Multiculturalism, Africa

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Multiculturalism means different things to different people. For some it is directly linked to the politics of recognition and of difference (Taylor). In this regard, it concerns an appreciation of the necessity to deal with diversity in ways that affirm the value of different cultures and to respect the various claims made by minority groups. For others, multiculturalism concerns an explicit policy of protecting particularistic local cultures in the face of hegemonic and global cultures (both Australia and Canada have such self-conscious policies) or it can refer to a loose form of cultural pluralism (Kuper). Since multiculturalism is not a homogeneous concept or practice, it is important to differentiate between multiculturalism as a practical response to diversity and as an aspect of social philosophy advocating particular values with respect to cultural differences. There is no unifying theory of multiculturalism, and its respect for difference finds expression in a variety of political, social, and cultural approaches to problems of diversity.

The concept of multiculturalism does not enjoy widespread currency in African social thought. It is certainly not a topic of debate in early-twenty-first-century intellectual discourse on the continent. There are many reasons for this neglect, but it is undoubtedly connected to the fact that African societies are intrinsically multiethnic and multicultural. Diversity is not a new thing in Africa. Multiculturalism is premised on challenges to hegemonic cultures occasioned by the large-scale migrations of people who may experience alienation, marginalization, and exclusion in the host country. Sweden, for example, was remarkably homogeneous in a cultural sense prior to the influx of migrant laborers in the 1960s. African countries, in contrast, have entirely different histories. By and large, African states were formed by colonialism, usually to serve the interests of the colonists and, therefore, with little attention paid to the precolonial ethnic allegiances and other forms of belonging. These different histories play a critical role in the extent to which the concept of multiculturalism may be relevant in the African context.

Multicultural Problems in Africa

While the concept of multiculturalism has not enjoyed a great deal of scholarly attention in Africa, there are several practices that may fall neatly under its rubric. First, in the process of nation-building following independence, there was a concerted attempt to de-ethnicize the population and to construct a unitary conception of the nation. Second, multiculturalism is used in dealing with minorities, especially indigenous minorities in Africa. Third, it may be relevant in the various efforts at coping with and managing diversity in the workplace. Finally, multiculturalism plays a major role in education.

Even though ethnicity had a profound influence in African politics, the official rhetoric was dedicated to nation-building. Due to the generalized economic and political failures of the postcolonial state in Africa, these efforts have been thoroughly discredited. In the aftermath of massive resource limitations, the way has been opened up for a more explicit assertion of ethnic differences as a basis for economic and political claims. Since these perceived differences may form the basis of violent, sometimes genocidal, clashes between people, the topic of ethnic conflict has received considerable research attention from social scientists. The main area of debate is how to make citizens of everyone under conditions of such diversity and with so many subnational forms of belonging. This relates directly to the necessity of building legitimate polities in Africa in which all people have a sense of inclusion and national loyalties do not contradict cultural pluralism.

Dealing with minorities has become a major preoccupation of the Commission on Human Rights of the United Nations (CHR), which was established by the UN Economic and Social Council soon after the United Nations was formed in 1946. After years of dormancy and lack of effective functioning, in response to demands from below the CHR started to mobilize. A series of workshops, "Multiculturalism in Africa: Peaceful and Constructive Group Accommodation in Situations Involving Minorities and Indigenous Peoples," has been held across Africa over the last three years in Tanzania, Mali, and Botswana. These have served as starting points to provide both a voice for the articulation of people's concerns and a platform for cooperation among them on the basis of their common experiences of exclusion, marginalization, and displacement. It is of concern that, while the last meeting of this group was held in Botswana, the Basarwa/San were being forcibly removed from their ancestral land in the Kalahari.

Managing workplace diversity was at the center of the oppressive methods developed in the mining compounds in South Africa. Since many migrants came from all over southern Africa to work in the mines, the companies devised brutal divide-and-rule methods in an attempt to forestall the development of a common working-class consciousness by insisting on separate ethnic allegiances. In many ways, the apartheid experiment was an example of imposed cultural packaging of people and, in a perverse sense, it could fall under the rubric of multiculturalism in its imposition of cultural difference. The overwhelming emphasis in early-twenty-first-century South Africa, as in most postcolonial African states, is undoubtedly on de-ethnicizing the population in favor of a unitary national concept. However, parallel to this emphasis runs the idea of the promotion, and even celebration, of a rainbow nation, encapsulated constitutionally in the establishment of the Commission for the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Cultural, Linguistic, and Religious Communities. Whether this represents a retreat into relativism and whether it will have a major impact on South African politics remain to be seen.

Multiculturalism has a profound influence on education in Africa. There are as many different positions on the virtues and vices of multicultural education as there are on multiculturalism itself. There is an abiding ambiguity here. Multiculturalism is supposed to promote diversity and contradictory perspectives, yet the goals attendant to these different positions differ sharply from those who are merely concerned with promoting tolerance to those who actively seek social change in the name of equal opportunities for all to learn. The question of language is, of course, of vital importance since it is established beyond all doubt that children perform much better when they are taught in their native language. Whether some people should be accorded special treatment in education because of historical disadvantage and whether, indeed, they should be given special curricula to cope with educational demands remain unresolved issues.

The cultural diversity of Africa has long been recognized. Audrey Richards, for example, provided a detailed account of the linguistic, religious, and cultural differentiation of communities in East Africa in a book presciently entitled The Multicultural States of East Africa. One of the contested concepts in multiculturalism is assimilation. An example from Ethiopia provides a unique insight into this policy. Bahru Zewde considers the situation of the Oromo in East Africa in the following manner: "[T]he Ethiopian emperor has three options with regard to the Oromo: enslavement and expropriation, assimilation, and indirect rule." While the first and the last mentioned are rejected for various reasons, "assimilation therefore remains the only credible and sensible option." In short, the Oromo should become Amhara since, "two peoples who are allowed to evolve separately will end up forming two different, and perhaps antagonistic, nations" (pp. 132133). Assimilation thus implies the eradication of difference in favor of the dominant culture. It is essentially a homogenizing project that imposes itself on others on the basis of assumed cultural superiority. It is precisely this kind of cultural chauvinism that multiculturalism seeks to oppose, usually for the sake of the oppressed.

Multiculturalism and Culture

Any discussion of multiculturalism must include a definition of culture since multiculturalism literally refers to a plurality or a multiplicity of cultures. In this regard, culture refers to the collective material and nonmaterial accomplishments of particular groups, their ways of doing things, and the manner in which these patterns of behavior are transmitted from one generation to the next. A basic truism about culture is that it is never static. In this respect, multiculturalism has to accommodate changes if it is to remain relevant. This is very difficult though because multiculturalism tends to reify culture and freeze people into cultural particularisms on the assumption that certain people need to be treated differently because of their separate cultures. This is problematic because culture is then defined as an immutable entity based on primordial origins, and becomes a biological given rather than learned forms of behavior and creativity. Exemplifying this conflation of race and culture, Paul Kelly insists that the movement of "white European immigrants and the movement of non-white [sic] populations" (p. 2) lie at the heart of the reality of pluralism. Put bluntly, it is extremely difficult to emphasize cultural difference without also essentializing culture and ethnic identities, sometimes even understood in racial terms. Once group identities are politicized it is virtually impossible to avoid packaging people in different categories and ensuring that they remain in their designated spaces. K. Anthony Appiah and Amy Gutman distinguish between cultures and identities but lament that "ethnic identities characteristically have cultural distinctions as one of their primary marks" and "in the United States, not only ethnic but also racial boundaries are culturally marked" (p. 89).

There are many other philosophical and political criticisms of multiculturalism, both as a concept and as a practice. In the first instance, the tendency to categorize people in this manner may lead to greater stereotyping, particularly if special treatment (for example, affirmative action in employment appointments) is expected. While multiculturalism pays a great deal of attention to recognition, it does not accord the problems of redistribution equal weight. In this sense, it does not deal adequately with the ways in which class intersects with other forms of differentiation. Since differences in people almost always imply differences in power and wealth, there is a great challenge for multiculturalism to recognize these inequalities in ways that do not entrench or solidify them, but simultaneously to appreciate that these inequalities are real in their consequences for many people. In this regard, there is a powerful argument that multiculturalists have retreated from economic struggles in favor of cultural struggles for recognition (Fraser).

Probably the greatest challenge for multiculturalism is how it can encourage cultural difference without promoting cultural chauvinism and its counterpart, xenophobia. Its insistence on cultural difference and separation makes the quest for equality elusive because of the reality of cultural hierarchies. The celebration of difference that it advocates rests awkwardly next to the reality of persecution, exclusion, and stereotyping. Thus, when people are recognized, it is their individual identities that should be recognized and not some preconceived caricature of who they should be or how they should behave because of their membership in a particular group. According to Brian Barry, for example, multiculturalism tends to conflate descriptions about the reality of cultural diversity with prescriptions of commitment to the program of normative multiculturalism (p. 22). Finally, there is the problem of how individual human rights can be protected in the context of such a pervasive emphasis on group rights, which raises the fundamental questions of identity and of choice. If cultural difference is so rigorously imposed, then it leaves little room for individual choice. Thus, one of the major issues around the concept of multiculturalism is how it meshes with individual rights because it so clearly emphasizes the recognition and rights of a collectivity. If identity is socially derived from particularistic cultural experiences, then it amounts to an ascribed status that allows for growth and development within the limited purview of the community.

Insofar as multiculturalism refers to the value of cultural tolerance and to the celebration of diversity, it has made a positive contribution in broadening narrow horizons and exposing people to the wide range of cultural heritages. However, multiculturalism in the sense of politicized group identities is problematic from the point of view of individual human rights in democracies because treating groups equally is much more difficult than treating individuals equally.

See also Africa, Idea of ; Assimilation ; Black Consciousness ; Communitarianism in African Thought ; Ethnicity and Race: Africa ; Identity, Multiple ; Internal Colonialism ; Migration: Africa ; Nationalism: Africa ; Pan-Africanism ; Postcolonial Studies ; Prejudice .


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Appiah, K. Anthony, and Amy Gutmann. Color Conscious: The Political Morality of Race. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Barry, Brian. Culture and Equality: An Egalitarian Critique of Multiculturalism. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 2001.

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Kelly, Paul. "Introduction: Between Culture and Equality." In Multiculturalism Reconsidered, edited by Paul Kelly, 120. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 2002.

Kuper, Adam. Culture: The Anthropologists' Account. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Richards, Audrey I. The Multicultural States of East Africa. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1969.

Taylor, Charles. Multiculturalism and the Politics of Recognition. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Zewde, Bahru. Pioneers of Change in Ethiopia: The Reformist Intellectuals of the Early Twentieth Century. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: Addis Ababa University Press, 2002.

Fred Hendricks