Ethnicity and Race: Africa

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Ethnicity and Race: Africa

There is an abiding paradox in the concept of race. It is a biological fiction but a social reality. Biologically it is now established beyond doubt that there are no distinct races among human beings and that the genetic variation within particular groups of people is much higher than between groups. The view that people possess inherent personality characteristics attached to particular irreducible phenotypes has been systematically discredited, yet the outward appearance of people still plays a profound social role in the manner in which different people relate to each other. These readily perceived phenotypical differences are often the bases upon which people construct social differences between themselves. Skin color is the most obvious of these differences. The apartheid (translates as "separateness") regime in South Africa represented the clearest possible expression of the political use of skin color to discriminate against blacks, by disenfranchising them, excluding them from the central institutions of the state, and by ensuring that they would be available as cheap labor in the mines, on the farms, and in the factories.

The instrumental use of race as a convenient means to attain political and economic goals was forcefully articulated by Oliver Cox when he insisted that race should be defined socially, not biologically, since it connotes social relations of exploitation between people and not biological differences. There is an ongoing debate about the origin of the concept of race and its adjuncts, racism and racialism. While some argue that these are concepts that are as old as humanity itself, others argue that they arose as a direct result of the modern era and are intimately connected to colonial conquest and the slave trade. Anthony Appiah has drawn an interesting distinction between racialism and racism. Racism refers to negative varieties of discrimination on the basis of an ideology that orders society into a hierarchy of supremacy and domination, where some people may see others as inherently inferior on the basis of an undefined racial essence. It has both an institutionalized form (for example, apartheid) and an interpersonal presence. Racism thus consists of the view that this unspecified racial essence translates into certain inherent, usually objectionable properties (such as laziness, filth, lack of punctuality, and so on) that justify treating people differently, usually unequally. On the other hand, racialism refers to the recognition of physical difference between people as being socially and psychologically significant in the sense that they share certain traits and characteristics, but without attaching any inherently inferior or superior characteristics to different people. Many argue that this position is debatable, suggesting that perceiving such differences almost invariably implies the acceptance of inequality between people.

Race in Africa

Frantz Fanon offered a trenchant critique of colonialism as a form of racism at both the institutional and interpersonal levels. Being a psychiatrist, he was particularly interested in the manner in which colonial racism created problems of self-identification for blacks since it conveyed the brutal message that might was right and might was almost invariably white. By simple deduction, therefore, white was almost always right. Fanon argued very forcefully that the colonizers had successfully imposed their image of the colonized on Africans and that it was incumbent on Africans to rid themselves of this image of inferiority, often through violence. Colonial subjugation had a devastating effect on black subjects that the postcolonial regimes have not overcome, because in many ways the new black elites have simply mimicked their past rulers in the most grotesque fashion.

The Senegalese poet and president Léopold Sédar Senghor, in developing the concept of negritude, provided an eloquent negation of French culture and the colonial policies of assimilation and acculturation that produced black Frenchmen and -women as "photographic negatives of the colonizers." While their knowledge of French culture, their French accents, and their appreciation of the finer qualities of French wine may have been impeccable, a racial line prevented blacks from becoming fully fledged Frenchmen and -women. Thus, Senghor and a host of others reacted in various ways to this racial exclusion that Paul Gilroy captured so eloquently for England in his captivating title There Ain't No Black in the Union Jack.

Amilcar Cabral, for example, articulated a theory of liberation based on the retained collective cultural identity of blacks as distinct from that of the Portuguese colonialists, in his clarion call to "return to the source." His theory was rooted in the material conditions of Guinea that he regarded as a reservoir of local experiences ripe for anticolonial mobilization. Under these conditions liberation was necessarily an act of asserting and affirming African culture.

The Francophone and Lusophone (Portuguese-speaking) African experiences were very different from the Anglophone, where, for example, racial exclusion led Steve Biko to a departure from the white liberal student organization as part of the Black Consciousness movement. The move was couched in political as well as psychological terms. Having seen blacks oppressed to such an extent that they started to actively despise themselves, Biko preached a counterideology of psychological liberation as a precondition for true emancipation, using slogans such as "Black man you are on your own" and "Black is beautiful." The apartheid regime defined black in the narrow sense to mean only those Africans who spoke indigenous languages, excluding the so-called coloreds and Indians. The black consciousness movement responded with a generic definition of blackness to encompass all those who suffered a common political disability, having been disenfranchised. Black was thus defined politically to mean all those who would readily support the struggle against apartheid, while those who worked the machinery of their own oppression were termed sellouts, just as similar people were called Negroes in the United States.

Given the extreme, official, and institutionalized form of racism of apartheid, it was appropriate that the third United Nations World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (Durban, 2001) should be held in South Africa. One of the debates of relevance to the definition of racism concerned whether Zionism should be included as a form of racism in terms of the manner in which the Israeli state treated the Palestinians. Both the Israeli and United States governments withdrew from the conference on account of this and other issues, while Yasser Arafat was adamant in describing the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land as "a racial discrimination policy in their ugliest forms and image" and "a new and advanced type of apartheid."

The Concept of Ethnicity

While race thus refers to the social construction of difference on the basis of perceived physical or morphological differences,ethnicity is supposed to refer to cultural differences between people. The two obviously intersect in many ways since racists readily use the concept of ethnicity to mask their racism. The apartheid regime, for example, changed its official nomenclature from race and tribe to ethnic group and then to nation in an effort to legitimize its policy of territorial segregation. The term closest to ethnicity and in fact still in use after being systematically discredited for many years is tribalism.

In broad terms there are two main approaches to the study of ethnicity. On the one hand, the primordialist approach sees ethnicity and ethnic diversity as relatively permanent features that are deeply rooted in the essential and particularistic experiences of groups of people. People are thus divided on an enduring basis and in an unchanging manner. In this view ethnic groups are seen as distinctive units usually based on the idea of a common descent, where the commonality of culture is inherited and thus given from the past and people are born into particular ethnic groups. On the other hand, the social constructionist approach sees ethnicity as a modern instrumentalist symbol in advancing the material interests of groups whose composition may change in response to competitive opportunities. In this sense ethnicities are created or "invented" by elites as they seek to manipulate ideas about ethnicity in order to secure their own interests. The primordialist/constructionist divide has had a profound impact on the debate about the significance of ethnicity in Africa. The main terms of this debate concern whether ethnic groups connote real categories of people or whether cultural differences are manipulated by pernicious political leaders for their own reasons of personal aggrandizement and petty ambitions of power. The position of the primordialists on ethnicity comes close to the concept of race as a historical given, and the distinctions between these are quite blurred. However, the constructionists reject these essentialisms and instead allow room for choice and individual agency in the formation of ethnicities.

Ethnicity Debates in Africa

The tensions in these approaches have polarized studies on ethnicity in Africa. Okwudiba Nnoli, for example, takes up the primordialist position, accepting that ethnic groups do exist, are real with clearly defined interests, and play a pervasive role in African politics. Arguing along the same lines that ethnic conflict needs to be taken seriously, Ibbo Mandaza ends with an entirely different conclusion, suggesting that the persistent danger of ethnic conflict imposes a necessary reconciliation of the elites of the various groups (he includes tribes) in the nation-building project of postcolonial Africa. In response to this widespread position among African leaders and scholars, Mohamed Salih advances the opinion that recognizing rather than denying ethnicity may be the key to the democratization project in Africa. Taking the ethnic basis of political mobilization at face value, Salih argues that this reality rests awkwardly next to the public denial of ethnicity manifested in the banning (across Africa, except in Ethiopia) of political parties that are explicitly ethnically based with an unambiguous ethnic constituency. On the basis of an impressive array of empirical evidence, Salih makes the point that most African political parties are ethnically based in any case, and it is time to simply recognize this reality to allow for it to play a positive legitimizing force in contemporary African politics. While it is clear that ethnicity is endemic in Africa, Salih does not elaborate on how to overcome the inevitable problems of exclusion and inclusion in a political process that is ethnically based. Put bluntly, if ethnically based political parties win an election, then they would have to deliver to an ethnic constituency that would obviously define the winners and losers in ethnic terms. It is extremely difficult to imagine how this could translate into a legitimate polity.

Archie Mafeje scolds Nnoli and others for not providing an analysis of ethnicity and for treating ethnic groups as things in themselves, following the empiricism rife in American political science. Instead he dispels the idea that there are discrete, naturally occurring entities of belonging that may be called ethnic groups in Africa. He draws a distinction between social groups and social categories, where the former are characterized by inevitable patterns of social interaction such as lineages or associations, and the latter does not imply such regular interaction at all but is rather defined by common identity, such as members of the same religion. Mafeje's argument is that ethnicity is related to the national competition for scarce resources in response to the centralization of power rather than to local particularistic conflicts. In this sense, ethnicity has a recent derivation since it refers to an ideological ploy used by political elites to yield the benefits of power and wealth. In this view, ethnicity does not represent some preexisting African cultural essence but a convenient means of political mobilization for elites.

In a paper delivered at the Networking with a View to Promoting Peace conference in 1999, Dan Nabudere attempts to reconcile these two perspectives by drawing a distinction between positive and negative aspects to ethnicity, where the former refers to the notion of self-identification, self-expression, and enjoyment in membership of a stable entity in a "posttraditional" manner capable of coping with the demands of modernity. The negative aspect of ethnicity accommodates Mafeje's concern with elite manipulation of ethnic sentiment for narrow political ends of positions in the state.

In the postcolonial period, there was a flurry of scholarly activity as the new elites tried to redefine their pasts in ways that placed the ambivalent significance of the colonial period in its proper perspective. The question of race and ethnicity was crucial, especially in the southern African settler societies. History was being rewritten just as history was being made. New myths were invented in an effort to construct united national cultures since separate ethnicities were regarded as threatening to the nation-building project.

According to Mahmood Mamdani, one of the key challenges of the process of independence from colonial rule was to break down the barriers between ethnically defined rural subjects and racially defined urban citizens. However, Mamdani argues that decolonization did not have "an agenda for democratising customary power." Michael Chege provides a very critical review of Mamdani's thesis, arguing that it is simplistic in its dualism and does not appreciate the nuances of rural African society. Chege is particularly scathing about Mamdani's use of tribe, tribespeople, tribalism, and customary law "as concrete categories of political behaviour."

South African historiography, especially during the 1970s and 1980s, was dominated by endless debates on the relation between race and class in attempts at explaining the nature of the apartheid regime. For some there was a contingent relation between the two; for others the relation was an instrumental one, with race being used as a convenient tool for the class exploitation of blacks; for still others race had an independent existence. The race/class debate in South Africa provides a useful historiographical glimpse of an important era in the evolution of social science thought.

Ethnic Experiments in Africa

Ethiopia and South Africa represent two opposite poles in dealing with ethnicity. The two countries are on entirely separate constitutional journeys. South Africa has emerged from the ethnic balkanization of apartheid and moved toward the constitutional establishment of a unitary state with the idea of a single nation. Ethiopia, on the other hand, has emerged from an imposed imperial unity via a centralist, militarized distortion of socialism to a dispensation of ethnic federalism. Ethiopia is the only country in Africa that explicitly recognizes ethnicity in its constitution, enshrined in the construction of ethnically based regional states and the official acknowledgment that there are many nations. In the case of Ethiopia, the nature of feudal autocracy determined the invariably ethnic-based form of opposition. For example, virtually all the liberation movements involved in the overthrow of the military regime had secession from Ethiopia as an integral part of their programs. This aim was obviously influenced by the slogan of the rights of nations to self-determination. Imperial oppression was structured along the lines of imposing a policy of Amharization (officially promoting the language and culture of the Amhara) in an effort to construct a unitary national culture in Ethiopia. It is not surprising, therefore, that opposition was founded on the affirmation of separate peoples, nations, and nationalities and that virtually all multiethnic or nonethnic political parties have failed dismally in Ethiopia. It is instructive that the form of rule is termed ethnic federalism, but the groups that occupy these positions are referred to as peoples, nations, or nationalities.

If South Africa and Ethiopia represent two poles on a continuum, then Nigeria exists somewhere between these two in the manner in which it has chosen to deal with ethnicity. The Nigerian constitution does not explicitly recognize ethnicity, but it recognizes the federal character of the country, or the regional (read ethnic) differences between people. Here sharing of the national cake is very explicitly seen in ethnic terms, even if ethnically based parties are banned. The federal character principle adopted in the First Republic was supposed to be reflective of the wide diversity of the Nigerian population, but it has not prevented Northern domination of the federal government. It was in response to this tendency toward Northern control that a system of rotating presidencies was proposed by parties in the running for the presidential elections.

People obviously have different cultural practices. These mark the distinctive ways in which identity and consciousness are formed in different communities. Whether these ethnic identities should be politicized is an ongoing debate in African social thought. All African societies are diverse, and how to accommodate and even celebrate that diversity without the endless civil strife and ethnically inspired violence remains an abiding challenge.

See also Africa, Idea of ; Anticolonialism: Africa ; Apartheid ; Black Consciousness ; Colonialism: Africa ; Humanity: African Thought ; Multiculturalism, Africa ; Nationalism: Africa ; Pan-Africanism ; Race and Racism .


Chege, Michael. Book review of Mahmood Mamdani's Citizen and Subject. African Studies Quarterly: The Online Journal for African Studies 1 (1997). Available at

Cox, Oliver. Cast, Class, and Race. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1948.

Fanon, Frantz. Toward the African Revolution. Translated by Haakon Chevalier. New York: Grove Books, 1967.

Hymans, Jacques Louis. Léopold Sédar Senghor: An Intellectual History. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1971.

Mafeje, Archie. "Multi-party Democracy and Ethnic Divisions in African Societies: Are They Compatible?" In Breaking Barriers, Creating New Hopes: Democracy, Civil Society, and Good Governance in Africa, edited by Abdalla Bujra and Said Adejumobi. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 2002.

Mamdani, Mahmood. Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Mandaza, Ibbo. Southern Africa in the Year 2000: An Overview and Research Agenda. Harare, Zimbabwe: SAPES, 1993.

Nnoli, Okwudiba, ed. Ethnic Conflicts in Africa. Dakar: CODESRIA Book Series, 1998.

Salih, M. A. Mohamed. African Democracies and African Politics. London: Pluto Press, 2001.

Fred Hendricks