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Reasonable Radicals and Citizenship in Botswana: The Public Anthropology of Kalanga Elites (review)

From: African Studies Review
Volume 49, Number 1, April 2006
pp. 129-130 | 10.1353/arw.2006.0089

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African Studies Review 49.1 (2006) 129-130

Richard Werbner. Reasonable Radicals and Citizenship in Botswana: The Public Anthropology of Kalanga Elites. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004. x + 254 pp. Photographs. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $60.00. Cloth. $24.95. Paper.

The most recent ethnographyfrom the anthropologist Richard Werbner offers a fascinating account of the state-making practices of elites, and especially minority elites, in Botswana. In explicit contrast to Afro-pessimistic commentaries on the subject, Werbner's book begins with an appeal for examinations of postcolonial wisdom by highlighting the leadership of civil and post-civil servants. Practices of citizenship and processes of democracy are explored in national scandals and controversial presidential commissions that offer enlightenment through ensuing public debates, compromises, and negotiations. Werbner's analysis of Botswana's peaceful and passionate politics focuses on the well-advantaged minority Kalanga, largely in contrast to the majority Tswana.

Werbner composes a powerful narrative, rich in documentation and insight developed from more than forty years of commitment to Botswana. His admiration for and dedication to Botswana's "inner circle" of Kalanga elites is evident throughout the text, most poignantly in the autobiographical moments when he describes how "we matured as friends together" (190). An elder himself, Werbner is in the unique position of partaking of elites' "open" discussions at places like the Notwane Club in Gaborone, as well as other public forums in the capital and in the north. The author's acknowledged partiality for Kalanga perspectives will doubtless generate controversy as Werbner participates in debates about the country's emergent pluralism as well as about the status of public anthropology.

Part 1, "Citizens Negotiating Power," examines several public forums where notions of citizenship have been constituted and contested. From Land Board controversies in the North East District to a real estate scandal in the capital city, Werbner traces a multiplicity of ways that Kalanga have actively participated in both the political and financial development of a pluralist state. Cosmopolitan ethnicity with its "dynamic of transcendence interacting with difference" (63) is a critical component of contemporary struggles over citizenship in Botswana. Werbner describes, for example, how in 2000 the Balopi Commission developed into a wide-ranging and controversial public consultation that assessed constitutional discrimination against minorities, thereby constituting the process of democracy. At times, one must be conversant with Botswana's politics and personalities to follow the energetic discussion toward understanding nuances of front-and back-room negotiations.

Part 2, "The Rise of Public Man," complements discussions of cosmopolitan ethnicity, civil service, and entrepreneurialism with a biography of a Kalanga elder named Gobe Willie Matenge, a "reasonable radical." Through a method of "reflexive unfolding" which incorporates the voices of both Matenge and Werbner, this biography describes the public life of one of Botswana's first generation of top civil servants who has become a key post-civil servant and entrepreneur. While there are many narratives by former colonials or expatriates in Botswana, postcolonial narratives by former civil servants are relatively rare, with the obvious exception of presidents. Werbner's proposal for examinations of postcolonial wisdom crystallizes in Matenge's compelling story of public personhood.

Werbner's criticism of political anthropology for too easily dismissing patriarchy and elderhood reveals his parallel projects to engage the politics of both Botswana and anthropology. In the ethnography, Werbner demands respect for elders, from Botswana and from the discipline, respect for Gobe Willie Matenge, and also for the anthropologist Meyer Fortes. He rightly suggests that elders have much to teach the younger generations. Yet this seminal work of engaged retrospection leaves it to the imagination to question what will come for the next generation of reasonable radicals in a rapidly changing world.

Mieka Ritsema

Yale University
New Haven, Connecticut


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