Elite Formation, Consumption and Urban Spaces – Cultural Perspectives on African Decolonization

Elite Formation, Consumption and Urban Spaces – Cultural Perspectives on African Decolonization

Regina Finsterhölzl / Daniel Tödt, Collaborative Research Centre “Representations of Changing Social Orders”, sub-project “Political Representations in Transnational Spaces of African Modernity”, Humboldt-University of Berlin
Vom - Bis
26.11.2010 - 27.11.2010
Sebastian Klöß, Collaborative Research Centre 'Representations of Changing Social Orders', Humboldt-University of Berlin

African decolonization is usually seen as a political process in which European politicians and their new African counterparts signed treaties and shook hands. The cultural aspects of decolonization, however, are mostly neglected. The aim of the conference “Elite Formation, Consumption and Urban Spaces – Cultural Perspectives on African Decolonization”, organised by the sub-project “Political Representations in Transnational Spaces of African Modernity” of the Collaborative Research Centre “Representations of Changing Social Orders” at Humboldt University, Berlin, was to show that not only was decolonization a political but also a profoundly cultural process. Therefore, the organisers Regina Finsterhölzl and Daniel Tödt wanted to shift the focus to new social spaces and groups within the rapidly growing African cities during decolonization. Finsterhölzl and Tödt argued that these actors often portrayed themselves as ‘modern’ and that their emerging social practices played an active part in moving the boundaries of social distinction in colonial societies. As particularly crucial aspects, the organisers identified new marketing strategies, schools, associations and urban spaces like dance halls.

SEAN NIXON (Essex) presented a theoretical approach to one of the fundamental fields on which an emerging collective identity was negotiated during decolonization, namely advertising. He combined two ways of understanding advertising: Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of cultural intermediaries[1] and Michel Callon’s concept of market devices.[2] According to Bourdieu, cultural intermediaries mediate between two different fields of culture, the legitimate field of culture (‘high culture’) and mass commercial culture. Advertisers have the ability to mobilise symbolic capital to reach the consumer and to promote a new ethos of a morality of pleasure as duty. Michel Callon, on the contrary, mentions the technical aspects of advertising. He focuses on the exchange of goods and subdivides the exchange into disentanglement, qualification, re-entanglement. Supermarkets can be seen as market device in this process because they position goods in a frame of calculation. However, advertisers also play an important role in terms of qualification as they can present something as modern, good and desirable. Nixon advocated a combination of both approaches in order to understand links between subjectivity, practitioners and technical devices.

The first panel highlighted the cultural and social importance of consumption and advertising during African decolonization. ANDREA SCHEIBLER (Oxford) illustrated how members of Nairobi’s so-called Tai Tai class defined themselves mainly by consumption in the 1950s. The members of this class showed a tendency to replicate Western life-styles. European clothes, for example, became a marker of distinction, identity and self-expression. Whereas other Kenyans regarded consumption as corrupt, the Tai Tai class considered it honourable. REGINA FINSTERHÖLZL (Berlin) focussed on advertising for consumer goods in West Africa, particularly in Ghana, from 1930 to 1960. From the 1930s onwards, advertisements created by West African Publicity, a subsidiary of the United Africa Company, increasingly showed Africans in an African environment. The advertisements promised a way of living or even an identity which could be gained by consuming the depicted product. The motto was: Buy the product (for example a bicycle), be like the pictured people, be modern. In some way and to some extent, advertisements thereby influenced the self-conception of the African elites and middle classes. In the 1950s, the advertising industry in Africa expanded and opened local branches in Africa. By doing this, this sector of industry offered new careers for Africans. SIMON HEAP (Woking) reinforced Finterhölzl’s findings by showing how Star Beer was introduced in Nigeria from 1949 to 1969. The advertisements for this beer showed successful Nigerians – often people who had spent some time in Europe – and relaxed, sociable circumstances of drinking like restaurants and hotels. Star beer, therefore, became a symbol of a modern life-style, of the expectation of prosperity and of the emerging state Nigeria. Commenting on the panel, HANS PETER HAHN (Frankfurt) raised the question whether consumption necessarily was a lifestyle or whether it could also be a way of tackling life with very limited means. Additionally, he emphasised that advertisements cannot prescribe meaning but are open to interpretation and even misunderstandings.

“Elite formation and sociability” was the topic of the second panel. JEAN-HERVE JEZEQUEL (Bordeaux) presented the Ponty school as an important space where the question what it meant to be an educated man in West Africa was discussed. The Ponty School was a central institution in West Africa, many of the first prime ministers and first presidents of the new African states were graduates of Pointy. In the 1930s, there was a certain discrepancy between standards represented by the elite and their practices. On the one hand, they wore uniforms in class and adopted the cultural repertoire of Ponty. On the other hand, when they had left school, they wore other kinds of outfits and tried to reconnect with outer groups, many dropped the cultural repertoire of Ponty. During decolonisation, however, there occurred a parallel development of political opening and cultural closing/standardisation/homogenisation. DANIEL TÖDT (Berlin) gave a presentation on the question how an African elite emerged in Belgian Congo (1945-1960) and how this elite negotiated its position by social practice. Using the example of the so-called ‘Évolués’, he showed how categories were introduced by them to define an elite status. For example, it became important to show rhetoric abilities, discipline of mind and body, European clothes, a certain concept of leisure, a nuclear family and – last but not least – a pretty living-room. Furthermore, the social position was negotiated in clubs, which became spaces of self-development and claim making. These clubs offered prestige and distinction towards the illiterate society. Therefore, clubs became a locus of elite formation and schools of politics. Clubs also were the central element of DOMINIQUE CONNAN’s (Florence/Paris) talk on the United Kenya Club in Nairobi (1946-1963). This club was founded by liberal Europeans to bring different ‘races’ together. Nevertheless, not all members were equal. At the beginning, Europeans were predominant and seen as patrons who tried to encourage progressive politics. Consequently, many African members left the club. In the 1960s, however, Africans came back to the club and became even dominant. As they had little experience of club membership, they regarded the club as a new political experience and used it for political issues. In his comment, MICHAEL PESEK (Berlin) highlighted the intersections between the three papers and identified them as place, movement and time. All three papers presented different places of subject formation. However, Pesek stressed that one should further elaborate on the boarders of these places or the connections to other places. In terms of movement, Pesek emphasised the process of embedding Africans into a new (European) framework. He suggested that the interrelation between actors of different countries should be taken into account. Finally, he stressed the aspect of time by asking how successful the different projects of elite formation have been in the long run.

JINNY PRAIS (New York) opened the third panel, entitled “Staging Decolonization? Urban spaces of change”. She looked at dance halls in Accra in the 1930s as a symbol of broader social transitions at that time because dance halls offered new ways of forming a collective identity. At the beginning of the decade, dance halls used to be the exclusive domain of the elite. However, from the middle of the decade onwards, the so-called youth – the newly literate and ‘semi-literate’ men and women – appropriated the dance halls. As a result, the elite became concerned that the youth might get out of control and eventually destabilise the social order. According to Prais, the reason for this concern was the political decline of the elite that experienced its destabilisation and a loss of power. Therefore, members of the elite tried to transform and teach the youth via newspapers. SUSANN BALLER (Basel) centred on the role of the youth during the period of decolonisation, too. During the 1950s and 1960s, many new associations for young people were founded in Senegal since not only were the young people regarded as Africa’s hope but also as a potentially destabilising factor. By founding new associations, the youth should become a tool for the ‘mission educatrice et civilisatrice’. On a more formal level, theatres should foster a proper African culture; on a more informal level, football teams and small clubs, where people gathered, listened to music and danced, played a crucial role in creating a new space of being young, free and modern. In his role as senior discussant, ANDREAS ECKERT (Berlin) mentioned the strong links between the urban and the rural in Africa that should not be ignored. He also stressed the danger of overemphasising the role of clubs and associations. Not everybody who joined a club ascribed political meanings to the club – some just came to have fun. Furthermore, he asked when and how the urban transformed from a symbol of hope and progress to a place of misery and when and how youth lost its promising aspects and started to be equated with trouble.

DMITRI VAN DEN BERSSELAAR (Liverpool/Berlin) summed up the key findings of the conference in his final comments and brought up questions concerning some pivotal assumptions of the presentations. He stressed that many of the elite groups presented during the conference have lost their importance since the middle of the last century. Therefore, van den Bersselaar suggested that one should ask what had happened to them after independence. In addition, he asked if not only leisure, clubs and dance halls had played an important role during decolonisation but also work, workplace and companies. Furthermore, van den Bersselaar gave prominence to the importance of analysing the nexus of decolonisation, advertisement and consumption more precisely because those products that were bought the most weren’t advertised (for example clothes). Moreover, consumption was regarded as dangerous and was challenged by ideas of anti-consumption and boycott, too. Van den Bersselaar also emphasised that decolonisation did not necessarily mean the enthusiast acceptance of European styles and clothes. Many nationalist invented new African styles of clothing to distinguish themselves from the colonial powers. Finally, van den Bersselaar questioned the urban focus of some presentations. He highlighted the connection between the urban and the rural and the importance of the interplay between these two spaces for African decolonisation.

The strength of the conference was the coherence of the presentations, which fitted together brilliantly. All talks dealt with the social and cultural dimension of African decolonisation and showed how strongly different (elite) groups defined themselves by life style. The members of these groups were unified by the desire of being ‘modern’. ‘Modernity’ was defined by them via (European) clothes, certain drinks, means of transport (especially bicycles) or affiliation to a club or a certain school. Advertisements intensified these needs by presenting an image of a modern, comfortable and desirable life.

Conference overview:

Keynote by Sean Nixon (Essex): Cultural Intermediaries or Market Device? Some thoughts on conceptualizing advertising

Panel 1: “Consumption and Advertising”

Senior Discussant: Hans Peter Hahn (Frankfurt)

Andrea Scheibler (Oxford): Materiality and sociality in late colonial Nairobi: consumption, contestation and the Tai Tai class

Regina Finsterhölzl (Berlin): Advertising, decolonization and social change in Ghana, 1940-1970 Simon Heap (Woking): Marketing Modernity. Star Beer in Nigeria, 1949-1966

Panel 2 “Elite formation and sociability”

Senior Discussant: Michael Pesek (Berlin)

Jean-Herve Jezequel (Bordeaux): Living like and ‘Educated Man’. Ponty Graduates’ cultural repertoires in Colonial West Africa, 1930s-1950s

Daniel Tödt (Berlin): ‘Quelle sera notre place dans le monde de demain?’ – Discourse and Sociability of the ‘Évolués’ in Belgian Congo, 1945-1960

Dominique Connan (Florence/Paris): ‘Multiracialism’ and the Socialization of the African Elites in Late Colonial Nairobi: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of the United Kenya Club, 1946-1963

Panel 3 “Staging Decolonization? Urban spaces of change”

Senior Discussant: Andreas Eckert (Berlin)

Jinny Prais (New York): ‘Do Gold Coast Youth Think?’ The Struggle to Define a New Urban Aesthetic and Modernity in Colonial Accra, 1930s

Susann Baller (Basel): Urban Youth and Decolonization in Senegal: Sport and Culture Clubs in the 1950s and 1960s

Final comments by Dmitri van den Bersselaar (Liverpool/Berlin)

[1] Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction. A social critique of the judgement of taste, Cambridge 1984.
[2] Michel Callon / Cécile Méadel / Vololona Rabeharisoa, The economy of qualities, in: Economy and Society, 21, no. 2 (2002): pp. 194-217.