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The best books on African Politics

recommended by Evan Lieberman

Until We Have Won Our Liberty: South Africa after Apartheid by Evan Lieberman

Until We Have Won Our Liberty: South Africa after Apartheid
by Evan Lieberman

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Despite their enormous variety, the countries of sub-Saharan Africa share some common challenges when it comes to politics and governance. Here, political scientist Evan Lieberman talks about the struggles for democracy in the continent and some of the specific obstacles African countries face in state-building and administration.

Interview by Benedict King

Until We Have Won Our Liberty: South Africa after Apartheid by Evan Lieberman

Until We Have Won Our Liberty: South Africa after Apartheid
by Evan Lieberman

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Before we get to the books, is there a good reason for thinking about African politics as a whole rather than Gambian politics, Nigerian politics, or Kenyan politics?

Of course, each place and history is unique but some concerns and legacies are shared across the continent. We can see some consistent patterns and then also consider why those break down in particular places. One such pattern is the relative weakness of African states compared to states in other parts of the world, in terms of the effective functioning of governments. A few countries clearly do better than others.

Another one is the role of colonial rule. Virtually all of Africa was subjected to colonial rule. There is the question of race within that and the insertion of white Europeans, and how race was a basis for establishing political authority. That’s quite fundamental. Color and race and colonial rule played a role in other parts of the world but there are some unique features of the African experience.

Then there are trade links, foreign aid and investment, and the role of kinship, all of which make it useful to read and to think about the countries and regions of sub-Saharan Africa as part of one conversation.

Let’s look at the books you’ve chosen. First up is Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela. What does this book tell us about African politics?

This book, which is the autobiography of a global icon, really reminds us about the challenge of oppression by a relatively strong and exclusionary state, how powerful that can be as an indignity inflicted on humans, and why we should value democracy. A repressive state, like the one Mandela talks about in his personal history of living under apartheid in South Africa, reminds us that a state like that seeks to create a particular type of order. In fact, it was an example of a particularly strong state but it was one that simply didn’t respect the dignity of all people. In turn, Mandela shows us that humans really crave freedom, and they crave respectful treatment, and will go to great lengths to realize such treatment. You can see that through Mandela’s life and through the lives of black people in South Africa more generally. Ultimately, one of the most powerful ways to curb this repressive state was to create democratic rules for leadership selection and accountability.

To what extent is the book a political tract and to what extent autobiography? Or is it a sort of amalgam of the two?

I think it’s hard to draw a distinction because his life so embodies the political struggle of black South Africans. It does offer lots of personal details, including some of his foibles and challenges with respect to personal relationships, with loves gone wrong. We also learn that he was well-educated and a law student at arguably the leading South African university, which complicates the South African story a bit. He reminds us that he’s human. I think that’s important because when we think about the politics of South Africa after apartheid, people have glorified Mandela as if the country could never have been saved or become democratic without this superhuman individual in their presence. He reminds us, through some of his personal details, that he’s like the rest of us in many ways. That said, people always ask me if South Africa could have achieved democracy without Mandela, and my considered answer is… next question, please.

Let’s move on to Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. What does this book tell us about African politics?

This is such an amazing novel about the challenges of fractured Nigerian society and what it meant for politics in the young Nigerian state. It’s a novel about life in the late 1960s, before, during and after the Nigerian Civil War, also known as the Biafran War because of the attempt by the region of that name to secede. It really highlights a fundamental problem of modern state-building in Nigeria and in many African countries, and that is the challenge of forging unity amidst diversity within the often very arbitrary boundaries created by Europeans. In the 1960s, the average person living in what was called Nigeria did not feel particularly Nigerian, and in such a context, inequalities in resources and conditions provided fertile ground for conflict.

“In the 1960s, the average person living in what was called Nigeria did not feel particularly Nigerian”

Adichie’s novel offers a perspective on such conflicts, particularly between Hausa and Igbo people, from the vantage of a few key characters. Perhaps it is appealing to me because a key character is a university professor who likes to engage in conversation about what it means to be Nigerian, and whether politics should be organized in terms of identities or in terms of other types of ideologies, such as socialism. It highlights the everyday reality, the fact that people often interact across ethnic lines, and that these lines are often blurry, and more or less meaningful to some people relative to others. In the context of an ethnic civil war, we also see that these categories aren’t as hardened as political leaders make them out to be, or as outsiders frequently describe. Ultimately, just telling this story highlights why it’s challenging for these national governments—in this case, Nigeria—to maintain order.

Is there a particular hero in the novel who is either Hausa or Igbo and who goes on a particular journey politically or anything like that?

There are several complicated characters. That’s one of the things that I love about the story. Just as in Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, we are reminded that all people are complicated, each day facing competing pressures around family, passion, material self-interest and the greater good. Too often Africans are portrayed in the media and even in academic work as being almost single-minded in terms of their wants and needs. I suppose the protagonist of the book is Ugwu, the village boy who comes to work for the professor and becomes a trusted and loyal member of the family. He gets involved in various love interests, is also trying to pursue his education, but then is forced to participate in the horrors of war. The book does not provide a neat and happy ending.

Let’s move on to States and Power in Africa by Jeffrey Herbst.

This is an academic study, a really important one trying to understand the puzzle of why states in Africa have been relatively weak compared to other regions of the world. In full disclosure, I have to say that Jeffrey Herbst was my undergraduate thesis advisor, and the chair of the Princeton politics department when I was first hired as an assistant professor there, but I would pick this book despite those loyalties.

By ‘weak’ he means that the people who are in the central offices of government aren’t able to get people to do as they want or to control how life functions, particularly outside of the core cities. That phenomenon is, again, not completely universal or consistent across all of Africa. But, it’s a fundamental reason why levels of human development and economic growth have not been as strong in Africa as in some other regions, and why many African countries lag. He highlights various dimensions of the African context that account for this outcome, one of the most interesting of which is simply the political geography of Africa. Much of the continent has been so sparsely populated and the costs of extending rule were simply too high. Colonial rulers, when they came and conquered Africa, didn’t want to spend the money, and frankly, didn’t want to invest to extend their reach to the outer limits of these demarcated countries. Similarly, for those leaders that came and inherited these new, independent African entities, it was also very expensive, and so they didn’t broadcast that power either.

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He shows that within Africa, countries vary a fair bit in terms of their particular configuration. In places that are much more densely populated—for instance, Rwanda—it’s much easier for the government to extend its rule and to have that uniform rule throughout the territory. But many others are very large countries where there’s a lot of hinterland and mountainous territory. It becomes much more difficult in those countries, and the government is just inherently much weaker.

Does he offer a solution to that problem? Or is this just an endemic fact of political geography?

He was writing in 2000. He suggested that some of weakest or most failed states, like Sudan or Somalia, might have been better served under some kind of UN protectorship because these fictional states are simply unable to broadcast power in the ways that are necessary to maintain rule. Now, more than 20 years later, I think that we have seen a lot of change. For example, in recent years, many governments have vastly expanded the registration and taxation of citizens and provided a range of services throughout the territory in ways that defy the label of a weak state. I think new technologies and continued efforts over time have begun to address a lot of the problems that he initially identified. Nonetheless, I think his work is very important for those interested in understanding the challenges of making government work better in various African contexts.

Next up is Making Race and Nation by Anthony Marx. This is a comparative work looking at South Africa, Brazil and the US. 

This is such an interesting book for understanding the related phenomena of state-building and identity. It helps us to see South Africa, and perhaps Africa in general, in a broader context. It makes the point that state power is very much connected to how identities and national identities get configured and how those relationships can be found in conflicts in the way in which Half of a Yellow Sun depicts with respect to the Nigerian Civil War.

South Africa, Brazil and the United States were, for centuries, extremely diverse societies, a mix of people from many parts of the world. These three were most notably racially diverse in the sense of white populations and black African populations with histories of slavery. Marx asks why you get highly exclusionary, racist regimes like Jim Crow in the United States and apartheid in South Africa, but something very different and much more integrationist in the case of Brazil. He argues that it had to do with the different ways in which their founding conflicts got resolved. There was the American Civil War and there was the Boer War in South Africa. One was between North and South and one between the British and the Afrikaners. In both cases, it was primarily white groups that fought with one another. One important way in which they solved those conflicts was to heal up the nation’s wounds by unifying around whiteness and excluding blacks from full citizenship, as a type of compromise to get past those bitter conflicts.

“Virtually all of Africa was subjected to colonial rule”

But in Brazil, there was no such conflict or war among white people. Certainly, there are still important legacies of slavery and inequality in that country that persist to this day. In some ways, there has been much more politicization around race in recent decades but most people would agree that for most of the twentieth century, the salience of race and identity politics were much more profound in the United States and South Africa relative to Brazil. The larger message for state-building in Africa and more generally is that it is often tied to conflict and the forging of particular national identities.

Has the post-apartheid regime managed to overcome that? Or is his point that, actually, these things have persisted very strongly into the post-apartheid era?

This was published in 1998 so it was early on in the post-apartheid regime. What he highlights with respect to the anti-apartheid struggle is that the resolution of one conflict is not fixed. By creating this exclusionary state in both the United States and South Africa, that propelled civil rights movements and challenges in both countries, helping to drive legislation in the 1960s in the United States and the ending of apartheid in South Africa by the early 1990s. Those kinds of national categories ended up becoming racialized categories and the basis for struggle and, to revisit the core theme we’re talking about here, became very central to the machinations of democratic politics in those countries.

Let’s go to the final book, Regime Threats and State Solutions (2020) by Mai Hassan, about Kenyan politics. 

This is the most recent book and a really terrific study of the development of the Kenyan bureaucracy. It reflects the challenges that are brought out in the other books, which is how, in a very ethnically divided society—and Kenya is fantastically diverse with many languages and ethnic groups—do you manage the country’s ethnic elites, who are competing for resources and power, and yet keep things running? That’s the challenge for the state.

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Hassan looks carefully inside the state and shows that there’s a lot of strategic deployment of particular bureaucrats by politicians. This happens both during the authoritarian periods and the more recent democratic periods in Kenyan history. She reminds us that these bureaucrats are often driven by different loyalties. They have different ethnicities. As a result of their own personal positions, and because of different relationships to politicians, you see a lot of variation in state capacity within a country. It’s often tempting for all of us, when we see certain government functions not performing particularly well, to attribute this to some randomness in particular people that we encounter, or to management or just a belief that people who work in government lack competency. Hassan shows us that it’s about politics, that there’s this strategic deployment of people, and the autonomy that they have to carry things out. That very much reflects the fact that politicians want to stay in power. They don’t want challengers to have too much of their power. So it’s a bit of a dance in terms of allocating the people who can manage things well.

Is she describing the situation rather than suggesting solutions to problematic forms of bureaucratic government?

Social scientists operate by looking at the evidence that they find about certain sets of problems, which allows them to describe how and why certain capacities might work better, and some might work worse. But I think we’re always cautious about recommending a solution without additional evidence. So, yes, this book is more about describing how things are than about offering a solution for how they might be.

Before we go, tell us quickly about your book, Until We Have Won Our Liberty: South Africa after Apartheid. What are you looking at there?

As someone who has studied South Africa for my entire career, I wanted to investigate whether the democratic transition in 1994, launched after centuries of institutionalized white supremacy, ended up yielding some kind of success for South African society. I focus on a particular municipality, Mogale City, but I also look at the larger national picture over time. And while there are still many problems—huge inequality, unemployment, crime—that all persist in South Africa, I detail the many ways in which this experiment with democracy has been very successful. Democracy has yielded important material gains, it has given voice to so many people in this ethnically and racially divided society. Importantly, it’s offered a dignified existence in the face of such a long legacy of great indignities levelled through the history of white rule in that country.

Interview by Benedict King

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Evan Lieberman

Evan Lieberman

Evan Lieberman is a Professor of Political Science and Contemporary Africa at MIT, where he directs the Global Diversity Lab and MIT’s international education program, MISTI. His research and teaching focus on the politics of development and human dignity in ethnically—and racially—divided societies. He is the author of Until We Have Won Our Liberty: South Africa After Apartheid (2022).

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Evan Lieberman

Evan Lieberman

Evan Lieberman is a Professor of Political Science and Contemporary Africa at MIT, where he directs the Global Diversity Lab and MIT’s international education program, MISTI. His research and teaching focus on the politics of development and human dignity in ethnically—and racially—divided societies. He is the author of Until We Have Won Our Liberty: South Africa After Apartheid (2022).