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Anthropological Quarterly 76.3 (2003) 485-495

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In the Eye of the Storm:
The State and Non-Violence in Southern Africa (Botswana)

Jacqueline S. Solway
Trent University

In February 2002, while visiting our students and local partners in the Trent University International Development Studies year abroad programme, I gave a talk at the Institute for Policy Alternatives (Tamale, Northern Ghana) on aspects of my current research. 1 I focused on the dilemmas posed by attempts on the part of liberal states to recognize the moral and political basis of both collectivities and individuals as rights bearing agents. How, in such instances, can a balance be forged between the needs for state stability and integrity on the one hand and the recognition and claims of groups—specifically "minorities" or subnational groups—on the other? I illustrated the talk with examples from my research on Botswana where politicized ethnicity, minority rights, the institution of chieftaincy, and constitutional reform all impact upon citizenship and entitlement and are currently arenas of intense contestation.

The audience consisted of local scholars, development and policy officials, local government and "traditional" authorities, and Canadian and Ghanaian students. After the talk, instead of questions, I got silence. Eventually, an intrepid student asked a question and a few others followed. But, after the formal talk, during the reception and in the darkness of the [End Page 485] courtyard, numerous people came up to me. Most told me how my talk had spoken directly to them, touched their hearts, and how the issues were utterly central to circumstances in Ghana, especially in the north. A few men told me of how they had barely escaped with their lives in earlier disputes, one described how his home had been a way station during previous conflicts, others told me of tragedies that had befallen friends and associates in the recent past. They said they wanted to speak with me but not in the public context; it was too risky, they were frightened, and could only speak outside in the corners and shadows.

A month later the Dagbani chief (the head of the second largest chieftaincy in Ghana next to the Ashanti) was beheaded in a succession dispute. Rioting broke out in the streets of the chiefly capital and spilled over into the streets of Tamale (approximately 80 kms. to the west), where I had given my talk. We evacuated students from the most dangerous areas, assembled them in a central location, kept in close contact with the Canadian High Commission, and had all students safely in the capital a few days later.

These events affirmed what had often been brought to my attention—that I work in the Disneyland of Africa or something close to it. Botswana is no utopia but it is a country noted for its singular lack of violence in a region (Southern Africa) in which virtually every other country has witnessed severe instances of acute violence in the post-colonial era and on a continent scarred by some of the most intractable and horrific violent episodes (although Africa is certainly and painfully is not alone on this front).

Given the centrality of violence in representations of Africa, perhaps it is worth taking a closer look at the conditions of non-violence. In particular, I will focus on violence (or its absence) in relation to politicized ethnic consciousness and the material and cultural struggles that surround it. Admittedly, my task is a simple one compared to attempts to explain acute or direct violence (c.f. Salmi 1993).

As anthropologists, we are skilled at providing persuasive explanations and descriptions of structural violence—the condition of compounded deprivation, demoralization, and poverty. We have encountered, depicted, and analysed systemic material and symbolic degradation and suffering, especially that of marginalized groups. The people we often study, unfortunately, are subject to this structural violence and our tools of analysis are sophisticated; Marxist political economy, practice theory, studies of the politics of recognition, and so on provide potent means of understanding the combined suffering that many people endure. [End Page...


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