Rhodes>African Studies Centre>Research>Marginalised Communities

Politics and Societies of the Marginalised


Project Leader: Prof. Enocent Msindo, Rhodes University: e.msindo@ru.ac.za

This project examines how communities, or peoples on the geographical margins of African states have (historically) exercised agency by creating alternative centres of power and by engaging in some unusual, unpredictable, and at times ‘deviant’ practices (from a statist point of view) in order to circumvent the state that often fail to service their needs. Known in other contexts as borderland communities, such societies are usually the greatest victims, not only of the weak, fragile, or collapsed state, but also of (politically) belligerent states that however lack the economic capacity and/or political will to support those who live further away from the centre. Thus, the marginalised engage in various forms of mobilisations from their vantage points to defy state institutions and structures. They establish sophisticated cross border goods smuggling networks; have illegal border jumping and human trafficking syndicates; engage in organised poaching; illegal mining; self-provisioning of land; illicit weapon acquisition and trade; tax evasions; sustain a network of religious, ritualistic and ethnic solidarities that know no state boundaries. Some resort to alternative forms of banking and use of foreign currencies from across the border in response to economic collapse, etc. These and other forms of expression demonstrates the agency of the underdogs in chatting a different kind of politics either by engaging the state, when it suits them or by existing/disengaging/deserting state institutions either individually or as ‘collective dissidents’.


Examining these multiple responses from marginalised societies decentres the generally ‘bourgeois’ bias in African (and Area) studies scholarship which tends to


privilege the state as a unit for scholarly analysis. Although we recognise the hegemonic position of the state, we want to ask questions about Africa’s ‘low politics’. By ‘low politics’, we mean those hidden, yet recurrent practices and behaviour at a local level that are neither birthed by nor controlled by ‘high politics’ (as in structured or hierarchically institutionalised hegemonic politics of the state). Communities tend to reproduce certain practices, turning them into the heartbeat of their ‘everyday’, yet such practices are malleable as they are constantly reworked and perfected due to changing realities facing those communities. When communities keep reinventing themselves, it becomes difficult for the state to insert itself and regulate certain practices, especially in areas where state control is weak, and the grassroots resolve too strong.


Thus, we ask key questions such as: How do people in some African communities self-identify? What alternative economies exists outside the ambit of the state and what does that existence signify? How do neighbouring communities or relatives that are divided by the national boundaries interact when their political regimes seek to control and regulate their human, financial, ideational, cultural, and other attendant mobilities and affiliations across borders? Lastly, how could all this work impact on African Studies generally, and historical studies particularly.


Apart from doing fieldwork in different countries, our team will workshop around these complex issues to develop methodologies and theoretical perspectives for examining marginalised communities where information is not always available in abundance.

Last Modified: Sat, 06 Jun 2020 00:25:19 SAST