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  • Am I an ex-slave?: African political theory and the politics of representation
  • Kate Manzo (bio)
Achille Mbembe (2001) On the Postcolony (Berkeley and LA: University of California Press).
Celestin Monga (1996) The Anthropology of Anger: Civil Society and Democracy in Africa (Boulder and London: Lynne Rienner Publishers).

“The object of this book has been to see if, in answer to the question ‘Who are you in the world?’ the African of this century could say without qualification, ‘I am an ex-slave.’”

— Achille Mbembe


Mbembe’s provocative statement poses a central problem of African political theory: the “ex-slave.” A figure for the foreclosure of autonomous political subjectivity under colonial domination, and for the repetition of that foreclosure in postcolonial forms of governance, the “ex-slave” situates African political theory squarely in the field of the postcolonial. Thus, as these two books demonstrate, African political theory poses at once a political challenge to representations of ‘Africa’ and a theoretical challenge to the parameters of political thought as it is defined in the Western academy.

This essay argues that the significance of African political theory is twofold. Firstly, African political theory compels a re-reading of the African continent by bringing economics into politics and politics into popular culture. Part one shows how African political theory addresses the problem of “freedom from servitude and the possibility of an autonomous African subject1 by bringing economic concepts, questions and theories to bear on theoretical questions about the state and power. At the same time — as demonstrated in part two — African political theory addresses the problem of development by bringing post-colonial theory into development studies debates about the state, civil society, and international institutions.

Secondly (related to the above, and as shown in part three), African political theory challenges reductionist paradigms and colonial stereotypes.2 Postcolonial analysis of the politics of representation (including questions about continuity and change, time and subjectivity, subjection and discipline, and power and liberation) suggests that dominant representations of Africa remain rooted in colonial images and, more generally, in faulty paradigms of change and development. Uncomfortable questions are thereby raised not only about the nature of postcolonial Africa, but also about the character and quality of academic theorising.

In conclusion, the essay reflects on the wider lessons of African political theory. The basic proposition is that the items under review — for all their differences — are books about power and knowledge and not simply books about Africa. These books are therefore as much about ‘us’ (academic theorists) as they are about African peoples.

I. Concepts and arguments in African political theory

Mbembe and Monga are bound together by their determination to challenge conventional readings of Africa as well as by a mutual commitment to liberation. Although they share this postcolonial concern with the politics of representation, their orientations to politics differ. Whereas Mbembe is an international political economist — or globalisation theorist, in contemporary parlance — who begins from an analytic concern with the transformation of power, Monga (an economist by profession) uses economic theories of public goods and collective action to theorise politics.

Violence and conviviality

The central assumption of On the Postcolony is that postcolonial Africa “cannot be conceptualised outside a world that is, so to speak, globalised.” Mbembe describes the African present as an “age and space of raw life.” The postcolony is characterised as “a place and time of half-death — or, if one prefers, half-life.”3 Africa is said to have moved back into a “vegetal” and unhappy temporality, where Africans can expect nothing from the future except suffering and death.4

A defining feature of contemporary Africa, for Mbembe, is violence. Public or state violence is expressed in a variety of ways — as armed force and warfare, intimidation (including sexual harassment and brutality), imprisonment and torture, and public executions and killing. Change is neither positive nor progressive, signalled as it is by a general rise in violence and by a growing privatisation and decentralisation of state violence. Negative or regressive change is further indicated by the development of an ‘underground’ economy, where illicit or informal trade in drugs, arms trafficking, and money laundering is enabled by typically violent methods of extortion, extraction...

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