Category Archives: militancy

Civil society, citizenship and the politics of the (im)possible: rethinking militancy in Africa today

An updated version of this paper was published in Interface in November 2009. Click here to read the updated version of the paper.

Civil society, citizenship and the politics of the (im)possible: rethinking militancy in Africa today


The contemporary critique of neo-liberalism has concentrated overwhelmingly on its economic theory and socio-economic effects. Very little has been written so far on its political conceptions, particularly of the limited thinking which it imposes on political thought and practice. This paper makes a contribution to the latter endeavour by making a case for thinking an emancipatory politics in contemporary Africa. It shows that civil society – the expression of the freedom of the citizen in neo-liberal discourse – must be understood, not as organised society, but as a domain of politics where the hegemony of a liberal, state mode of politics prevails. Politics also exists beyond, or at the margin of civil society. The political passivity produced by neo-liberal thought must be countered by an active citizenship which often exists beyond the domain of state politics including civil society itself. But this active citizenship – political agency – is not necessarily conducive to a politics of emancipation; it merely enables the possibility of the envisaging of alternative modes of thought and political ‘possibles’. To initiate a discussion of the theorisation of emancipatory politics in Africa, the paper outlines the philosophy of change of Alain Badiou, and the anthropology of Sylvain Lazarus. In particular it concentrates on the latter’s understanding of subjective ‘modes of politics’and political ‘prescriptions’. It then suggests that it is possible to identify a National Liberation Struggle (NLS) mode of politics as a subjectivity which dominated on the continent from the 1940s to the 1970s. The main characteristics of this NLS mode of politics are outlined. However, this manner of thinking emancipatory politics has now come to an end, so that emancipation has to be thought differently today on the African continent. The argument then makes the point that the period 1984-86 in South Africa (re-) discovered the beginnings of a new mode of politics, which in several important ways contradicted the core features of the NLS mode. In particular this was a politics which did not see its object as the seizure of power, but as the transformation of the lived experience of power. The paper ends by comparing the politics of two current post-apartheid South African social movements – the Treatment Action Campaign and the Abahlali baseMjondolo. It shows that, despite appearances, it is the former which has operated within the domain of the state politics of civil society, and the latter which operates beyond those subjective limits. Hence it is the latter which shows the closest fidelity to the event of 1984-86, and which is thus the closest thing today, at least in South Africa, to being the bearer of an experience and thought of emancipatory politics.

For the full paper, click here.