Sharp Read | Towards a new and better nation state

Ugandan academic Mahmood Mamdani argues for a new approach to national identity that does not pit settlers against natives or minorities against majorities.

Mahmood Mamdani’s new book, Neither Settler Nor Native: The Making and Unmaking of Permanent Minorities (Wits University Press, 2020), is a densely packed study of the modern nation state that proposes a shift away from what one might call narrow identity politics. In it, he argues that a new kind of state needs to be created that moves from the idea of majority versus minority – and in (post)colonial states from the categories of “native” versus “settler” – towards a new emphasis.   

The creation of the modern nation state can be traced back to two key events: the start of Spanish colonisation of the Americas (from 1492 onwards) and the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia. The former process created the idea of settler versus native, and arguably shifted existing medieval antisemitism into a mode of systemic racism that Europe meted out to colonised peoples.

The latter created in the European consciousness the idea of a nation state comprising cultural-religious majorities and minorities. These identities have shaped modernity and, Mamdani argues, need to be replaced with a new approach that focuses on an inclusive citizenship of common belonging in the place where one lives. 

Undated: The cover of Mahmood Mamdani’s Neither Settler Nor Native: The Making and Unmaking of Permanent Minorities. (Image supplied)

Mamdani structures his argument around five case studies: United States’ policy on those he calls American Indians; the failed de-Nazification programme at Nuremberg; South Africa’s transition; the continuing crisis in South Sudan; and the endless conflict in Israel and Palestine. The sequence seems to follow the conventions of a five-act play: exposition and build-up leading to a climax (South Africa) and then a denouement. 

It was in the US that the pattern of settler versus native took its modern shape. The American Indians – a term which Mamdani uses, it would seem, because the currently more conventional term Native Americans seems to emphasise the distinction he is trying to challenge – were violently displaced from their lands by the European settlers, and by racist legislation were marginalised from mainstream political life. 

The creation of “reservations” and “special” jurisdictions further alienated them from US democracy, making them a permanent minority. Significantly, this policy was subsequently investigated and applied by states like Nazi Germany and South Africa. The Nazis developed this into their “Jewish policy”, which culminated in the Holocaust. South Africa developed homeland policies and consciously played up notions of ‘tribe’ to maintain white rule.

Failure of the Nuremberg trials

The fall of Nazism after World War II culminated in the International Military Tribunal held in Nuremberg. Rather than de-Nazify Germany, Mamdani contends, the tribunal swept it under the carpet because the model used – crime and punishment – reduced the process to prosecuting war crimes rather than facing up to why Nazism happened. 

As such, it failed (like the US) to understand the political meaning of the genocide: “Both [the US and Germany] have, for the most part, denounced genocide as a racist act, but neither has recognised that it was also a productive one, whose outcome is the nation state in which they live. Germans lament the Final Solution without admitting that they live out its success every day in a state where the national majority was effectively severed from the national minority, and the majority elevated as the nation at the expense of the minority.”

By prosecuting war criminals in the main, the effect was the depoliticisation of Nazism. Instead of seeing it as a collective political system of violence against minorities, one following the rationality of the modern nation state to its “logical” conclusion, it was reduced to individual criminal acts. Granted, many Nazis and sympathisers with the regime were removed from their positions of power. But for many this was temporary, a temporariness expedited by the Cold War and the Allies’ emphasis on reconstruction. Essentially, Mamdani seems to be saying, Nazi war crimes were prosecuted but the deeper structural phenomenon of Nazism – the idea of majority versus minority that is at the core of all modern ideas of the nation state – was unexamined. 

21 June 1908: The Tercentenary of the Foundation of Quebec, Canada by Samuel de Champlain, as it appeared on the front page of French newspaper Le Petit Parisien.
(Photograph by Leemage/ Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Paradoxically, the South African case offers for Mamdani an at least partial example of a different way of addressing the problem. With its settler minority rule and a disenfranchised indigenous majority cunningly split up into “minorities” based on ‘tribe’ (almost a demographic mirror image of the US experience), the apartheid state turned from a potential disaster into – at least for a while – a possibility for a new model of state no longer based in the settler-native dichotomy.

He sees the roots of this idea in the revived internal anti-apartheid movement that emerged in the 1970s, coming initially from the student movement, which “moved the locus of struggle from exiled professional revolutionaries and imprisoned fighters to the popular strata in South Africa’s communities – they brought the struggle back home”. 

While the Black Consciousness movement mobilised in Black communities (bringing together those classified then and whom we still call African, Indian and coloured South Africans), a small group of radical white students helped organise trade unions, many of the members of which were migrants from neighbouring countries. The activists also did political work among whites. These disparate movements helped to create, Mamdani argues, a new sense of South Africanness that chipped away at the native-settler divide. 

Born-again survivors

Another key point came in the early 1990s when it was decided to include all people living in South Africa – residents and not just citizens – in the 1994 election. Here he uses the notion that South Africans moved (I would argue temporarily and suspect Mamdani would agree) from the old categories of native and settler to one of survivor: “The postapartheid political system was informed by the assumption that yesterday’s victims and yesterday’s perpetrators had no choice but to live in the same state and that they had the capacity to do so because their political identities can change – in particular, that they have the capacity to forge the new identity of the survivor.

A survivor is anyone who experienced the catastrophe. All must be born again politically … The point is not to avenge the dead but to give the living a second chance.”

But the “second chance” was not, he contends, well served by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The TRC, though it focused on crime and forgiveness (rather than Nuremberg’s punishment), was a mistake. It confused political violence with criminal violence and failed to address the deeper political underpinnings of apartheid. Sadly, too, Mamdani notes, the necessities of getting to a transition that emphasised inclusion weakened the social justice agenda. Similarly, the inclusivity of the election was a once-off. 

Circa 1945: A US tank in front of the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg, Germany, during proceedings at the International Military Tribunal against leading Nazi figures for war crimes. (Photograph by Raymond D’Addario/ Galerie Bilderwelt/ Getty Images)

The last two cases – South Sudan and Israel-Palestine – illustrate for Mamdani the continuing problematic of the modern nation state. Quite clearly he sees South Sudan as politically disastrous, a wrong turn rooted in a British colonial past that created the false dichotomy between “African” South and “Arab” North, worsened by the embrace of the categories by postcolonial Sudan and perpetuated in the secession. 

Regarding Israel and Palestine, Mamdani sees not just the permanent creation of conflict by Israel’s insistence that the country is a Jewish state (thus making Israeli Palestinians a permanent “minority”), but also by the way in which the state has two distinct notions of what being Jewish means – both ethnic and religious. He identifies three phases of Jewish settlement: those who had never left, those who immigrated during the Ottoman and British Mandate period, and those (mostly Ashkenazi) who arrived from Europe when the modern state was created after World War II. 

To further complicate matters, there were the Mizrahi, Arab Jews who on their arrival were compelled to abandon their Arab culture. Ironically, they have become some of the most fanatical religious Zionists. Mamdani notes the failed attempt by Azmi Bishara, a Palestinian member of Israel’s Knesset (parliament), to change the Israeli definition of citizenship either by declaring Palestinians a “national minority” or declaring the country “a state for all its citizens”. The “settler-native” split remains, as in many other countries.

As he brings these case studies to a conclusion, Mamdani observes: “The political effect of colonialism was not limited to the loss of external independence, to the drawing of external borders that demarcated the colony from the outside. More importantly, colonial governance drew borders inside the colony. These boundaries separated races and created homelands for ethnic groups, turning them into administratively demarcated tribes.” 

Decolonising the political

Different forms of colonial and postcolonial states – the US, Israel and Palestine, Sudan and South Sudan, South Africa – are the product of this. Nazi Germany drew on the colonial state to generate its persecution of minorities within. The modern nation state is a legacy of this. It no longer serves a purpose, if indeed it ever had, apart from the colonial ploy to divide and rule. 

The solution, for Mamdani, is “decolonising the political: stripping away the nation, or the ‘tribe’ as nation, as a locus of political identification and commitment”.  What he suggests in its place is a new kind of common political commitment that analyses and seeks to replace the legacy of colonialism, including the violence that still plagues the postcolonial state caused by the perpetuation of such ideas. 

What does one make of all this?

My initial response is to agree with the broad brushstrokes that Mamdani paints. The idea of being a citizen of a state by virtue of simply being there is attractive. Having lived for a number of years in a country where I was not allowed to vote (the US) and in a country where I did not realise that I was actually allowed as a Commonwealth citizen to vote (the United Kingdom), I also feel a strong affinity with an idea that any resident of a country should have all the same rights, including the vote, as “citizens”.

April 1994: On the day of South Africa’s first post-apartheid election, voters stand in long lines outside polling stations waiting to cast their ballots. (Photograph by Peter Turnley/ Corbis/ VCG via Getty Images)

I am also deeply hostile to the idea of identity politics – not least politics rooted in concepts like ‘tribe’ or culture – because if one is honest, everyone has multiple identities. Beyond race, there are things like class (yes, it’s real), profession, world view, religion (or lack of it), and so on. 

I must also admit that I was won over by Mamdani’s use of the 1970s youth and student resistance in South Africa. Based on my research of the period, I am increasingly convinced that – if I may revert to my image of the five-act play – the 1970s was the climax of political anti-apartheid struggle, the last two acts being a denouement leading to 1994. My reading of the situation, based on many studies of the ANC’s exile period and works on Umkhonto weSizwe, suggests that the ANC could not have won without the numerous grassroots social movements and unions that arose in the 1970s and kept up the pressure within. 

Sadly, the ideas of the period – Black Consciousness (Steve Biko et al, drawing on the inclusive Africanism of Robert Sobukwe), participatory democracy (Rick Turner), deep ecumenism of struggle (Allan Boesak, Albert Nolan, Desmond Tutu, Farid Esack) – seem to have been swallowed up into a lip-service “non-racialism” that has declined into at best multiracialism and, worst of all, a struggle mysticism that is used to exonerate the poor governance and theft that affect the impoverished the most.   

A limited paradigm?

Regarding the social and economic struggle against apartheid, the struggle for the social justice that was passed over to get to 1994, we are perhaps in the sequel, muddling up through the second act. Our present political malaise may well be rooted in the fact that too many of the insights into common nationhood and, for want of a better word, non-racialism, were lost somewhere between the final act and the first two acts of our present drama. (Or is it more of a soap opera?)

This raises my greatest question about the book. If I read him correctly (and since this book demands a number of readings to get its nuances, I admit that I may be wrong), Mamdani advances South Africa as what I will call a “limited paradigm case” for getting beyond the native-settler or permanent majority-minority model of the state, though he is by no means uncritical of it. Does he imply that it could – or should – be used in resolving crises in the other countries he examines, notably Israel-Palestine and South Sudan? 

14 February 1987: Palestinian students protest and set fires in the street, prompting Israeli military to arrest some of them. (Photograph by Patrick Rober/ Sygma via Getty Images)

I don’t think so, but I am still left with the uneasy question, perhaps rooted in the (naïve?) hope that at least parts of it might be useful: What more needs to be done to consolidate the advance in the notion of citizenship at which the South African case at least hinted? In particular, how does a country move from broad conflict resolution and transition to a deeper social justice? 

I know Mamdani believes that social justice in South Africa is essential and that in any effective social justice process race in the discourse must be depoliticised. But the discourse of justice in South Africa is heavily racialised, thus re-emphasising the native-settler dynamic Mamdani wants us all to transcend. How exactly do we find a “deracialised” (for want of a better word) language of social justice?

Religion’s inevitable role  

The second question I would like to raise is whether race is the only category that needs to be depoliticised for Mamdani’s project to succeed. A key factor running through many of the case studies in the book, but in my opinion not examined sufficiently, is religion. As one trained in history and theology, I am all too aware of the religious undercurrents that mainly the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) play in all these cases. Many of the majority-minority fault lines described play out on not only ethnic-racial but also religious lines.

To further complicate matters, religions have internal divisions – not simply “denominational”, but also in how they are used to further political agendas. Conservative evangelicalism (US, South Africa), religious Zionism (Israel and Palestine) and various forms of militant Islam (Israel and Palestine, South Sudan) all contain elements that emphasise difference rather than commonality, sometimes setting up permanent majority-minority distinctions, or even have roots in the colonial project. 

Here, once again, Mamdani (or some other author) might see the South African experience of deep struggle ecumenism, a term by which I mean cross-Christian denominational and across-the-lines-of-faith work against apartheid, which emerged in the 1960s and continued until the early 1990s. 

15 March 2021: University of the Witwatersrand students protesting about financial exclusion in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photograph by Sharon Seretlo/ Gallo Images via Getty Images)

But here, too, one must note how in both South Africa and elsewhere, this ecumenism – epitomised by a sense of religious pluralism and working for the common good – has largely retreated into religious self-interest at best, and fundamentalisms at worst, in recent years. If Mamdani sees religion as a factor (and a cursory reading suggests in this book that he does), does he have any ideas how the religious community can contribute to his new idea of the state?  

As with religion, so with the question of gender and sexualities. The same fault lines appear, the same challenges. Without going into details, not least because I presently cannot claim to have sufficient insight to do more than a superficial job, I suspect that gender is another dimension that needs a more comprehensive analysis to build up Mamdani’s core idea of citizenship.    

My final question, a quibble, relates to the inclusion of Nazi Germany in the case studies. While the other countries are more obviously colonial or postcolonial states, Germany doesn’t seem to fit. Except, of course, that it practised the same kind of ethnic nationalism and creation of a minority (or minorities) that the others did, with disastrous results both in terms of the Holocaust and the inadequacy of denazification.  

An important book demands many readings. An initial review – a reading and rereading – can barely scratch. I hope readers will do what I intend: to read it again. 

An important book raises questions. This book raises many, and not least whether we can really be free of the majority-minority and settler-native dichotomies that vex many states. Mamdani proposes that they can be overcome. I want to agree with him. But it is going to take a lot of work, both in theory and practice.

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