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  • Diagnosing African politics*
  • Carlos Lopes (bio)

This lecture honouring Harold Wolpe comes at a time when his contribution is more appreciated than ever before. Although his focus was South Africa his provocative contributions surpassed the country. Wolpe was one of the admired conceptualisers of his generation. By inventing a new radicalism he left his mark on South African scholarship, introduced new approaches to the race question, and infuriated enough to be classified by some as a pariah. Academics that are activists always walk a similar path and indulge in their independence of thought.

When I was ten I saw a telephone for the first time. It was in my native Guinea Bissau where innovations of life took time to say hi. My uncle, who lived in the same street as my family, behind the only hotel in town, called the Grande Hotel, although it only had 20 rooms, was a privileged fellow. He worked at the central post office as a senior staff and therefore could easily justify why he was one of the first to have a telephone. At those times a telephone was one of those bulky thermo-plastic types of machines, with a rotary circle to dial. It had the ten digits but in fact only zero worked. It served to call the operator that made the connection manually.

I marvelled that one could talk without seeing and be heard far way without shouting across. In my innocence I could not relate that instrument with anything but pure joy. However, soon after my father was put in jail by the Portuguese Intelligence police, PIDE: because of his links with terrorism as I was told. This was disturbing news. I still remember that telephone was indeed associated with pure joy, because much later it was through it that we were told he was doing fine, but not much more could be said. [End Page 97]

The telephone revolution, in fact the communication revolution, is closely associated with politics. I have in one generation moved from one level and device to another with a speed that does not have an equivalent in all the previous generations. And this revolution is happening in Africa, in comparative terms, faster than any other region in the world.

Discussing voice, identity, expression of will to exercise of power is now completely different from ever before, thanks to the fact that the six billion cell phones are making us one big family. Families have good and bad behaviour, they enshrine the complexity of the human fabric with its contradictions, assumptions and conquests. Families aspire to have harmony, but by no means automatically get it. That is why they manage their behaviour with beliefs, protocols and acquired habits; in one word, they regulate.

It is said that the most sophisticated form of regulation is democracy. Let us assess the African record in this regard. The trend towards democratic politics in Africa, as elsewhere in the world, has become ubiquitous. Democracy, however imperfect it may be, has assumed the game in town, defining the basis of politics and power, and a means of allocating scarce values in political communities. African politics in both its historical and contemporary dimensions, as Naomi Chazan et al (1999: 6) rightly noted, ‘constitute the microcosm of political forms and contents, experiences and patterns, trends and prospects’.

In their genealogy, countries’ differing experiences and encounters have marked their democratic footprint. Political regimes ranging from multi-party systems to military dictatorships, one-party rule, political monarchies, and sometimes outright political autocracy and tyranny, are familiar to contemporary Africa.

Countries’ records have differed in form and content. The configuration of class and social context, coalition building, alignment and re-alignment of political actors, agencies, and political outcomes, contribute to defy any strict characterisation of African politics. Indeed, some argue that in terms of politics, we should talk about ‘Africas’ and not ‘Africa’ in a monolithic sense.

There is no doubt that comprehending African politics in its historical and contemporary dimensions has kept African scholars busy. They have created narratives, conceptual and theoretical constructions, deconstructions and reconstructions, polemical and ideological debates, and intellectual projections and advocacy that are vast and sometimes overwhelming. The [End Page...


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pp. 97-110
Launched on MUSE
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