- The Politics of Distinction: African Elites From Colonialism to Liberation in a Namibian Frontier Town by Mattia Fumanti
In The Politics of Distinction, Mattia Fumanti analyzes the intergenerational dialogue among three groups of black elites in Rundu, a booming mid-sized town on northeastern Namibia’s border with Angola. With great ethnographic and theoretical gusto, Fumanti argues that the politics of leadership in northeastern Namibia is based not just on who is wealthy or on the linear passing down of power from seniors to juniors. It also involves the reflections of youthful strivers on the morality and comportment of older generations of leaders in their communities and their scripting of their own lives to meet communally mandated requirements of nomukaro do nongwa (exemplarity), nondunge (wisdom), unongo (goodness), and efumano (respect). Imagining oneself as an elite, and then becoming an elite, is thus an act of intersubjectivity—of putting oneself in the shoes of former and current elite groups and working to act with distinction.
The “present” of Fumanti’s study is around the turn of the twenty-first century, but because he is interested in the way elite status is contested and transferred between generations, the first half of the book delves into the politics and subjectivities of the apartheid colonial period. During the 1970s and ’80s, the older “colonial” elite—traditional and religious authorities, teachers, and businessmen who served on the bantustan Kavango Legislative Council—coexisted uneasily with the younger elite “intelligentsia”—students and teachers, often from privileged backgrounds, who saw education and the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO) as the key to regional advancement and Namibian liberation from South African rule. Fumanti rightly eschews characterizations of the former as “sellouts” in contrast to the latter. He sees the two groups as unified around a dedication to education and the local concept of usimbi—leadership and power [End Page 245] rooted in achievement, goodness, and respect. But while the liberation intelligentsia rose to its current position of authority in postindependence, SWAPO-dominated Namibia, the older elite of the apartheid period receded from the public eye.
Still, the memory of this older elite has remained important to Rundu’s contemporary youth elite: the entry-level civil servants, NGO workers, and part-time entrepreneurs who see the practices of liberation-generation civil servants as corrupt, nepotistic, and ineffective. From this perspective, the SWAPO elite claims a self-evident right to rule based on sacrifices it made during the liberation struggle, but it fails to deliver good governance. On the other hand, the colonial-era generation that served on the Kavango Legislative Council used its connections to the South African regime for local development, opening businesses and establishing bursaries for bright students to study in the capital, Windhoek, or South Africa. In what is perhaps the heart of the book, Fumanti argues that as Rundu’s youth elite prepare to someday take the mantle of the liberation elite’s authority, they look not to the liberation elite in power, but to members of the colonial Kavango “homeland” administration as exemplary leaders. Becoming an elite is thus not simply a matter of imagining oneself in the role of elites currently in power. The gaze of the young men Fumanti befriended in Rundu sweeps back across generations and the divides within those generations. The “moral reasoning” of youth elites thus “create[s] a complex hybrid incorporating the values of liberal democracy, the recognition of skills and accomplishment and the local concept of leadership, usimbi” (28).
Fumanti does not discuss a crucial factor contributing to these “values of liberal democracy,” however—the experiences of northern Namibians in exile, their interactions with SWAPO elites in exile, and the intense international focus before independence on preparing SWAPO to rule Namibia. This omission is significant, since elite Namibians in exile were major participants in the conversations about education, hard work, and the fruits of liberation that have spilled over into...