Mahmood Mamdani on equal citizen and 1994 transition

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Ugandan academic Professor Mahmood Mamdani. Picture: Getty Images
Ugandan academic Professor Mahmood Mamdani. Picture: Getty Images


Internationally renowned Ugandan academic Professor Mahmood Mamdani has explored South Africa’s troubles with corruption and offered possible explanations for why politicians keep being returned to power, despite being implicated in graft.

Currently a professor of anthropology, political science and African studies at Columbia University in New York in the US, Mamdani spoke to City Press after delivering the OR Tambo Foundation Memorial Lecture on Wednesday night.

In 2008, he was voted the world’s ninth top public intellectual.

Asked why the population complained about corruption, but – in every election – continued to vote for corrupt candidates, Mamdani said that, over time, people might come to accept corruption as a way of life for those in public service.

“One possible answer is that the devil you know is better than the one you don’t know. But some people in society may themselves become corrupted in that process, in the sense that they could begin to believe it’s completely natural that public office should be used as a way to enrich oneself, and that there’s nothing new or unusual about it. They start assuming that the concept of people in public office needing to live a modest life is a utopian idea,” said Mamdani.

After City Press highlighted the multibillion-rand personal protective equipment looting that took place during the national lockdown, Mamdani pointed out that the release of funds through “emergency” procurement measures obviated the need to comply with normal practices of procurement and most likely played a key role in the corruption.

“Corruption is a global problem and people have become conscious that emergencies like a pandemic are timely opportunities for corruption. An emergency is seen as a reason not to practise democracy because time is short. You have to rush and do what has to be done. You don’t ask questions so that you do not lose time. It’s like a state of war: we’ll lose lives if we stop to ask questions. There’s no time for questions, only for action.”

Mamdani warned that as soon as somebody presented action and deliberation as two alternatives, one needed to be suspicious, because action had no point without deliberation.

“Say one of my parents is very sick and the surgeon comes to see them. I ask him for a diagnosis and he tells me there’s no time for a diagnosis. I’d say I called the wrong person here, because diagnosis is the most important part of treatment. You first need to find out what’s wrong. So emergencies shouldn’t be reasons to do away with all measures put in place to ensure accountability. On the contrary, an emergency is a reason to increase watchfulness and accountability,” he explained.

If the transition to democracy has truly failed in any respect, it’s in terms of detribalisation.

He suggested that South Africa should use the Covid-19 looting experience to put accountability structures in place that would ensure that the next emergency did not lead to a free-for-all for those in power.

The thrust of Mamdani’s lecture was highlighting where South Africa’s 1994 transition had fallen short, which he identified as the failure to “detribalise”, a phenomenon he said was the reason behind xenophobia.

“The political revolution failed to transform the local state – the former Bantustan – created on the basis of tribal identity as a homeland of a particular tribe from which all other people not seen as indigenous are excluded from enjoying rights, especially the right to land.

Read: The longer the governing ANC is in power, the bleaker the prospects for growth

“The violence in South Africa is called xenophobic, but it isn’t truly xenophobic because it isn’t against all non-South Africans. It’s only against particular kinds of non-South Africans. It’s against those who’re seen as being racially the same as South Africans, but who are strangers tribally. This violence won’t stop without political reform because it incentivises those who benefit from the present state structure in the Bantustans. It gives them incentive to look the other way when violence occurs.”

Mamdani said South Africa had succeeded in defeating one pillar of “settler domination” – race – but had fallen short on the other one – tribe.

“Tribe has been naturalised and is presumed to be part of the timelessness of African culture,” he said.

“If the transition to democracy has truly failed in any respect, it’s in terms of detribalisation. The transition didn’t succeed in reforming the local state organised around tribe as a political identity. Although the Constitution abolished Bantustans as political structures, it sanctioned apartheid-created customary law. Anyone can own property outside Bantustans, but not anyone can own property inside them.”

It’s important to keep the political compact together to ensure that the struggle for redistribution doesn’t unravel the political revolution.
Professor Mahmood Mamdani

Regarding solutions, Mamdani said South Africa needed equal citizenship – a single set of rights for all citizens, regardless of their colour, race, gender or tribe.

“There should be no different categories of citizenship, as there are in the US, where native Americans don’t have the same kind of citizenship as everyone else.”

Mamdani said that correcting this situation in South Africa would require major political mobilisation and raising political consciousness about why it was important. Coalition-building would also be necessary.

He said serious political work was needed to engage young, militant people who believed that the 1994 transition had not delivered much for black South Africans.

“This is a crucial question and the baby shouldn’t be thrown out with the bathwater. If you argue that nothing was achieved in 1994, then you have no way of explaining what 1994 did achieve. Why did the National Party, the seat of white apartheid power, agree to political reform which would give the universal right to vote? They were literally signing their own death warrants.

“Of course, they did so not because they were happy to sign [their power away], but because they were forced to sign it away by two forces. These were the mobilisation that was building up against them outside the white community, as well as the realisation among the white community that if they didn’t reform, they might end up with either a revolution or a complete dismantling of the political structure – revolution or anarchy.”

Mamdani said that, while he was sympathetic to the view that social justice should have been an important part of the post-apartheid agenda, he was not particularly sympathetic to the view that social justice could have been achieved in 1994, because what took place then was not a social revolution, but a political one.

Read: Powerful black people should use their power for eliminating inequality

Regarding persistent economic inequality, Mamdani said the political coalition to push for redistribution in the country was too weak.

“The first task is building that coalition. The second task is unveiling and delegitimising those who ignore the question of redistribution and are unsympathetic towards it. However, it’s important to keep the political compact together to ensure that the struggle for redistribution doesn’t unravel the political revolution.”

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