Neither Settler nor Native: The Making and Unmaking of Permanent Minorities

| December 2021
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Neither Settler nor Native: The Making and Unmaking of Permanent Minorities, Mahmood Mamdani (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2020), 416 pp., cloth $29.95, eBook $29.95.

The constitution of political community in the aftermath of colonialism was the foremost challenge for postcolonial leaders who had been shaped by anti-colonial struggles premised on the modern notion of political self-determination. The ensuing independence promised not just legal sovereignty but also liberation from imperial domination and dispossession. Leaders such as Gamal Nasser, Kwame Nkrumah, and Jawaharlal Nehru, and postcolonial intellectuals like Frantz Fanon, recognized full well that the promise of self-determination called for state structures that moved away from the colonizers’ mode of governance. The previous systems had been based on the construction of the colonized in racist and ethnic or tribal terms, denying them access to politics and indeed the capacity to create political community based on equal citizenship. The postcolonial strategy, confirmed at the Bandung Conference, was based on international solidarity. The goal was to gain a voice in shaping the postcolonial international order and to advocate for a new founding language of the secular modern state. For Fanon, the promise of self-determination would entail an eventual shift away from the “national” idea of the state and toward cosmopolitan solidarity as the ultimate expression of a postcolonial global order. The obstacles to such transformation derive from a colonial international structure, the reach of which perpetuates global inequalities and continues to have profound implications for the shaping of political community in the postcolonial world.

Mahmood Mamdani’s new book, Neither Settler nor Native, places the lens on the latter, the shaping of political community in the aftermath of colonialism. The technology of colonial rule, namely indirect rule and its juridical manifestation in customary law, comes into sharp relief. This is Mamdani’s signature contribution to our understanding of the colonial legacy: its impact on postcolonial politics, the extremes of violence experienced in civil wars, and the genocidal targeting of ethnically defined communities.

Mamdani widens the historical lens, starting with “political modernity,” which he sees as core to a historical trajectory that produces categories of population and distinctions that historically—and still in the present—determine domination and dispossession through the extremes of violence. The trajectory starts with the European settler colonization of the Americas. In this historical analysis, the focus is on North America and the gradual near extermination and wholesale dispossession and displacement of its indigenous populations. Mamdani questions conventional understandings of the “revolutionary” founding of the United States by its “immigrants.” Instead, he suggests an alternative reading that recognizes the United States as a settler colonial state. This reading enables us to understand how violence operates in the construction of “permanent minorities” subjected to exclusionary practices, for example, in the reservation system. Mamdani argues that the American model has inspired many nationalist projects that have aimed to create permanent minorities. His case studies include Nazi Germany, Israel and the Palestinians, the breakup of Sudan, and post-apartheid South Africa. South Africa is the one case that has emerged out of the debris of colonial modernity, where settlers and natives became “survivors,” juridically equal citizens in a post-apartheid nonracial democracy.

Along with a historical analysis, Neither Settler nor Native is also imbued with a normative stance informed by two positions. The first relates to political modernity and its implication in producing the nation-state model that then becomes culpable in the violent production of permanent minorities. The second position distinguishes between two responses to extreme violence: the criminal justice model and the political model. It is Mamdani’s interpretation of political modernity and this dichotomy in responses to violence that can be subject to critical scrutiny, and which I will attend to later in this review.

It is widely understood among postcolonial theorists, including this reviewer, that modernity is constitutively related to coloniality. This relation is not solely manifest in the colonized regions of the world but formative of modern rationalities of government within the domestic settings of imperialist states. The institution of the nation-state is of this rationality, where one technology of rule, according to Mamdani, is the naturalization of identities through discourses that reify singular national or even racial identities, a legacy we witness to the present day in European and North American anti-migrant discourses and practices. Mamdani’s strong normative argument is that just as colonization could be defined as the “making of permanent minorities and their maintenance through the politicisation of identity” (p. 18), the decolonization of political community would entail the “unmaking of the permanence of these identities” (p. 18). This shift toward decolonizing political community would require not only a normative commitment to doing so but a wholesale “epistemic” transformation, specifically of the frameworks of knowledge drawn upon in the (re)constitution of political community. The South African model, and particularly the process that established its constitutional framework, the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA), is no less than a “moment” in this decolonizing endeavor. In providing a detailed account of CODESA and its future-oriented deliberative practices, its substantive engagement with rights conceived in terms of equal citizenship, and the structures that reproduce inequality, Mamdani’s aim is to argue that while CODESA invites “us to respond to political violence with political rather than criminal solutions”(p. 180),the Nuremberg trials and South Africa’s own Truth and Reconciliation Commission are based on the criminal model, individualizing culpability rather than being transformative of political community.

Mamdani’s normative commitments are historically framed and provide one of the strongest proposals for what the content of a decolonizing political pedagogy would look like. Some readers will find much that seems controversial, particularly among an American audience. Specifically, they may object to the representations of the United States and Israel that Mamdani provides. It is, however, the conceptual framework that invites the following two specific critiques from me. That the nation-state model, nationalism, and colonialism are of modernity’s trajectory is incontrovertible. However, political modernity can also be viewed as the source of struggles for political emancipation across the world. Therein lies the paradox of modernity: Although it has historically produced forms of power that continue to exclude, harm, and kill, it has also produced forms of resistance and struggle based on the modern concept of emancipation from naturalized and taken-for-granted identities and from forms of rule that perpetuate exclusion. The South African moment is a paradigmatic product of political modernity, in which a cosmopolitan, nonracial democratic formation could be imagined and constituted despite the odds. Crucially, the decolonizing model that Mamdani provides is premised on this latter emancipatory reading of political modernity.

The second line of normative argument made in the book relates to responses to extreme violence, with Mamdani contrasting the “criminal” and the “political” models. The distinction is carried through the book, starting with Nuremberg, moving through South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and on to the prosecution of war crimes in the present. Where the criminal justice model criminalizes the individual, leaving intact the constituencies that legitimize violence, the political model understands the perpetration of violence as politically motivated, demanding political responses. Where the former depoliticizes, the latter politicizes. However, the lines of distinction are never as clear-cut as Mamdani implies. Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem reveals the significance of the judicial process in the constitution of political community in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Arendt ultimately values the fact that the trial was held in Jerusalem: that Eichmann was tried by the Jewish people. To voice witness and survival of atrocity is itself a founding political moment, for the individual, for the political community that is being formed, and for humanity at large.

The critiques above do not change the fact that I believe this is one of the most important recent contributions to the literature on the decolonization of politics and, specifically, political community. Though the international is largely missing—specifically how structures of power, transnational solidarity, and discourses of rights impact the shaping of political community—the historical investigation, along with its normative arguments, will be of core interest both pedagogically and intellectually to understandings of conflict, political transformation, and responses to the extremes of violence in postcolonial states. Mamdani’s book contributes to what ought to be an ongoing conversation on postcolonial modernity and its manifestations globally.


—Vivienne Jabri

Vivienne Jabri is professor of international politics in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. Her most recent book is The Postcolonial Subject: Claiming Politics/Governing Others in Late Modernity (2013).

To access a PDF of this review, please visit Cambridge Core.

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Category: Book Review, Issue 35.4

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