iCommons, Networked Communities and Pre-colonial African Societies

At the iCommons Summit in Rio, Brazilian Minister of Culture, Gilberto Gil gave a lyrical account of his world view, as well as an unusually for a Minister – singing us a few choruses. One of the things he said was, “I am still cultivating this strange and provocative taste of bringing together ideas that seemed to be bound to be eternally separate. just like parabolic and camara. I like to see the world echoing just like the head of a berimbau. I like to connect the differences.” (In the interests of global confusion – the English text of this speech can be found on the Australian Creative Commons site.)

So, in the interests of making the world echo, and of putting a different spin on the challenge posed at iCommons for developing countries, to leapfrog from the 19th to the 21st century, I would like to make a link between pre-colonial history in my part of the world and the iCommons discussion of the 21st century networked society. Perhaps the 21st century networked world has something to learn from 18th century Southern Africa.

Judy Breck, in her Golden Swamp virtual learning blog, describes the networked society in relation to the lateral, nodal structure envisaged for the iCommons. This has been greeted with perplexity by some.

In a 2002 article in the Journal of Social History,1 Clifton Crais (whose book2 on pre-colonial Eastern Cape history I co-published at Wits University Press in 1992) describes how social reality of the people living there was remade by the colonists of the 19th century. The idea that these societies were territorially-defined, top-down chieftainships was an invention of the colonial officials trying to make sense of the social and political order in the only language they knew – that of the nation state. What Crais describes could have a number of intriguing parallels with those battling to understand a networked iCommmons:

Political power tended to be localized, boundaries fluid and vague, and the authority of chiefs highly variable. The political landscape was both homogeneous and kaleidoscopic, with widely dispersed material and symbolic resources and constantly changing political domains. Even at moments of relative stasis domains of authority very frequently overlapped. Political identities were multiple, with the fluidity of identities generally increasing with geographical distance from any given center of power.

The absence of any unequal distribution of economic goods, trade, or population mitigated against the centralization of power. Second, military technology and strategy were widely democratic. Third, there were multiple nodes and overlapping domains of authority.

I also enjoy the parallels when it comes to the nature of leadership:

Europeans and especially early colonial officials very often found African polities to be exasperating and scarcely intelligible. One thing seemed reasonably comprehensible, that is most easily translatable into their own political epistemologies: that there were some men of elevated status who wore and laid claim to the skins of leopards and lions. These men often practiced polygyny, lived in larger communities, usually possessed more livestock than others, and were referred to and used the title “inkosi” but beyond that seemingly little differentiated chiefs from most everyone else…

Leopard and lion skins might be an appealing garb for the plenary panel at next year’s summit, although I am not so sure of the polygyny aspect. But seriously, where is the historian or anthropologist who could take this analogy further for us…

1Custom and the Politics of Sovereignty in South Africa, Journal of Social History,39 (3) 2002

2White Supremacy and Black Resistance in Pre-industrial South Africa: The Making of the Colonial Order in the Eastern Cape, 1770-1865. Cambridge University Press, 1992

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