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Reflexivity, Consumer Culture and the Narrative Construction of the Moral Self in African Modernity

(Dr. David Kaulemu, AFCAST Regional Coordinator for Eastern and Southern Africa)


This article discusses possibilities for the construction of moral selves in the context of consumer culture in African modernity. It is a critique of a popular contemporary traditionalist approach to African identity, African family and African social and political culture. Without dismissing the positive aspects of African communalism and social solidarity, the article unpacks and criticises the negatively exclusivist aspects of the dominant conceptual framework which appeals to a narrow essentialist approach to African identity. The negative exclusivism is discussed in the context of contemporary social and political institutions in contemporary African societies of Southern Africa especially in Zimbabwe. A simplistic modernist approach to addressing the issues raised is also analysed and rejected.


Modern societies generally are characterized by experiences of reflexive self-construction and self-reconstruction both at social and personal levels, and at local and global levels. These processes are based on radical experiences of self-consciousness that are a major self-identifying characteristic of modernity as a social form of life. From the point of view of modernity, this is in contrast to traditionalist consciousness. For modernity, traditionalist societies assume the obviousness of their identities and the respective sources of those identities. There, we are told, identities are taken as given and natural. I do not think that traditional identity formation and reconstruction is as simple and straightforward as modern ideologists and indeed contemporary traditionalists want us to believe. Self-reflective identity construction was a complex process in the so-called traditional social setting. It always is. However, to demonstrate the complexity of traditional identity-formation is not my aim in this essay. I shall focus on the modern understanding of self-construction in the context of the consumer culture in African modernity. I argue that with the dominance of the modern market economy in Africa, more and more Africans are taking up what has been described as a modern consciousness. This involves conscious and unconscious self-construction, re-construction and conscious and unconscious self-destruction. This is done largely through a peculiar construction of narratives about the self and about others. In this process of narrative construction, the focus is more and more with present and future sources of the self rather than the apparent traditionalist dependence on the past. In this article, I asses the limits of the so-called modern self-consciousness and self-construction in the context of consumer culture which is the context within which modern moral selves are built and destroyed. I will be the first to admit that to the extent that I am modern, I share the strengths and weaknesses of the modern self-consciousness.

Sources of the self in African traditional societies

When I argue that modernity is characterized by an enhanced sense of self-consciousness, I do not mean to imply that African traditional societies did not or do not experience self-consciousness. People in traditional societies must have had a sense of who they were. They knew their totems, their ancestors and communo-cultural affiliations. They even distinguished themselves from others who were different from them. They constructed stories about themselves in relation to others. They compared and contrasted themselves to others. They experienced inferiority complexes just as they sometimes felt a sense of superiority to others. This is what all human beings do.

I want to make a distinction between a “traditional African” and an “African traditionalist”. The former refers to an African living in any one of African traditions. I am here referring to living African traditions. Given that many of the African traditions are seen as having been disturbed by colonialism, they are often seen in terms of the past. However, there are today African living traditions. In a very important sense, all Africans live in traditions. Other human beings too live in traditions. Modern people live in modern traditions. However, an “African traditionalist” is one who makes an effort to live what he understands to be African traditions. The traditionalist often is not happy with other traditions. He may respect the other traditions, but he insists that he has to live his own traditions because they are his. But then, he defines these traditions in narrow ways. What makes them narrow is the way he locates the traditions in a distant past historical period, usually before colonialism. This distancing of the “traditional society” creates opportunities for idealizing it. The narrowing of traditions through their idealization creates possibilities of exclusion.

The main difference between contemporary traditionalist Africans and modernist African people is that the former consider knowledge of themselves to be knowledge of what is naturally given. And they think positively about traditional knowledge of themselves. To be a traditionalist is to feel strongly about the need to live and encourage others to live whatever one understands as ‘traditional’ life. On the other hand, African modernists think that Africans used to think in ‘traditional’ ways which are no longer adequate and relevant for people living in modern societies. This means that African modernists also accept the idea of a distanced pre-colonial ‘traditional’ society. Thus African traditionalists and African modernists share the belief in the existence of a distanced, idealised African traditional society which has unique characteristics. The people of this unique society are supposed to have unique epistemology and metaphysics. The difference between traditionalists and modernists, however, is that the former take a positive view of the traditional society and the later a negative one.

I do not think that “traditional” Africans were necessarily traditionalist in the narrow exclusivist sense explained. Contemporary traditionalists, however, struggle to convince us that their knowledge of life and of themselves and others is the same objective knowledge that “traditional” Africans had. They do not ever give the impression that our ancestors struggled with determining what could count as knowledge. They do not give the impression that “traditional” Africans went through complex processes of narrative construction of their selves. Contemporary African traditionalists consider knowledge to be objective and that they possess it. For example, when they feel superior to others, they seriously believe that they are really superior to those others. When those who see themselves as ‘traditionally’ Shona consider themselves to be superior to the Sena or the Chewa, they do not consider it a matter of perspective. They believe that they are in actual fact essentially superior. They do not readily believe that they contribute to the construction of their own identities and to the status of those identities. They take it that their superiority is as objective as it is a given. They try to avoid self-consciousness by refusing to accept responsibility for the construction and constitution of their identities and their societies. They deny their contribution in the construction of social perceptions and their influence on the class, tribe and other social divisions that characterise their society.

Traditionalist societies are characterised or more accurately, dominated by the refusal to admit to themselves the fact of self-construction and self-constitution. This, of course, does not mean that all the people who lived in what are identified by traditionalists and modernists as ‘traditional societies’ were or are blind to the fact of self-construction. Odera Oruka has argued that sages had an enhanced self-consciousness that would have facilitated this awareness. However, most teachers and moralists in traditional societies are described by contemporary traditionalists, as having assumed that it was good to see identity as given. Hence traditionalist societies are what Castoriadis calls “self-occultating” societies. As Bauman explains, “ ‘Self-occultation’ consists in denying or disguising the fact of self-constitution, so that society may confront the precipitate of its own self-creation as an outcome of a heteronymous command or the external order of things” (Bauman,1995:199)

Thus contemporary traditionalist Africans who are inspired by traditional societies identify the sources of the self as entirely external to themselves. They often define their origin completely in terms of what they see as powerful external forces or beings like God, Nature, Culture, Ancestral Spirits and the Supreme Being. When they experience problems, they accept that these may be caused by spirits who may be responding to the sins of their parents and grandparents. For example, a young woman can explain her failure to attract a young man who is prepared to marry her in terms of the evils that members of her family might have committed against the ancestral spirits. Murder perhaps. This kind of reasoning is also used by young men who fail to get jobs on the job market or politicians who loose in elections. Many of them go through cleansing ceremonies in attempts to absolve themselves from the sins of their respective natural histories.

This aspect of the traditionalist culture has paradoxical consequences. On the one hand, it allows for individuals to abdicate from taking personal responsibilities for their failures. For example many who have failed to make it in life blame it on evil spirits. On the other hand, the traditionalist view facilitates individuals paying for the sins of their parents and relatives. For example, a girl child can be used to pay for the sins of her father who may have killed someone.

In this essay, I try to deal with a traditionalist consciousness rather than pretend that I can, as it were, go back into history and accurately describe the true nature of an African traditional society. In some sense, there is no such thing as a coherent, static, pre-colonial traditional African society unless it is referred to in retrospect and in a derivative sense. Even then, the concept of an African traditional society is itself a creation of modernity. It reflects more of modernity’s self-image than the character of the postulated traditional society. (Kaulem, 1999) It is modernity, or modern people themselves who felt the need to identify and distinguish a traditional society in order to separate and know themselves. In the same way, the concept of an African traditional society is a result of the process of and has its roots in the narrative construction of Western modernity. As Mamdani demonstrates,

… notions of a pre-colonial tradition are far more constraining than illuminating. “How far back do we have to go,” asks Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch, “to find the stability alleged to be ‘characteristic’ of the pre-colonial period: before the Portuguese conquest, before the Islamic invasion, before the Bantu expansion?” She then answers: “Each of these great turning points marked the reversal of long-term trends, within which a whole series of shorter cycles might in turn be identified.” “In short,” she concludes, “the static concept of ‘traditional’ society cannot withstand the historian’s analysis.” (Mamdani,1996:39)

Mamdani goes on to explain why the concept of “the static concept of ‘traditional’ society cannot withstand the historian’s analysis. He writes,

…the tendencies that went to the making of nineteenth-century Africa were multiple rather than singular, diverse rather uniform, contradictory rather than consistent. Of these the one that came closest to echoing these notions was also the least traditional, itself being a product of nineteenth-century conquest history. More than reflecting a slice of reality in the collage that was nineteenth-century Africa, the colonial notion of the pre-colonial was really a faithful mirror reflection of the decentralized despotism created under colonial rule. (Mamdani,1996:39)

It turns out that the ‘traditional’ is a creation of modernity and that of ‘traditional Africa” of Western modernity. However, Africans have to be in complicity with these constructions in order for them to be established. Paradoxically, to be a contemporary traditionalist is in some sense to be modernist or at least to accept the modernist interpretation of African tradition. In the context of colonial Africa, the so-called African customary laws were constructed by modernising forces. It is therefore misleading to suggest that customary law allowed Africans to live in their separate “traditional” world as Welshman Ncube does when he writes that, “all Africans continued to live in accordance with their traditional customs and norms and there was very little interaction between Europeans and Africans” (Ncube,1989:4) Ncube gives the impression that there was in nineteenth-century African societies, stable ‘traditional’ customs that were expressed through ‘African customary laws’. He gives the false impression that ‘African customary laws’ were authentic creations of Africans on the basis of their own traditions with no influence or interference from the Europeans. He writes,

With their military triumphs the settlers could have imposed their European personal laws on the defeated Africans, just as they had imposed their state, constitutional laws and criminal laws. However, this they did not do for reasons ranging from the fact that the continued existence of the personal customary laws of the Africans was not inconsistent with colonial domination and capitalist accumulation, to the fear that the complete tearing asunder of the Africans’ customs, culture and personal way of life would make them ungovernable. (Ncube, 1996:5)

In actual fact, the Europeans did “impose their personal laws on the defeated Africans”. Even the act of codifying these laws which was taken up by the colonial powers was an act that helped to determine the character of the so-called African traditions. Codifying the laws was a process which made rigid what had been more fluid. The process of codification must have closed some alternatives that had been available to the people who lived these traditions.
But the process of imposing “personal laws on the defeated Africans” was made complex by the fact that it was in the interests of some Africans, especially the men, petty bourgeois intellectuals, and chiefs to claim that these “personal laws” were their own.
Mamdani makes clear the role of the colonial powers when he points out the following;

Like all colonial powers, the British worked with a single model of customary authority in precolonial Africa. That model was monarchical, patriarchal, and authoritarian. It presumed a king at the center of every polity, a chief on every piece of administrative ground, and a patriarch in every homestead or kraal. Whether in the homestead, the village, or the kingdom, authority was considered an attribute of a personal despotism. (Mamdani,1996:39)

What have often been paraded as “African traditions” were actually created by colonial masters in collaboration with many Africans who benefited from the “invention of traditions”.

However, people living in African modernity can have a traditionalist mentality and they can operate as if they were living in an imaginary traditional African society, or at least live according to values they attribute to a ‘traditional’ society. It is this experience that I aim to characterise when I talk of African traditionalist society or a traditionalist consciousness. It is a consciousness that people living in contemporary African modernity can self-reflexively choose to have. But it is a consciousness that never existed, as such, in any corresponding static ‘traditional society’. It is a constructed consciousness that is presented as natural.

To have a traditionalist consciousness is to assume that one’s identity does not, in any way, depend on one’s decisions. It is to assume that identities are entirely externally and extrinsically determined and that there is very little that a person can do to determine or change one’s self-identity. Identities, in traditionalist consciousness are conceptualized as things that are discovered rather than constructed, given or inherited rather than made. It is assumed that if one is born a woman, a Shona, Chewa, Ndebele, Zulu, Tutsi or a White person, then they will always be such. The categories of the Shona, Chewa, Ndebele, African and individual selves are understood to be natural kinds. They are assumed to be naturally given. Natural kinds never change their essences without changing their identities.

Furthermore, what is natural is assumed, in traditionalist consciousness, to be good. To change natural identity or what is naturally given is regarded as evil by traditionalists. Hence the conservatism of the traditionalist perspective. Traditionalists have argued, for example, that homosexuality, cross-cultural marriages or abortion are wrong activities because they are unnatural. They are unnatural because they involve activities that cut across natural boundaries. To say that traditionalism is conservative is not to suggest that it is by that count bad. It is good to conserve what is good. However, when we look at the history of African traditionalists, we see that they have tended to be too restrictive in what they count as morally legitimate human activity. Their conservatism has tended to be expressed in form of tribalism, racism, sexism, authoritarianism and various forms of anachronisms.

Human beings cannot escape traditions. Traditions must be understood as involving active decisions by those who follow traditions. Many look at traditions as processes involving passive reception of past practices, values and institutions. In most cases, traditionalists make their own decisions about their current lives, but pretend that the authority and legitimacy of their decisions lie outside themselves, for example, in the past or in external authorities. This is part of what I have tried to demonstrate with contemporary traditionalists. I conclude that when conservatism inspires people to be suspicious of others they live with, to maintain distinctions in ways that encourage racism, sexism and tribalism, then that conservatism must be questioned morally.

Definitions of individual and social selves in African traditional societies tend to gravitate towards essentialism. Essentialism in identity is the idea that there are essential qualities without which a person ceases to be who he or she is and a group of people ceases to be what it is. For example, essentialism assumes that all Shona people share a group of qualities which are common only to the Shona and which non-Shona do not have. Non-Shona people are seen as non-Shona precisely because they do not share this list of essential Shona qualities. Debate always ensues when it comes to identifying what that list of qualities is. The commonly suggested qualities include language, myth of origin, blood relations, geography and in Platonic terms, the mystical idea of Shonaness. A lot has been written on these sources of essence. I focus on blood as a source of identity. This however has sometimes been linked to language, myth of origin and geography. Modernising forces which have helped create these traditionalist ideologies, have paradoxically, made it more and more difficult to maintain that these are unchangeable natural sources of identity. For instance, colonial forces which have invented Matabeleland as a source of identity, have also made it possible for the Ndebele people to get personal identities that do not depend on a mysterious connection with the land in Matebeleland, such as professions, religious affiliations and social class.
Many contemporary African traditionalists are essentialists. They believe that as Africans, they share certain qualities that they do not share with non-African peoples. Afro-centrists and Africanists tend to argue for a kind of nativism which assumes this sort of essentialism which, paradoxically, is relentlessly challenged and yet also encouraged by the modernizing process of the contemporary world. I have indicated that traditionalist consciousness is something that modern Africans choose to have although they would like people to believe that it is not a matter of choice. More on this will be dealt with below.

I have pointed out that individuals who take up a traditionalist consciousness often assume that their identities are given or at least that they can be discovered. This is why a traditionalist child who discovers that step-parents who have taken care of him are not his biological parents, will feel it imperative for him to look for his true parents and could even abandon his adopted parents. True relations, in traditionalist consciousness, are determined by ‘natural’ blood relations and not by human choices. This is because a traditionalist believes that blood relations are the most important relations one has in terms of one’s identity. These are considered as overriding all other relations one can get into. Hence, “blood is thicker than water”. It is confirmed by the Shona saying, “Chawawana idya nehama nokuti mutorwa anokanganwa.” (Share what you get with relatives because aliens forget.) The idea here is that blood relations are always more important than the relations that one can get into through agreements and contracts including relationships such as friendship, marriage, and those at school and the work place. It is assumed that friendships, marriage, profession, and urban residence, do not really give anyone an authentic identity. Or at least, that all these other relationships should be subordinated to the blood relations. According to this system of thought, my father should be more important to me than my mother, my brother important than my wife and my son should be more important to me than my wife. But of course, this depends on how one understands who shares blood with who.

This is a challenge to modernity given that modernity has a tendency of wanting to create identity on the basis of conscious decisions and agreements. This happens at the level of personal self-creation. People of modernist mentality feel that they can make of themselves what they want to be. A modern African is made to feel that he can leave his village and come back, if he wants, a changed man or woman. People in African villages are always fascinated to see the changes that happen to people when they leave their villages. Physically, people have begun to want to determine how they look and what experiences mold them. In extreme cases, sex changes, face-lifts, and psychotherapy are being used as tools for self-creation and self-recreation. Most relationships, in modernity, have been turned into pure relationships that have to be renewed constantly. In politics, one-party states, life-long leaders and permanent leadership are being questioned and abolished. This may explain why some Africans do not feel that modern African nation-states should be explained on the basis of the contract theory. They feel that the foundation of a modern nation state must be more fundamental and more permanent than a human agreement. So, sometimes Africans make reference to tribe or race as the foundation of the nation state. This is why many Africanists have problems in accepting that white people can belong to African nation states. Chiluba tried to prove that despite Kaunda having identified himself with Zambia so much that he fought for it and even helped to create it, he did not belong to it. Presumably because there is some essential quality that Kaunda did not share with Zambians.

John Rawls (1971), however, has defended the contract theory as assuming that political arrangements are just if they are a result of an agreement between autonomous, rational, separate individuals. But even Rawls accepts that this agreement, should constantly be reviewed when the reflective equilibrium has been disturbed.

For a traditionalist, a wife, a husband, friend, or employer, remains an alien. This is expressed in the Shona expression, “Mukadzi mutorwa” (A wife is an alien.) The moral implication of this is that a man is supposed to belong to and therefore must trust his blood relatives more than his wife. He will organize the affairs of his home with his brothers and only if they are lucky will he inform his wife, friend, in-laws and employer. In most traditionalist families, the dare or family court is very exclusive. Even in-laws are not considered participants even though decisions made by these family courts will affect them in fundamental ways. I know of a male dominated family court (dare) whose sense of pride will inspire them to bar their brothers-in-law from volunteering to help their sick mother-in-law even when members of that family, (i.e. sons to the sick mother) are unable to help their own mother. They would rather watch their own mother die, than allow an alien perform a ritual that they see as their exclusive prerogative. One can only make sense of this in terms of the symbolic meaning of taking a mother-in-law to hospital. To do so is to symbolically declare that the mother-in-law has become one’s mother. This is threatening to the traditionalist exclusivist mentality. The irony, however, is that according to this same mentality, mothers are not of the same blood with their children.

The same is true of the woman. She is encouraged to think of her blood relations as always more important to her than her husband, friends and any contract she can make with non-relatives. She is discouraged from looking at her home with her husband as her true home. She must always remember where she came from (Ziva kwawakabva) as her true home. Even if she feels estranged from her relatives, she is reminded that “ukama haugezwi” (blood relationships cannot be washed away) The true identity of a traditionalist is never determined by his or her profession, residence, marriage or any voluntary associations or organisations he or she might decide to join. One Chewa man living in Zimbabwe gave me the following advice; “Your wife is never your relative, but your child is. This is why if your wife dies and you do not inform her relatives, you are in trouble. But you can bury your child without informing your in-laws.”

This explains why many African marriages are characterised by suspicion, secrets, surveillance and recriminations. I believe that individuals made important decisions about relationships in pre-colonial societies. I do not think that in making such decisions, it was impossible to get into agreements which meant more to the individuals than blood relationships. There were situations where it was necessary to hold ceremonies to break blood ties. (kucheka ukama) Individuals chose to break away from their families and to start new ones more than has been admitted. As Patrick Harries (1994) has demonstrated, people moved physically from place to place in ways that undermined the idea that “traditional” society was a static society. He writes, “To move was a socially constructed reflex; a natural, accepted way of seeking to exploit the environment.” (Harries, 1994 : 17) In such a society, it is not obvious that blood relations would have been as overriding as they have been made to appear by contemporary traditionalists.
Hence, many traditionalist Africans, living in the modern world, live a sadly paradoxical life. The paradox is that they are supposed to trust and be emotionally close to the people they do not live with and be distant and even suspicious of those they do live with. They are supposed to have more respect and concern for the people who do not know their day-to-day likes, dislikes, worries and achievements than those who share their life experiences on a day-to-day basis. We see this happening in contemporary African families. Brothers organise the lives of their children with their sisters behind their wives’ backs. This, of course, does not mean relatives are never close to each other.

Most relations of traditionalist families are run on formulaic lines. A brother must know how to relate to a sister, a father to a daughter, a mother to a son and so on. Many women shed tears or wail at funerals of relatives they loathed during their life-time simply because that is what is expected of them. Men refrain from crying for their loved ones because it is regarded as unmanly even when they may feel like crying. This is why Giddens says traditional relations are based on codes of “formulaic truth”. (Giddens, 1994) This means that traditional relations are generally experienced as extrinsic relations.

It is now common knowledge that most of these “formulaic truths” are shields used by African elites to defend their positions in modern society. We have sometimes been told that there was no opposition to chiefs, no women chiefs, no homosexuality, no child abuse in traditional societies. Many of these formulaic truths must be understood not as a true description of what transpired in African “traditional” society but as contemporary African self-creation.

Relations in modernity, however, tend to be based on direct individual experiences. This is why marriages are based on intimacy and not routinised social conduct. As Giddens points out, relationships in modernity are characteristically “pure relationships”. Explaining Gidden’s concept of ‘pure relationships’, Mouzelis points out that,

As an intimate bond between two human beings, pure relationship involves active trust; it involves emotional disclosure, the opening up of one’s self to the Other in a context of mutual respect for each other’s autonomy and self respect. According to Giddens, it is intimacy not based on extrinsic considerations of either Gemeinschaft or Gesellschaft. Instead, it is a type of intimacy that rests on constant dialogue between two human beings who can fall back on neither kinship networks, traditional codes of conduct, nor Kantian moral imperatives to buttress and sustain their relationship. (Mouzelis, 1999:90)

Intimate bonds between two human beings in a pure relationship are radically challenging. They demand that each person in the relationship be autonomous. This demands that a participant in such a relationship cannot take the other or the relationship for granted. Any attempt to capture the relationship in some formula is problematic. For example, in modernity, the fact that a woman is in a romantic relationship with a man does not mean that the woman is always sexually available for the man. Or the other way round. Similarly, the formula that the man must always financially take care of the woman is obsolete. In a pure relationship, everything is always negotiated. This, indeed is a very radical idea for it means that at any one time, either of the party in the relationship can opt out either temporarily or permanently. At any one time, any transaction between the two must be negotiated. The idea of a lifetime marriage still remains logically possible but very difficult to promise. In a pure relationship, to promise a life-time marriage is to give up one’s freedom to negotiate as the relationship develops.

The universalisation of pure relationships in modernist societies has resulted in separating the identity of individual persons from the decisions, professions, relationships and life-plans they may have. In modern social life it is assumed that the individual’s identity is an abstract identity. Therefore, individuals can enter into any relationship at any time, or at least they should be allowed to do so. Hence the tendency from a modernist mentality to say that institutions in modernity should facilitate individuals to enter into and to resign from any institution from the family to the global world at large. Campaigns for the right to euthanasia are extreme examples of how modernist individuals seek to be allowed to resign from any institution. Modernity facilitates individuals to be allowed to choose any partner, nation or profession. They should also be allowed to divorce, to commit suicide, and to abort. In modernity, if I am a member of a particular political party or religious organisation today, I must not be asked to promise that I will always belong to that party. This is seen as giving up one’s freedom to choose what I want to be.

Traditionalists find it difficult to establish pure relationships. This is not the same thing as saying that there are no pure relationships in a traditional society. I suspect that there were more pure relationships in the so-called traditional societies than the traditionalists are prepared to allow. However, the kind of modern intimacy Giddens talks about is difficult, if not virtually impossible to establish in traditionalist marriages and other social and political relationships. Many people who marry in contemporary traditionalist families usually notice how difficult it is to gain the trust of their in-laws. In-laws usually assume that the son-in-law is a crook. (“Mukwasha itsotsi”) They also blame their daughter-in-law for all their son’s misdemeanors. Traditionalist mentality has the tendency of being blind to the strengths of in-laws and always aware of and exaggerating their weaknesses. They are blind to the weaknesses of their ‘blood’ relatives and always praising and exaggerating their strengths.

This has been demonstrated by the experiences of many Africans when their spouses have died. Relatives who believe in African traditions in a conservative traditionalist way make demands to decide on the funeral and property inheritance procedures. They demand that their deceased relative who spent most of his or her life time in the urban areas, must be buried at the rural home even though they themselves can neither finance the implementation of that decision nor remember the last time they talked to the now deceased. Usually traditionalist relatives override any arrangements that the spouses would have made before the death of one of the spouses. The usual justification by the traditionalist relatives is clear. They feel that they are closer to the dead spouse than the surviving spouse. They believe this even though they may have had little social interaction with the dead spouse. They may have had little knowledge of their son or daughter. They may have had little clue of his or her likes and dislikes. They still feel that blood relations give them the right to claim authority over their son or daughter. In many cases where a spouse falls seriously ill, traditionalist relatives claim the ill relative from the spouse. Many times, when they do so, they take over the responsibility of looking after their relative, taking him or her to doctors, herbalists and spiritualists in search of a cure. They argue that as relatives who know the ancestors of the ill person, they understand the metaphysical background of the illness better. No amount of intimacy, legal or conscious agreement between husband and wife can make them closer to each other than they are supposed to be with their brothers, sisters, fathers, and the rest of their relatives. This is the challenge that the “Wills and Inheritance Campaign” must address. From a traditionalist perspective, the law cannot override the moral obligations given by blood relations.

It is unfortunate that traditionalist consciousness has a very strong tendency of placing the relationship that any person can have with a spouse in competition with that of his or her relatives. It does not have to be that way. This competition begins right at the beginning of the marriage. The us-and-them mentality characterises the dealings between the two families that are supposed to come together. The ideology of marriage as the coming together of two families, which ironically is pedaled by traditionalists, has hardly been realized. The traditionalists undermine their own principles. Each traditionalist family finds ways of defining itself by deciding who is part of it and who is not. The language used in these definitions is essentialist and exclusivist. While relationships between people are always full of ambiguities, the traditionalist view tries to banish ambiguities. Members of each traditional family include the living, the living-dead, and the unborn. Each family develops its own structures of authority and rules of operation. It creates its own unique family culture. It develops defensive mechanisms and ways of dealing with problems, joys, challenges and internal and external threats. As a separate entity, each traditionalist family tries to keep and defend its members. It is difficult if not impossible for any member of one family to be accepted into another. This is why the practice of adoption is very rare in African traditionalist families. And this is why ‘pure relationships’ between members from different families are virtually impossible or always limited. This, in turn, explains why traditionalist individuals who are married never see themselves as members of the same family with their spouses. Any who try are usually labeled and ostracized by their respective so-called extended families. Wives, in traditionalist families, are made to feel that they are visitors in their husbands’ homes.

Husbands are told that their wives are visitors who can go back to their homes at any time. My colleague, Jameson Kurasha always talks about how this traditionalist orientation, which might have made sense at a different time, is ridiculous. His father is in his ninenties and his mother in her eighties. They have been married for more than sixty years. In traditionalist terms, Ambuya Kurasha has been in the Kurasha home for more than sixty years. She lived in her own home, before she was married, for, at most, only about twenty years. Yet she is supposed to see herself only as a visitor to the ‘Kurasha home’. Jameson, who came to the ‘Kurasha family’ much later than his mother and has spent most of his life in boarding schools, overseas universities, and his house in Harare is supposed to belong to the Kurasha family more than his mother!

There is a tendency among traditionalist families, of seeing other families as potential threats. Hence families whose members are getting married always view themselves as rivalries. There is always an undeclared competition if not hostility between them. Focus is on emphasising their differences, separateness and uniqueness. This is not the same thing as the post-modernist celebration of difference. Each family aims at finding fault in the other family and proving how superior they are. There is hardly any sense of equality between the families.

There has to be zvibinge (symbolic crimes which must be paid for) for the son-in-law and the daughter-in-law. In other words some fault has to be found. During their married life, the married always live with the fear of what fault their in-laws will find with them if their spouse dies, for more Zvibinge will be found. So, throughout their marriage spouses concentrate on planning their ultimate defense when this happens instead of focusing on enjoying and living their lives with trust, opennes and mutual respect. Some people will say that the bantering between families is supposed to be done as jokes to add fun to the marriage process. The amount of strife that has been caused in families by the traditionalist exclusivist mentality has convinced me that when people treat you in a certain negative way because they believe you are a “muvhitori”, (This is a pejorative term used for people who come from what used to be called Fort Victoria and is now Masvingo) no amount of bantering can salvage this form of tribalism. In fact humour has been used effectively and efficiently in the service of racism and tribalism. For example, how many Shona Zimbabweans can genuinely say that the people they call the Sena are their moral equals? How many Shona Zimbabweans genuinely feel that Zimbabweans of Malawian or Zambian origin have the same moral rights to the land, jobs and housing in Zimbabwe as they do?

Hence traditionalist marriages are different, in orientation, from Christian ones. Christian marriages demand that husband and wife be “one flesh”. In traditional marriages, husband and wife can never be one flesh. They can never share the same blood or the same ancestors. As it is explained in traditionalist symbolic terms, a married woman is never fully ‘given away’. A married woman’s legs are the ones that belong to her husband. Her head always belongs to her father’s family. A man who trusts his wife more than his family is quickly labeled, “akadyiswa” (He has been given medicines so that he can be subdued and controlled by his wife.) “To be controlled by a wife” is one of the worst things that can ever happen to a traditionalist African man.

Most African societies are patriarchal. Hence they consider blood relations as defined in terms of paternal relationships. This is a choice which is denied to be a choice. They deny blood relations between children and their mothers. Children are taught to believe that they have no blood ties with their mother. Their mother is an alien. Of course this does not mean that the mother in African societies is not respected. But the respect borders on fear. The mother is respected precisely because she is an alien in the man’s home. She is as sacred as an ambassador of a hostile nation who lives in your country. The husband does not so much respect his wife as fear her relatives or ngozi. (an avenging spirit that is unhappy with how a daughter-in-law was treated by her husband and his relatives) Because the husband is considered as not sharing blood with his wife, the wife remains in the ultimate control and responsibility of her relatives even though she may live in the husband’s home. This is what it means for a wife’s head to always belong to her father’s family. It is very rare that an African husband feels trusted, free and close to his wife’s brothers and sisters. Effort is always made to make him feel that he is an outsider and that this fact cannot be changed by his efforts. This is why a son-in-law is never allowed to sit and participate in his in-laws’ court (dare) unless, by limited special invitation when he is to be exploited in one way or another. Usually, when a son-in-law is allowed to participate in his in-laws’ family court, the participation is usually limited and he is usually placed under a heavy hierarchical discourse which amounts to the family court making decisions about how he should use his resources. Some go to the extreme of never accepting advice from a son-in-law even when it is clear that he can give good advice. In traditionalist mentality, once one is a son- or brother-in-law, he can never be an equal human being. He is hardly thanked for what he may do for his in-laws and he is hardly apologized to when wronged. Most men are hostile to their sons-in-law and brothers-in-law even though they may not want to show it in the presence of the their daughters and sisters. Often the son-in-law is made to feel that their visits, phone calls and enquiries are an orchestrated system of surveillance to see if their sister is being looked after well. Subtle warnings are suggested in case he misbehaves.

His wife will often not feel fully protected without her brothers showing their face every now and then. She will be made to feel that her husband’s sisters play the same role, of surveillance and control, on her, that her brothers play on her husband. It is rare for an African wife to feel trusted, free and close to her sisters-in-law and especially her mother-in-law. Hence blood is thicker than water. In what way then can we describe modern African marriages as a positive coming together of two families to form one bigger family? This may have been possible in pre-colonial societies, but it has become virtually impossible with the invention of contemporary traditionalist consciousness.

Modern diseases, especially HIV and AIDS however, have demonstrated the challenge to traditionalist thesis that wives and mothers are aliens. AIDS has demonstrated the blood relationship between mothers and children. Children are threatened by HIV and AIDS precisely because they share blood with their mothers. HIV and AIDS have also made it clearer to us how intimately close husband and wife are and to what extent theirs is a “blood relationship”, a matter of life and death. Here, it has been shown that they are indeed one flesh and they share the same blood. However, this ‘blood’ relationship does not need to compete with other relationships entered into voluntarily.

Many traditionalist Africans work according to an exclusivist logic. Many who think with traditional consciousness, try to subsume all other relationships under blood relations or to use them for the benefit of those blood relations. This is what tribalism means in the context of marriage, business, politics and social life. Tribalists have a tendency of seeing good things only in people they regard as part of their family or tribe. They find it difficult to trust people from different tribal backgrounds. A tribalist is one who refuses to recognise the good things that his or her in-law does and the bad things done by his or her blood relations. Tribalists vote for people from their tribe even though those people are incompetent while deliberately leaving out more able people from other tribes. In Africa today, many Africanists find it difficult to accept that white people can be Africans in the same way that American whites have struggled with the idea that blacks there belong to America as much as they do.

But as Gyekye ( 1997) points out, blood relations hardly can be accurately traced beyond the family. In fact, in modern societies, families are not necessarily based on blood relations. However, many traditionalists operate as if a whole clan, or even a nation can be identified through blood relations. They operate as if a whole clan or even nation is one huge extended family. This is obviously false.
However, traditionalists appeal to myths of same origin and the idea of originating from the same home. This helps to orient traditionalists towards the past. Traditionalist mentality values the idea of the past more than the present and the future. In fact the present and future is judged according to whether it is consistent to the past or not. Since the authentic is determined by the past, it means fidelity is the most important virtue in traditionalist consciousness.

In traditionalist consciousness, geography or locale is used to define groups of people as belonging together. Hence contemporary traditionalists living in the urban areas prefer to relate to people who come from their home area. They expect homeboys to help them find jobs, houses to rent, places to live, schools to go to, food to eat and money to borrow. When they form political parties, they expect people from their home area to support them. Many African political parties appeal to the myth of same origin to gather support. When many traditionalist Africans experience a death in the family, they expect those from their home area to help. I am convinced that the imagination of most contemporary Africans is informed by conservative traditionalism. This conviction comes from my experiences in many social institutions, associations and organisations. Even associations which explicitly encourage the brotherhood and sisterhood of humans have been unable to transcend ethnic prejudices. Hence many burial societies, churches, clubs, musical bands, and social organizations tend to have an ethnic base. But as Mbembe points out, “Geography, by itself, does not determine the correctness of moral, intellectual, or ideological positions.” (Mbembe, No.1, 2000 : 3)

So far, I have given examples from “traditional” African societies to illustrate traditionalist consciousness. This gives the impression that Africans are essentially traditionalist and that all Westerners are modernist. This is not true. Europeans, Americans, Asians and all other non-Africans can demonstrate the traditionalist consciousness. For example, European racism and sexism are forms of traditionalist consciousness. Many American, European, and Australian soap operas which have been shown on local television have demonstrated the traditionalist consciousness. For example, many of the stories in the soaps are centered on people fighting for the custody of children they have discovered are biological relations they previously did not know about. Many Africans express modernist consciousness by entering into pure relationships. This is what many African traditionalists have complained about.

The context of African Modernity

The traditionalist consciousness has received relentless challenge from modern institutional arrangements and its accompanying consciousness. It is becoming more and more difficult to operate according to the traditional consciousness without being forced to compromise. Modern social life is characterized by a number of tendencies which systematically undermine traditionalist consciousness and practices. First, modernity has individualizing tendencies. The market economy, industrialization, urbanization, modern political life and Christianity tend to physically and emotionally sequestrate individuals from their families and clans and local communities. A lot has already been written on how modernity as a way of organizing society and a mode of thought, has powerful tendencies that physically and spiritually force the individual from the locale of his or her family and community. In modern societies schools, universities, jobs, churches and forms of entertainment are neither physically nor spiritually located in the local community. Individuals in modernity tend to look for and find these things outside their local communities and usually away from their families. Modernity is an age of mobility, dynamism and globalisation. (Mbembe, No.1, 2000:3) This means that on a day-to-day basis, in modern societies, children tend to spend most of their lives away from their parents, and spouses and relatives away from each other. Many people spend more time in these modern institutions than with their families and communities. What is more important, is that the experiences that individuals have in these institutions do not necessarily confirm the values of the family and the local communities. They do not always respect the blood relations between people and the hierarchy of authority in families and communities. Every now and then, if not frequently, individuals in modernity feel the need to be protected from blood relations. Many African men and women have found themselves condemning African traditions and finding refuge in their intimate relationships, professions, and voluntary associations. Many, especially those who have been abused by close relatives, especially children, feel that the relationships they enter into voluntarily must be more important than the natural blood ties.

Every individual in African modernity always has problems of transition between the values of the different institutions and cultural practices. For example, children may find it traumatic to move from schools which give them respect and influence on the basis of knowledge and intelligence to their respective families which may appreciate blood relations, age and gender more than knowledge and individual contribution. Many women may find it frustrating to navigate between the work-place which may respect them as professionals and the traditionalist community which may ignore their professional and individual capabilities. It surely must be frustrating for a modern woman lawyer or judge who is expected to submit herself to the traditionalist expectations of her husband and her husband’s family, chiefs and traditionalist community. Men too may find it too heavy to move from the work place where reward is based on individual performance to community responsibilities which do not depend on individual effort. They may find that the community expects them to look after children of their irresponsible brothers and sisters. This modern experience increases the individuals’ self-consciousness.

Secondly, modernity has globalizing tendencies. Once the individual is physically sequestrated from the traditional and natural ties, she begins to rely more and more on her own experience and knowledge. The individual’s dependence on the family and the community traditions begins to diminish as the individual discovers alternative ways of arranging life and cultural practices. An individual who feels that the family and local community do not fully appreciate her knowledge and intelligence may decide to go overseas. This is not to say that the individual’s trust in the family and community is none existent in modern society. What it means, however is that the individual’s trust in the family and local community becomes more and more a matter of choice. It is not taken for granted in the way it is done in traditional societies. In modern societies, the experiences that the individual relies on for the acquisition of knowledge, are no longer limited to the local context. Given the mass media and modern communication networks, literally the whole world is at the disposal of the individual. Children can challenge their parents on the basis of what they have seen on television, what they have heard from the teachers, what they have read from books and magazines and what they themselves have experienced. Individuals in Africa can challenge their traditions on the basis of Kant’s arguments. Symbolic meanings for modern youths can come from anywhere in the world. For example, many young people in Africa do not speak their ‘mother tongue’. Many are not comfortable with ‘their’ respective cultures. Yet they borrow symbolic meanings from others from all over the world. Hence modernity has a tendency of creating world citizens who can relate to anybody anywhere. It attacks tendencies of localism and nativism and encourages contractual and voluntary associations. This does not necessarily demonstrate the morality of modernity.

What facilitates this globalisation is what Giddens calls “disembedding mechanisms. These are “mechanisms which price social relations free from the hold of specific locales, recombining them across wide time-space distances.” (Giddens, 1991 : 2) This means that social relations that exist in a particular locale can be transposed onto other locales thereby challenging traditional relations. For example, Africans who have worked in modern organisations especially in the market economy can introduce the types of relationships and practices from this experience to their traditional institutions and rituals. Today, the process of getting married according to African traditions has become more and more identical with the process of buying, on account, a piece of furniture from a department store. Market relations and mechanisms have been priced from their contexts and introduced into African traditional marriage customs. Marriage has become more and more like a contract between two people. Traditional healers have become more like modern professionals who can charge up to Z$300000 for their services. (The Herald, 24 November, 2000:1) But the movement is not in one direction. African traditional experiences have also influenced the work place, the school, the church and the social arrangements of other cultures. As Mbembe points out, “Despite appearances and everything the dominant discourse suggests, our history, our present, and the extraordinary richness of our reality are, more than is generally realized, objects and signs that can ‘speak’ beyond our boarders, and in every and in every contemporary field of knowledge.” (Mbembe, No1., 2000:3)

This possibility which modernity makes available creates the sense that social relations are not natural but a matter for choice.

…whereas in pre-modern contexts individual conduct – in such crucial areas as work, marriage, the socialisation of children, entertainment,, and so on, - was regulated routinely but meaningfully through traditional moral codes, in detraditionalised social contexts all the mechanisms of social regulation extrinsic to the individual become weaker, and people are forced to confront a situation that urgently asks them to make choices, to decide about their career, their lifestyles, their diets, the number of children they wish to have, the ways they will raise them, and so on. (Mouzelis, 1999:83)

Hence Africans living in modernity are made to feel that they can choose what sort of people they want to be and what social relations they can create among themselves. Hence the demands from civil society and the new social movements to have African governments establish all sorts of new social relations that have to do with human rights, individual freedom, and the market economy.

Globalisation does not mean that African traditional experiences are abolished. What it means is that these experiences join other local experiences on the global market. They become part of what could be chosen even by the Africans themselves. In modernity, the essential link between experiences and identity is permanently severed. In contemporary Africa, Africans can choose to be African. But they can choose other identities. This has been shown when Africans acquire none-African passports and citizenship and they are allowed to represent non-African nations in sport, politics and entertainment. But they are also made available to non-Africans. Many white people today have taken up African cultural aspects like hairstyles, music, dress, languages, religions and food. Many can no longer see themselves in terms other than African. Despite appearances, they could not be comfortable in Western countries. And of course there are those Africans who hate to be referred to as Africans. Michael Jackson could be an example. There are many more young people like that on the African continent. They live on the continent only physically. They are spiritually elsewhere. The meaning of the slogan “Africa for the Africans” is now permanently made ambiguous.

The above description is not a moral prescription. I am not saying that what is happening in African modernity is good. Neither am I totally condemning it. However, what is happening raises a moral question about what sort of identities and ways of life should we encourage and what sort should we discourage.

African Modernity and self-consciousness

I have argued that Africans in traditional societies were not any less self-conscious as modern Africans. The difference was in the form and context of the self-consciousness. Mouzelis has argued that in late modernity, individual self-reflexivity spreads ‘from the few to the many’. (Mouzelis,1999:84) This is why there comes about “the extraordinary mass production and distribution of self-help manuals” (ibid) to help the individual consciously chose his or her identity. In this context, Giddens points out,

Self-identity, in other words, is not something that is just given, as a result of the continuities of the individual’s action-system, but something that has to be routinely created and sustained in the reflexive activities of the individual” (Giddens,1991:52)

In making choices, the individual helps to create his or her identity. That ability to choose allows him or her to construct appropriate narratives about himself or herself. To the extent the individual is able to choose what story to tell about himself or herself, the individual is free to choose his or her identity. In a very important sense, individuals in modernity choose what story they may want to live. Some choose to live tragedies, others epics and still more others comedies.

In making choices, the individual helps to create his or her identity. That ability to choose allows him or her to construct appropriate narratives about himself or herself. To the extent the individual is able to choose what story to tell about himself or herself, the individual is free to choose his or her identity. In a very important sense, individuals in modernity choose what story they may want to live. Some choose to live tragedies, others epics and still more others comedies.

To the extent that individuals can choose identities, Giddens goes on to assert that;

A person’s identity is not to be found in behaviour, nor – important though this is – in the reactions of others, but in the capacity to keep a particular narrative going. The individual’s biography, if she is to maintain regular interaction with others in the day-to-day world, cannot be wholly fictive. It must continually integrate events which occur in the external world, and sort them into the ongoing ‘story’ about the self. As Charles Taylor puts it, ‘In order to have a sense of who we are, we have to have a notion of how we have become, and of where we are going.” (Giddens, 1991 : 54)

Self Reflexivity in Consumer Culture

Late modernity and general Western culture has sometimes given the impression that identities can be picked up anytime anywhere wily-nily. They also give the impression that they are infinitely malleable or at least that they ought to be. Using the market as the paradigm for organising social life, it is suggested that anything should be sold on the market by anyone. The free market facilitates the selling and buying of food, clothing, cars and books. These may be essential goods for human needs. However, the market in late modernity has become more than this. It also facilitates the selling and buying of images, identities, lifestyles, life-meanings and even death. Even the most industrialised societies have not been able to live up to this ideal of a completely free market. However, globalisation has facilitated the dominance of the modern market in the creation and organisation of modern social life. This means that modern individuals are oriented to believe that they can be whatever they want to be on the market. As Featherstone explains,

…individuals are encouraged to adopt a non-utilitarian attitude towards commodities and carefully choose, arrange, adapt and display goods – whether furnishings, house, car, clothing, the body or leisure pursuits – to make a particular stylistic statement which expresses the individuality of the owner. (Featherstone, 1991 : 114)

For a long time, I never understood why struggling Zimbabwean women would go to Botswana or South Africa with doilies, sell them there and then, among other things, use their hard won foreign currency, to buy bottles of whisky which they would simply display in their cabinets. Many of these women and their families do not drink whisky. My own mother bought a punch-set in South Africa which, to my knowledge, has never been used. In some sense, the consumption patterns are an expression of what the women want to be and what narrative stories they wanted to live.

Given that modern individuals can decide on what stories they want to live, it becomes easy to understand how the capitalist market can begin to offer stories, identities and lifestyles to be bought by consumers. Advertisers in consumer society are excellent story tellers. They are also excellent creators and sellers of images. Hence the consumer society is characterised by the proliferation of images. This is facilitated by the development of “advertising, the motion picture industry, the fashion and cosmetic industries, mass circulation tabloid newspapers and magazines and mass spectator sport.” (Featherstone, 1991: 113-4) Many of the images on the market are so attractive that it is very difficult to resist them. I have seen people, especially women who hurt themselves, mutilate their bodies, and punish themselves by putting on uncomfortable clothes only to fulfill the demands of the images on the market. Many of the shoes people wear, for example, are not good for their feet and yet they are good image makers. Many foods we eat are dangerous to our health but good for the image.

Consumer society thrives on consumption of perishables. It works on the principle of consumption for the sake of consumption rather than consumption for the sake of the fulfillment of human needs. The principle of consumption for the sake of consumption threatens many cultural institutions and practices for every object is turned into objects of consumption just like beer and bottles of wine.

How, for example, can marriage survive in a culture which, on the one hand, embodies the consumer ethic of ‘buy it, use it and throw it away’, and on the other, invents surrogate fatherhood in the form of the welfare benefits of the state? (Sacks, 2000: xvii)

The Construction of the Moral Self

I have demonstrated that a contemporary traditionalist approach on identity formation has generally been negative in its social impact. Using narrow essentialism, it has encouraged a communalism which is exclusivist in its approach. This exclusivism has been responsible for the negative tribalism, sexism, racism that has impacted on social institutions that include the family in African modernity. It has failed to take seriously the common essence in all human beings. It has also failed to adequately and positively encourage the idea that the identity differences between people are a source of rich human experiences and relationships. Hence, I have also demonstrated that the rejection of this narrow essentialism should not imply the rejection of a more inclusive identity of human beings.

I have traced the implications of the narrow essentialism on identity formation on the consumerist market and concluded that the choices that are made on the market cannot be made from scratch. They have to be made from the point of view of treating the human being as special. The human being is special in so far as he and she is a moral self who must be cultivated as such and therefore cannot be part of what can be sold on the market. This must limit what decisions and narratives can be made and allowed on the market. Obviously, the market does not have, within itself, mechanisms for limiting itself. Dangerous drugs, weapons of destruction, sex, children, women, the land, water can still be sold on the market. Human beings must make conscious efforts to decide what the market can process and what it cannot. These conscious decisions can be made on the basis of a selection of values and principles of what is good. Given human societies, and what kind of beings human beings are, it cannot be true that all choices made on the market have equal status and that all images, lifestyles, and identities advertised on the market have the same moral status. Some encourage more human flourishing more than others. Some encourage more humane relationships more that others. Human societies must decide what role the market will play in their development. They must set its limits not the other way round.


I have tried to demonstrate that being conscious and being proud of one’s identity in one’s family, ethnic group or race is not the same thing as refusing to recognise the humanity of the Other. I have also pointed out that while narrow essentialist approaches to self-identity may lead to terrible social consequences, this is not a good reason to embrace popular postmodernist illusions about self-construction. Human identities are not infinitely malleable.


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3. Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the late Modern Age, Polity press, Cambridge, 1991
4. Giddens, 1994
5. Gyekye, K., Tradition and Modernity: Philosophical Reflections on the African Experience, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1997.
6. Harries, P., Work, Culture, and Identity: Migrant laborers in Mozambique and South Africa, c. 1860 – 1910, James Currey, London, 1994.
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11. Ncube, 1989,
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13. Sacks, 2000