Reflections on the Colonial State in South Africa and Elsewhere

factions, fragments, facts and fictions

Publication Date:

Journal: Bulletin of the Institute of Ethnology, Academia Sinica

Reissue Date:

Page start: 1

Page End: 50

Edition: 83

[W]hat happens to people without nations…? Are they human beings if they are not citizens?– Julia Kristeva, Nations Without Nationalism


Let me begin with a truism. Whatever else it may be concerned with, the so-called “anthropology of colonialism” exists, above all else, to interrogate the construction, objectification, and negotiation of difference. Difference in 3-D, so to speak. As distinction, dualism, discrimination; also as dissension, duplicity, and discord. But not just difference between colonizer and colonized, that manichean op- position drawn by imperial regimes–often speciously–to separate ruler from subject, light from dark (Cooper and Stoler 1997:3, 9). Also, in a more reflexive register, differences in the way in which colonialism has been conceptualized and characterized in Western scholarship.

As we have ourselves pointed out (Comaroff and Comaroff 1997a),1 a new revisionism has arisen. In retreat are received forms of modernization theory, with their confident liberal humanist teleologies, their utopian narratives of progress; si- milarly the Marxist (and Marxoid) alternatives, which treat imperialism as a reflex of the global expansion of capitalism, of the articulation of modes of production, of unequal exchange between centers and peripheries, of underdevelopment and de- pendency. Alongside them has emerged a growing concern with the contingent, constructed, cultural dimensions of colonialism (e.g. Dirks 1992; Thomas 1994; Cooper and Stoler 1997:4f): a concern with the making of imperial subjects by means of objects, via the manufacture of desire and the commodification of need; with the reconstruction of nonEuropean “others,” after Foucault, through dispersed disciplinary regimes (e.g. Thomas 1990; Mitchell 1991); with colonies as “labora- tories of modernity” (Stoler 1995); with the agency of the colonized and its im- pact on Europe and Europeans (cf Trotter 1990:5f). At its most extreme, the grand narrative of colonialism in the Western academy has been replaced by one which treats the phenomenon as protean, almost incoherent. Even among the less postmodern, dialectics have often given way to dialogics, political economy to poe- tics, class conflict to consumption, the violence of the gun to the violation of the text, world-historical material processes to local struggles over signs and styles, European domination to post-Hegelian hybridity (Comaroff and Comaroff 1997a:15).

This is something of an over-statement, obviously. There are still many who argue, influentially, for older perspectives. And some who essay a range of positions in between.2 Indeed, I myself hold that neither image of colonialism is right or wrong; that each refers to different moments in, different perspectives on, different aspects of its workings over the long-run. I also believe that the pendulum swing across this range of positions has had a liberating effect on the anthropological study of the encounter between Europe and its significant “others,” pushing it in new, creative directions. But I do have one lingering concern.

It has to do with the question of the colonial state.

George Steinmetz3 commented three years ago, that, for all the recent at- tention given to colonialisms of various types and times, the colonial state itself is rarely theorized.4 True, its functions are often spelled out: for some, they lie primarily in the regulation of material processes; for others, they are to be found, more generally, in the establishment and maintenance of social order through the imposition of legal and other administrative mechanisms; for yet others, they derive from an ensemble of institutions created to open a space for, and to protect, various projects of European expansion; for a few, they inhere in violence, terror, and coercion, framed as the guarantee of physical security for the colonizer against the colonized. This inventory is not exhaustive, of course. For one thing, postmodern notions of the workings of the colonial state, as we shall see, include a broad range of disciplinary and regulatory practices, the object of which is twofold: to recast the experienced reality, the existential world, of the colonized and to re- present back to Europe its own modernist sense of self, thus to naturalize its world picture and the forms of knowledge legitimated therein (see e.g. Mitchell 1991:xf). But, I stress, these are all functional descriptions, a mode of knowing the beast by its effects (cf Corrigan and Sayer 1985:2). What is more, their conceptual and empirical bases are far from established. Hence Steinmetz’s caution. If he is correct, we have yet to answer some fairly fundamental questions.

What precisely is “the colonial state?”

Is it a definite or an indefinite article? One thing or many things or nothing at all?

Is it a process? A series of institutional mechanisms? A specific form of governance? A cultural construct? An existential state of being-in-the world?

Do the various functions typically ascribed to it, from different theoretical and ideological perspectives, amount to a convincing account of its historical workings? And how does it differ from its European counterpart, the metropolitan state “at home”?6

Is there anything of interest to be derived from the fact that, just as the term “state” has two connotations in its noun form–the state, that is, as political order, structure, institution; the state as a condition-of-being–so as a verb it denotes to “give voice,” to “articulate,” to “narrate”? Does anything lie hidden in this fortuitous homonym?7

It is to these questions that I direct my reflections on the colonial state in nineteenth- and twentieth-century South Africa.8 And elswhere. I do so by exploring, in a manner deliberately eclectic and fragmentary–at times, even, frankly elementary–some of the dominant facts and fictions surrounding its social archaeology. Also by interrogating the dominant theoretical approaches to its description. The point of doing a parallel, paradigmatic “reading” and of these alternative narratives is not, I stress, to tender a literature review. It is to cast radically new light on the nature of colonial governmentality, modernity, and the culture of legality at its core.


[T]he state is a territorial entity struggling to impose its will upon a fluid and spatially open process of capital circulation. It has to contest within its borders the factional forces and fragmenting effects…of capital[ism]…To do so effectively the state must construct an alternative sense of community to that based on money, as well as a definition of public interests over and above the class and sectarian interests and struggles that are contained within its borders. It must, in short, legitimize itself.

David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity, p.108

There is no need, in this context, to open up the question of why European colonizers–first Dutch, then British9–found their way to southern Africa; or how “the colonial state,” in its various guises, established itself here from the late seven- teenth century onwards. At first, European governance covered a relatively limited, though gradually expanding, coastal territory (see e.g. Krüger 1969:325f; also below). Pragmatically speaking, it set itself a fourfold mandate, the cumulative “responsibilities” of empire which were later to be seen and rationalized as the “white man’s burden” in Africa: (i) the “discovery” of dark, unknown lands, which were conceptually emptied of their peoples and cultures10 so that their “wilderness” might be brought properly to order–i.e., fixed and named and mapped–by an officializing white gaze; (ii) the “pacification” of native “tribes” seen to be endemically unruly and thus requiring, even desiring,11 Pax Britannica or another European equivalent;12 (iii) the facilitation of “commerce and adventurous industry” (Barrow 1801-4,1:8f), both metropolitan and local, thus to civilize the savages, to draw them into the virtuous beneficence of empire, and, simultaneous- ly, to enrich the “mother country”; and (iv) rational administration–itself taken everywhere to be a condition of possibility for the economic “management” (read “exploitation”) of colonies (cf Ajayi 1969:505)–which consisted in part of the maintenance of law and order,13 in part of a regime of predictable bureaucratic and fiscal practices. As Weber (1968:1394) would later put it, writing of states in general:

…the bureaucratic state, adjudicating and administering according to rationally established law and regulation, is…closely related to the modern capitalist development, [which] rests primarily on calculation and presupposes a legal and administrative system, whose functioning can be ra- tionally predicted…just like the expected performance of a machine.

“Sociologically speaking,” he was wont to say “the modern state is an `enterprise’ just like a factory.” This, certainly, is how colonial administrations in many parts of Africa liked to represent themselves–though, as Lord Lugard (1997[1922]:574) stressed, it was always deemed important to make it clear, alike “to the educated native, the conservative Moslem, and the primitive pagan,” that “Government [was] not antagonistic but…sympathetic to his aspirations,” protective of “his natu- ral rights,” and “in touch with [his] thought and feeling.”14

The fourfold mandate taken upon themselves by colonial regimes in Africa– discovery, pacification, commerce, and rational administration–implied that the master narrative of European imperial expansion, its narrative of mastery, would place “the state” at the center of the story: that “the state,” in the singular, would be at once the ur-protagonist, the organizing trope, and the fons et origo of an epic history; that its heroic personages would, for the most part, be public figures- -statesmen–who were agents of overrule and governance, broadly conceived;15 also, as a result, that this history would, in its authoritative telling, be political ra- ther than cultural, social, or even, in the first instance, economic.
Which, of course, has turned out to be the case.

It has been said, quite often recently, that history in its modernist form–as a chronicle of public events and heroic actions–is re-presentation (Comaroff and Comaroff 1992;176); the authoritative self-representation, in particular, of the nation-state (cf Anderson 1983). And, since colonialism everywhere has been in- extricably imbricated in the making of European modernity (Stoler 1995), in the maturation of its sovereign communities (Cooper and Stoler 1997:18f), it is hardly surprising that imperial encounters should have been written as the political histories of states acting out their destinies on other peoples, other places.

In South Africa, as much if not more than anywhere else, both liberal and conservative histories16 place almost exclusive emphasis on the role of the colonial state in the domestication and development of the subcontinent; or did until very recently.17 Owusu (1975:34-5), although writing in a more general key, describes nicely the epistemic bases of the orthodox historiography of South Africa. He observes that accounts in this tradition are, wittingly or otherwise, grounded in “theories” of modernization. (The quote marks, signs of irony, are his.) These acc- ounts take as axiomatic the inevitability of modernity; again, his italics his skepticism. They emphasize its gradual, excruciatingly long-term evolution, presume the centrality of government in effecting its progress or retardation, and treat its narrative, ultimately, as political, even when focusing on material pro- cesses.

As told from this perspective, the story of the colonial state in South Africa over the longue durée is usually divided into four broad periods: (i) 1652-1806, the phase of Dutch mercantile rule, interrupted briefly by an English takeover (see n.9); (ii) 1806-c.1870, the early British years, in which imperial governance was restricted in both geographical and administrative scope, and during which two breakaway white settler republics were established in the interior; (iii) 1870- 1910, the age of the great mineral and industrial revolution–and “scramble for Africa”–when the United Kingdom sought to extend its control over the subcontinent as a whole; and (iv) 1910-1994, the epoch of the Union of South Africa, a dominion within the British Commonwealth, which culminated in the rise and fall of apartheid.

Each of these periods is narrated around a few dominant motifs; these are the topoi that mandate the selection and interpretation of historically significant events. One is the role of the state in regulating (often bitterly agonistic, antago- nistic) relations among whites; in particular, between those Europeans who later congealed into the Afrikaner “people,” an agrarian population which came to
resent the liberal social attitudes of the British administration toward Africans,18 and English settlers, who regarded themselves as much more cosmopolitan and enlightened (see Coetzee 1988:9f; Streak 1974:5f).

Another is the centrality of the colonial state in governing “native” populations, in overseeing their “discipline” and “development.” This took many forms, all clothed in a mass of legalities: among them, the introduction of so-called “indirect rule,” which ostensibly retained local government in the hands of tradi- tional authorities (Lugard 1922) but, in fact, made most chiefs and kings into menial civil servants of empire; the delimitation of African land into “reserves” and “locations”; the regulation–often by the naked manipulation of black economic viability–of flows of people, primarily as “labor units,” to centers of industrial (and, less frequently, agrarian) production; the claim to be civilizing those people through enlightened rule, by such modernist means as the provision of education, the extension of public health facilities–and, more baldly, through wage work it- self (see Comaroff and Comaroff 1992:199, 204).

A third motif is the function of the state as a site for, and a mediator in, struggles between Europeans and Africans, especially over land and labor, property and rights (cf Gann and Duignan 1969:5); this in spite of the fact that it was often an interested player in those very struggles, sometimes annexing territory and imposing regulatory mechanisms to further its own material interests (cf Lonsdale and Berman 1979:496f). Its adjudicatory role was most dramatically enacted in the innumerable official commissions of enquiry held by the British administration over the years (cf Ashforth 1990; see below). These arbitrated disputes of widely varying kinds. And, in doing so, they served also to reinforce the legitimacy of the state as a superordinate structure of governance.

The last theme, some would say the most significant, is the engagement of colonial states in the economics of empire, both at home and abroad. Liberal and conservative histories alike pay exquisitely detailed attention to the ways in which these states intervened–with greater or lesser efficacy, in the face of greater or lesser resistance–to promote European commerce; to protect the agrarian and other enterprises of expatriate settlers and frontier farmers; to facilitate the extraction of raw materials and “native” labor power; to develop trade networks and markets of various kinds; and, from the 1870s onward, to interpolate itself into an unfolding mineral and industrial revolution.

As I have said, all event histories of colonialism in South Africa, written from orthodox perspectives, are ultimately distilled into sequences of actions and processes around these topoi. What is more, such histories usually treat the state as an intrinsically benign force,19 one which sought to balance the interests and welfare of the various parties under its sovereign jurisdiction. Its excesses, its ten- dencies toward brute domination and its descents into violence, its scandals and corruptions, its inefficiencies and incoherences, its deployment for the enrichment of some at the expense, even destitution, of others–to the degree that they are recognized at all–are typically treated as aberrations, as ruptures in an otherwise seamless narrative of progress. And they are, by and large, blamed not on the sys- temic contradictions of colonialism itself, or on any kind of structural consideration, but on misanthropic or misguided individuals. In this respect, Harvey (1989:108) is correct: the state is portrayed here–much as it represented itself–as embodying, serving, and protecting a public good, a collective interest and sense of being-in-the-world, against the sectarian differences and struggles contained within its borders.20

Neo-Marxist historians21 of colonialism in South Africa, highly influential in the 1970s and 1980s, contest all this on a number of counts. In the first place, they question the primacy of politics. For them, it was the development of industrial capitalism, its material logic, that motivated the story of empire and its aftermath; from their standpoint, the state was the administrative, bureaucratic armature of capital, a superstructure with limited autonomy, will, or agency of its own. Its power, its physical and fiscal capacity for coercion, is held to have served one end above all others: the exploitation and regulation of labor–and, concomitantly, the construction of a homogenous black underclass–in the cause of capitalist development (see e.g. Wolpe 1988; Magubane 1979; cf Unterhalter 1995:218-9 et passim). Interestingly, this is a view that Weber (1968:1394), typifying the modernist state in general, comes close to articulating: The “separation” of the worker from the material means of production, destruction, administration, academic research, and finance in general is the common basis of the modern state, in its political, cultural and military sphere, and of the private capitalist economy…

But it is to Marx, not Max Weber, that these historians have looked in dealing with the state in Africa. Says Harvey (1990:108, after Marx), writing of “Modernization”:22

[t]he state, constituted as a coercive authority that has a monopoly over institutionalized violence forms a[n]…organizing principle through which a ruling class can seek to impose its will not only on its opponents but upon the anarchical flux, change, and uncertainty to which capitalist modernity is always prone.

Its tools of coercion vary, he adds. They include the imposition of taxes and levies; the provision or withholding of social and physical infrastructure; control over wa- ges and salaries in the public sector; and a monopoly of the means of surveillance, of military might and police repression. For his own part, Harvey (1990:109) goes on to argue that “the relation between capitalist development and the state has to be seen…as mutually determining rather than unidirectional.” Neo-Marxist historians in South Africa are wont to see political institutions more unidirectionally; less as a response to the anarchical flux or uncertainties of modernity–less, also, as a “principle” through which “ruling classes” impose their will–than as a creature of the inexorable logic of capital itself (cf Corrigan and Sayer 1985:2f). But they would agree about the tools of coercion typically used by colonial regimes. They would also go one further step with Marx himself. In his essay on colonialism in Capital (1967,I:765), he argues that

[In the colonies] the capitalist régime everywhere comes into collision with the resistance of the producer, who, as owner of his own conditions of labour, employs that labour to enrich himself, instead of the capitalist. The contradiction of these two diametrically opposed economic systems, manifests itself here practically in a struggle between them. Where the capitalist has at his back the [state] power of the mother-country, he tries to clear out of his way by force, the modes of production and appropriation, based on the independent labour of the producer.23

The integration of black South Africans into the capitalist economy of colonial South Africa–through the forcible destruction of their modes of production–is narrated in a manner reminiscent of various species of dependency and world- systems theory. Notwithstanding arguments over the details, we are told repeatedly, and with considerable persuasiveness, how African societies were deliberately impoverished and their economies subverted–“underdeveloped” is often the verb of choice–thus to make them dependant on a mix of underpaid migrant wage labor in the urban industrial sector (done mainly done by men) and underproductive rural agriculture (done largely by women). For example, most of the contributors in the landmark volume, The Roots of Rural Poverty (Palmer and Parsons 1977) show how one or other

…vigorous African economy became subordinated to the special conditions of capitalist development in Southern Africa…By overt political controls, as well as through “unseen” and natural factors affecting production and trade, [the mining industry and other capitalist interests] restricted local production and trade, manipulated the terms of trade to create a structure in which the black periphery invariably paid tribute to the white center in capital funds and resources as well as labour (Parsons 1977:137).

The same argument, broadly, is reiterated throughout the neo-Marxist historical canon, some of it very finely wrought (see e.g. Bundy 1972, 1979; Marks and Rathbone 1982; Marks and Trapido 1987). It is capitalist development that is the prime mover of the process of underdevelopment and social transformation. The role of the state is to provide the “overt political controls” with which to facilitate that process.24 No more, no less.

A qualification here. From other parts of Africa have come efforts to write a more nuanced version of the neo-Marxist narrative. Lonsdale and Berman (1970:487), for example, hold that government was never just “a loyal minister to capital’s needs.” Regarding colonialism, fundamentally, as an “articulation of modes of production” (after Rey 1971, 1973; Foster-Carter 1978), they argue that the state was “relatively autonomous” (cf Wallerstein 1974:402). Why? Be- cause it had to appear as a “factor of cohesion,” an “even-handed arbiter” presiding over the conjoining of different, often inimical, material and social worlds (p.489); echoes here of Harvey (see above). Moreover, government could not simply oblige the political and financial interests of colonizers, as these were often contradictory and excessive. But, if the state could “not be the servant of capital,” it certainly was “the protector of capitalist social relations” (pp.489-90). Here then is the nuance: it was capitalism, rather than capital, of which governance was a reflex. Indeed, the state is itself defined by Lonsdale and Berman as “the historically conditioned set of institutions in any class society which…secures the social conditions for the production of the dominant mode of production” (p.489). Rela- tively autonomous? Maybe. However, far from being “a disinterested…arbiter,” co- lonial administrations “never ceased to provide the conditions for the reproduction of settler capitalism” (p.504). Which implies that, for all the effort to refine its role, the state remains, literally, a supporting player in the political economy of colonialism.

We shall return to this in due course.


Aylesbury Prison, England, 1918. He was stripped and put in a cell with a stone floor and no glass in the window–this is January, mind…[But] he said in his letter that it was not the cold that bothered him, it was being watched all the time. The eye in the door…an elaborately painted eye [inside the cell]…, was deeply dis- turbing… `’S not so bad so long as it stays in the door. You start worrying when it gets in [your head].’25
Pat Barker, The Eye in the Door, p.36

A new chapter has recently opened up in the historical anthropology of colonialism in South Africa. It is one which is evoking a great deal of alarm among scholars of various stripes,26 largely because it subverts a host of conceptual certainties and methodological mantras. Born of the revisionism of which I spoke at the outset–and grounded in Michel Foucault’s discourses on power, govern- mentality, and the modernist subject–it has not yet been fully worked out in this part of the world. Timothy Mitchell’s Colonising Egypt (1991) is perhaps the most completely realized example in Africa, and it is written about the other end of the continent. As this suggests, the alarm is somewhat premature, anticipatory. Nonetheless, it is a harbinger of postmodern, post-structuralist, and post-Marxist perspectives that are beginning to make themselves felt here as never before.

It is not my intention to offer a systematic introduction to Foucauld on power and governmentality; there are enough published expositions on the topic to render it redundant. I should like, instead, to make a few summary points of typification, sketching briefly the ways in which a postmodern “reading” of the co- lonial state might proceed in the South African context.

From a Foucauldian perspective, the state is itself a disciplinary formation. In its modernist mode, its power is less instrumental and institutional than it is “capillary”; which is to say that it stretches, autonomically and unseen, into the very construction of its subjects, into their bodily routines and the essence of their selfhood. Indeed, it is by inculcating a deeply interiorized, individuated sense of self-regulation–through its various techniques of surveillance; its clinics, schools, prisons, and other sites of control; its censuses, surveys, and cognate forms of serialization and accounting; its modes of knowing and objectifying personhood through the “human sciences”; its “natural” institutions like the family and father- hood, established religion and organized recreation, competitive sports and com- modified regimes of consumption–that the state imposes order on its citizenry. Order, that is, in both the sense of regularity and regulation, of convention and command, of civility and servility. This involves the fabrication of an entire space-time world–and the insinuation of its logic into the mundane practices of human beings-as-citizens. Thus are subjects subjected to modes of social control that are rendered invisible in their very enactment.

In order to analyze the workings of colonial states, then, it follows that we ought to look to their capillary techniques of regulation; to the ways in which they sought (and seek) to instill a dispositional sense of self-discipline in their subjects. But there is a caveat here. Unlike the European polities with which Foucault him- self was concerned, and of which Benedict Anderson (1983) has written so influentially, colonies were never places of even tenuously-imagined homogeneity. For the most part, their administration was vested in states without hyphe- nation, as it were: in states without nations. Here, in a nutshell, lay the roots of the contrast between metropolitan and colonial governance, even when the second was merely an extension “overseas” of the first: one depended, for its existence, on the ideological work of manufacturing sameness, of engendering a horizontal sense of fraternity; the other, despite its rhetoric of universalizing modernity, was concerned with the practical management, often the production, of difference. Consequently, imperial regimes abroad were always caught up in a “doubling,” a contradiction: at the very same time as they spoke of transforming colonized peo- ples into civilized–i.e. “modern”–free, right-bearing citizens, they dealt in hete- rogeneity by naturalizing ethnic difference and essentializing racial inequality.27

The former was entailed, if nothing else, in converting “savages” into proletarians.28 The latter was implicit in the grammar of cultural diversity, and in the organic anthropology, on which were erected the hierarchical structures of nineteenth- and twentieth-century colonial rule. This, we have argued elsewhere (1997a), is the base contradiction of colonialism. Its teleology pointed one way (toward secular modern citizenship and, eventually, nationhood), its reality another (toward a racinated world of ethnic subjection). In the European optic of Empire, “natives” were always subject/citizens in the making.

But how, precisely, did colonial states set about (re)constructing the identities, the being-in-the-world, of those over whom they extended their governance? Wherein lay their applied anthropology? On the understanding that these were parallel processes–indeed, two sides of the same subject-in-formation- -let us look, first, at the making of the serialized, modernist citizen, then at the fashioning of the ethnicized “native.”

In Africa, the construction of the aboriginal as a colonial citizen, from the vantage of the state and its functionaries, had a great deal to do with the political economy and pragmatics of overrule. As long as they lived in their own com- munities, ruled by their own chiefs and customs, “natives” might remain faceless and nameless. But the moment they became imbricated in colonial society–be it as workers or commodity farmers, as subalterns or servants, as sellers or buyers– they had to have individual identities, first and family names, rights and responsi- bilities.29 How, otherwise, could they enter into binding contracts or be prosecuted for wrongs? How, otherwise, could they be made to pay various monetary tariffs and levies? How, otherwise, could their movements, their marriages and divorces, their persons, property, and possessions, be regulated?

In short, the making of “savages” into “citizens”–itself a highly variable, always incomplete process–was, typically, a corollary of (i) the mobilization of a stable army of (often migrant) workers into the capitalist sector, which demanded that employees be tied by legal agreements and that defection from factory, farm, or mine be criminalized; of (ii) taxation, in cash, through which the cost of colonial governance could be more-or-less offset and people coerced into the labor market; of (iii) the introduction and administration of “privately” owned assets, including land, which entailed the recognition of deeds and titles, testaments and estates; and of (iv) the oversight of domestic life, in the name of which states sanctioned the formation, location, reproduction, and dissolution of families, thus reaching deep into the everyday existence of their members.

All this was effected, over the long run, by a range of now familiar me- chanisms of enumeration, serialization, individuation, and identification. These, as Weber would have had us expect (above, p.00), included the official registration of births (hence, also, of names) and deaths (along, in time, with the execution of wills); the certification of legal wedlock and its dissolution; population censuses (of both humans and animals),30 the establishment of tax rolls31 as well, often, as the introduction of identity papers; and the increasing bureaucratization, documentation, rationalization, and registration of all aspects of social and personal life. In many places, not least in nineteenth-century South Africa, these processes were actively resisted. Tswana, for example, referred to them as “the English mode of warfare”: they were held to reduce “human beings [and their relations] to pieces of paper,” and were seen as instruments of violence by which indigenous peoples were dispossessed of their property and freedom of movement.32 Throughout the country during the twentieth century, moreover, “pass books,” a notorious form of identity document which “Bantu” had to carry on them,33 were periodically burned in public, leading to mass struggles with police. In the late apartheid years, in fact, protesting blacks frequently targeted state offices, seeking to burn tax registers, pass records, census files, and the like.

In its effort to create colonial citizens of color, the state was abetted, if sometimes unwittingly, by other European expatriates. The most notable were Protestant evangelists, among the earliest colonizers in South Africa. Also the most thoroughgoing: as Bohannan (1964:22) notes, they sought not just to extract la- bor power, raw materials, or real estate from “heathen nations,” but to recast their life-worlds tout court. The civilizing mission was intended to effect a “revolution in the habits” of Africans (Philip 1828,2:355), above all, by making them into discrete individuals (Comaroff and Comaroff 1991, 1997a): by breaking down their “semi-communistic ways”34 and severing the “promiscuous” webs of relations that bound them together; by clothing them in “proper” garb, so that their “private parts” would be modestly hidden, their bodies would be appropriately enclosed, and their physical secretions would not “rub off” on each other; by persuading them to treat marriage as an ensemble of rights and duties, a contract between two consenting people–and to live, monogamously, in “decent” nuclear family homes on neatly fenced-off squares of land; by taking their children into schools and teaching them to be self-controlled, self-motivated students, capable of advancing by dint of personal effort; by encouraging each man to work on his own behalf as wage-earner and breadwinner for his family, and to appreciate the virtues of money, the market, and private property; in short, by seeking, through every means available, to ensure that their would-be converts were self-contained beings, at once biologically and legally complete unto themselves.

If these were the techniques by which colonizers sought to recast Africans as citizens, their fabrication as ethnic, racialized subjects followed a somewhat different (dis)course.

The transformation of the southern African landscape into an ethnoscape depended, first and foremost, on a colonizing cartography. I noted earlier that the “dark continent” was treated as an empty space until it fell under the European gaze, thence to be mapped, by means of conventional graphic images, onto an ex- pansive imperial world-picture. As a much-quoted contemporary poem by Jona- than Swift had it (Curtin 1964:198; Comaroff and Comaroff 1991:324, n.6)

…Geographers in Afric-Maps
With Savage Pictures fill their Gaps.

Colonial cartography replaced those pictures, and the epistemic gaps they covered, with charts based on “scientific” observation; charts grounded in a political geography that was intended, explicitly, to facilitate imperial command. It entailed the compilation of an atlas on which aboriginal “tribes” and “peoples”–invented sometimes, and ascribed a collective identity if they did not already share one35– were labelled, classified linguistically, and placed in bounded territories; each of the latter being designated as the realm of a legitimate political authority, be it a king, chief, headman, or potentate of some other kind.36 For the British, in fact, European rule without this kind of cartography did not actually amount to co- lonialism, sensu stricto, at all (see n.10). As Harvey (1990:255) has noted, quoting Foucault:

If space…is always a container of social power, then the reorganization of space is always a reorganization of the framework through which social power is expressed.

Not only a reorganization, of course. Also a re-presentation. Especially a representation of new ethnological fixities, of the geographies of governance implied in reducing the living, three dimensional worlds of indigenous populations to timeless, two dimensional abstractions. Such were things that functionaries of the colonial state understood well, whether they put them into words not; to be sure, they underlay the imposition of “indirect” rule,” the creation of “tribal reserves,” and the transformation of indigenous sovereigns into the lowest civil servants of empire, its rural tax collectors and labor recruiters. Hence the obsession of imperial bureaucracies with mapping–and all that went with it.

One thing that did go with it, with palpable regularity, were so-called “government commissions of enquiry” (see Ashforth 1990). These commissions took a variety of forms and addressed a wide range of issues. Among other matters, they investigated existing territorial arrangements, laid down formal boundaries between political communities, and dealt with land claims and disputes; interro- gated the nature of indigenous authority and defined the scope of “native” admi- nistration, particularly in respect of “law and custom”;37 inquired into labor relations and contracts, and framed the terms of wage work for blacks, including so-called master-servant provisions, which tied employees to their employees.38 Some had specific mandates,39 others were charged with very general briefs.40 But, whatever else they did, these government commissions tended to see their task as ethnological; they documented vernacular life-ways–all the better, ostensibly, to reduce chaos to order and to facilitate fair and just rule on the part of the colonial state. In this regard, it is no exaggeration to say that they compiled the first official ethnographic records of the peoples of the region. True, they often relied on the earlier (and much more detailed) writings of missionaries and “scientific” ex- plorers. But they also did their own research, interviewing informants, predominantly chiefs and elders, to ascertain their “habits” and “traditions.” Many of their descriptions were very thin by modern anthropological standards; still, these documents became compendia of authoritative information about local cultures. Later they gave way to (i) annual reports, submitted by administrators of “native” districts, which reported on continuity and change in customary practices; and, after the formation of the Union of South Africa, (ii) ethnological surveys written by the professionally-trained staff of the Department of Native Affairs in Pretoria.41

Government commissions, in sum, gave bureaucratic currency and practical reality to the categorical structures and cultural divisions that formed the emerging ethnoscape of Southern Africa. What is more, by treating those categories and cultures as primordially given, the state naturalized them–and, in time, elevated them into hegemonic, taken-for-granted forms of naming-and- knowing (cf Cooper and Stoler 1997); until, that is, anticolonial struggles began to unravel them. But that was to occur later. As we have shown,42 the encounter between autochthonous peoples and the civilizing mission in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century was deeply implicated in the genesis of modern ethnic identities and differences here. But the official inscription of such identities and differences increasingly became the business of colonial governance. In legitimizing labels and authorizing images of otherness–and in laying an anthropological basis for its dispersed regimes of regulation–the state tried hard to ensure both the consent and the collaboration of the colonized. Glimpses here of Gramsci, foresha- dowings of Fanon.43

Mirroring back to the colonized images of themselves as ethnic, racialized subjects occurred in many contexts, both ordinary and awesome. Such images–at once verbal, pictorial, even musical–saturated the everyday life of the public sphere and its popular media. They also found formal representation in museums, where “traditional” cultures were marked off, their “folkways” displayed in timeless dioramas; in scholarly treatises and manuals on language and orthography, habits, lore, and customs; in national ceremonies, monuments, and rituals, especially those evocative of the “discovery” and forceful domination of South Africa; in the theology and practice of white settler Christianity; and in a range of other specular and spectacular events. Most potently of all, perhaps, they pervaded schooling at all levels, infused alike in formal syllabi and “hidden” curricula (see Comaroff and Comaroff n.d.); all the more so as “native” instruction passed from the purview of Christian missions to that of the state. There is no need here to explain why European pedagogy, with its invasive technologies of mind and body, was a crucial vector in the effort to insinuate new signs and practices among colonized peoples. For all their disagreement over the means and ends of education, liberal apologists and Marxist critics appear to agree on one thing: its efficacy in colonizing the con- sciousness of imperial subjects. And in recasting the epistemic topography of the world they inhabited, fixing its images along new axes of knowing-and-being.44

Those images, moreover, had a distinctive cast to them. They came from a particular, and particularly refractory, angle of vision, portraying the essential “native” as a primitive conservative.45 Having had their cultures labelled, objectified, and dehistoricized–and their differences primordialized–ethnic sub- jects found themselves all alike depicted as benighted, anachronistic antimoderns. They were said to be governed by the primal sovereignty of their customs and cus- tomary rulers (J.L. Comaroff 1995)–under conditions that encouraged them to cling unquestioningly, and in the face of all reason, to their ancestral traditions and taboos.46 In response, the colonial state, practicing its own politics of unreason, criminalized some cultural practices (those, for example, surrounding “witchcraft,” polygyny, marriage payments, and “ritual murder”) and endorsed others (like so- called “customary law”)–depending, in no small measure, on the exigencies of go- vernance. It also appealed to the primal hold of custom to prevent social change, even when (no, especially when) it was demanded by indigenous peoples; also, in some celebrated instances, to restrict or remove their rights.

Thus, to take one very specific case, the British Bechuanaland Land Com- mission of 1886 (Great Britain 1886) invoked the “ancient tribal system” of “communal tenure” to prevent a Tswana sovereign from introducing individual rights of property ownership in one of the provinces under his dominion; this in spite of his having had strong local support, and sound economic and political rea- sons, for the move (Schapera 1983). Prior to overrule, such a legislative innovation would have been well within his jurisdiction (Comaroff and Comaroff 1997a:399- 400; Schapera 1970). Now, however, the colonial state authorized itself to decide that his subjects were “not ready” for the change. Similarly, and more seriously, the South African Native Affairs Commission (South Africa 1905) argued against universal franchise by claiming that Africans preferred “traditional” forms of collective representation. On this basis, it went on to recommend a reduction of black voting rights in national and provincial elections. The Commission also declared that economic and social arrangements based on “individualism,” to which they had long been told to aspire in the name of modernity, was not suited to aboriginal peoples; being under the primal sway of ancestral custom, they were “unready” for this too. In the upshot, these peoples were encouraged to see them- selves as faceless Zulu or Tswana or Sotho or Xhosa or whatever, with no consideration of their class or gender or generation or personal circumstances. As Sartre (1955:215; see Zahar 1974:19) once said, the distinctive experience of colonialism is being made to feel, and then to re-cognise one’s self, as a “native” (Comaroff and Comaroff 1997a:19). It was an experience to which the actions of the colonial state were strongly to conduce.

This brings us back full circle to the doubling, the contradiction, at the core 39 of the colonial encounter. In South Africa, the state47 spoke, in a promissory voice, of making modern citizens–autonomous, named, right-bearing members of the body politic–out of “natives” whom it persisted, at the same time, in treating as unmarked ethnic subjects. On one hand, “Non-Europeans,” the official term of negation by which people of color were known, were said to be on the high road to civilization and citizenship, prosperity and propertied individualism. On the other, they were portrayed, to themselves and the world, as anonymous antimoderns, condemned to live for the foreseeable future in the primal mire of ancient custom. The colonial state often engaged in its own internal arguments over this doubling; it was a recurring register in a broader discourse on “The Native Problem.” The basic question in this discourse, as Cooper and Stoler (1997:7) have noted,48 was: “How much civilization was appropriate” for aboriginal peoples? It was a question that was answered in many ways over the long-run. But invariably with an eye to reproducing distinction, discrimination, and dualism. Difference, once again, in three dimensions.

IV. THE COLONIAL STATE IN CRITICAL PERSPECTIVE: absence, absurdity, incoherence

The actual history of states has been one of continuous growth, both in their claim to regulate the lives and property of their subjects, and in their physical capacity to enforce such claims…Yet, paradoxically, the increase in the state’s range and power has produced countervailing decreases in effectiveness.

Kenneth Minogue, “State,”

How persuasive, then, are these paradigmatic perspectives on the colonial state, in South Africa and elsewhere?

The differences between them are fairly stark, of course. Which is why the weaknesses of one appear to be the strengths of the other. For example, modernist approaches, both orthodox and Marxist, would seem to be on secure, uncontentious ground in interrogating political economy–in its formal and institutional dimensions–to get at the workings of the colonial state; the absence of these very dimensions, it is often said (see Comaroff and Comaroff 1997a:15f), is the most serious deficiency in postmarxist, postmodern accounts of the same thing. On the other hand, Foucauldians have been quick to point out that the very construction of something called “political economy,” hardly a category given by nature, itself occurred as a function of the history of modernity. And of its endemic forms of power. From this perspective, the reciprocal inattention of pre-Foucauldian sociologies of the colonial state to its technologies of discipline and representation– to the ways in which it made its subjects by means of commodities, embodied rou- tines, and other capillary processes at once cultural and material–is an even more egregious absence.

These complementary allegations carry considerable weight; each has some right on its side. But the matter is more complex than it may first look. For one thing, the obvious corollary does not follow: it is not possible simply to add a measure of political economy to postmodern approaches–or more concern with the mechanics of capillary power to older orthodoxies–and expect a prescription for better understanding the colonial state. As I have already intimated, “political economy” is an analytic term with its own archaeology, not a species of empirical phenomena. What it describes, how it is to be understood, is highly contested, both within and across theoretical paradigms–not to mention ideological positions; hence the undertitle of Capital: A Critique of Political Economy (Marx 1967). Con- versely, capillary processes of governmentality, while obviously important to take fully into account, pose a paradox of their own: the more comprehensive they were, the more persuasive in explaining colonial domination, the less colonial states ought ever to have encountered any resistance, any antagonistic forces at all. They did, everywhere. And their historical epoch came to a crashing end. Of which more in a moment.

But, even taken purely on their own terms, both modernist and Marxist perspectives, in all their variants, suffer from critical flaws, fallacies, failures. Let us mention just a few and allow the matter to rest; this on the understanding that paradigmatic critique–by contrast to more specific forms of theoretical exegesis– occurs at a level of generality to which there will always be exceptions and qualifications.

Modernist approaches, left and right alike, may be taken to task on four basic counts. First, in dealing with imperial governance, they seldom distinguish sufficiently between its various spheres and levels; most notably, but not only, between the metropolitan and the colonial state. I have already remarked the on- tological difference between them (above, p.00). Its political outworkings are equally crucial. Often cadres and functionaries “at home” and “abroad,” and in dif- ferent ministries and departments, fell into bitter conflict with one another over questions of policy, the material and moral economics of colonization, and the proper means of extending European dominion. It is here, in fact, that some of the most acute “tensions of empire,” to use Cooper and Stoler’s (1989, 1997) felicitous phrase, manifested themselves. These tensions were in part structural, in part per- spectival: the imperatives of colonialism, like the fiscal commitment necessary for effective governance, did not appear the same, or equally compelling, to everyone engaged in the business of overrule; such things varied a great deal according to the changing exigencies of time, place, and position. To take one Southern African instance, Sir Charles Rey (1988), self-styled “monarch” of Bechuanaland, spent years in an acrimonious tussle with Westminster and Pretoria over the appropriate investment of the British exchequer–and, concomitantly, the most suitable form of administration–in the unprofitable Protectorate. Conflicts of this kind, at their most extreme, determined the historical destinies of particular colonies and their indigenous populations. But even when they did not, they affected the ways in which the state exercised its authority, extracted labor and taxes, related to the industrial and/or agrarian economy, and mobilized different technologies of control over both settlers and aborigines.

Second, in treating the colonial state as a generic entity, a monothetic class of phenomenon, modernist discourses have tended to elide an enormously wide spectrum of political, ideological, and imaginative forms. The point is almost too obvious to warrant remark: to speak of the Raj, at the height of its elaboration, in the same breath as the administrations of, say, Lesotho or Zanzibar is not unlike treating an elephant, an emu, and an egret as the same kind of creature because they are all animals. The implication that follows is also self-evident: that “the colonial state” describes not a thing but a genus of forms and processes, and of historically fluid, evanescent ones at that; that “it” cannot be typified or theorized in the singular, in the indicative mood, or in the continuous past or present tense; and that generalizations or abstract statements about its workings, especially those derived from paradigmatic cases, are inherently open to deconstruction. For example, Mitchell’s (1991) account of imperial governance in Egypt, cogent as it may be, can simply not be replicated for Swaziland or Uganda. Similarly, when Kaviraj (1995:25f) argues that the state was the “controlling structure” at the epicenter the colonial world, he seems to take South Asia as his unspoken point of reference; writing from much of Africa in the nineteenth century, this claim would be flatly wrong.

Third, modernist discourses–again, conservative, liberal, and Marxist alike- -have failed adequately even to note, let alone to explain, what we may call “the Minogue Paradox.” Recall Kenneth Minogue’s (1987:239f; above) observation: while states in general have had a history of cumulative growth–in their institutional complexity and the range of their formal authority over the lives and property of citizens–their elaboration has been accompanied by a contrapuntal decrease in the efficacy of their control. This has had many manifestations, from the dramatic collapse of once potent regimes, most recently in Central and Eastern Europe, to the creeping inability of others to exercise a monopoly over the means of violence, to contain the workings of the market or the flow of money, to guarantee the commonweal or ward off moral panics, to meet the costs of reproducing infra- structure or to turn back the expansion of the “private” sector; these things being widely, if somewhat crudely, taken as signs of the coming “crisis” of the nation- state (J.L. Comaroff 1996). Colonial administrations, likewise, appear to have evinced the Minogue Paradox. The more powerful they became, the more they monitored and managed the life-worlds of those over whom they ruled, the less effective they seem to have been, over the long run, in realizing their own objectives: in making “natives” into compliant subjects, in yielding up a profit to the metro- pole, in stifling resistance, sometimes even in sustaining the coherence of their own modes of governance (Bissell 1998)–and, in the finality of history, in surviving the onslaught of anticolonial forces. The Minogue Paradox, in other words, raises a fundamental challenge: how to explain the exquisite counterpoint of legitimacy and limitation, of regulation and resistance, of power and paralysis that animated the history of the colonial state. It is a challenge as yet unmet, a dialectic as yet insufficiently interrogated in modernist narratives of the encounter between Africa and Europe.

The fourth has to do with the relationship between the colonial state and capital. As we saw earlier, both Marxist and liberal traditions have emphasized the close connection between them. From the perspective of the first, recall, the state was a reflex of capital(ism), its ensemble of political, legal, and coercive mechan- isms for regulating the labor market; in particular, for overseeing the formation, reproduction, and exploitation of a black proletariat. For the second, grounded in so-called “modernization” discourses of one kind or another (above, p.00), it was an essentially benevolent institution that existed to administer the economy for the common good; to mint, manage, and monitor the supply of money, guarantee the banking system, and levy taxes to finance public spending; to ensure law and ord- er, especially among laborers; to facilitate the development of commerce and industry. While this view has been taken to task, repeatedly and effectively, for its ingenuous, roseate view of colonial governance–and for ignoring the role of the imperial state in creating, racinating, and naturalizing inequality–the Marxist alternatives also underplay the complexity of its relationship to the workings of political economy.

Indeed, the state was never just a reflex of capital. It often did serve capitalist interests, of course. Even more, there were periods in which government and business appeared indistinguishable (see n.24). But there were also times when the private sector found itself locked in struggle with the administration–and when the latter took direct action against the former (Lonsdale and Berman 1979:489f). Thus, for instance, in the late nineteenth century, British officialdom demanded, on more than one occasion, that gold mining companies improve the occupational and living environments of their employees. It also stepped in, on occasion, to legislate minimal conditions in other spheres of the economy. Furthermore, for all the idea that the primary function of colonial authorities was to oversee the recruitment and regulation of labor, a function discharged with variable success, the reality was a lot less straightforward (Comaroff and Comaroff 1997a:Chap.4). All else aside, many “natives” migrated in search of work volunta- rily, sometimes under the impact of missionary teaching, long before an imperial bureaucracy intervened (loc.cit.). In this respect, it is worth noting that the state, as a forcible presence, was a relative late-comer on the scene in much of the South African interior.49 All of which points to a rather obvious conclusion: that, for all their interconnections, affinities, and articulations, the history of governance is irreducible to a history of political economy or vice versa.50

Some of the same critical points apply as well to postmodern, poststructuralist, postmarxist analyses of colonial governance. There is no need to expatiate here on the oft-made allegation, noted above, that these analyses short- circuit the manifest materialities of colonial capitalism, not to mention the imbri- cation of the state in them. More interesting, for present purposes, are three other lines of critique, each of which takes seriously the achievement–never to be trivialized–of Foucauldian histories in illuminating the relationship between power, governmentality, and the making of the modern subject.

One is that the disciplinary processes associated with the capillary power of colonial regimes–the inculcation of a self-regulating, self-controlled, self- motivated, self-conscious sense of human be-ing, of being at once biologically discrete, legally constituted, and socially individuated–were not a function of the state alone. Or even primarily. In most places, they were the provenance of the ci- vilizing mission undertaken by Christian evangelists, social reformers, and other “noncommissioned” agents of empire.51 In part, this had to do with the unspoken division of imperial labor, in part, with the pragmatics of overrule. Even when, in South Africa and elsewhere, European overseas administrations were at their most elaborate, their instrumental mastery over the everyday lives of indigenous peoples was always incomplete; at times, notably limited. This is not to say that colonial governance was never intrusive, coercive, or violent. It certainly could be. But, in many places, it quickly ran up against the limits of its own possibility; which, in turn, led its functionaries to rely on other expatriates–including those who took pains to distance themselves from political authority–to achieve the end of cons- training, chastising, regimenting, and refining “the native.” In sum, to see states as the primary vector in the making of racialized subjects, in colonizing consciousness, in remapping space, time, and personhood, in exercising capillary power, is to misplace the deus ex machina of empire and the export of capitalist modernity.

But there is another, yet more obvious problem with the poststructuralist, postmarxist stress on the capillary character of colonial governance. Put plainly, it is this. Colonial states, like states everywhere, depend(ed) at once (i) on instrumental, institutional, tangible forms of coercion, (ii) on means of violence either immanent or manifest, physical or symbolic, (iii) on diffuse, invisible modes of surveillance and discipline, and, in some measure, (iv) on the positive production of consent. As this implies, the instrumental and the capillary are dimensions of all state power; conditions, in fact, of its very existence. True, their proportions vary, with concrete consequences. But, insofar as power, in its modernist guise, is the relative capacity to construct realities–to fashion human subjects and social for- ms, material value and truth-value, perceptions and intentions, and appropriate modes of action in the world–it always has latent and patent, interiorized and exteriorized, spoken and unspoken, private and public, productive and repressive coordinates. It makes no historical sense, therefore, to reduce colonial rule, sui generis, to the insinuation of a singular kind of subjection; all the more so in light of its often unsystematic, murky, even incoherent executive practices. And its si- multaneously civilizing, criminalizing, promissory, exploitative, humanitarian and punitive tendencies. One thing that Foucauldian approaches have not done, signifi- cantly, is to explain the limits of the capillary. Until they do, the term remains a suggestive adjective, a partial description of colonial governance, not a theory of its workings. Nor is it a description that has elicited unanimous consent. Cooper (1994:1533), for one, makes the case for a competing metaphor: power in colonial societies was more arterial than capillary–concentrated spatially and socially, not very nourishing beyond such domains, and in need of a pump to push it from moment to moment and place to place.

Which leads to the third line of critique. It is often said that Foucauldian analyses of governmentality leave no room for resistance; indeed, this is now a rather tired reproach. There is, however, a related point to be made, a point both more telling and more troubling. To put it in the interrogative voice: If the capil- lary techniques of the colonial state were effective, if they did inculcate disciplined subjection, why did imperial regimes abroad differ so widely in deploying them?52 Even more mysterious, why, ask Cooper and Stoler (1997:8), did colonizers spend so much time defining and defending categories and representations which were untenable–and which interfered with their mastery over indigenous populations? Why did they sometimes go to absurd lengths to display their firepower, especially when it was fairly flimsy?53 Why, in short, were colonial states so prone to failure, to drawing disruptive attention to their own administrative practices and procedures? And why, when they did rely on those very capillary techniques–os- tensibly silent, invisible, innocent means of imposing control–did they frequently incur angry reactions?

Colonial subjects, it seems, were not easily hoodwinked. Among Tswana, for instance, the figure of the government agent–ah-gent, as he was called (Comaroff and Comaroff 1991:295)–was despised precisely because of his role in counting, taxing, and otherwise regulating the minutiae of their everyday lives. A few of these men were actually put to death.54 But still more instructive, as a counter- narrative of noncapitulation, is something I alluded to above: that these same people spoke of the colonial culture legality–the reduction of everything to official documents, contracts, and titles–as “the English mode of warfare” (J.L. Comaroff 1997:256). Tswana, clearly, knew violence when they saw it. Or, more accurately, when they could not see it. There is every reason to believe that their heightened awareness of invisible forms of coercion, of silent technologies of surveillance and control, arose out of the contradiction at the core of overrule; out of the fact that “natives” were promised full, right-bearing citizenship in an enlightened new world, but found themselves delivered into ethnic and racial subjection (above, p.00). This “doubling” could not but draw their attention, at times ruthlessly, to the means of colonial governance–rendering even the most subtle of those means at once starkly visible and resonantly audible.

As a result, far from instilling self-discipline, the capillary techniques of colonial states played a great part in sparking the dialectics of challenge and ripos- te, of action and counter-action, of transgression, transformation, and hybridiza- tion; greater than did the brute exercise of imperial instrumentalities. All of which amounts to the exact opposite of what a Foucauldian narrative, at least in unedi- ted, vulgar form, might lead us to expect. That narrative does not, cannot,
account for the essential paradox of colonial governance: its capacity to be ordered yet incoherent, rational yet absurd, violent yet impotent; to elicit compliance and contestation, discipline and defiance, subjection and insurrection. Sometimes all at once. And, disconcertingly, in ways that blurred the boundaries between these, apparently antithetical, species of action.


States, if the pun be forgiven, state…They define, in great detail, acceptable forms and images of social activity and individual and collective identity…Indeed, in this sense `the State’ never stops talking.55

Philip Corrigan and Derek Sayer, The Great Arch, p.3

It is this paradox, among other things, that makes it impossible to arrive at a point of closure by (re)formulating a neat ideal-typification of “the colonial state.” Or of its historical physics. To wit, the very object of composing my reflection as a series of contrapuntal critiques has been to show that the beast resists two-dimensional representation; that its variabilities, fluidities, hybridities, limits, and disarticulations over time and space were an overdetermined expression of its inner workings and its dealings with significant “others”; that it was an immanent structure of divers possibilities whose concrete political, material, and cultural forms were made, remade, and sometimes unmade in historical practice. As this suggests, the intent behind this somewhat didactic excursion is not to prove recei- ved accounts wrong. It is to demonstrate that, while each describes an important aspect of the dynamics of colonial states, all of them are partial, perspectival, incomplete. This, I would submit, flows from paying disproportionate attention to their generic properties rather than to their generative processes; to their existence as an abstract noun rather than as an active verb.

Which takes us back to the conundrums, the Big Questions, I posed at the outset. Recall them: What precisely is “the colonial state?” A definite or an indefinite article? One thing or many or nothing at all? A process? A series of mechanisms? A specific form of governance? A cultural construct? A condition of be- ing-in-the world? Do the various functions typically ascribed to it amount to a convincing account of its historical workings? How does it differ from its European counterpart, the metropolitan state “at home”? And, finally, is there anything to be made of the fact that the word itself also connotes to “articulate,” to “give voice,” to “narrate”? We are now in a position to engage these questions–those that remain unanswered56–and, in doing so, to direct the discussion toward its conclusion, re-stating the problem of the state as a discourse in the interconnec- tions of governmentality, materiality, modernity, and legality.

Let us begin with the first. The colonial state, in South Africa as elsewhere, was always an aspiration, a work-in-progress,57 an intention, a phantasm-to-be- made-real. Rarely was it ever a fully actualized accomplishment. An “ideological project,” Philip Abrams (1988:76) called it58–adding, provocatively, that, being “essentially [an] imaginative construction,” a “triumph of concealment” (p.77) even, it was “the distinctive collective misrepresentation of capitalist societies” (p.75).

Shades, here, of things written long ago. Corrigan and Sayer (1985:7) remind us, in paraphrase, that Marx (1967) believed `the State’ to be in an important sense an illusion. Of course, institutions of government are real enough. But `the’ state is in large part an ideological construct, a fiction: [it] is at most a message of domination–an ideological artifact attributing unity, structure and independence to the disunited, structureless and dependent workings of the practice of government.

Not just Marx either. Weber (1948:78) too. For him, it was

a claim to legitimacy, a means by which politically organized subjection is simultaneously accomplished and concealed, and it is constituted in large part by the activities of institutions of government themselves (loc.cit.).

A truly curious force of history, this, at least if we agree with Marx and Weber: simultaneously an illusion,59 a claim to authority, a cultural artifact, a present absence/absent presence, a principle of unity masking institutional disarticulation, and a potent construct which manifests itself, with tangible effects, in the quo- tidian activities of government and politics. But ought we to concur with Marx and Weber,60 whose perspectives, as we all know well, derived from a very particular place in the modernist political history of Europe?

In nineteenth- and twentieth-century Africa, the colonial state was often an elusive entity, even when agencies of government asserted their presence most vociferously. Typically, too, it was many things at once, even when imagined as one: less a singular, definite article than an indefinite, variably integrated ensemble of sites, institutions, narratives, and material processes, it was the political frame (i) in which power, qua human agency, sought to authorize itself, against resistance sometimes, thus to speak and act for a politic community, for its past and its future;61 (ii) in which executive and bureaucratic cadres ruled with differing degrees of autonomy, entering into common cause at times with various social fractions, usually defined by (if not named in the language of) class, race, and/or gender; (iii) in which taken-for-granted cultural conventions, their coercive aspect camouflaged in the habits of everyday life, were posited as a precondition of collec- tive being-in-the-world.

Colonial regimes in Africa varied widely in the extent to which they managed to condense legitimate power in themselves, to suppress a politics of difference, to manufacture consent, and to ritualize the subjection of citizens to the state. Such things, patently, depended on a range of historical contingencies too broad to list here. (Not least, the [re]actions of colonized peoples to overrule, and relations, especially over their dealings with “natives,” among settlers, missionaries, and political cadres at home and abroad; Cooper and Stoler 1997, Comaroff and Comaroff 1997a.) So, too, did the degree to which partisan blocs–often, but not always, colonial capitalists of one kind or another–succeeded in insinuating them- selves into, and in appropriating, the mechanisms of government, including the use of force. Which is why some overseas administrations were weak, others strong; some highly intrusive, others scarcely visible; some energetically protective of expatriate business, industrial, and agrarian enterprises, others less so; some brutally violent, others barely coercive at all; some frequently contested, others at least acquiesced in; some prone to ostentatious ceremony, others very matter-of- fact in their regulatory routines; some institutionally integrated, well-ordered, and fairly efficient in their technologies of rule, others in more-or-less constant disarray, their component agencies so independent of one another as hardly to be parts of a single order of governance at all. Indeed, the explanation of these pat- terns of variance, of their historical formation and transformation, is the task awaiting the anthropology of colonialism once its conceptual groundwork is done.

According to modernist political sensibilities, as every foundational college course in Political Science teaches, there can only ever be one state in a territory. Hence the difficulty, in scholarly discourses as well as in populist ones, of contemp- lating imperial governance without speaking of “the colonial state.” Even when, as in some historical contexts, the term describes a largely unconnected set of administrative practices and institutions. Or, in extreme situations, almost none at all. Insofar as the state–the singular, definite imagined article–is the sine qua non of modernist politics, it exists, alike at the metropole and the colonial margin, as a narrated and enacted description of order: order, again (see above, p.00), in the double sense of regularity and regulation, of convention and control, of civility and sovereign command over a land mass and all who dwell within in. In other words, whatever its organizational lineaments, the state is a statement, an ongoing assertion: it gives voice to an authoritative worldview, sometimes backed by (open or concealed) displays of might. To return to an intimation made earlier (p.00), there in the interrogative mood, the homonym–the state (n), to state (v)- -does have a more than fortuitous connection. The noun is the abstract entity en- unciated, realized, made manifest by the verb. And by the power that it takes to speak, persuasively, in the active voice.

But, and here is my point, the argot spoken by colonial regimes was not arbitrary. Their vernacular, the language of modernity, was the language of the law. Modern state-formation, Corrigan and Sayer (1985:1f) note, was a “cultural revolution.” At its heart lay the spirit of legality. Many have tied industrial capital- ism, modernity, the nation-state, governmentality, the right-bearing citizen, and the rise of lex naturae into a single historical equation; the equation on which is founded the logos of the present epoch, beginning with the Age of Revolution, 1789-1848. What I seek to add here, modestly, is the proposition that it was the deployment of this language of the law, its ascent to hegemonic authority, that held colonial states together, even at their most disarticulated, least coherent, most impotent; that afforded them a means to make fact appear out of phan- tasm, illocutionary force out of illusion, concrete realities out of often fragile fictions, one thing out of many; that allowed them to represent themselves, and to act, as guarantors of civility against savagery and barbarism; that legitimized all aspects of their power, capillary and coercive, volitional and violent, arterial and instrumental; that mandated their right to manage and mediate diverse identities and interests.

This lexicon–if another pun may be forgiven–constituted two interrelated public spheres. On one hand, it laid down both the terms and the terrain of cooperation, commerce, competition, and contention among settlers and expatriates, thus establishing the state as the axis mundi of European colonial society. On the other, it provided an ostensibly neutral medium for people of different cultural worlds, different social endowments, different material circumstances to enter into contractual relations, to transact commodities, and to deal with their conflicts. In so doing, it created an impression of consonance amidst contrast; of the negotiatibility of incommensurables; of the existence of universal normative standards which, like money in the domain of the market, facilitated exchanges across otherwise intransitive boundaries. But the language of legality was also mobilized to delineate the moral frontiers of civil society, criminalizing “native” cultural practices deemed uncivilized, politics deemed primitive, counter-moder- nities deemed dangerous (cf Stoler 1985:passim). To be sure, law was the hydra- headed, blunt instrument by which colonial states sought, in the name of moder- nity and progress, to assert control over the space and time of their subjects: over the continuity and change–the duration and disjuncture, if you will–of “traditio- nal” habits and habitats, ways and means.

As Charles Taylor (1989; see n.29) has said, there are good reasons for the primacy of the law, and the discourse of rights, at the heart of European cultures of modernity. Its special significance here, however, lies in the convergence of two eatures of African colonial states, both of which we encountered earlier.

The first is that most of these states were states sans nations; as I said above, states without hyphenation. This was the case virtually everywhere until the late years of the Age of Empire. True, white expatriates, many of whom persisted in talking of Britain or France or Germany as “home,” always liked to think of the colony as a proto-Euronation. It was an affectation in which colonial regimes participated by creating many of the figurative trappings, the signs and symbols, of nationhood; indeed, given that the imperial gesture represented itself as a civilizing mission, and as political modernity incarnate, they had no alternati- ve.

Lord Lugard might have had it that British administrations abroad were protective of the “natural rights” of “natives,” in touch, even, “with [their] thought and feeling” (see p.00). But the colonial state, precisely because it was not constitutive of a nation, was founded largely on the legalities of exclusion and the politics of difference. It barred the vast majority of the autochthonous peoples–those over whose territory it asserted sovereign jurisdiction–from full membership in the polity, rationalizing racial restriction in the righteous language of statutory “protections”; in the claim that, if they were allowed to by law, Africans would alienate their land, sell their birthright, and lapse back into savagery. It will be remembered that colonial commissions, discussed above, regularly (de)limited and/or removed the rights of ethnic subjects; this, along with a panoply of executi- ve orders, prevented all but few blacks from becoming right-bearing citizens, equal before the law and unmarked by color, in a secular modern political community.

Under these conditions there was little prospect of the emergence of a sense of nationhood based, imaginatively and affectively, on horizontal connection (An- derson 1983)–even if colonial regimes had wanted it otherwise. Most colonies were, in any case, carved out with careless inattention to their cultural integrity or sociological viability, and were subjected to long periods of divide-and-rule. What is more, the very act of narrating, representing, and ritualizing a nation that did not exist–a practice often carried to symbolic excess–merely drew the attention of indigenous elites to their legal disempowerment. Even more, to the impossibility of their incorporation, as anything but demeaned persons, into colo- nial society; “pariah” was the word used, in 1913, by Sol Plaatje (n.d.:17), one of South Africa’s first black polemicists. This, in turn, is often taken to explain the rise of mass political resistance across Africa, particularly after World War II.62

Whether true or not, many decolonization movements at the time did congeal into (often uneasy) nationalisms: that early counter-claims for an independent African modernity should have appropriated the terms of European politics, with its deep roots in the culture of constitutionalism and the language of the law, seems overdetermined.63

So too, in this light, was the Minogue Paradox, also referred to earlier: namely, that the more elaborate colonial states became–the wider the reach of their formal authority, the greater the extent to which they monitored and ma- naged the life worlds of those over whom they ruled–the less effective they appear to have been in making “natives” into acquiescent subjects, in stifling dissensus and defiance, sometimes even in sustaining the coherence of their own modes of governance. At least, not without a heavy measure of force, much of it self-defeating over the long run. This, to round out the circle, tended to drive im- perial administrations abroad to ever further binges of legalistic regulation, especi- ally in dealing with insubordination and counter-violence. The latter were usually treated not as politics but as crime (see above); in extremis, they elicited forms of repression intended, in good proportion, to instil into settler populations and “res- pectable natives” a faith in law and order. And in the rights and responsibilities attaching to citizenship.

Which leads to the second feature of the culture of legality at the core of the unhyphenated colonial state. Julia Kristeva (1993:26; above, p.1) hinted at it in asking, pointedly, “what happens to people without nations…? Are they human beings…? The answer, in the African context, is clear: their humanity was rendered incomplete, ambiguous. This, after all, was entailed in the effort of colonial regimes to convert “natives,” simultaneously and contradictorily, into both right-bearing citizens and culture-bearing ethnic subjects. The former–in the guise of au- tonomous, free individuals–epitomized the European bourgeois sense of refinement. The latter, by contrast, were specimens of a primordial, imperfect homo sapiens, barely above beasts in their “natural” proclivities and their pro- miscuous, “primitive communism.” (In colonial South Africa, blacks were regularly referred to by terms connoting animality, among them skepsels, Dutch for “creatures”; Comaroff and Comaroff 1992:52f).

There is no need to reiterate the implications of this bipolar construction of the colonial subject/citizen–of its promises, its paradoxes, its unfulfilled telos– save to say that it had the widespread effect of inculcating in Africans a “double consciousness” of their place in the world (cf DuBois 1968 on black America). And to note that, in the mass anticolonial struggles of the twentieth century (above, p.00), it expressed itself in the uneasy coexistence of two counter-discourses of constitutional entitlement. Many of those who contested European domination in the name of nationhood and self-determination spoke articulately of jural equality and universal human rights; rights, that is, for individuals. Especially to the new African middle classes, and to members of the orthodox Christian churches, this li- beral discourse of rights was always appealing; hence the tendency for popular political movements–among them the African National Congress in South Africa, whose leaders were predominantly mission alumnae–to frame their aspirations and objectives in the language of legality, equity, and due process.

But there was another discourse of rights as well. This one made political claims, and pursued the ways and means of empowerment, in the name of ethnic groups, many of them formed during the colonial epoch. It subordinated individual entitlements to those of collective, culturally-defined identities, asserting–also in the language of the law–the liberty of indigenous peoples to sustain their soverei- gn self-determination within a federated national polity. And it made a case for a plural legal system cognizant of “customary law,” for allowing a great deal of au- tonomy to “traditional” authorities, and for a moral order based on “ancestral” conventions. This, in South Africa again, is the kind of political community to which the Zulu-centric Inkatha Freedom Party gestured; along, interestingly, with other racially and ethnically based political organizations, black and white.

In sum, these two discourses of rights arose, dialectically and in complementary opposition, out of the contradictory manner in which the colonial state sought to construct its subject/citizens. Each fashioned its own vision of the present and future. Each essayed its own idea of modernity. Each spoke its own version of legalese. And each aspired to its own political culture, its own form of postcolonial governance.


And so to a conclusion. Or, more accurately, a coda.

The problem of the colonial state begins with its very (mis)conception. With the fact that, much of the time, we speak of it loosely, sans any sense of specification. Even worse, we take its presence so for granted that it is virtually absent from our theoretical discourses. By juxtaposing orthodox approaches of the left and the right against Foucauldian revisionism–and by subjecting both to the kind of critique intended to cast the nature of the beast itself in a fresh light–I have sought to problematize it anew. And in such a manner as to make sense, at least in broad lines, of the alternative African modernities fashioned in the late colonial epoch and transported into the postcolony.

It will be clear now why I have insisted on treating colonial governance as a process of becoming: as both a verb and a noun, as a state and a statement, as an aspiration made real in varying proportions through historical practice. Why it is, too, that “the colonial state,” notwithstanding its singular imagining in modernist politics, was always both one thing and many; always at once an ideological project and a (more or less articulated) institutional order; always both a fantasy and a reality–indeed, a reality with the capacity to affect the everyday lives, and deaths, of those human beings who fell within its purview.

As I said earlier, the historical variability with which colonial designs were accomplished in Africa, the contrasts over time and space among states, remains to be documented and accounted for. In the meantime, I suggest that, beneath all the diversity–indeed motivating the multivocal, polyvalent, disparate character of imperial governance abroad–lay a number of contradictions. These arose, in large part, from the most fundamental constitutive feature of the colonial state: from the fact that it was, until just before its demise, a state sans nation. It was this that expressed itself in, even impelled, the construction of an oxymoronic subject/citizen, that embodiment of “double consciousness”; which set in motion the Minogue Paradox, the inverse correlation between the elaboration of the colonial state, its institutional and capillary technologies of rule, and its efficacy in regulating “native” life without resistance; which threw even more than usual emphasis on the language of legality in constructing an ordered world; which yielded two different counter-discourses of rights, and, with it, two alternative conceptions of modernity.

It is this last phenomenon, the production of alternative modernities, that is likely to be the final legacy of the colonial state in Africa; of the way in which it condensed a particular order of governmentality, legality, materiality, and civility. Perhaps also its most bloody and terrible. The two images of nationhood and of political order–one based on a liberal ethos of universal human rights, of free, autonomous citizenship, of individual entitlement; the other assertive of group rights, of ethnic sovereignty, of primordial cultural connection–are, more than ever before, arraigned against each other in struggles for the determination of the continuing present and millennial future of many postcolonies. In South Africa they almost derailed the end of apartheid. Elsewhere they have produced genocides. Al- most nowhere yet have they yielded easily habitable hybrids, new political orders that address the problem of postcolonial empowerment. This is the heritage of the colonial state and its imperious civilizing mission, the “black man’s burden” of which Basil Davidson wrote (see n.63). It is also the challenge that awaits Africa as a new epoch, the epoch of global capitalism, dawns. And spreads new shadows over old horizons.

Other Essays