See Mamdani make theory

For awhile (as part of the Mellon-funded research project into Media and Citizenship) whenever I have to think about citizenship theoretically in an African context I’ve been turning to Mahmood Mamdani’s wonderful book Citizen and Subject.

CitizentorefugeeAfter a year of working on this project (see our blog and my post  Speaking from the South) I’ve read a lot on citizenship, migrancy, refugees, minorities, rights, democratic regimes, etc, and still his voice — among all this wealth of information and theory — is the one that speaks loudest when I have to figure out how to approach what’s going on in South Africa today.

His idea that the colonial-imperial project lives on in the postcolonial African democracies today and gives us “bifurcated” states with two sets of political identity — actual citizenship for an elite and subject positions for all the rest, is a powerful and useful one.

So now we’re talking theory, what has this to do with the stated aim of this blog? Well, over the Christmas holidays I read his little book about his own experience of having been ejected from Idi Amin’s Uganda as an “Asian” who was then made the United Kingdom’s problem to solve.

The book, From Citizen to Refugee: Uganda Asians come to Britain, was written while he was in transit refugee housing in Kensington in London in 1973. The Mamdani family, one among thousands, had been turfed out of Uganda, where he had been born, and where they had citizenship, after a series of attempts to encroach on and then strip “Asians” of their rights to be in that land. Mamdani tells the story of his family, friends and neighbours alongside the political manouvres that displaced them all.

Then he tells us the story of the transit refugee situation and this is the encounter — with benign, all-knowing, tolerant but patronising British government officials — which sets the theory-making process going in the direction that will lead him to formulate his ideas about citizens and subjects.

Subject to charity, to other people’s designs and plans, Mamdani and other young men in the refugee housing start to negotiate and to make claims to improve their situation or make it more possible to find work and a life outside, only to meet an inflexible bureaucracy that sees them as an unwanted problem out of place to be paid for by the British taxpayer.

The book was released in 2011 by Pambazuka Press with an updated preface in which Mamdani reflects on how he began to theorise from this very important experience and how this set him on a life trajectory to unscramble some very important questions. He also thinks about his academic career, how his time at Harvard was more about activism than intellectualism and his time at the university in Dar es Salaam more about intellectual learning than at Harvard.

As I said in my blog post for the Media and Citizenship project, this is very useful theory from the South, and it’s a pity that more citizenship experts (who base their entire knowledge of the subject on Europe’s particular and peculiar problems of minorities and migrants) don’t pay attention. But it’s also very fascinating as a book that tells a story about life, experience and displacement and then shows how that became theory; how he sought not just to understand or comment on a situation but to push those thoughts into a formulation and framework. This has entailed a detailed look into the history of colonialism and imperialism and an unafraid facing of the present in Africa.

More theorists should write about the genesis of their theory, their own life experiences, the stories of how these two modes of being work together.

Read more about Mamdani in this very interesting interview with Bhakti Shringapure editor of the online magazine Warscapes.

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