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Few notice the power play in the countryside


It is not often that a professor makes a prophecy that comes true. So let us give credit where credit is due. In 1996, Ugandan academic Mahmoud Mamdani issued a warning to South Africans, one that many of us thought too eccentric to take seriously.

In his book, Citizens and Subjects, Mamdani argued that the most pernicious forms of power exercised under white minority rule did not require racial ideology and could thus survive apartheid. Yet we South Africans believed that defeating racism and destroying the legacy of apartheid were one and the same thing. And so the worst of apartheid might live on, and we would not see it for what it is, simply because it is no longer about black and white.

Mamdani was talking about the ways in which the countryside was governed. In his analysis, the apartheid state was bifurcated; it ruled its urban and rural domains in different forms. In the cities, there was a single legal order defined by the “civilised” laws of Europe. Black people in the cities had to conform to European laws, but were denied access to many European rights.

In the Bantustans, by contrast, people were ruled by a perverted form of customary law. Falsely disguised as a remnant of how Africans governed themselves in precolonial times, it was a despotic form of rule in which administrative, judicial and coercive power were rolled into one.


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