Tuesday, May 21

Political Decolonization

There’s a lot of talk at the present time about ‘decolonization’. But despite the frequency with which the word is used, it’s hard to find an explanation of what it means. In an effort to understand the issues involved, I’ve been reading a historian and political theorist of the colonial period, Mahmood Mamdani. 

Mamdani’s writings focus on the colonization of Africa and the rise of post-colonial African states. He is well placed to understand his topic. Coming from an Indian family, Mamdani was born in Mumbai, of parents who had been brought up in Tanzania. He himself was brought up in Kampala, the Ugandan capital, and studied in the United States, where he was involved in the civil rights movement. Shortly after returning to Uganda, he was expelled from the country because of his Asian ethnicity. After fleeing to Britain as a refugee, he returned to take up a university position in Tanzania, before returning to Uganda, where he was stripped of citizenship for criticizing the new government’s policies. But he outlived his political opponents and is now Chancellor of Kampala International University.

  1. Mamdani’s Argument

Much of Mamdani’s writing has to do with Africa. The African experience of colonization (and decolonization) is the principal subject of his books Citizen and Subject (1996), When Victims Become Killers (2001), and Define and Rule (2012). But in his most recent work, Neither Settler Nor Native (2020), he broadens the scope of his inquiry to include twentieth-century Germany, Palestine, and the United States. 

With regard to the United States, Mamdani reminds us that rather than being a model of freedom and equality, it is a nation founded on acts of violence against its indigenous peoples. That violence extended to political exclusion, for the European settlers were unwilling to allow Native Americans to become equal citizens. They imposed what Mamdani calls a ‘two-state solution, with a majority state for settlers and a minority protectorate for natives’ (the famous, or notorious, ‘reservations’). 

The same pattern would be followed by many colonial rulers in Africa. They, too, adopted a policy of indirect rule, in which peoples organized into ethnically distinguished groups were allowed a degree of self-government according to their customary practices. Those customary practices were turned into law through the rulings of local administrators appointed by their colonial masters. In this way, settler governments separated out indigenous peoples in order to maintain control over them, while giving the appearance of respecting ‘native’ traditions.

The tragedy of some post-colonial African states, in Mamdani’s view, is that while they liberated themselves of their colonial rulers, they did not liberate themselves from the political ideas the colonizers had brought. In particular, they continued to attribute political significance to ethnic and racial groupings. (Botswana, Tanzania, post-apartheid South Africa, and post-genocide Rwanda are striking exceptions.) Ethnic diversity is not, in itself, a problem for a nation. It can enrich its common life, with a diversity of languages, customs, music, and foods. But when ethnic groupings are defined in law and the groups thus defined are given differing political rights, trouble ensues. What results from these arrangements is a divided political structure, in which some groups end up as ‘permanent minorities’ in their own country. 

The way ahead, in Mamdani’s view, is what he describes as the decolonization of the political community. This means abandoning the practice of defining a person’s place in the political order on the basis of their ethnicity. It means moving beyond the colonial categories of ‘settler’ and ‘native’, ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ to create a state in which all citizens are treated equally as individuals. As Mamdani writes,

decolonization is political equality under democratic decision-making. It means … overthrowing the idea of [the ethnically-based] nation and replacing it with the idea of [a] … state governed by all of its residents, each of whom speaks with a voice no more or less valued than that of any other.

Political decolonization does not mean assimilation, in the sense of banishing cultural and ethnic diversity. Far from it. The political equality of individuals need not mean the dominance of any one set of cultural practices. But it does mean, as Mamdani puts it, that ‘diversity is no longer politicized’. A post-colonial state, on this view, should be a country of equal citizens, rather than one whose political system is ethnically or racially divided.

  1. Reading Mamdani in New Zealand

Reading Mamdani, I’ve been struck by how close New Zealand had come to his political ideal, at least until recently.

New Zealand, like the United States, has a history of violence against indigenous people. We need only think of the bloody conflicts of the nineteenth century, particularly the wars in Taranaki and the Waikato, for which (as Keith Sinclair argued many years ago) the government of the day must bear much of the responsibility. And then there was the appropriation of land. Even leaving aside the confiscations after the wars, the purchase of land was not always done fairly. A further problem was individualization of title to Māori land, through the work of the Native Land Court. As Alan Ward showed (in his aptly named A Show of Justice), this often impoverished Māori communities. This history has contributed to ongoing social inequalities, which it would be wrong to ignore.

Mamdani himself has been criticized for ignoring the social inequalities created by colonialism. He regards, for example, post-apartheid South Africa as a model of equal citizenship. But he overlooks the terrible social inequalities that country continues to experience. In his desire to transcend colonial divisions, Mamdani takes little account of the need to right the wrongs of the past. I don’t want to fall into the same trap. New Zealand needs to address those social inequalities that are the legacy of colonization. Treaty settlements have been one way of doing this. But there are also cultural losses to redress, in particular the loss of the Māori language. The revival of te reo me ōna tikanga – the language and its associated practices – is underway, but there is still a long way to go.

Yet one thing New Zealand did get right, from the very beginning, was to embrace the ideal Mamdani advocates, that of the political equality of all citizens. In this respect, at least, the first people of this country have had a very different history from the first peoples of Australia, the United States, and Canada. It wasn’t until 1924 that Native Americans gained full US citizenship, and it took another 40 years before all states would permit them to vote. With regard to Canada, it was only in 1960 that indigenous Canadians gained the right to vote under the same circumstances as other citizens. Closer to home, it was only in 1962 that indigenous Australians gained the right to vote in federal elections.

The colonial government in New Zealand could have adopted the policy of indirect rule, adopted in the United States, Canada, and many parts of Africa. Section 71 of the 1852 Constitution Act, allowing for the legal recognition of customary Māori practice in certain districts, would have facilitated this. But instead of implementing that measure, New Zealand sought to extend to all its people what Te Tiriti calls ngā tikanga katoa rite tahi: in Sir Hugh Kāwharu’s translation, ‘the same rights and duties of citizenship’.

The path towards that goal was not straightforward. Under the 1852 Constitution Act, the right to vote was (in principle) extended to all men, irrespective of ethnicity. But the associated property qualification effectively excluded most Māori. This was rectified in 1867, with the creation of the four Māori seats, which extended the franchise to all Māori men, irrespective of individual property ownership. (Māori meeting the property requirement could still vote in general electorates.) While this degree of representation was less than was warranted by the size of the population, it was originally intended to be only a temporary measure. But despite these difficulties, the ideal, from the very beginning of New Zealand’s history, was that all eligible citizens should enjoy the same political rights, irrespective of ethnicity, an ideal reflected in the third clause of the Treaty of Waitangi. Even with the retention (and, in due course, the expansion) of the Māori seats, this remained true, for all citizens had a vote of equal value. 

In recent decades, however, we have moved in the direction of a different political structure, one that reproduces the mistake made by some post-colonial African countries. It involves the entrenchment of colonial categories – those of what Mamdani calls ‘settler’ and ‘native’ – in the political order, with differing rights being apportioned collectively, on the basis of ethnicity, defined in terms of ancestry. It is a view of this kind that lies behind the currently dominant understanding of the Treaty. While there have always been disputes about its precise meaning, the Treaty has generally been understood, by Māori and Pākehā alike, to have established a single polity in which all New Zealanders would be equal citizens. But as the historian Michael Belgrave has shown, a new interpretation of the Treaty began to emerge in the 1970s. This held that the Treaty established a partnership between two peoples, destined to remain distinct communities in perpetuity. The Court of Appeal canonized this view in 1987 by speaking of a ‘partnership between races’, a ‘partnership between Māori and Pākehā’, and a ‘partnership between the Crown and the Māori race’. 

The path this set us on is precisely the one Mamdani regarded as a tragic mistake. It anticipates the creation of a racially bifurcated state. It entails a permanent separation of Māori and ‘the Crown’, implicitly defining the Crown as Pākehā (an idea that seems absurd when the current representative of the sovereign is Māori). Many activists want to take this understanding of the Treaty to its logical conclusion by dividing the country politically, with dual (Māori and Pākehā) sovereignties. On this view, the equality promised by article three of the Treaty is not the equality of citizens, but the political equality of two distinct peoples. 

If this vision were to be implemented, it would divide what history has united (since 53% of those who identify as Māori claim at least one other ethnicity as well). Even within families, people could have differing political rights. But it would also create the kind of permanent political minority against which Mamdani warns, with a majority forever resentful of what they would see as its undue influence. In other countries, an ethnically-based politics of this kind has led to violence. (Sri Lanka and Rwanda are sobering examples.) There is no reason to think New Zealand would be an exception.

It is, therefore, time to return to the vision that motivated so many of our predecessors, that of the political equality of all citizens. Such political equality is not a sufficient condition for a just and harmonious society. There are historical wrongs that need to be addressed. But judging by the experience of other countries, it is a necessary condition. It is certainly better than embracing one of the most tragically mistaken ideas of nineteenth-century colonialism: that of an ethnically divided nation.