the very existence of the nation-state project. Discussions around the nation-state are not only around sovereignty, they encompass the belief that the nation-state is better positioned to usher in the common good, whereas the state as only a legal entity is not capable of performing at the same level. Reflecting on Africa, the nation-state has been both able and unable to achieve this feat. The general view by most scholars on the African state is that it has failed to achieve the liberation dream of a democratic egalitarian society with civil liberties for all, and that structured inequalities and inequities still prevail. The result is that the African state is conflict-ridden. Hence, Olukoshi and Laakso attest that “these occurrences of violence and conflict derive from racial, religious and ethnic sources and a majority of them are intra- as opposed to inter-state in nature”.[31]

While this is the dominant view, there has been progress, albeit unsatisfactory, in a number of African states, as demonstrated in the above pages. Countries such as Botswana, Mauritius, Namibia, the Seychelles, South Africa, and lately Ruanda have fared relatively better in democracy, eradicating poverty, attaining universal education and affording social security to citizens. These are no mean achievements given where these states come from. Admittedly, there are serious structural inequalities and inequities in the distribution of resources, and therefore in social justice. Where these successes have been realised, the ills cited by Olukoshi and Laakso are either absent or do not exist to threaten the integrity of the state. A vibrant nationalism may not exist in some, or even in all of them, but a tolerance towards multi-culturalism or an acceptance of diversity, as is the case in South Africa, has kept the peace. Indeed, the vision of a shared society and the values of citizenship are still far-fetched in almost all African states, and only exist in name.

Most, if not all, African states have experienced fractured evolutions in the absence of binding natural catalysts, including what Mamdani calls the “politicisation of indigeneity”. The latter, in particular, has emboldened the ruling elite in its nonchalant usurpation of state resources at the expense of the citizenry. That statehood is recent in Africa is a truism, but that the state in its current form is an imposition from outside and not a natural process of evolution is an over-rationalisation. All states in the world are impositions at some historical epoch or another. What renders the African state fragile is, first, that it has not developed the requisite apparatus to generate emotional integrity, because it does not possess the requisite history and, secondly, it has compromised the capacity to deliver the requisite goods and services. The second shortcoming is because the ruling elite, in quest of traditional monarchic tendencies, engages in corruption and authoritarian behaviour to maintain positions of power in the state apparatus. As Mamdani maintains, “Democracy is not just about who governs and how they are chosen. More important it is about how they govern, the institutions through which they govern, and the institutional identities by and through which they organise different categories of citizens”.[32]

Notwithstanding the dominant view of ailing states, the relative quiescence of the masses, especially in the period after the contrived democratisation following the structural adjustment programmes, partly explains the ambiguous position of the African state. The citizenry has not contested the state: what is at issue is how the state administers civil liberties and citizen entitlements. African nationalism was, in essence, a nationalism of the elite, with the masses supporting the leadership as they had always supported the traditional elite. Stated precisely, the absence of revolutionary attempts on the part of the general citizenry to destroy the state is a function of both psychological sentiments and an acknowledgement of the pragmatic role of the state. The nation-state project thus constitutes the hope and promises the dream that tomorrow might, most likely, bring in the promised cargo.

Selected Bibliography

1              Abadayo Olukoshi and Lisa Laakso: 1996: Challenges to the Nation State in Africa. Nordiska Afrikainstitutet.
2              Amira Kheir: 2010: “Why Nation and State is wrong in Africa”. Pambazuka News.
3              Beluce Bellucci: 2010: “The State in Africa”. The Perspective of the World Review: Volume 2 Number 3.
4              Dennis Cogneau, Yannick Dupraz, Sandrine Mesple-Somps: 2018: “African States and development in historical perspective: Colonial Public Finances in British and French West”. PSE Working Papers Nos 2018-29.
5              Fonchingong: 2008: “The State and development in Africa”. African Journal of International Affairs, Vol 8, Nos 1&2: pp. 1-21.
6              Habiba Ben Barka and Mthuli Ncube: 2012: Political Fragility in Africa: Are Military Coups d’Etat a Never-Ending Phenomenon?. African Development Bank.
7               Lisa Laakso: 2012: “Changing Notions of the Nation State and the African Experience: Montesquieu Revisited” in Olukoshi and Laakso: Challenges to the Nation State in Africa: Nordiska Afrikainstitutet.
8               Mahmood Mamdani: 2005: “Political Identity, Citizenship and Ethnicity in Post-Colonial Africa”. Columbia University.
9              Sacikonye Lloyd M.: 2012: “The Nation State Project and Conflict in Zimbabwe” in Olukoshi and Laakso: Challenges to the Nation State in Africa, Nordiska Afrikainstitutet.
10            South African Household Survey 2018. Statistics South Africa.
11             UNDP Regional Bureau for Africa 2018. United Nations Development Programme.
12             UNDP Report: 2018. United Nations Development Programme.


[1] Amira Kheir: 2010: “Why Nation and State is Wrong in Africa”, Pambazuka News.
[2] Kheir: Op. Cit. 2.
[3] Mahmood Mamdani: 2005: “Political Identity, Citizenship and Ethnicity in Post-Colonial Africa”. Columbia University. Page 6.
[4] Beluce Bellucci: 2010: “The State in Africa”. The Perspective of the World Review: Volume 2 Number 3 December.
[5] UNDP Report: 2018.
[6] UNDP Regional Bureau for Africa 2018.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Fonchingong: 2008: “The State and development in Africa”. African Journal of International Affairs. Vol. 8, Nos 1&2, pp. 1-21. Page 2.
[9] Habiba Ben Barka and Mthuli Ncube: 2012: Political Fragility In Africa: Are Military Coups d’Etat a Never-Ending Phenomenon?. African Development Bank.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Bellucci: 2010: Op. Cit. page 15.
[12] Bellucci: 2010: Op. Cit. page 14.
[13] Bellucci: 2010: Op. Cit. page 15.
[14] Sacikonye: 1996 in Olukoshi and Laakso: Op. Cit. page 137.
[15] Bellucci: Op. Cit. page 19.
[16] Bellucci: Op. Cit. page 21.
[17] Cogneau, Dupraz and Mesple-Somps.
[18] Olukoshi, A and Laakso, L: 1996: Challenges to the Nation State in Africa. Nordiska Afrikainstitutet. Page 13.
[19] Olukoshi and Laakso: Op. Cit.
[20] Bellucci: Op. Cit. page 26.
[21] Barka and Ncube: 2012: Op. Cit. page 7.
[22] Olukoshi and Laakso : 2012: Op. Cit.
[23] Lisa Laakso in Olukoshi and Laakso: 2012: Op. Cit. page 40.
[24] Ibid.
[25] Olukushu and Laakso: 2012: Op. Cit.
[26] Olukoshi and Laakso: 2012: Op. Cit.
[27] Bellucci: 2010: Op. Cit. pages 21 and 22.
[28] Ibid.
[29] South African Household Survey 2018.
[30] Mamdani: 2005: Op. Cit.
[31] Olukoshi and Laakso: 2012: Op. Cit. page 7.
[32] Mamdani: 2005: Op. Cit. page 16.