British Museum

The Making Of ‘Black Politics’ and Unconcerned Citizens in Africa

My point of departure has always been the same, that we cannot move forward if our political candidates expect us to vote for them because “they are from here”.

This argument is invalid, and, frankly, unacceptable — yet still what dominates contemporary political discourse in Africa.

This political discourse is the product of a long-standing belief that politics is alien to Africa, that to politicize is, in fact, an “unAfrican” activity. This, combined with the introduction of citizenship as desert to individuals who abandoned African traditions, legitimizes the existence and reproduction of the unconcerned African citizen.

No, Politics Did Not Come With Colonialism

But it might as well have.

The introduction of the State came as a way to pacify resistance movement in the early days of imperialism. Arriving to communities with long-running traditions of power and intricately developed kinship systems, imperialists developed alliances with chiefs and traditional kings, under the banner of separate development.

Its premise sounded attractive: a deliberate act of co-existence. Dominant structures made use of natural resources but left the governing of people to the traditional leaders, promising a distance in the political affairs of individuals.

What traditional leaders didn’t know, was that imperialists soon developed a nation of their own, one that restricted access to resources, alienated groups and infantilized the role and participation of the African in the governance of her land.

Citizenship As A Privilege


Think of it as a nation imported, the incorporation of a discourse exclusionary in its nature, drafted to create and maintain the privileges of a certain group of people — while keeping other groups at a distance.

The alliance between imperialists and traditional power figures institutionalized the separation between “natives” and newly formed “citizens”. While citizenship was an inherent trait of colonials, it became something which had to be gained, deserved, by natives.

One way to access citizenship, and thus the privileges associated with it (education, economic enterprise, health care) was through the process of assimilation.

This process was particularly prevalent in countries under Portuguese and French colonial rule in Africa.

In the Mozambican experience, those who “agreed” to assimilate into ‘Portuguese habits’ such as language, culture and religion were awarded their place at the table. Mozambican “Assimilados” fit into their new roles as citizens of the new nation.

Resistance & Civic Participation As Betrayal

What of those of the old nation? Among South Africa’s Xhosa ethnic group, the idea of assimilation created a distinction between those who kept the old traditions (the Red) and those who “embraced European culture” (the School).

Mass starvation and social breakdown followed. Most estimates indicate that a third of the nation died, between thirty and forty thousand people. Broken and destitute, many Xhosa made their way to the ports, towns and farms of the Cape to seek wage labour. Others arrived at mission stations, ready to adopt the religion and civilisation of the colonists. Thus were the Xhosa the first African nation to be so reduced. (

In order to improve their livelihoods, clearly threatened by colonial presence and inequity, many individuals saw assimilation as the only means through which citizenship, and the social opportunities that came with it, could be accessed.

This connotation still heavily denotes citizenship and civic participation today.

By equating the abandonment of African tradition to the privilege of civic participation, Africans faced a hard choice. Either to embrace colonial presence and be regarded as citizens, or resist and be denied of their inherent political existence.

It was the ‘School’ group, however, that most effectively pursued political liberty. Mission educated Xhosa were prominent in the formation of what later became known as the African National Congress (ANC), in Bloemfontein in 1912.

The Reality, The Challenge

Is that the affinity with politics is still seen as an act of assimilation.

In African modernity, politics is seen as a “white man’s language”, a semantic that has successfully trivialized politicization as a means of self-actualization in Africa.

How can we measure the quality of civic participation if our political discourse revolves around tribalism?

How can we evolve from tribalism dialectics if citizens aren’t informed enough to identify and reject this kind of discourse?

Active citizenship can be achieved through the education and subsequent emancipation of all residing in Africa. From maximizing classroom discussions on global and local issues, to publicizing alternative views of public opinion.

Our responsibility is to educate and empower each other so that we may have a say in the governance of our lives.