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The Humanities Conference 2003

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Militarism or Emancipation?: Rethinking the Culture of Opposition Politics in Africa Today

Michael Neocosmos.

The hegemonic conception of opposition politics in Africa today is still concerned with elitist notions of acquiring state power or state positions in order to provide an alternative management to that of current politicians. But oppressive and corrupt leaders succeed each other with monotonous regularity with the backing of Western interests. The popular disappointment with this form of politics is evident as politicians simply reproduce oppressive state-power over the African population and provide tighter and tighter links with the West. Today a form of liberalism reduced to managerialist and militaristic thinking seems dominant among this political elite and has become hegemonic at the global level, contradicting an explicitly expressed concern with a culture of human rights. The character of the post-colonial state has regularly been analysed through essentialist lenses . Alternative forms of politics, especially emancipatory politics, have not been much debated in Africa so far and have been excluded from a state domain of politics. The weakness of an alternative African popular-democratic nationalism in particular is striking, as is the weakness of a politics of peace and debate in Africa, although the latter is growing in the global public sphere. In order to attempt to strengthen this alternative, this paper examines some new issues thrown up by recent political thinking and its applicability to the context of Africa. This new thinking argues that a new democratic form of politics should not be so much concerned with the attainment of state power as such, but with transforming state-society relations, and thus power itself. Politics is thus understood as being about distance from the state. In this context, (constructed) popular cultures and traditions become central to an alternative manner of thinking about politics as the latter becomes embedded in and grows out of popular practices.


Michael Neocosmos  (South Africa)
Professor of Sociology
Department of Sociology Faculty of Humanities
University of Pretoria

Lecturer and Researcher in several African Universities from 1985. PhD 1982. Published in the areas of rural development and political economy, ethnicity, state and democracy, South African transition to democracy.

  • State
  • Emancipatory Politics
  • Democracy
  • Nationalism
  • Culture
  • Africa

(60 min Workshop, English)