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The Politics of Custom

Chiefship, Capital, and the State in Contemporary Africa

The Politics of Custom

Chiefship, Capital, and the State in Contemporary Africa

How are we to explain the resurgence of customary chiefs in contemporary Africa? Rather than disappearing with the tide of modernity, as many expected, indigenous sovereigns are instead a rising force, often wielding substantial power and legitimacy despite major changes in the workings of the global political economy in the post–Cold War era—changes in which they are themselves deeply implicated.
This pathbreaking volume, edited by anthropologists John L. Comaroff and Jean Comaroff, explores the reasons behind the increasingly assertive politics of custom in many corners of Africa. Chiefs come in countless guises—from university professors through cosmopolitan businessmen to subsistence farmers–but, whatever else they do, they are a critical key to understanding the tenacious hold that “traditional” authority enjoys in the late modern world. Together the contributors explore this counterintuitive chapter in Africa’s history and, in so doing, place it within the broader world-making processes of the twenty-first century.

368 pages | 3 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2018

African Studies

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

History: African History


"Editors John and Jean Comaroff bring together an array of scholars in anthropology, history, politics, and other fields studying the purported “resurgence” of customary chiefly authority in African states in the contemporary period. . . . Undergraduate and graduate students in anthropology, history, law, and African studies and professionals in these fields will find this a useful read. Highly recommended."


“These essays surprise at every turn through their insistence that African chiefs do not merely survive today but are also thoroughly modern and global—savvy operators who strike deals with NGOs and capitalist corporations, entrepreneurs who raise money overseas, and rural sovereigns who marshal votes for national elections. Framed by a magisterial introduction by John L. and Jean Comaroff, the book provides a capacious view of a roiling political field in which neoliberal governance is enabling twenty-first-century African chiefs to usurp the role of the state that once brought them into being.”

Charles Piot, Duke University

“These compelling and wide-ranging studies explore the staying power and apparently counter-intuitive resurgence of chiefship in Africa. Chiefs are multitaskers—and some are even criminals—but thousands of people hold them in high esteem. Through their popular appeal, they can make useful partners to global mining or telecommunications corporations: reciprocally, such partnerships can in turn help boost that popularity. Chiefs have clout because their role draws on sources of sovereignty that go beyond the conventional realm of politics to encompass kinship networks, ritual, business, and the global economy. This book shines new light on the interplay of tradition and modernity, showing that chiefship is neither wholly of the state nor of the customary, but always entangled with both.”

Deborah James, London School of Economics

The Politics of Custom is an incisive and original investigation of the stubbornly persistent role played by traditional authorities in modern Africa. Featuring a stellar cast of contributors and a superb synthetic introduction by the editors, this book is a major contribution that will appeal to a broad audience.”

James Ferguson, Stanford University

Table of Contents

Editorial Note

One. Chiefs, Capital, and the State in Contemporary Africa: An Introduction
John and Jean Comaroff

Two. African Chiefs and the Post–Cold War Moment: Millennial Capitalism and the Struggle over Moral Authority
Peter Geschiere

Three. Chieftaincy, Land, and the State in Ghana and South Africa
Sara Berry

Four. The Salience of Chiefs in Postapartheid South Africa: Reflections on the Nhlapo Commission
Mbongiseni Buthelezi and Dineo Skosana

Five. The Politics of States and Chiefs in Zimbabwe
Jocelyn Alexander

Six. Paramount Chiefs, Land, and Local-National Politics in Sierra Leone
Mariane Ferme

Seven. Republic of Kings: Neotraditionalism, Aristocratic Ethos, and Authoritarianism in Burkina Faso
Benoît Beucher

Eight. Corporate Kings and South Africa’s Traditional-Industrial Complex
Susan Cook

Nine. The Currency of Chieftaincy: Corporate Branding and the Commodification of Political Authority in Ghana
Lauren Adrover

Ten. Fallen Chiefs and Sacrificial Mining in Ghana
Lauren Coyle

Eleven. Colonizing Banro: Kingship, Temporality, and Mining of Futures in the Goldfields of South Kivu, DRC
James Smith

Twelve. Third Contact: Invisibility and Recognition of the Customary in Northern Mozambique
Juan Obarrio

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