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Africa Multiculturalism

Multicultural Problems In Africa

While the concept of multiculturalism has not enjoyed a great deal of scholarly attention in Africa, there are several practices that may fall neatly under its rubric. First, in the process of nation-building following independence, there was a concerted attempt to de-ethnicize the population and to construct a unitary conception of the nation. Second, multiculturalism is used in dealing with minorities, especially indigenous minorities in Africa. Third, it may be relevant in the various efforts at coping with and managing diversity in the workplace. Finally, multiculturalism plays a major role in education.

Even though ethnicity had a profound influence in African politics, the official rhetoric was dedicated to nation-building. Due to the generalized economic and political failures of the postcolonial state in Africa, these efforts have been thoroughly discredited. In the aftermath of massive resource limitations, the way has been opened up for a more explicit assertion of ethnic differences as a basis for economic and political claims. Since these perceived differences may form the basis of violent, sometimes genocidal, clashes between people, the topic of ethnic conflict has received considerable research attention from social scientists. The main area of debate is how to make citizens of everyone under conditions of such diversity and with so many subnational forms of belonging. This relates directly to the necessity of building legitimate polities in Africa in which all people have a sense of inclusion and national loyalties do not contradict cultural pluralism.

Dealing with minorities has become a major preoccupation of the Commission on Human Rights of the United Nations (CHR), which was established by the UN Economic and Social Council soon after the United Nations was formed in 1946. After years of dormancy and lack of effective functioning, in response to demands from below the CHR started to mobilize. A series of workshops, "Multiculturalism in Africa: Peaceful and Constructive Group Accommodation in Situations Involving Minorities and Indigenous Peoples," has been held across Africa over the last three years in Tanzania, Mali, and Botswana. These have served as starting points to provide both a voice for the articulation of people's concerns and a platform for cooperation among them on the basis of their common experiences of exclusion, marginalization, and displacement. It is of concern that, while the last meeting of this group was held in Botswana, the Basarwa/San were being forcibly removed from their ancestral land in the Kalahari.

Managing workplace diversity was at the center of the oppressive methods developed in the mining compounds in South Africa. Since many migrants came from all over southern Africa to work in the mines, the companies devised brutal divide-and-rule methods in an attempt to forestall the development of a common working-class consciousness by insisting on separate ethnic allegiances. In many ways, the apartheid experiment was an example of imposed cultural packaging of people and, in a perverse sense, it could fall under the rubric of multiculturalism in its imposition of cultural difference. The overwhelming emphasis in early-twenty-first-century South Africa, as in most postcolonial African states, is undoubtedly on de-ethnicizing the population in favor of a unitary national concept. However, parallel to this emphasis runs the idea of the promotion, and even celebration, of a rainbow nation, encapsulated constitutionally in the establishment of the Commission for the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Cultural, Linguistic, and Religious Communities. Whether this represents a retreat into relativism and whether it will have a major impact on South African politics remain to be seen.

Multiculturalism has a profound influence on education in Africa. There are as many different positions on the virtues and vices of multicultural education as there are on multiculturalism itself. There is an abiding ambiguity here. Multiculturalism is supposed to promote diversity and contradictory perspectives, yet the goals attendant to these different positions differ sharply from those who are merely concerned with promoting tolerance to those who actively seek social change in the name of equal opportunities for all to learn. The question of language is, of course, of vital importance since it is established beyond all doubt that children perform much better when they are taught in their native language. Whether some people should be accorded special treatment in education because of historical disadvantage and whether, indeed, they should be given special curricula to cope with educational demands remain unresolved issues.

The cultural diversity of Africa has long been recognized. Audrey Richards, for example, provided a detailed account of the linguistic, religious, and cultural differentiation of communities in East Africa in a book presciently entitled The Multicultural States of East Africa. One of the contested concepts in multiculturalism is assimilation. An example from Ethiopia provides a unique insight into this policy. Bahru Zewde considers the situation of the Oromo in East Africa in the following manner: "[T]he Ethiopian emperor has three options with regard to the Oromo: enslavement and expropriation, assimilation, and indirect rule." While the first and the last mentioned are rejected for various reasons, "assimilation therefore remains the only credible and sensible option." In short, the Oromo should become Amhara since, "two peoples who are allowed to evolve separately will end up forming two different, and perhaps antagonistic, nations" (pp. 132–133). Assimilation thus implies the eradication of difference in favor of the dominant culture. It is essentially a homogenizing project that imposes itself on others on the basis of assumed cultural superiority. It is precisely this kind of cultural chauvinism that multiculturalism seeks to oppose, usually for the sake of the oppressed.

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