How colonialism helped form classes in Uganda

What you need to know:

  • Mamdani looks deeply at class as a concept first through critics of Karl Marx’s political theory. This is where sociologist Max Weber comes in with his distinction between wealth and power.

Professor Mahmood Mamdani’s Politics and Class Formation In Uganda has an ageless quality about it. That’s why, although it was first published in Uganda in 1999, its analyses are as relevant today as they were when this book was first published.

Mamdani looks deeply at class as a concept first through critics of Karl Marx’s political theory. This is where sociologist Max Weber comes in with his distinction between wealth and power. The former, according to Weber, is a relation between a person and thing and the latter being that relation between a person and a person.

The author, on the other hand, considers the means of production, productive wealth, and how the control over of which gives one both power and wealth. The conflation of the two comes about when one has control over the wealth produced when the means of production are harnessed and the control over the producer of such wealth at the same time. Marx explains this by arguing that the landlord receives rent as owner of the means of production (land), with the power to grant permission for someone else to use it. Marx concludes that the payment the landlord receives from the land user (tenant) is the product of unpaid labour, namely surplus-value. This constitutes the landlord’s wealth while ownership of the land reflects the landlord’s power over the tenant.

At the level of production, individuals and groups are distributed into classes, defined by their relations to “historically determined social processes of production.” Class differentiation therefore rises out of the appropriation of labour and the participation in the production process.

“While classes form at the level of production, in their relation to the process of production, they act at the level of politics. Class organisation is political organisation, class consciousness is political consciousness, and class conflict is political conflict,” Mamdani argues in an echo of Marx.

Oftentimes, we forget this by isolating politics from a specific milieu. Yet it would be wise to recall that we all act in relation to social contexts to ensure that class is classed as politics. Is it any wonder that many haves are ranged against the have- nots in Uganda’s political firmament?

In the chapter, “Landlords, tenants and the colonial state”, which is chapter four of this book, Mamdani shows how the Buganda landlords were a creation of the colonial state. Their ownership of land was codified by the Buganda Agreement of 1900, under the aegis of the British.

We see how this agreement gave Buganda a favoured position in the colonial state and this landholding class arising out of such a favoured position led to post-independence policies by leaders such as Obote to address such a disparity.

Mamdani looks at this disparity through the various classes and strata within the neocolony, its existence having sprung forth at Uganda’s grant of independence. These groups are the Kulaks (rich landholding peasants), the traders, the civil servants and the workers. All these groups operated within the context of a petty bourgeoisie state, which refers to the classes of people, in this case Ugandans, involved in small-scale commercial enterprises who owned their means of production.

And where there are classes, as argued earlier, there are differentiated politics and consciousness related thereto. A clash between the classes led to political conflict and later a coup staged by Idi Amin. 

Before that, we see a political bureaucracy becoming a governing bureaucracy because it is in direct control of the state, while the Indian commercial bourgeoisie grabbed the economy by its horns and bullishly rode it towards their financial success. Still, within this state political bureaucracy “two separate petty bourgeoisies came forth, one Buganda and one non-Buganda, the kulaks at the core of the former and the governing bureaucracy at the core of the latter.”

 They formed a coalition at independence, Uganda People’s Congress and Kabaka Yekka (Kabaka Only), and contradictions between these two coalition members arose which were resolved, only on the surface, by conflict.

These said contradictions jibe with Marxian dialectical materialism, where social forces at cross purposes cross swords, as it were, in a class struggle.

Although this book is ideal for political scientists and historians of an academic bent, it also serves to explain to a layperson the underlying forces from which class formations and their attendant politics emerged in Uganda.