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How do we write the social history of state formation in a world after the "linguistic turn"? Focusing on South Africa from the nineteenth century to the present, the article explores one facet of state formation as it relates to the issue of sovereignty. The article is especially interested in state formation as a negotiated process, and in the legacies of state formation for the productions of knowledge and in the formation and reformation of ethnic politics. More generally, the article argues for a phenomenologically grounded approach that rethinks the study of power in colonial Africa.