New Books | Voices of Liberation: Archie Mafeje

Bongani Nyoka’s book includes a biography of Archie Mafeje, and a collection of his writings grounded in the search for political freedom and cultural liberation.

Archie Mafeje (1936 – 2007), a significant intellectual, was prevented from teaching in apartheid South Africa and worked at universities in Dar Es Salaam, The Hague and Cairo.

This is a lightly edited excerpt from The Ideology of “Tribalism”, an essay by Mafeje first published in 1971, and republished in Bongani Nyoka’s Voices of Liberation: Archie Mafeje (HSRC Press, 2019).

The ideology of “tribalism”

Few authors have been able to write on Africa without making constant reference to “tribalism”. Could this be the distinguishing feature of the continent? Or is it merely a reflection of the system of perceptions of those who write on Africa, and of their African “converts”? Objective reality is very difficult to disentangle from subjective perception, almost in the same way as concepts in the social sciences are hard to purify of all ideological connotations. Might not African history, written, not by Europeans, but by Africans themselves, have employed different concepts and told a different story? If so, what would have been the theoretical explanation? Are things what they are called, or do they have an existence that is independent of the nomenclature that attaches to them? 

When it comes to Africa, answers vary independently of whether the observer is a liberal idealist, a Marxist materialist or an African “convert”. It is usually argued that social behaviour in Africa is so diverse, so inconsistent and so fluid that it is nigh impossible to classify or treat it with any amount of consistency. I am inclined to think that the problem in Africa is not one of empirically diversified behaviour but mainly one of ideology, and specifically the ideology of “tribalism”.

European colonialism, like any epoch, brought with it certain ways of reconstructing the African reality. It regarded African societies as particularly tribal. This approach produced certain blinkers or ideological predispositions, which made it difficult for those associated with the system to view these societies in any other light. Hence, certain modes of thought among European scholars in Africa and their African counterparts have persisted, despite the many important economic and political changes that have occurred in the continent over the last 75 to 100 years. Therefore, if tribalism is thought of as peculiarly African, then the ideology itself is particularly European in origin.

Anthropological misdirection

In a recent publication, PH Gulliver, perhaps feeling a little guilty about the continued use of the term “tribe”, explains: “We do not continue to use it in any spirit of defiance, let alone of derogation and disparagement. We use it simply because it continues to be widely used in East Africa itself when English is spoken … among the citizens … there.” The justification is repeated in at least three other places, but it raises several questions. Are things necessarily what they are called? Secondly, to what extent are social scientists bound by the terminology of the natives? Again, is it not significant that the term occurs when English is spoken? In South Africa, the indigenous population has no word for “tribe”; only for “nation”, “clan” and “lineage” and, traditionally, people were identified by territory – “Whose [which chief’s] land do you come from?”

In many instances, the colonial authorities helped to create the things called “tribes”, in the sense of political communities. This process coincided with and was helped along by the anthropologists’ preoccupation with “tribes”. This provided the material as well as the ideological base of what is now called “tribalism”. Is it surprising then that the modern African, who is a product of colonialism, speaks the same language? If that is a great puzzle to the modern social scientist, it was not to Marx, who in 1845 wrote: “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas: ie, the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of production at its disposal has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it.”

The Anglo-Saxon anthropologists and sociologists in their usual mild manner refer to “pace-setters” or “reference groups”. For some time, and despite the changes that were taking place, most British anthropologists maintained their interest in the study of “pure” tribes, ignoring any 20th-century innovations in these societies. At best, they regarded these as intrusions, both undesirable and peripheral to the real life of the people. This was in harmony with the theories of indirect rule, as advocated by Lord Lugard and Sir Donald Cameron. As is acknowledged now, indirect rule had very direct economic and political implications. African societies were being drawn into a complex of extractive economic and political relations, the effect of which could not be ignored even by the most tribal-fixated anthropologist. In fact, the liberal sentiment of most anthropologists was touched and they began to lament the ensuing “disintegration” of traditional African societies, the loss of their pristine “equilibrium and cohesion”; they viewed with horror and some concern the “degradation of the African ethic”.

The changing perspective

This represented the turning-point for most anthropologists; the situation was not as static as they had supposed. From 1945 onwards, a few anthropologists such as the Wilsons, R Firth, R Redfield and Audrey Richards began to talk about “social change”. By 1959, Max Gluckman could afford to say boldly: “The tradition of anthropology is still ‘tribalistic’, and with it goes a tendency to make the tribe and the tribesman the starting-point of analysis.” However, as is shown by his later work, Gluckman himself has never abandoned that tradition. Meanwhile, the basis for the discussion on what we were to mean by “tribe” or “tribalism” had been provided in 1956, when JC Mitchell published a study, which is now regarded as a classic among anthropologists, The Kalela Dance. This was, according to popular terminology, a tribal dance performed by tribesmen in the Copperbelt. Mitchell, undaunted, came to the startling conclusions that, far from being an expression of tribalism, the Kalela dance was an expression of social differentiation and prestige ranking in town, and that “tribalism” in town, though not in the rural areas, was merely a “category of interaction”. 

This revelation had a dramatic effect on anthropologists, few of whom would thereafter undertake an urban study without repeating the new formula: “urban is different from rural tribalism”. That continues to be the standard anthropological formula. 

[But] an anthropologist betrays himself when he offers “tribal institutions and values” as the explanation for the failure of Africans to embrace modernity. Here, the anthropologist proves to be a self-contradictory incrementalist, and he cannot argue otherwise because his organic conception of social structure and institutions commits him irrevocably. While anthropologists use their tribal ideology to explain both successes and failures in modernisation, political scientists of all persuasions use theirs to explain only failures. 

As a result they talk more consistently and conveniently than anthropologists about problems of “integration”, “penetration” and “mobilisation”. However, conceptually, they have greater problems than the anthropologists. First, despite their “tribal” language, they know far less about tribes than anthropologists. Secondly, the same “tribal” language makes it difficult for them to explain similar phenomena elsewhere in the modern world without falling victim to [an] ethnocentric ideology. The anthropologists can easily escape a similar fate because their professional preoccupation has always been the study of “tribes” or “primitive societies”. Of course, even that is not true any more. 

The conceptual problem restated

So far, I have merely stated and illustrated my case. I have not proved it. The real basic question is whether it is possible to have “tribalism” without tribes. But how do we test for the existence of tribes? Classical anthropology depicted tribes as “self-contained, autonomous communities practising subsistence economy with no or limited external trade”. But in 1940, M Fortes and EE Evans-Pritchard introduced the distinction between “centralised states” and “stateless” or “acephalous” societies; since then, anthropologists have had problems in deciding whether all African polities were tribes, or whether some of them qualified for the more respectable epithet, “state”.

Scale seemed to matter, but anthropologists were satisfied to refer to bigger multi-tribal units such as the Luapula Kingdom of Kazembe in Central Africa, Tshaka’s Zulu Empire in South Africa and the Ashanti Confederacy in West Africa, as “super-tribes”. In 1956, I Schapera took it upon himself to clear up some of the confusion and to restate the anthropologist’s position. He presented tribes as “separate ‘political communities’, each claiming exclusive rights to a given territory and managing its affairs independently of external control”. All said and done, territoriality, primitive government through elders and chiefs, and a primitive subsistence economy emerge as the primary features which distinguish a tribe from other forms of human organisation. 

“Culture” was never mentioned as one of these until the arrival of the “modernisation” crusade in the work of political scientists and pluralist sociologists such as MG Smith and JC Mitchell. It is therefore very instructive to note that in 1969, Gulliver defines a tribe as “any group of people which is distinguished by its members and by others, on the basis of cultural-regional criteria”. We thus see that “tribe” is now a matter of subjective perception, as if to say: “That is how the natives see and describe it”.

Although their reasons are suspect, anthropologists may have been right in insisting that traditional or pre-colonial African societies, large or small, were tribes. If we were to restrict the term “tribe” to specific forms of economic, political and social organisation that can be fixed in space and time, as I intend to, we would not be wallowing in such utter confusion and incredible inconsistencies. 

A relatively undifferentiated society, practising a primitive subsistence economy and enjoying local autonomy, can legitimately be designated as a tribe. When such a society strives to maintain its basic structure and local autonomy, even under changed economic and political conditions, perhaps it can be said to exhibit “tribalism”. 

But to impose the same concept on societies that have been effectively penetrated by European colonialism, that have been successfully drawn into a capitalist money economy and a world market, is a serious transgression. The new division of labour, the new modes of production, and the system of distribution of material goods and political power give modern African societies a fundamentally different material and social base. It is apparent then that it is not a question of scale, but rather a question of qualitative aspects of social and economic organisation. This is not to deny the existence of tribal ideology and sentiment in Africa.

The argument is that they have to be understood – and conceptualised – differently under modern conditions. There is a real difference between the man who, on behalf of his tribe, strives to maintain its traditional integrity and autonomy, and the man who invokes tribal ideology in order to maintain a power position, not in the tribal area, but in the modern capital city, and whose ultimate aim is to undermine and exploit the supposed tribesmen. The fact that it works, as is often pointed out by tribal ideologists, is no proof that “tribes” or “tribalism” exist in any objective sense. If anything, it is a mark of false consciousness on the part of the supposed tribesmen, who subscribe to an ideology that is inconsistent with their material base and therefore unwittingly respond to the call for their own exploitation. On the part of the new African elite, it is a ploy or distortion they use to conceal their exploitative role. It is an ideology in the original Marxist sense and they share it with their European fellow ideologists.

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