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Wim van Binsbergen

Ethnicity and identity in South Central Africa



?1997-2002 Wim van Binsbergen

[ van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1997, ‘Ideology of ethnicity in Central Africa? in: Middleton, J.M., ed., Encyclopaedia of Africa south of the Sahara, New York: Scribners, vol. 2, pp. 91-99]

The point of departure: the actors?ideology of ethnicity in central Africa today

In the post-colonial nation-states of Central Africa today (from the equator to the Limpopo River), Black Africans identify as members of named categories designated ‘tribe? ‘ethnic group? or equivalents of these terms in African and European languages in local use. Such ethnic groups tend to be felt as a tangible reality. They are claimed to organize major aspects of the individual’s life in the field of language, expressive and ritual culture, kinship, production, and reproduction; allegiance and opposition in traditional and modern politics are considered to be largely determined along ethnic lines. The national territory is often seen as parceled up in contiguous sections each of which forms an ethnic group’s rural home area administered by a traditional ruler (chief, headman); the natural habitat of ethnic identity is therefore thought to be ‘the village home? a category implying purity, meaningfulness and order.

          ?           ?This view is largely nostalgic. Significant ethnic processes in Central Africa today evolve not only in rural context, but also in towns, bureaucracies and national political circles; they include born urbanites organizing themselves not in historic localized groups but through dyadic network contacts and formal organizations. Moreover, massive 20th-century social change in the rural areas has blurred the distinction between town and countryside.

          ?           ?This actors?ideology of ethnicity must form our point of departure. It is similar to the views held by European travelers, administrators, Christian missionaries, employers of African labor, and anthropologists, active in Central Africa throughout the colonial period. Colonial administration parceled up the territory into strictly demarcated, named units thought to possess, as ‘tribes? a unique culture and indigenous socio-political organization allegedly underpinned by centuries of inescapable tradition. In their selection and diocesan administration of certain areas, and codification of local languages for education and Bible translation, Christian missions reinforced the tribal illusion. Central African intellectuals and politicians reproduced these views in articulating their own ethnicities; they continue to do so by the invention of tradition in the form of ethnohistory, ethnic festivals, folklorization, reinstatement of traditional leadership as a focus for ethnicity.

          ?           ?Also anthropology adopted the tribal illusion. It was only in the 1960s that the concept of ‘tribe?was subjected to profound criticism as a Eurocentric and reified designation of an ethnic group, and ethnic differentiation was problematised as a socio-political process. Today, anthropologists view Central African ethnicity as constructed and situational. Recent research shows how many current ethnic names (ethnonyms) in Central Africa originated in colonial practices. Whereas the ‘tribe?was once thought to sum up a total, bounded and localized culture, ethnicity is now stressed to be only one among several primary structural principles in Central Africa societies.

Ethnicity and ethnicization

Ethnicity poses great analytical difficulties because it can be seen at work in many different social and political contexts, where it displays many different and contradictory dimensions. Ethnicity in Central Africa today is, among other things: a system of social classification; which pretends to be rigid yet depends on flexibility and manipulation at the level of both ethnic groups and individuals; it is a structure for the definition and interaction of sub-national power groups making up the national polity; it is a system of social inequality; a strategic network for redistribution; it constitutes the actors?folk theory of political causation; as well as an ideology justifying inequality and violence vis-a-vis named ethnic others. This multidimensionality makes for the complex ethnic dialectics typical of Central African societies today and causes its impredictability.

          ?           ?Definitions are a first step to disentangle this complexity. An ethnic group is an explicitly named set of people. Within the social field more than one such sets, but only a limited number, are being distinguished; at least the numerically largest set in the social field is of considerable demographic scope, although other sets may be quite small. Membership of a set is in principle ascriptive, i.e. by birth. Within the set people identify with one another, and are identified by others, on the basis a few historically determined and historically changing, specific ethnic boundary markers, including ethnonym, language, historic forms of leadership, modes of production, selected other cultural traits, sometimes also selected somatic characteristics such as skin color, hair texture, facial characteristics, deliberate human interference with the body’s appearance ?both reversible (e.g. hairstyle) and irreversible (e.g. scarification). Ethnicity is the way in which the wider social field is economically, politically and culturally structured in terms of a multiplicity of such ethnic groups in interaction. Identity is the self-image which members of any social category construct as members, on the basis of identification and of stereotyping both among themselves and among outsiders. Identity tends to be situational, multiple (since every social field consists of many intersecting social categories), strategic, and subject to historical change. This applies to ethnic identities no less than to gender, class, professional, religious, and other identities. Socializing early in life, as well as social control, propaganda, taking consciousness later on, may cause a specific identity to become so deeply entrenched in the personality as to produce a fixed, self-evident vision of reality, no longer consciously negotiated in social contexts. Ethnicization marks the process by which ethnic identity is made into a militant political idiom taking precedence over an individual’s other identities, as a basis for political action. Culture comprises the total package of attributes a human individual acquires as a member of society.

          ?           ?Ethnonyms tend to be nested. Local groups that are clearly distinguished at the regional level may be merged at the national level in the face of non-members of either group. If either local group is of higher status, such merging amounts to ethnic ‘passing?on the part of members of the group considered inferior. Ethnonyms are segmentary, shifting, situational, manipulative, and so are ethnic boundary markers. The history of ethnic groups within a social field includes the capricious pattern of the emergence, distribution and redistribution of boundary markers including ethnonyms. For instance, in the region straddling Angola, Zaire and Zambia male circumcision today serves as a boundary marker between groups (e.g. Lunda, Ndembu, Luvale, Mbunda, Chokwe, Luchazi) associated with the widespread Lunda complex of language and political and ceremonial culture, as against other yet related groups such as Nkoya and Mbwela, who practiced circumcision until the 19th century. Throughout Central Africa, language plays a major role as ethnic boundary marker. This springs partly from the codification of African languages since the 19th century but also more in general from language’s capability of encoding and displaying identity or alienness in social interaction. More than any other part of institutionalized culture, language is encoded in formal rules whose infringement (e.g. by non-native-speakers) immediately causes puzzlement, ridicule, rejection, or a breakdown of communication among listeners and readers. Language for the native speaker tends to be the last refuge of owning and belonging, of competence and identity. However, such emotive appeal already presupposes ethnicization; without this factor, the role of language as an ethnic boundary marker is attenuated by Central Africa’s widespread multilingualism.

          ?           ?Tribal model and ethnicization erroneously equate ethnic identity with a total culture embracing all aspects of human life, instead of with selected cultural items serving as boundary markers. In Central Africa, a specific cultural package encompassing all aspects of human life is seldom limited, in place and time, to a specific named ethnic group; usually it has a much wider distribution. For instance, in the savanna belt of South Central Africa scores of ethnic groups have been distinguished one next to the other since the nineteenth century; yet the distribution of patterns of production, reproduction and signification shows such an underlying unity that we should speak of one large culture region. Within this far-reaching regional continuity distinct ethnic groups have merely distinguished themselves by relatively minor cultural items marking ethnic boundaries.

          ?           ?Ethnicization constructs ethnonyms so as to mark ethnic boundaries, and pre-existing culture so as to fall within those boundaries and to offer distinctive boundary markers. The cultivated sense of a shared history makes sense of experiences of powerlessness, deprivation and estrangement, and kindles hope of improvement through ethnic self-presentation. The ethnonym and the principle of ascription then produce for the actors the image of a bounded, particularist set of solidary people. The vulnerable individual’s access to national resources, and the formal organization (state, industry) controlling them, becomes the object of group action. In postcolonial Central Africa, ethnicization increasingly includes cultural politics. A set of people is restructured so as to become an ethnic group by designing a cultural package which in its own right constitutes a major stake in the negotiations with the outside world. One dissociates from rival ethnic groups at the local and regional scene through a strategic emphasis on cultural and linguistic elements; and at the national level one competes for the state’s political and economic prizes via the state’s recognition of the ethnically constructed cultural package. New intra-group inequalities emerge. The mediation takes place via brokers who are more than their fellow-members of the ethnic group in a position to exploit the opportunities at the interface between ethnic group and the outside world. Asserting the ‘traditional? ‘authentic?(but in fact newly reconstructed) culture appears as an important task and as a source of power and income for the brokers. Ethnic associations, publications, and festivals, constitute general strategies in this process.

          ?           ?Ethnicization restructures actors? perception of time and space. It creates social meaning by offering to the members of Central African society today a folk theory which enables them to impose a sense of spatial localization and temporal continuity on the otherwise bewildering fragmentation and heterogeneity of their postcolonial experience. The actors not only frame selected items of their regional culture within the boundaries of their ethnic group and within their image of ‘home? but also project these items onto a glorified past. Political, judicial and moral relations are underpinned by reference to the virtual, dreamed village, which never was the ideal setting it is now made out to be, but whose evocation (in urban ritual, ethnic festivals, political demonstrations embellished by traditional costumes and ceremonial weapons, traditional leaders etc.) enables people to derive symbolic comfort from their communion with mythical images ?as a basis for ethnic leaders?mobilizing appeal.

          ?           ?Ethnicity displays a remarkable dialectics between inescapability and constructedness, which largely explains its great societal potential. On the one hand, as a classification system ethnicity offers a logical structure, which is further ossified through ascription and which presents itself as unconditional, bounded, inescapable and timeless. This is what made early researchers of Central African ethnicity stress primordial attachments. On the other hand, the social praxis of ethnicity as ethnicization means flexibility, choice, constructedness and recent change. Together, these entirely contradictory aspects constitute ethnicity, as a devise to disguise strategy as inevitability. This dialectics renders ethnicity particularly suitable for mediating, in processes of social change, between social contexts with are each of a fundamentally different structure. Because of this internal contradiction, ethnicity offers the option of strategically effective particularism in a context of universalism, and hence enables individuals, as members of an ethnic group, to cross otherwise non-negotiable boundaries and to create a foothold or niche in structural contexts that would otherwise remain inaccessible; this is how recent urban immigrants (cf. urban markets of labor and housing) and citizens (cf. bureaucracies) use ethnicity.

Ethnicity and social conflict in South Central Africa

Ethnicity is rarely a mere classification system of parallel groups operating at the same level of power, esteem and privilege, but usually implies an element of vertical hierarchical subordination: ethnic group membership is a status position in a hierarchy of politico-economic power and prestige, and ethnicization aims at improving the position of their entire ethnic group; failing this, the individual may try to pass singly to a more highly placed group by the adoption of new boundary markers (a different ethnonym, language, dress style, world religion etc.). Ethnic formulations express all other conflicts over social inequality in the society. Ethnicity is not the dominant and independent factor in Central African society ethnic actors (ad many outside analysts) claim it to be. Since ethnicity has established itself as the Central African political folk theory, all major social conflicts assume ethnic manifestations. This is possible because of ethnicity’s unique capability of being manipulated by ethnic and political brokers, whilst possessing a suggestion of inescapability, a focus on ethnonyms which makes actors reduce complex structural issues to identified social groups, and spatial and temporal imagery which renders ethnic constructs highly persuasive in the light of mythical times and the nostalgic, idealized village home. The appeal to historic ethnic symbols emulating precolonial conditions (pastoralists versus agriculturalists, lords versus clients) suggests that the conflict is rooted not in contemporary power relations but in precolonial, perennial, inter-group conflicts, and hence is unsolvable. The redefinition in essentialistic, primordialist ethnic terms transforms social conflicts to a format where they can hardly be contained, especially given the poverty and erosion of many postcolonial states in Central Africa, which render them prizes instead of arbiters in social conflict. Ethnicization turns class conflict into ethnic conflict over the state, and having captured the state, puts it political and military resources at the disposal of one of the contesting sides. With the global availability of sophisticated weaponry and political support, such conflicts easily precipitate into large-scale violence, of which the 1994 tragedy in Rwanda is only once example from Central Africa. While the cultural and mass-psychological factors in such events should not be ignored, and the unique historicity of events makes a systematic explanation difficult, ethnicity is largely a template for class conflict.

precolonial and colonial ethnicity in South Central Africa

Although ethnicity in Central Africa today has been greatly influenced by inter-group processes within political arenas defined by the colonial and post-colonial state, many ethnonyms and other boundary markers have undoubtedly a pre-colonial origin.

          ?           ?Ethnic groups as defined above are too prominently and consistently represented in oral traditions than to be explained away as mere projections of colonial or post-colonial realities into a pre-colonial past; although such projections do occur. Moreover, the same ethnonyms appear in documents generated in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, before colonial administration could have made an impact. However, the various generic and proper names for groups thus distinguished by precolonial Central Africans must have lacked the standardization and territoriality imposed with colonialism. Their dimensions diverged: named political units constituting precolonial state systems did not coincide with linguistic clusters, but probably did reflect ecological specializations of agriculturalists, pastoralists, hunters, fishermen, petty commodity producers. Precolonial states, as systems integrating ecological diversities, were usually multi-ethnic: one dominant ethnic group, several other ethnic groups, several languages and an underlying regional culture. Ethnonyms in precolonial times may reflect rejection of a central state or regional cult; e.g. Tonga and Kwangwa, designating groups ?i>tired, sc. of subservience?as found repeatedly in Zambia, Malawi and Zimbabwe; of course such structural designation precludes any genetic link between groups thus named. Also outside states, ethnonymic practices articulated ecological specialisms, e.g. between hunter-gatherer Pygmies and agriculturalist Bantu-speakers in Zaire, and Khoi-San-speaking hunter-gatherers versus Bantu-speaking agriculturists and pastoralists in Zambia, Botswana and Namibia. Here both ecological specialization and language served as ethnic boundary markers. The historic ecological contradiction between pastoralist/ agriculturalist opposition provided the imagery (if nothing more) for the most violent ethnic conflicts Central Africa has seen in post-colonial times, in Rwanda and Burundi.

          ?           ?If ethnicity in Central Africa has definite precolonial antecedents, this is not the case for the most obvious form in which colonial ethnicity has presented itself: as a hierarchical structure of bounded, mutually exclusive geographical ethnic, linguistic, religious, political and administrative units projected onto a map, and administered by traditional rulers reduced to being colonial officials. The impact of European colonization on ethnicity and identity in Central Africa made itself felt in a number of structural contexts reflected by our successive headings below.

Ethnicity in formal organizations

In modern formal organizations (state bureaucracies, industrial and commercial enterprises, and voluntary associations including churches, political parties and ethnic associations) ethnicity emerges as the specific social format in which actors negotiate between the universalist legal rules and statuses as defined within the formal organization, and their individual and group goals of economic survival, material appropriation, prestige, interpersonal power, and the acquisition of a political following. When of two interaction partners one is an official, their ethnic identification often persuades the latter to divert resources for unofficial means. Ethnicity then amounts to a structure of redistribution and patronage, which undermines the universalist principles of the formal organization but at the same time informally ties a significant section of the population both to the redistributing official and to the organization, and ultimately to the state.

          ?           ?The situationality of ethnicity means that only in certain contexts a display of ethnic exclusiveness is acceptable, and even then under specific conditions (e.g. discretion, privacy, leisure time). Outside these contexts, universalism is the norm, and there the migrant, job seeker, client, merges inconspicuously into the background of urban and formal-organizational mass society, submitting to generalized styles of dress and conduct, and using a lingua franca instead of a minority home language ?the ticket to ethnic solidarity.

          ?           ?Before independence, industrial officers in Central Africa were mainly European and Asian expatriates; this introduced an ethnic factor, both between the expatriate and the local Africans, and between expatriates from different parts of the world. African labor has been one of the largest problems of local economies; initially the solution was found in recruitment across considerable distances, which (even against the background of extended regional cultures) made for considerable linguistic, social and cultural diversity at the towns, mines and plantations where migrants converged. Urban ethnicity emerged under such conditions. The labor market features niches reserved to specific ethnic groups, exemplifying chains of redistribution between town and countryside. Some of today’s ethnonyms (e.g. Nyamwezi) are derived from people’s functioning in the colonial labor market. Initially, industrial social control was exercised on a rural ethnic basis, by ‘tribal elders? in line with managerial fictions of the ‘target worker?‘the bachelor labor migrant?and of the migrant as a ‘temporarily displaced villager? but soon this solution was no longer acceptable to urban and industrial workers developing a worker’s class consciousness. All this led to a situation where, in Central Africa, industrial conflicts tend to be expressed as ethnic conflicts.

          ?           ?The struggle for independence in Central African countries comprised not only the emergence of political parties (often with an ethnic or regionalist element) striving for constitutional reform, but also a distinct ethnic conflict: between on the one hand a dominant White, Europe-derived group controlling the colonial state, its bureaucracies, industry and large-scale agriculture, and on the other the African population regardless of ethnic composition. Independence marked a replacement of White personnel by Black, and in the latter’s rallying for access and control ethnicization played a major role.

          ?           ?Voluntary organizations in Central Africa may be implicitly or explicitly organized on an ethnic basis; of this tendency the standard example is formed by ethnic organizations aiming at the presentation of ethnic identity through music, dance, annual festivals, the furthering of traditional leadership. In a multi-ethnic environment they offer people the opportunity of creating refuges of ethnic particularism, as a basis for effective dyadic network relationships between individuals. The colonial and postcolonial state’s intense fear of mono-ethnic group activity has led to a paucity of such associations in Central Africa. More frequently, voluntary formal organizations can be seen to function in a multi-ethnic manner, in reflection of the fact that everyday life, especially in towns but increasingly also in rural areas, is multi-ethnic. Voluntary associations of a recreational, sportive and religious nature provide a usable model of the wider society and teach people to operate within the latter. Christian churches furthered ethnic and regionalist particularism; however, this was often balanced by such nationalist and anti-racialist orientation as Central African adherents derived from their churches?cosmopolitanism. The same point applies to Islam, a major presence in the north-eastern and eastern parts of Central Africa. As a result world religions and their formal organizations constitute the least ethically divided domain in postcolonial Central Africa: many congregations are multilingual in their rituals, and whereas ethnic conflicts (also between Africans and non-Africans) may contribute to congregational fission, in general the adherents?ethnic particularism yields to religious universalism.

Ethnicity in urban contexts in South Central Africa

The towns of Central Africa, products of the imposition of colonial administration and of the capitalist mode of production, have served as laboratories of multi-ethnic social life. African townsmen have shaped converging forms of urban life, molding the multi-ethnic and multi-lingual influx of migrants into viable urban societies where ?with the aid of a lingua franca ? formal and informal norms of conduct, patterns of experience, and sources of identification and mobilization, are widely shared across ethnic and regional divisions. On this basis they have asserted themselves in the face of the modern state and the declining postcolonial economy.

          ?           ?A widespread academic opinion stresses increasing irrelevance, in the urban situation, of historic, rural-derived forms of social organization (kinship, marriage, ‘traditional?politics and ritual). Here Mitchell’s Kalela dance (1956) offers the classic paradigm, stressing how at the city boundaries elements of rural society and culture may be selectively admitted onto the urban scene, yet undergo such a dramatic transformation of form, organization and function that their urban manifestations must be understood by reference to the urban situation alone. Or, in Gluckman’s famous words, ‘the African townsman is a townsman? not a displaced villager or ‘tribesman?but ‘detribalised as soon as he leaves his village? The pioneering researches by Mitchell and Epstein on the Zambian Copperbelt in the 1950s viewed urban ethnicity principally as a classification system for the management of dyadic network contacts and marital choices in town: an exclusively structural feature, not as a vehicle for cultural continuity between rural areas and new towns. Whereas Mitchell’s later work developed the theory of urban ethnic categorization, Epstein abandoned the earlier position. He elaborated on the emotive aspects of identity as deriving from a sense of collective history, and from identification between (alternate) generations. He admitted that the private urban domain of the household, kinship, and sexuality, was informed by cultural orientations from the migrants?distant rural homes.

          ?           ?This issue is elucidated by subsequent research on kinship rites, life crisis rites, and historic African rituals in town. What is reproduced in such urban ritual is not an ethnically specific distinctive set of practices (although ethnicization pretends otherwise), but the overall cultural orientation of the wider cultural region. The rural-derived practices bring to bear historic cultural meaning and the attending cosmological orientation upon the culturally fragmented urban existence, in order to complement such symbolic orientation as derives from the modern state, the capitalist economy, world religions and global consumer culture. Underneath the multiplicity of ethnic labels circulating in town, institutionalized modes of inter-ethnic discourse (joking relations, funerary friendship) and marriage also mediate this joint substratum. Historic African cults, syncretistic cults, and independent Christian churches in town, which tend to be trans-ethnic, derive much of their appeal from the way in which they articulate and transform this historic substratum and thus recapture meanings for urbanites having loosened their direct contact with rural culture.

Rural ethnicity in post-colonial South Central Africa

In Central Africa today the distinction urban/rural has become merely gradual, formal organizations exist also in rural areas, and much of the above patterns of ethnicity therefore are found also there. Through rural-urban links (migration, marriage, part-time farming, ritual and healing) many Central Africans participate both in urban and in rural life, and ethnicity provides strategic connections between these structurally different settings.

          ?           ?The colonial project sought to turn rural Central Africa into a patchwork quilt of ‘tribes? but never succeeded. Although in many countries the administration of rural areas is partly in the hands of traditional rulers (chiefs and headmen) whose authority is defined territorially, chief’s areas today are not homogeneous in terms of the inhabitants? ethnic and economic characteristics; they include national and international ethnic strangers ?primary rural producers as well as representatives of all sorts of national-level formal organizations. The rural areas are involved in processes of class formation, in which the increasing scarcity of land as an agricultural resource leads to ethnic conflict because of the link between ethnic groups, traditional rulers, and land allocation. For such ethnic confrontations, as well as for the contest over scarce resources trickling down from the central state and from international development agencies, local and regional politics constitute an arena; the players include traditional rulers, ethno-political brokers conversant with urban and national-level conditions, and non-locals pursuing supralocal political and economic concerns. As small agricultural producers, equipped with the power to vote, and usually with personal knowledge of urban conditions at the political center, peasants also play a role. Their view of politics tends to be dominated by ethnicity as a folk political theory. Here they are inspired by a collective sense of rural deprivation in the course of a shared colonial and postcolonial history. Expecting to extract, from state, party, and individual politicians, goods and services which until recently have been denied them, peasants give voting support to politicians who involve them in and through ethnicization; the latter, often with a local background but through their education and careers involved beyond the local level are often in collusion with local intellectuals, ethnic associations if any, and traditional rulers.

          ?           ?Provided ethnicization leads to recognition from the center (in the field of expressive culture and traditional leadership) and a trickle down of material benefits, it often results in increased regional and national integration. The view of ethnicity as invariably politically divisive and centrifugal cannot be supported in its generality. However, if local ethnicization is systematically frustrated, if the rural area is near a national border, and if across that border ethnic identification is cultivated with other groups sharing the same regional culture ?then the conditions may be building up for secessionism ?one of the most obvious, spatial, expressions of ethnicized intra-statal conflict, and one most feared by Central African governments.

Ethnicity in post-colonial South Central African states

The post-colonial state is far from a fixed and static bedding for ethnic processes to flow through. On the contrary, today’s resilience of ethnic phenomena in Africa and world-wide reflects the erosion of the nation-state, internally by regional and local pressures, externally the global economy and the changing international political order. If wealth flows from the state, ethnicity provides a network to redistribute it; if the state can no longer deliver, ethnicity provides counter-structures for security, distribution, assertion of group rights, etc.

          ?           ?In Central Africa, national politics has a regionalist rather than an ethnic bias. Many small ethnic groups coalesce into a few regional power blocs; the latter feature at the national level, in shifting factional arrangements striving for control over the state. In Zambia for instance, this process has now given rise to ‘mega-ethnic-groups?such as the ‘Nyanja?(marked by a simplified version of the Chewa language as lingua franca), and the ‘Bemba? no longer one among many other ethnic groups in the country’s north-east, but an ethnic composite encompassing the entire northern part of the country which since 1930 has provided the bulk of labor migrants to the Zambian Copperbelt towns ?whose urban lingua franca (more than the rural ethnic group) gave the block its name. Ethnic boundary markers between the constituent ethnic groups are shed and even their ethnonyms become obsolete. The emergent mega-ethnic-group, through largely a national-level political construct, begins to coincide with the underlying regional culture. Here lies part of the future of ethnicization in Central Africa.

          ?           ?This increase of scale in ethnicization is partly brought about by national elites who in the absence of the political expression of existing class and religious cleavages in national politics, for voter support appeal to the ethnic folk theory of politics. In the 1970-80s, one-partyism and military rule in Central Africa had as one of its major rationalizations the avoidance of ethnicization in the national political field. The elite sought to borrow from the underlying regional culture symbols of authority with nation-wide appeal. A case in point is President Mobutu’s drive for authenticite in Zaire. In other Central African postcolonial states however historic African symbols were combined with or supplanted by North Atlantic, Christian and Islamic ones in the bricolage of national symbolism.

          ?           ?With the general reinstitution of multipartyism c. 1990, the explicitly ethnic element in Central African politics has greatly increased and occasionally (Rwanda 1994) assumed genocidal proportions.

Cultural reconstruction, and the limits of ethnic manipulation

Is there a limit to the manipulative capacity of ethnicity in Central Africa? Here is it useful to distinguish between

?span style="mso-tab-count:1">     a person’s identification with a particular, named ethnic group and its regional and national trajectory in terms of political and economic power, prestige, inter-group conflicts; and

?span style="mso-tab-count:1">     a person’s cultural orientation which is usually shared by many people belonging to a vast region comprising various ethnic groups.

          ?           ?Culture organizes the life world, fundamental conceptions of the body, time, space, causation, hierarchy, morality, legality, relations between genders, between generations, between the human, natural and supernatural world. Invested in symbolic contents rather than in boundaries and their markers, the identity produced by such an overall cultural orientation does not have a name and may be termed existential, as against contrastive identity that marks the members of named ethnic groups through contrasting boundary markers. Ethnicization therefore amounts to a conceptual and organizational focusing or framing, so as to make a social contradiction or conflict capable of being processed within the available technologies of communication, bureaucratic organization, and political representation. The emergence of ethnic associations is one example at the organizational level. Individuals and groups can and do readily drop certain ethnic boundary markers and adopt others (e.g. a different language, ethnonym, puberty rites) without fundamentally affecting their overall cultural orientation; however, ethnicization, and the intercontinental response it generates, prefer (unjustifiably) to condemn any such strategic shift (e.g. the discouragement of a minority language for educational and judicial reasons; or of puberty rites for medical reasons) as a denial of existential identity and an infringement of human rights. By contrast, such assaults on existential cultural identity as the imposition of colonial rule, world religions, the capitalist mode of production, have affected the people of Central Africa profoundly, but in the first instance not at the level of their specific ethnic group affiliations. However, after religious, psychopathic and military responses, ethnicization has tended to emerge as a powerful secondary response to threatened destruction of existential identity. This has often produced new ethnic groups as the obvious focus for taking consciousness and for political action. It is a standard strategy of ethnicization to present the wider regional culture as eminently peculiar to one’s own ethnic group; the emergence of mega-ethnic-groups must be seen also in this light. Ethnicization thus becomes a strategy in the struggle not only for political and economic power, but particularly for the rebuilding of an eroded life world within new boundaries ? the reconstruction of existential identity through contrastive identity. The actors engage in a social process that allows them, by the management of boundaries and the positioning of people, ideas and objects within and outside these boundaries, to create a new community of meaningfulness. For such symbolic reconstruction ethnicity is a ready context, but not the only one in Central Africa today. Religious congregations in world religions prominently play a similar part.

          ?           ?In the third instance, ethnicization has yet another role to play. Ethnic identity can become hardened and militant to the point that people are prepared to undergo and inflict violence for its sake. This is when the ethnic identity becomes the focus of people’s experience of recent political history specifically involving the ethnic group ?which consolidates itself in the process ?as a distinct political actor. The actors take the injury their ethnic group as a whole has suffered, as a central personal concern. The awareness of shared historical experience is a powerful mobilizing force, and when it focuses on ethnicity it may lead to such stigmatization of other ethnic groups and to such dramatization of one’s own ethnic group’s predicament, that ethnic identity becomes a folk theory of history, power and deprivation. The images it conjures up instigate such intransigence that violence becomes an obvious answer, as Central Africa has repeatedly shown in recent decades.


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