August 13, 2010 11 Comments
Before Africa was colonised, the continent was characterised by a large degree of pluralism and flexibility. The continent consisted not of closed reproducing entities, equipped with unique unchanging cultures, but of more fluid units that would readily incorporate outsiders (even whites) into the community as long as they accepted its customs, and where the sense of obligation and solidarity went beyond that of the nuclear family. An example of such inclusiveness were the Xhosa who limited Xhosadom not along ethnic or geographical lines but along political. All persons or groups who accepted the rule of the paramount chief became Xhosa.
Pre-colonial African societies were of a highly varied nature. They could be either stateless, state run or kingdoms, but most were founded on the principles of communalism in that they were self-governing, autonomous entities, and in that all members took part, directly or indirectly, in the daily running of the tribe. Land was held commonly and could not be bought or sold, although other things, such as cattle, were owned individually. In those societies that were not stateless, the chiefs ran the daily affairs of the tribe together with one or more councils. These councils simultaneously informed the chief, checked his powers and made policy by reaching unanimous decisions. If unanimity was not reached, a village assembly would be called to debate the issue and majority ruling would now apply. The chief would listen silently to all queries during such meetings and every male adult was free to criticise him. The role of the chief during such meetings was to sum up what had been said and attempt to form some consensus among the diverse opinions. Hence the chief did not rule or dictate but led by consensus. Many tribes, especially those that were stateless, had no central authority and no class system, and many of those that did could depose a chief that was thought to have abused his power. An overarching feature of pre-colonial Africa was that its societies were not designed to be the all-powerful entities that they are today, hence the abundance of confederation-type societies. One reason for this was that the villages and tribes commonly owned the land, a fact that undermined the basis for a market economy and a landed aristocracy, another that there was an abundance of available land to which dissatisfied individuals or groups could move. The creation of a market economy in Southern Africa was further undermined by the area lacking the regular markets and trade fairs that flourished elsewhere in Africa, as well as in medieval Europe, and thus the potential for continuous economic development.
In many parts of Africa, especially in the British colonies where indirect rule was the norm, the indigenous system of government survived and was used by the colonial powers alongside the colonial system. This is one of the reasons why the structures of such political institutions still exist in Africa today, although mostly in a more fixed and static form, due to the colonial powers having rearranged the tribal landscape and employed chiefs as virtual colonial administrators that served as buffers between themselves and the masses. British indirect rule in countries such as South Africa thereby reduced chiefs to salaried officials, responsible to white magistrates, corrupted by the control of an unsympathetic white government. Where there were elements of participatory democracy and a lack of rigid ethnicity in pre-colonial Africa, these were less likely to be found in post-independence Africa where only Botswana built its society and government on indigenous institutions, and where the rigidities of colonial “invented tradition” and centralised government became dominant.
While pre-colonial indigenous African systems had many appealing qualities, something that has been widely advocated, if not practised, by many post-independence African leaders and Africanists generally, they have some obvious weaknesses when attempting to build a centralised state around them. The fact that chieftaincy is mostly based on kinship, for instance, is problematic because of the exclusive nature of leadership that this entails, which is especially problematic in countries with ethnic antagonisms. Secondly, some of the customs of indigenous African society might have been effective in relatively smaller-scale societies but are less likely to be so in the larger states of present day Africa. An example of this is that of consensus which in a large-scale modern African state would make the political process invariably slow, as well as prone to conformity and authoritarianism that could effectively silence dissent and result in uncontroversial and un-enlightened decisions. Ngugi wa Thiong’o, in claiming that Africa’s pre-colonial peasant cultures had “oppressive reactionary tendencies” that were “only slightly less grave than the racist colonial culture” might be overstating the case, but he nevertheless strikes a chord.
It is therefore important to realize that the relevance and usefulness of traditional or pre-colonial African institutions and customs depend upon whether one views African culture, or any culture for that matter, as static, or whether African culture is deemed to have evolved and changed, to some extent because of outside influence and colonialism. Culture must be seen as dynamic, and pre-colonial African cultures seen to be historical manifestations that are relevant in their entirety only to that specific period of time. Otherwise, they are useless as sources of inspiration for contemporary societies.