As a Canadian immigrant to South Africa, I have struggled mightily to understand post-colonial African politics. I have a feeling I’m not alone. (Colonial politics may have been horrific, but at least it made sense.)
Since independence, we have witnessed an array of socio-political behaviour that evades any such coherence, making it difficult to imagine a way to greater peace and stability in the continent. Political theory imported from the global North doesn’t get us there, demonstrating that its explanatory power does not have universal reach. But Africanist theories, rooted in local understandings of Africa’s difference, have also fallen short – often by trying (and failing) to posit an original and essential Africanness.
Patrick Chabal offers a startling and powerful alternative. Sidestepping standard questions about the state, civil society, ethnicity, development, etc., he approaches “the stuff of politics from below, or rather from within”, by asking how contemporary African people live and how their personal beliefs and economic practices affect the workings of politics. In seven chapters, he examines the everyday “politics” of being, belonging, believing, partaking, striving, surviving and suffering, and their impact on social relations of power and obligation.
Chabal has been thinking creatively about Africa for decades, and is perhaps best known for his Africa Works: Disorder as Political Instrument (1999). As the chair of African Politics and History at King’s College London, he is also a distinguished academic. These two qualities render the book both exciting and finicky, bursting with fresh and fruitful insights that are delivered with a careful precision that can turn ponderous. Or maybe that’s my own impatience showing – I just wanted him to take the ball and run.
Africa: The Politics of Suffering and Smiling (the title refers to a Fela Kuti song) doesn’t offer a new theory of Africa. It offers us another way for us to look and to see. It is a remarkable book.