In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • From the national question to the social question
  • Thandika Mkandawire (bio)


Let me first thank the Harold Wolpe Trust for inviting me to give this lecture in honour of a man whom I have held in the highest esteem. I never met Harold Wolpe but, like many members of my generation, I knew of his Scarlet Pimpernel escapades not as a rescuer of the aristocracy but as a champion of the downtrodden, his deep commitment to liberation, and his prodigious and rigorous intellectual work. I do not know what he would think about what I will be saying, but the underlying theme of my paper – the tensions between race and class, between vertical and horizontal inequalities, between the “national” and “social” questions – would be familiar terrain for him, and one that he addressed with greater rigour than I am able to.

I am aware that the questions I am addressing are old-fashioned. Nationalism and its questions do not enjoy as much favourable attention as they did four decades ago. Civil wars, genocides and “ethnic cleansing”, the gross mismanagement of national affairs by erstwhile national heroes and the weakening of the capacity of the nation-state have conspired to tarnish severely the image of nationalism. In addition, cosmopolitan ideologies, the emergence of new transnational actors and new social movements suggest that nationalism and the movements it inspired belong to museums, if not in the dustbins of history. We have been told that concerns relating to the “national question” have been replaced by “discourses” on such weighty issues as transnationalism, borderlands, globalisation, ethnoscapes, [End Page 130] diversity, diasporas, marginality and even “rainbows”. Some argue that even the very idea of posing the “national” or “social” questions is wrongheaded ab initio because: (a) it is premised on the enlightenment ideas of progress and other associated totalising meta-narratives that deny diversity, difference, contingency, etc; (b) it essentialises social categories by attributing to them or posing to them questions they are presumably predestined to ask; and (c) finally since nationalism was “invented” or “imagined” and was thus highly contingent and unpredictable, it did not warrant much attention beyond its deconstruction.

I hold a different view and find much of this scholarship, with both its feet firmly off the ground, aloof, cynical and patronising. By its cynicism, such scholarship tends to occlude political economy and, a fortiori, does not help in mapping the way forward. I am therefore relieved to see these questions occupy pride of place in the seminars and conferences thus far held in honour of Harold Wolpe. “One factor behind my choice of this topic a . . .” gathering in South Africa is the alarming despondency that one detects in the literature on the country. For years, many observers of Africa have been afflicted by Afro-pessimism, captured, for example, by the title of Martin Meredith’s journalistic account of the post-independence saga: The Fate of Africa: from the hopes of freedom to the heart of despair (2005). The “heart of darkness” has transmogrified into the “heart of despair”. I somehow felt the disease was spreading fast towards the south, especially to South Africa. This is captured in a more academic vein by John Saul whose cris de coeur is poignant in this respect:

A tragedy is being enacted in South Africa, as much a metaphor for our times as Rwanda and Yugoslavia and, even if not so immediately searing of the spirit, it is perhaps a more revealing one. For in the teeth of high expectations arising from the successful struggle against a malignant apartheid state, a very large percentage of the population – among them many of the most desperately poor in the world – are being sacrificed on the altar of the neo-liberal logic of global capitalism.

(Saul 2001:1)

A number of other publications have made the same point.

Because of the failure of African nationalism even on its own terms and its mystification in official historiography, there is a whole literature deconstructing and demystifying nationalist struggles. This is of course a useful exercise, especially if it also happens to be well-informed – which it rarely is. I am not a historian, but from what I have read...