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Editor’s Note: Post by Rachel Bedoian (MSc African Studies, 2017).  Rachel is working towards a career in the study of livestock and ecological sustainability of common grazing resources. Through the University of Botswana, Ohio University, and the University of Edinburgh, she has conducted research in Botswana and northern Namibia. The current essay is from her MSc research.

CAS_blog_entry_Rachel_BedoianOpen Kalahari Thornveld Commonage in Lake Oponono Village, Oshana Region, Former Ovamboland, Namibia

Upon independence in 1990, Namibia’s popularly-elected South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) government attempted to reduce massive racial wealth inequities in the state’s population following a century of German and South African colonial rule. On the eve of independence the most productive tracts of agricultural land were owned by white Afrikaner farmers and most rural black Namibians working in agriculture either rented small plots from these farmers or were employed as waged farm labourers. In 1995 the first Act of Namibian land reform was passed. Aimed at redistributing commercial farmland through a government ‘willing buyer, willing seller’ policy, the Commercial (Agricultural) Land Reform Act hoped to address the racial disparities in commercial farm ownership, which dominated the rural landscapes of central and southern Namibia.

The academic and political attention received by the Namibian commercial land reform act has often overshadowed the importance of Namibia’s second land reform act, which affects a far larger portion of the black Namibian population. The 2002 Communal Land Reform Act (CLRA) set up statutory governing frameworks and tenure policies within the former Bantustan reserves, which consisted of customarily allocated land. The Act created legal structures and de jure (statutory) processes governing homestead plot allocation and tenure security. These areas, commonly called communal areas or communal lands, are lands vested in the Namibian state. They cover the very same physical areas set up through the 1964 Odendaal Commission as Bantustans under South African occupation. Today, local village Traditional Authorities and headmen retain de facto (customary) powers over these communal lands and facilitate the customary processes of land allocation operating under the indirect oversight of tribal chiefs. In many instances, these chiefs and headmen customarily govern their villages freely. Their customary law does not conflict with national and regional statutory law. However, in the area of land allocation, they now share their powers with those of the regional and national Ministries of Land Reform.

The Communal Land Reform Act grants land tenure rights to persons with ancestral tribal claims in a specific village, and in the Former Ovamboland, these claims were primarily based upon an Ovambo matrilineal inheritance structure. Persons with valid claims can reside on and exploit the resources of a homestead plot of fifty hectares (raised from a maximum of twenty hectares in 2015) or may apply for a larger leasehold plot of up to one hundred hectares (raised from a maximum of fifty). Those granted both customary and statutory tenure of homestead plots are able to cultivate and use their plot, but the sale of plots is not legal without specific permission from local headmen and direct approval from the regional Minister of Land Reform.

I conducted my field research in the communal areas of the Former Ovamboland, where there are vast tracts of unallocated and commonly shared Kalahari thornveld grassland. These large areas of land are intended to be for the shared use of village residents and are legally safeguarded as a public resource that cannot be privatized, sold or otherwise accumulated and cordoned off to prevent common access by residents, as stipulated in the CLRA. These grassland areas are intended for exploitation by village residents as a means of contributing to their livelihoods, and are primarily used for cattle and small stock grazing. However, ‘land grabbing’ of these areas of grazing commonage has become a growing local and national concern, as non-resident urban elites stock large numbers of cattle for revenue- creation purposes and fence off large portions of the commonage. These activities are resulting in the shrinkage of the size of common grazing area and a decline in the soil and vegetation quality of the commonage pastures.

Much of Namibia is too dry to support large stock, but rangelands in the Former Ovamboland enjoy a higher ecological carrying capacity than those of other regions, and are thus able to support cattle in varying numbers. Most resident pastoralists in communal areas own and herd thirty or fewer heads of cattle and utilise the open commonage as their main source of pasture. By comparison, most urban elites stocking cattle on the commonage have one hundred heads of cattle, with some grazing upwards of three hundred. Perhaps of greatest concern is that while much commonage continues to be captured by fencing, it is not the case that these fenced areas become grazing areas for the cattle of elite farmers for the majority of the year. Instead, these fenced areas are used only during the annual dry season (January to March) and during times of drought. For the rest of the year (April to December), the cattle stock of urban elite farmers continue to graze on the remaining open commons alongside the small numbers of cattle belonging to resident. Therefore, elite farmers with large herds not only capture and remove large portions of common grazing land from collective use by small-scale local pastoralists, they also continue to degrade the remaining open commonage by allowing their large herds to continue grazing upon it for the majority of each year.

Common grazing areas face this elite capture more and more frequently, and this capture is maintained primarily through corruption on the part of regional chiefs and/or local Traditional Authorities (TAs) and their headmen. Cattle-holding elites additionally enforce grazing land capture by applying a variety of intimidation tactics on local pastoralists. These tactics generally include verbal and implied physical threats but also exist in more subtle and unstated entrenched structures of power. As one man said: ‘you do not want to piss off the rich man’, the implication being that a rich man can destroy your life if he so pleases, and this is especially the case when national government officials and locally-powerful urbanites are those one would be ‘pissing off’. This intimidation largely works. The fact that the number of fences cut or cattle stolen is shockingly low in most areas of Ovamboland attests to it.

Progress is perhaps being made, and two separate verdicts, in 2015 and 2016, found the fencing of commonage to be explicitly in violation of the CLRA, which contains a provision safeguarding the open-access of common grazing. However, these verdicts have yet to be enforced fully since their rendering, and the vast majority of fences both remain standing and their legitimacy unchallenged. At the conclusion of my fieldwork, I spoke to communal land researcher John Hazam at the pro-bono and class action Legal Assistance Centre in Windhoek. A former employee of the Namibian Ministry of Environment and Tourism, Hazam told me his greatest lament about the recent verdicts and the lack of follow-up action was that in Namibia ‘the wheels of justice turn slowly.’ It remains to be seen if these recently rendered verdicts demanding the removal of illegal fences on commonage will be enforced fully at the national, regional and customary levels.


Related Readings

1. Alden Wily, L.A., 2008. Custom and commonage in Africa rethinking the orthodoxies. Land use policy, 25(1), pp.43-52. Available at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0264837707000191

2. Cousins, B. and Scoones, I., 2010. Contested paradigms of ‘viability’ in redistributive land reform: perspectives from southern Africa. The Journal of Peasant Studies, 37(1), pp.31-66. Available at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/03066150903498739

3. Devereux, S., 1996. Fuzzy entitlements and common property resources: struggles over rights to communal land in Namibia. Available at: https://opendocs.ids.ac.uk/opendocs/bitstream/handle/123456789/3346/wp44.pdf?sequence=1

4. Lohmann, D., Falk, T., Geissler, K., Blaum, N. and Jeltsch, F., 2014. Determinants of semi-arid rangeland management in a land reform setting in Namibia. Journal of arid environments, 100, pp.23-30. Available at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0140196313001754?via%3Dihub

5. Mendelsohn, J., 2008. Customary and legislative aspects of land registration and management on communal land in Namibia. Ministry of Land and Resettlement and European Union, Windhoek. Available at: https://landportal.info/sites/default/files/mendelsohn_j_land_registration_and_management_on_communal_land_in_namibia.pdf

6. Mendelsohn, J.M., El Obeid, S. and Roberts, C., 2000. A profile of north-central Namibia. Gamsberg Macmillan Publishers.

7. Odendaal, W., 2011. Elite land grabbing in Namibian communal areas and its impac on subsistence farmers’ livelihoods. (a) Available at: http://repository.uwc.ac.za/bitstream/handle/10566/601/PB%2033.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

8. Republic of Namibia. 2002. Communal Land Reform Act of 2002 (Act Number 5, 2002). The Government Gazette of the Republic of Namibia. Windhoek, Namibia. Available at: Legal Assistance Centre. www.lac.org.na/laws/pdf/communallandreformact.pdf

9. Republic of Namibia Ministry of Land Reform. 2014. A Decade of Communal Land Reform in Namibia. Available at: https://www.deutsche-digitale-bibliothek.de/binary/D7CBGQXC4HB36DQDVMD57YMHILWSXI2R/full/1.pdf

10. Tapscott, C. and Hangula, L., 1994. Fencing of communal range land in northern Namibia: social and ecological implications (No. 6). Social Sciences Division, Multidisciplinary Research Centre, University of Namibia.

11. Verlinden, A. and Kruger, A.S., 2007. Changing grazing systems in central north Namibia. Land degradation & development, 18(2), pp.179-197.

12. Werner, W. 2011. ‘What Has Happened Has Happened’: The Complexity of Fencing in Namibia’s Communal Areas. Available at: http://www.osisa.org/sites/default/files/fencing.pdf



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Editor’s Note: Post by Declan Murray, a final-year PhD student. The following visual blog post is from his doctoral research. 

Small solar-powered lighting systems are providing more affordable and environmentally friendly energy access to millions of people living off-grid in sub-Saharan Africa.  My research explores what happens when these new technologies break down.  A large component of my fieldwork was spent with electronic repairmen in a small town in the south of Kenya’s Rift Valley.  These photos were taken in August 2017.


Image 1

Image 1: Evans (pictured) is an apprentice to David, who rents this workshop, in the business of repairing electronic devices.  Yet, when it comes to mobile sports betting it is Evans who teaches David.  Every day begins with listening to gospel music and placing bets on football matches around the world.


Image 2

Image 2: Kefa (top right) holds down a re-soldered wire on the circuit board while the customer (bottom left), to whom the solar lantern belongs, holds the battery. I like the contrast of the hands in this picture.  Kefa’s hands, like the bench he is working on, show the burns, dust, and scratches sustained from the thousands of electronics he has repaired.  Meanwhile, the customer’s are obviously accustomed to a less manual labour.


Image 3

Image 3: This is Rono’s soldering iron.  The most vital tool in an electronic repairman’s inventory, the soldering iron, is normally heated by electricity. But without a grid connection in his wooden kiosk, Rono heats his iron in a kerosene stove.


Image 4

Image 4: Yusuf’s workshop is full of old electronics. Inside that he does most of his work on this chair out the front.  Having recently become the pastor of a local church, Yusuf wants to move away from what he sees as the dishonesty of the repair business, where repairmen over-charge on components and deliberately hide their work from less knowledgeable customers.


Image 5

Image 5: Solar lanterns, like this d.light S200, are arriving more and more often to repair workshops like Richard’s, but with replacement parts almost impossible to come by, many are simply left unrepaired. Priority is rather given to minibus radios and church keyboards, which provide higher profits.


Electronic repairmen like those I have worked with in Kenya offer a vital support infrastructure to people in countries across sub-Saharan Africa.  Although a dirty and dusty job, I sometimes wonder if, as proponents of clean technologies such as solar power, they are not doing as much for the environment.


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Patrick Kwasi Brobbey is a PhD student at the Centre of African Studies and a Research Fellow with the French Institute for Research in Africa (Nairobi). He is currently engaged in fieldwork in Kenya.  His update on the political situation there ahead of the national election today follows.

Pan-Africanism 2

Patrick Kwasi Brobbey


On 8 August 2017, Kenyans will go to the polls to elect their national leaders. The presidential election is the highlight of this exercise. Eight candidates are vying for the presidency, but only two – incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta and his longtime political rival Raila Odinga – are considered realistic presidential hopefuls.

To win, a candidate must secure at least 50 percent plus one of the total votes cast, in addition to 25 percent of the votes from half of Kenya’s 47 counties. Kenyatta and Odinga lead grand coalitions of political parties. According to varying public opinion polls, either one of them is capable of winning the race.

Whereas the Kenyatta-led Jubilee Party emphasizes infrastructural development aimed at stimulating economic development, the Odinga-led National Super Alliance (NASA) assures equal access to state resources and government and social inclusion.

The electoral process and outcome will test the social, political and economic structures of the country.

The Stakes in the Elections

Competitive politics in contemporary Kenya can be traced back to 1992, when the country transitioned from a de jure one-party state to a multiparty democracy. Apart from the 2002 and 2013 general elections that have been touted as relatively peaceful, all elections held after the transition to multiparty democracy have been marred by intense violence. The factors proffered by analysts for the post-2007 electoral conflict that resulted in over 1000 deaths and the internal displacement of many others still prevail.

Ethnicity and Electoral Politics

Although Articles 91 and 92 of the 2010 Constitution of Kenya oblige political parties to have a national character and desist from actions that undermine the stability of the country, politicians have been attempting to circumvent these constitutional provisions. Both NASA and Jubilee have identified plans to pursue an inclusive party structure. Nonetheless, their actions point to their desire to exploit ethnicity to solicit votes. The election period has seen the Kenyatta government declare the Makonde and Kenyans of Asian descent (“Muindis”) the country’s 43rd and 44th “tribes” respectively. The timing and future consequences of this conferment are, however, questionable. Can this action (and the economic promises made to the Makonde) be equated to vote buying? The Makonde, who currently reside in informal settlements, have requested that government resettles them in a permanent area. How this demand would interact with the intractable controversies surrounding land ownership in Kenya is uncertain.

There are also instances of clear manipulation of interethnic dissent. At least eight legislators have been indicted for inciting hatred. A court found MP Junet Mohamed, director of the Orange Democratic Movement’s (Odinga’s party) elections, complicit of encouraging discrimination against the people of Nyeri. An examination of a 10 January campaign message of the running mate of Kenyatta, Vice President William Ruto, in his homeland depicts him stirring ethnic Kalenjin feelings against other ethnicities. Such modes of campaigning threaten social cohesion, a precursor of national unity.

 Divergent Usage of Technology

The race to the polls has revealed the inconsistent impacts of technological tools. The Biometric Voter Registration (BVR) system adopted by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), the official electoral management body of Kenya, in the 2013 elections was widely welcomed for being more effective and secured against rigging. Yet, the system experienced significant failure that disenfranchised some electorate in that election. Regardless, civil society and the main opposition party still prefer registering voters and transferring election results electronically, provided the electronic systems are thoroughly tested. They have argued that the IEBC’s manual backup system is prone to tampering.

Social networking has become a key focus of the elections. Through social media platforms, such as Google’s Kenya Elections Hub, Ushahidi, Uchaguzi, Umati, and PeaceTXT, Kenyans living in different corners of the country managed to forge a common identity in 2013. This helped facilitate social trust and national peace.  The use of social media has increased since then. A 2016 Pew Research Center report maintains, 82 percent of adult Kenyans are on electronic social networks, meaning that true and false information can easily reach people across the country. A number of the aforementioned platforms remain active. Others, including Uwajibikaji-pamoja and CountryTrak, have been activated to further stimulate accountability and transparency in the electoral process.

A joint Geopoll-Portland survey conducted in Kenya shows 90 percent of “Kenyans have seen or heard false news in 2017.” Last month, deceptive videos designed to look like BBC and CNN news stories were circulated through social media. The videos had bogus poll results showing the Jubilee flag bearer in the lead.

Just as technology can be employed to produce and share deceptive information about politicians so can it be used to circulate fabricated news about the electoral process and results, either to discredit electoral governance institutions or advance other political interests. Fortunately, the Geopoll-Portland study credits Kenyans for being able to detect falsehood.

Credibility of Electoral Governance Institutions

Kenya’s electoral governance institutions, i.e. the IEBC and judiciary, were revamped after the adoption of the 2010 Kenyan Constitution as part of the effort to find a lasting solution to the country’s recurrent electoral violence, but events leading up to the 8 August elections have raised doubts about the credibility of these institutions. The IEBC faces over 300 lawsuits going into the elections. It has been faulted for not thoroughly cleaning up the electoral register, insufficiently cracking down on electoral malpractices and failing to develop a trustworthy backup system to complement the Biometric Voter Registration and Electronic Voter Identification systems, and for awarding the ballot printing contract to a firm purportedly linked to the incumbent president, among other condemnations. The judiciary has ruled in favor of the IEBC in some of these legal disputes, but that may not necessarily alter the views of the petitioners and their supporters.

President Kenyatta has also criticized the judiciary for condoning a deliberate opposition ploy to delay the elections. These criticisms can polarize the public’s confidence in a judicial system meant to resolve electoral disputes. To some Kenyans, the President’s utterance is a plot to subvert judicial independence. To others, the comment reflects genuine concerns and do not undermine the autonomy of the institution. People that conceive electoral governance institutions as lacking credibility may reject the results of the elections and, frighteningly, refuse the Judiciary’s intervention.

Electoral Tensions

Stakeholders have become apprehensive. This is partially because of the lingering memories of the violence experienced after the 2007 elections. The unparalleled competitiveness of this year’s elections, perceptions of impunity surrounding these elections, NASA’s worries about the fairness of the IEBC, recorded incidences of election-related violence, and the hotly contested county-level elections also explain the widespread uneasiness, according to Professor Dorina Bekoe of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.

The anxiety has caused the movement of non-indigenes of certain territories to areas dominated by members of their ethnic groups and the stocking up of foodstuff and other essential items.

It has also taken its toll on the economy. Serious business dealings have come to a standstill, with financiers halting their investments and neighboring states diverting their shipments from Mombasa to Tanzanian ports. U.S. and U.K. governments have issued travel warnings about the possibility of disturbances. Tourism in Kenya will suffer from this advisory.

The much-anticipated Kenyan elections take place today. Irrespective of the fact that the vulnerabilities of the past continue to haunt this exercise, there is hope that the country will pull back from the brink of a nationwide electoral violence.


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Matthew Pflaum is a MSc student in Africa & International Development.  Here he writes about his work-based placement in the East Region of Cameroon with MBOSCUDA.


Figure 1. A large church in central Yaoundé, and a banner for National Unity Day.


I arrived in Yaoundé, Cameroon on May 20th. I had only realized the previous day that this is an auspicious date in Cameroonian history – national unification day. In 1972, the Anglophone regions (two) and Francophone regions (eight) joined and unified, making the country a unitary rather than a federated state. It is one of the biggest holidays and festivals in the country, and Yaoundé, the country’s capital, was expected to be wild. Unfortunately, I missed most of the festivities as I arrived in the evening.

I am interested in pastoralists and nomads, and my work in Cameroon involves learning about land rights, marginalisation, and other issues related to Mbororo pastoralists in the country. (more…)


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A brief recap of the recent Beyond the Hashtag symposium on social media in Africa. The symposium was convened at the University of Edinburgh by SMS:Africa, a three-year ESRC-DFID-funded project housed in the Centre of African Studies.

Social Media pic

Photo by Tom Molony and Maggie Dwyer of SMS:Africa

As the continent with the youngest population worldwide, Africa is poised to drive social media use in innovative ways that have global ramifications.  In countries like Namibia, the number of mobile phone subscriptions exceeds the entire population.  Meanwhile, a number of authoritarian governments (Cameroon constituting a recent prominent example) have recognized the risks posed by the rapid spread of social media use and restricted access to online communications.

Studies of the dynamic phenomenon of social media use in Africa are nascent.  Filling this void, the ESRC-funded Social Media and Security in Africa (SMS:Africa) project seeks to provide a timely understanding of the increasingly prominent role social media plays in documenting and driving (in)security across the continent.

Under the auspices of the project, and with additional support from DFID, the Centre of African Studies and the Centre for Security Research at the University of Edinburgh, a two-day symposium, ‘Beyond the Hashtag: Social Media in Africa,’ convened to discuss the opportunities and risks the explosion in Africa’s social media use (which increased by nearly 50% in 2016) presents for a range of actors, including civil society, educators, politicians, and businesses.

Mirroring the rapid rise in social media use in Africa, we were delighted with the response to our call for submissions.  Due to overwhelming demand, we extended the symposium from a one to two-day event, with six panels and 20 speakers covering a diverse array of topics.  Amidst a plethora of critical insights, the symposium identified three critical issues to watch as social media continues to evolve across the digital landscape:

#Digital Legitimacy

Following the post-2011 democratic awakening in North Africa, the general narrative around social media use has reflected a belief that it is an unquestionably positive force.  However, participants at the Beyond the Hashtag Symposium suggested the need for a more nuanced perspective.  Florencia Enghel pondered, ‘if digital technology is the answer, what is the question?’

Jean-Benoît Falisse highlighted the harsh tactics that leading social media personalities representing political factions in Burundi have employed amidst the low-intensity conflict that emerged following President Pierre Nkurunziza’s push for a constitutionally questionable third term.  Pete Chonka noted the far-reaching implications of the struggles of the new central government in Somalia to compete with the slick media productions of Al-Shabaab.

#Digital Protests

Charlotte Cross, observed that a large number of African governments have restricted social media access during election campaigns.  As African nations are increasingly constrained in their ability to engage in traditional forms of repression, social media is becoming an increasingly contentious frontier of interaction.

Alisha Patel noted that while social media generally reflects a greater criticism of government policies than print media, many users tweet or post into a void, failing to reach a significant audience as they articulate their views.  In southern Africa however, social media fuelled protests have enjoyed significant success.  Jacob Geuder noted the fundamental importance of social media to the success of the #FeesMustFall student movement in Cape Town while George Karekwaivanane observed a similar foundation behind the short-lived success of #ThisFlag in Zimbabwe.

#Digital Criticism

A thread common to a number of speakers was the tendency of social media users to operate in ‘echo chambers’, rarely interacting with users who hold opinions different from their own, thereby minimizing opportunities to build consensus across political divides.

However, several speakers pointed to the impressive results of ‘digilantism’ (digital vigilantism).  Kenya in particular stands out as a leader of the drive to reframe the Western narrative of Africa through online activity.  Ruth Cookman highlighted the tenacity of Kenyan users of the image messaging app, Snapchat, in combatting stereotypical views of Nairobi, while Toussaint Nothias noted the success of #SomeoneTellCNN, which resulted in the newscaster issuing an apology for the tone of its coverage on the east African country.


Africa is home to seven of the top ten fastest growing internet populations.  While much has been said about the theoretical potential of digital technology to transform Africa’s economic position, Africans are currently employing social media to redefine traditional Western views of their realities as their governments are controversially confronting the reconfigurations engendered by the rise of social media.  While it may be too early to forecast the future of social media as a successful tool for political and social change, early indications from Africa point to its continued presence as a key driver and shaper of political discourse on a local, regional, and global stage.


Thomas Molony and Maggie Dwyer are leading the SMS: Africa project, part of the ESRC-DFID Joint Fund for Poverty Alleviation Research. Molony is a Senior Lecturer in African Studies at the University of Edinburgh.  Dwyer is a Research Fellow at the same institution.  Brooks Marmon is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh and managing editor of Postgrads from the Edge.




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Thomas Echlin – Harradine is a MSc student in the School of History, Classics and Archaeology.  He also holds a MSc from the Centre of African Studies, University of Edinburgh.  Here he reflects on a student organised event that he conceived, ‘Decolonising Africa in History and History in Africa.’


Professor Paul Nugent, the final speaker 

Over the previous months, I have come across a growing body of literature that challenges current methodological frameworks which have gained common currency.  These works critique approaches that are overwhelmingly grounded on western intellectual traditions.  One way to break free of these constraints and arrive at more nuanced and comprehensive conclusions is through a “decolonisation of the academy.”  I have long had a keen interest in studying contemporary and historical issues and debates from the African continent.  It was at this point I first had the idea about putting together a panel discussion exploring ‘decolonising Africa in history and history in Africa.’

I was also inspired by a recent student workshop on pan-Africanism to organise something similar with a more explicit historical focus. A committee was formed and we set about putting all the pieces in place for this panel discussion to take place.  Dr Hazel Gray, Brooks Marmon, Albert Mkony and Professor Paul Nugent were confirmed as panellists.  We wanted this to be a collaborative effort, and one that would go some way, even if only a little, to sow the seeds for more collaboration between the School of History and the Centre of African Studies.

Through a concerted team effort, we booked a venue, distributed flyers, and organised light refreshments.  The process itself was a good learning experience for all of us involved, and on the day of the panel, each panellist was assigned a committee member as a discussion chair.  The turn-out was very good for this student-initiative and the discussions were quite informative.

The aim of the event was simple, to present an interdisciplinary approach that engaged with history as a way to “decolonise the academy,” and overcome frameworks dominated by a Western/Eurocentric outlook.

Hazel Gray brought an economic perspective and discussed her own work on political economy.  Dr. Gray illuminated how colonial history has been misused in the New Institutional Economics.  She pointed out how one of the key figures in the field of new institutional economics, Douglass North, scarcely mentioned colonial violence in his treatment of transaction costs.  This was said to be a serious weakness, considering the extensive treatment North gave to discussing violence.  Dr. Gray’s overall conclusion was that current literature selectively used colonial history to conclude that free market economies and western style governance are the ideals to aspire to, and largely discount other possible economic models.

Albert Mkony spoke next and gave important insights and reflections on being Tanzanian in Edinburgh.  He said that for him and many Tanzanians, he had multiple identities depending on where he was and whom he was engaging with.  Albert related his experiences going through the Tanzanian education system and how a real strength of the system was the cultural exposure and awareness of how diverse, but equal all Tanzanians were in the eyes of the state.

Brooks Marmon offered some interesting insights on his own experiences during his Masters dissertation research and his time working in Liberia and Niger.  Brooks focused on showing how he went through his own “decolonisation of the mind.” He covered how he first became engaged in researching Liberia, and the impressions of Liberia that he formed based on his readings.  When he had the opportunity to travel to Liberia, his experience was far from the what he had expected through his reading.  Brooks’ time made him question who was writing these accounts, and the problem that so much literature is written from the outside looking in by western academics, and that often their accounts stray from reality and fail to take into account local complexities.  Brook’s message was simple: go beyond the texts, and beyond the mainstream historical literature.

Paul Nugent concluded the discussion by turning the topic on its head and suggesting that what was needed was not so much a decolonisation of the academy, but a question of saving history.  He noted that the African continent barely received mention in British secondary education, an omission with significant consequences.  Dr. Nugent argued that the focus on issues like World War II at secondary level often prompt students to elect for “safe” options at university level, rather than deviate into ‘unknown’ intellectual territory.  This in turn contributes to a lack of demand for courses dealing in not just African history, but histories from other non-Western regions of the globe.

The lack of this demand means that universities hire lecturers who specialise in European history, bringing with them the conventional frameworks that cause problems when applied to non-western contexts, contributing to a lack of exposure to alternate perspectives and methodological frameworks.  This was a compelling way to end the panel discussion, and certainly provoked deep reflections amongst the audience.

The event ended with a brief closing statement in which I observed that a common theme of each speaker was to emphasise the dangers of becoming attached to specific methodological approaches, and that the panel had highlighted how important it was for academics and researchers to engage and collaborate with scholars and perspectives from other disciplines.  In doing so, more comprehensive and nuanced understandings of contemporary issues, debates, and topics on the Africa continent can be reached.


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Kadalie Clements in 1926

Clements Kadalie addressing a gathering of over 10,000 in Bloemfontein.  From The Workers’ Herald, 15 December 1926

Henry Mitchell is an ESRC funded second-year PhD student in the Centre of African Studies.  As a MSc student at CAS, his dissertation, “Independent Africans: Migration from Colonial Malawi to the Union of South Africa, c.1935-1961” was awarded the George Shepperson prize.

Henry is currently based in Johannesburg, South Africa, where he has been conducting research at the Wits Historical Papers and a number of other collections.  His PhD thesis examines how the labour activist Clements Kadalie interacted with anti-colonial and anti-capitalist networks in the early 20th century.  Here Henry takes us back nearly a century, looking at the immigration question and early tensions between Malawian immigrants and native South Africans, an issue with increasing contemporary resonance as South Africa struggles to shake a hardening stigma of xenophobia.

“We have nothing in common with Blantyre Natives”: Immigration, internationalism and the nation in South Africa, in the 1920s and today

Henry Mitchell (henry.mitchell@ed.ac.uk)


In late February this year, after the Democratic Alliance mayor of Johannesburg Herman Mashaba labelled undocumented migrants as ‘criminals’, Nigerian businesses in Tshwane once again came under attack, with protesters demanding the deportation of all ‘foreigners’.1 Again the ever-unresolved question of who belongs to, and who is outside, the nation reared its head and dominated the news. Whilst researching the life and times of the Malawian immigrant and trade unionist Clements Kadalie in 1920s South Africa, similar issues and debates came up with remarkable parallels to today – yet, despite the vast amount of research on the contemporary situation, historians have done little to address the fact that this uncomfortable question challenged black South African nationalism throughout the 20th century, and split the founding fathers of the African National Congress (ANC). Already in the 1910s and ‘20s, the migration question and anti-immigrant violence were contentious issues, and could not simply be distilled down to a political choice between narrow minded-nationalism and more cosmopolitan internationalism. Ideas about migration and nationhood were entangled within broader debates about how to address falling real wages and declining living standards, with ANC leaders and black trade unionists divided over how to resolve the contradictions of colonial capitalism.


On Christmas Day 1927 a huge riot erupted in Western Native Township, Johannesburg. The Transvaal African Congress (TAC) alleged that “without provocation the Blantyre Natives [from today’s Malawi] secretly plotted an attack”, and that “heavy casualties were sustained amounting to between 50 and 100.”2 The following day Basotho men retaliated by attacking Malawians living in Newclare, killing 6 and injuring 25. The Chamber of Mines-owned newspaper, Umteteli wa Bantu reported that the “general feeling is that the time has come when Central Africans should be cleared out of the country…they are taking bread out of the mouths of the people who pay heavy taxes…[and having] introduced the knife for fighting purposes…they are chiefly responsible for the recent epidemic of stabbing affrays”.3 Demanding the mass deportation of Malawians, the TAC asserted that Central Africans’ “continuous stay in the Union will only perpetuate the recurrence of faction fights and bloodshed”.4


The author of the ANC’s first constitution, Richard W. Msimang deplored the stance of the Transvaal African Congress, and wrote to Umteteli wa Bantu “not to defend the Blantyres or Central African Natives, who no doubt can speak for themselves”, but “to protest against the petition of the Transvaal Congress.” Living “in a country whose Government is armed with drastic powers of deportation for imaginary offences”, Msimang asserted that it was “unlike an African Congress to support the application of a bad and retrograde policy.”5 In reference to the ‘Colour Bar’ legislation which the government had just passed, RW Msimang thought it was “strange to find Native leaders of an African Congress strengthening the hands of the Government in its bad policy of replacing Natives by Europeans…Happily employers do not ask whether the man is a Union Native or comes from Central Africa – they employ a man according to the services he gives.”6


Another of the ANC’s founding fathers, and Richard’s younger brother, Henry Selby Msimang, however responded with a bigoted if ‘economically-rational’ argument, supporting the call for the deportation of all ‘Central Africans’. For Selby, immigration had increased “to such an extent that our labour market has become a dumping ground for unskilled workers of the African continent”, and thought it “perfectly reasonable if the Union Natives want to claim their own that they should endeavour to clear redundant labour by imposing restrictions against non-Union Natives”.7 Whist the restrictions of the 1923 Urban Areas Act were resented by many black South Africans,  for Selby, “no one can quarrel with the object of the Johannesburg Municipality in seeking powers to check the ingress of Natives which tends to create redundant labour. It is in the interest of the worker or any organisation of Native workers that there should be such restrictions in this direction so as to create a constant demand for the supply of labour in order to ensure increased wages.”8 With the state restricting the immigration and mobility of Indians, as “a means of self-preservation for the European trade, more should be done to lend ear to the petition of Union Natives for their measure of self-preservation.”9


In part, Msimang’s essay codified who ‘South Africans’ were, and who they were not. He opened his essay with the assertion that the “South African Native is fast gaining race consciousness”, and concluded by qualifying “most emphatically that we have nothing in common with Blantyre Natives”.10 But his arguments also tied into his broader theory of an ‘authentic African’ trade unionism that aimed to control the ‘labour supply’ to urban areas at a national level. By establishing trade union-funded rural co-operatives which would keep “redundant labourers busy at their homes”, Msimang hoped to “remove the temptation to flood the labour markets in industrial centres – thus making it possible for our urban Natives to compete freely with any section of the community”.11 Having worked for a white ‘labour controller’ during the 1910s, Msimang posed important questions about how black wages could be realistically raised in the foreseeable future – though he employed xenophobic rhetoric to do so.


In contrast, the most famous ‘Central African’ in 1920s South Africa, Clements Kadalie, had a completely different, if equally ambitious, model for solving black workers’ low wage problem. With South Africa’s mining companies and farmers drawing on ‘cheap labour’ from Mozambique, Lesotho, Swaziland, Botswana and Malawi to create a ‘low-wage labour empire’, Kadalie’s Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union of Africa (ICU), looked to organise all black workers south of the Zambezi into ‘One Big Union’. Understanding South Africa’s low wages as part of a far broader colonial system of expropriation and exploitation stretching throughout Central and Southern Africa, the ICU became Africa’s first mass movement with hundreds of thousands of members and branches throughout the region, rejecting both ‘tribal’ and nascent ‘national’ divisions. Attacking those “still thinking in terms of outworn nationalism”, Kadalie asserted: “We are utterly opposed to nationalism. Our goal is international Socialism.”12 Recognising “that the recruiting system is the means of keeping a regular supply of native mine-workers”, the ICU felt that “if recruiting, therefore, was only concerned with that object, we would have very little quarrel with it; but from what we would have seen and heard of the working of the recruiting system, it is nothing but highway robbery” The ICU wanted “free labour within the Union of South Africa and elsewhere in the Continent. We want a living wage, a new scale of compensation for the African mine workers…and above all, this criminal recruiting system must go at once.”13 Following the global forward march of labour in the aftermath of the October Revolution in Russia, Kadalie saw wage controls and anti-capitalist international solidarity as the answer to the woes of Southern Africa’s workers.


Kadalie’s pro-immigration stance was backed up by progressive and liberal black elites such as Sol Plaatje. Having “lately received four letters, each asking me to support a movement under the auspices of the African National Congress” for “the expulsion from the Union of all Blantyre Natives”, the ANC’s first general secretary “refuse[d] to support the suggestion by either word or deed” for both private and public reasons. With a number of his relatives already living north of South Africa’s borders, Plaatje feared the “time will come when more of my own relatives will find life intolerable in a ‘whiteman’s country’ and migrate to Central Africa, where some of them are already; in that case, a Blantyre retaliation may prove very uncomfortable.” In terms of public policy, Plaatje noted that it was already “the intention of certain people in this Union to rid South Africa of the Native population. How do we benefit the Natives if – wittingly or unwittingly – we play into the hands of such selfish people?” He went on to question: “Natives cannot even get money out of the Taxation and Native Development Fund to build a day school for their children, so, in the event of deportation, who must foot the bill?”14 More critically, Henry Daniel Tyamzashe, dismissed Selby Msimang as a hypocrite: “Many white people of this land have advanced, as a reason for their bad laws, the excuse of ‘self-preservation’, and Mr Selby Msimang is numbered among those who rightly condemned such reasoning”.15 Similarly, RV Selope Thema believed that the TAC had only lurched towards anti-immigrant populism, and “fortified themselves behind the barbed wires of racialism and provincialism”, because it had “lost the sway which it once held over the people”.16


As these debates played out on the pages of South Africa’s black press, other Central Africans also spoke for themselves – just as RW Msimang had presumed. Echoing Kadalie’s arguments for the liberal freedom of movement, the Johannesburg-based Nyasaland, Rhodesia and East African Congress (NREANC) under the leadership of Rev John George Phillips argued that:

The natives of Nyasaland, and neighbouring British Territories we claim, are a valuable asset to the Union [of South Africa], the country of their adoption. Were the Government to submit this question to a Committee of Business Men, of large Employers of labour, to Leaders of big Industries, we have no doubt that this ‘Edict’ for our Repatriation would be met by a very decided negative…No word was ever spoken to us, that we were ‘Prohibited Immigrants’. No, this is a later development, which threatens to break our homes, to divide families, and to bring moral, Social, and Religious blight upon thousands of inoffensive, God-fearing Native people.17


Whilst Andrew Chinzewe asserted Malawians’ “inalienable right to earn our daily bread within the Union, or in any other country, within the Commonwealth of Nations”, Peter Nyambo – a Malawian who was president of both the Cape Town ANC and the Cape Town branch of Marcus Garvey’s UNIA – similarly argued for the ANC to act, not as a narrow South African organisation, but as a “League of Nations”.18


Crucial figures in South Africa’s liberation history, regardless of their place of birth and political orientation, argued for the freedom of movement and a broader pan-African solidarity. Debates about the place of Malawians in South African society, however, centred around and brought to the fore questions about how wages and living standards could be raised – for Selby Msimang “the question of foreign labour casting us from employment is greater than all other considerations”, and had become “a question of self-preservation.”19 Already in the 1920s, important and contentious questions were being raised about the economic consequences of migration: Did immigration really ‘undercut’ wages? Why were wage differentials so significant across Southern and Central Africa? And could the issue of low wages be resolved through a minimum or living wage rather than anti-immigrant measures? Demanding a minimum wage across South Africa as a solution to declining real wages, the ICU answered these important questions with remarkably similarity to experts appearing before South Africa’s ongoing Minimum Wage Commission. Whilst the likes of Selby Msimang, and the ANC more generally, saw the control of movement as the solution to South Africa’s problems, for Kadalie and the ICU the solution to capitalist exploitation was not narrow-minded nationalism and deportation, but the control of wages, international socialism and pan-African solidarity.



  1. https://mg.co.za/article/2017-02-28-south-africa-faces-continents-wrath-as-xenophobia-rears-its-head-again
  2. ‘Africans Versus Africans’, Abantu Batho, 09/02/1928.
  3. ‘Trouble at Western Native Township’, Umteteli wa Bantu, 31/12/1927.
  4. ‘Africans Versus Africans’, Abantu Batho, 09/02/1928.
  5. W. Msimang, ‘Congress Supports Deportation’, Umteteli wa Bantu, 11/02/1928.
  6. W. Msimang, ‘Congress Supports Deportation’, Umteteli wa Bantu, 11/02/1928.
  7. S. Msimang, ‘Congress and Blantyres’, Umteteli wa Bantu, 18/02/1928.
  8. S. Msimang, ‘Congress and Blantyres’, Umteteli wa Bantu, 18/02/1928.
  9. S. Msimang, ‘Congress and Blantyres’, Umteteli wa Bantu, 18/02/1928.
  10. S. Msimang, ‘Congress and Blantyres’, Umteteli wa Bantu, 18/02/1928.
  11. S. Msimang, ‘Organising the Bantu Workers’, Umteteli wa Bantu, 28/02/1925; see also H.S. Msimang, ‘Non-European Trade Unionism’, Umteteli wa Bantu, 20/03/1926; H.S. Msimang, ‘Trade Unionism and the Natives’, Umteteli wa Bantu, 28/07/1928.
  12. Kadalie, ‘The Old and the New Africa’, Labour Monthly, (October 1927).
  13. ‘The Recruiting System’, The Black Man, 1:2 (1920); ‘The Slavery of Recruited Labour’, Workers’ Herald (c. July 1923), quoted in The International, 11/08/1923.
  14. Plaatje, ‘Should the Nyandjas be Deported’, Umteteli wa Bantu, 03/03/1928.
  15. D. Tyamzashe, ‘Congress and Blantyres’, Umteteli wa Bantu, 25/02/1928.
  16. V. Selope Thema, ‘The Responsibility of Bantu Leadership’, Umteteli wa Bantu, 21/01/1928.
  17. South African National Archives, Pretoria (SANA) NTS 2076 166/280 ‘Influx of Nyasaland Natives into the Union’.
  18. SANA NTS 2076 166/280 ‘Influx of Nyasaland Natives into the Union’; NTS 7670 86/332(1) ‘Native Unrest: Police Reports: Cape Town’.
  19. S. Msimang, ‘Congress and Blantyres’, Umteteli wa Bantu, 18/02/1928.








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