From the Archive | The communalist palaver

The practice of carving out spaces where any person may speak critically about communal affairs and leaders allows communities to remain classless, evenly governed and accountable.

Ernest Wamba dia Wamba is an academic and political theorist. He was the leader of the Rally for Congolese Democracy during the second Congo War and is an expert on African democracy. He wrote this article shortly after being detained for a year for being in possession of “subversive” documents.

This is an edited excerpt from Experiences of Democracy in Africa: Reflections on Practices of Communalist Palaver as a Method of Resolving Contradictions, which originally appeared in Philosophy and Social Action XI (3) in 1985.

Democracy, from the point of view of the ruling class, is a project of founding and refounding (ie legitimatising) class rule, and not that of strengthening community solidarity against the very basis of the strength of the class rule, namely the absence of independent (from that class rule) forms of organisation of community solidarity. It is also a way of resolving differences among members of the ruling class.

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The question of popular democracy is basically geared towards the development and reinforcement of an organic solidarity link that ultimately transforms the class-antagonism-divided society into a real classless and stateless community. The people’s conception of democracy is in line with people’s historical struggles for and towards the classless and stateless community. It aims at harassing imperialist-based bourgeois representative power that does not come from the large masses of people. Historical experiences of that movement, centred around the people’s mastering of contradictions among the people, have to be the starting point from which to examine the process of development of people’s capacity for popular democracy.

It is in this spirit that I want to reflect on a specific experience, that of the “lineage or community” palaver as I experienced it in my region of origin among the Kongo-speaking people.

The palaver

As I experienced it, as it was practiced in our village communities, the palaver is a community method and practice to resolve contradictions among the people, to strengthen organic mutual links of solidarity among all the members of the community (clan, lineage, village, etc).

The palaver is not very often well understood. Colonialist anthropologists (organic intellectuals of colonialism) and leaders of neocolonial Africa and their organic intellectuals have spread or created too much confusion on the question; they have made the infallibility of the leader as the core of the so-called “Africanity”– the specificity of the African cultural heritage. They went as far as claiming that democracy is unAfrican – to ideologically legitimise, and secure the reproduction of, their power. Power, so it is claimed, in its “traditional African conception” was based on the worshipping of the leader – who derived his or her power from the ancestors, to worship the ancestors was also to worship their representative in the community. This, of course, has often been the dominant ideology of the aristocratic class rule. Our new pharaohs very rarely speak of the palaver; when they do, it is implied that only the leader palavers himself or herself in front of the people’s crowd, whose only role is restricted to that of applauding hysterically. When the leader has spoken, the sacred words, ancestrally revealed to him or her, become the law.

Cleaning up

As an organisational form of a generalised organic community criticism and self-criticism, the palaver has never been a useless verbal disputation or a form of generalised anarchy, as it is claimed by all sorts of oppressors and dictators. As a kind of community strike, one day the entire community rises up and emerges on the “historical” scene. It demands, and must be given all rights to speak – to shout out “all it has on its chest”. Women, men, children; old and young people; everybody speaks on all matters pertaining to the community’s life. The palaver takes form as a thorough process of “spiritual” cleaning up of the community’s “house” (oikos) – including its most remote corners (ie, individual and collective unconscious), collectively desacralising the community’s taboos, if only temporarily. It is a collective and individual cleaning up of people as community (physically, biologically, anthropologically, sociologically and spiritually).

The palaver appears as a mass bursting of active involvement in matters of the entire community and of “free” or “liberated” (ie, with no taboos, no restrictions, no “diplomacy”, etc) speaking. It is in this sense that the palaver can be assimilated to a communal expression of “mass ideological communism”. At least, in so far as expressive communicability is concerned, in a palaver, the principle is: to each according to one’s spiritual and bodily wants.

Disorder before order

The palaver emerges first of all as a semi-organised or mostly spontaneous form of mass total outrage against experienced restrictive one-sidedness in the community. It asserts the living autonomy of the living humanity, of each individual in the community as well as the cementing organic solidarity of the whole community in its originality, complexity and living (as opposed to artificial) organisability. It asserts the “lifeness” of life in each individual and of the entire community against all the obstacles to its normal flowing.

In the palaver, as a social moment, it is important that major, even very serious, conflicts be resolved and not just be rechanneled elsewhere. Those conflicts, emerging in, and threatening the life and existence of the community qua community, need to be resolved with appropriate methods. That is why the masses of the community rise up and demand that they be integrally heard. No order is destroyed by another order; it is only from disorder that new order may emerge. The palaver thus develops and is practically ended only after those conflicts are positively resolved, ie, after the order which gave rise to them is destroyed.

One hears recited the following sayings attributed to the ancestors: “In the clan, there must be no poor, no rich, no chief, no slaves; they all must be chiefs, all philosophers; they all must sleep and wake up together.” It is because the organic equality between community members is threatened – that is why the palaver demands its reinstallment. As I saw it practiced, the palaver appeared to be a process of mass ideological struggles to prevent the formation and consolidation of classes.

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The palaver requires of and provides to each community member the right to carry out, and the obligation to be subjected to, an integral critique of and by everyone without exception. It inaugurates, if only temporarily, an egalitarian collective dictatorship (communal organic centralism).

The new pharaohs of our independent countries, giving themselves the title of “founding fathers of the independent nation”, will use the theory of the primordial unity at the origin of the community as a key to justify the perpetuation of their dictatorial bureaucratic power (that is claimed to be the reproduction of the old and original community power). The process of unification through struggle is, by them, declared alien to the temple of ancestral authority that the nation’s new architects attempt to build around themselves. Even new mass uprisings, in line with the process of unification through struggle, are said to be fomented from the outside.


In order to make communication easier, in this completely free (sometimes even heated) free-speech carnival of debate, already known specialists, or occasional ones emerging on the spot, of systematised popular wisdom (proverbs, etc), the Nzonzi are called forth. The Nzonzi are literally “speakers”, masters of the clarification of speech. They function as competent handlers of dialectics: they are therefore dialecticians. They can and do make use of rhetoric, but they are not above all rhetoricians. They are very able detectors of the divisive “bad word” – and stimulators of the palaver and they help to assure that it does not degenerate into violent antagonism. They know how to make very severe criticisms without offending or silencing the one criticised: it is crucial that the latter continues to speak. The Nzonzi are thus the cadres of the popular democracy organised through the palaver. There are those who emerge and discover themselves competent Nzonzi through the very dialectics of the palaver.

The collective self-criticism is carried out under the intellectual (dialectical) leadership of the Nzonzi’s who articulate positions and counter-positions in relation to the theoretical, ideological and symbolic requirements of the palaver.

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The elaboration and the classification of theses and counter-arguments make necessary repeated theoretical interventions and collective assessments by stages. It is thus through the palaver that the techniques of theoretical interventions are developed: proverbs, theses – songs, paradoxes (“bimbangumuna”), stories, riddles, allegories and other figures of style, philosophical turns of phrases, all sorts of strategies of clarification, demonstration or questioning, uninterrupted discussion, analogies, brain storming, group therapy, dialectical inquiry, meditation, provocative silence, a sort of spiritual community message to get rid of the spiritual terrorism in the community.

The democratic demand made by the palaver on everyone is to be simple and clear; for, “wata ngana; bangula ngana; mumbongi a zingana walembana zo bangula wafwila mu zingana” (we say proverbs in order to be clear, to explain: those who have said proverbs to confuse have died because of the confusion they caused).

Out of community crisis

The chief, as leader, intervenes only to sum up the gains made at each stage; this sum-up announces and opens the next stage. At the end, the head intervenes again at the request of the community to summarise clearly the group decision and to reconstruct with the participation of the whole community the procedure and the stages through which the decision was arrived at. The community’s decision, the ultimate outcome of this whole spiritual community massage, is announced and expressed by a general consensus often in the form of a statement-song (chanson-these). It goes without saying that the process of the palaver can be very long indeed, but it is only the thorough carrying out and final outcome of this process, that is to say, the complete resolution of the contradictions among the people, which guarantees the correct solution to the community crisis.

As one can see: the palaver, besides being an ideological and philosophical struggle organised and carried out communitarily, is also and above all a process of very intense generalised mass education. Not only does the chief have an opportunity to become aware of the various ideas which form the social consciousness and unconsciousness of his people, he also sees more clearly the image which the community has of him and the role which this community assigns to him. (Power comes from the people.) At the same time he has the opportunity to lay before the community the difficulties of his task, his own personal limitations and past errors, etc. The unity of the community is reinforced after the palaver.

At the same time, one must not forget the divided nature of the palaver: according to whether it constitutes a form of development of a mass resistance movement against power within the community, against the formation or consolidation of classes, against tendencies toward division within the community, or whether it is an instrument of domination of power against the people (the palaver as a spectacle organised by power).

The lessons

Let us draw some lessons from the teachings of the palaver as we have tried to analyse it. (1) There cannot be any people’s consensus through silence; the latter is also seen as accomplice, ie, as an obstacle to the process of democratisation. (2) Democracy is first of all a free collective and individual exercise of free speech by everyone and by the whole community. It is a complete freeing, allowed by the democratising community, of one’s whole body, its senses, its gestures, etc, so that no aspect of bodily creativity is fixed or blocked. The integral freeing of the community speaking (la parole communautaire) requires and stimulates the very attentive listening to each other and thus the mutual respect for each other’s right to speak – no matter how insignificant. (3) A true leader is the one who listens tirelessly, attentively and strictly respecting the most insignificant meaning of the community’s spontaneous and diverse speaking before concentrating it into directives. The leader is not the one who silences that speaking. (4) A true cadre, Nzonzi, has as a duty to surmount every obstacle to clarification, democratisation, simplification, creative community spontaneity, integral community spiritual message, people’s grasp of what is new, community life process, etc. That is why the turns of Nzonzis speaking please so much those who participate in the palavering community. They are so constructed as if they were actually made to express the real “intended meaning” by the now unified and revivified community. (“Muanki, nkatia Nzonzi yena!” – He is, indeed, a really true Nzonzi – the participants say.)

Despite all the pompous speeches on the recourse to ancestral traditions, in today’s black Africa, no country, as far as I know, has been able to organise a generalised free discussion to collectively deal with the profound crisis of politico-socio-economic institutions of our countries. Leaders behave here as if they made no mistakes and thus are above criticism; and the people as a whole have nothing to teach the leader, who knows everything. (This is often experienced as leaders behaving as if they were, in fact, above the constitution and the law.)

To govern has become to silence the governed.

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