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Confident Africa appoints white ministers

Guy Scott’s accession to the vice-presidency of Zambia is the most recent, and most visible, example of a mini-trend that’s quietly gathering force.

world Updated: Oct 07, 2011 00:34 IST

Guy Scott’s accession to the vice-presidency of Zambia is the most recent, and most visible, example of a mini-trend that’s quietly gathering force.

In Uganda, Ian Clarke, a dual citizen of the UK and Uganda, was recently elected chairman of a district of Kampala. In Kenya, there has long been white involvement in elective politics: Philip Leakey served Langata as MP for 13 years, and was an assistant minister; his brother Richard is better known for his stints as cabinet secretary and head of the Kenya Wildlife Service. Further afield, there’s Helen Zille, leader of the opposition, and Timothy Stamps, Zimbabwe’s former minister for health. There are others, but these six are a not wholly unrepresentative sample.

It might seem strange to find white Africans in African politics, and especially in elective post-colonial African politics, if only because the conventional story of post-colonial African politics has always been that of African nationalism.

Begin with the main reason for the surprise: the view that African politics is necessarily and uniformly tribal, because Africans identify chiefly by ethnicity, and hence, presumably, wouldn’t vote for a white politician. The view is defective as it stands, for even if African voters were inveterately ethnocentric, it quite often happens that in ethnically partisan elections, candidates who don’t identify with either side are acceptable to competing groups because they’re ethnically neutral.

Strength of ethnic identification varies widely across Africa, and most Africans do not identify primarily with their ethnicity. There’s also evidence that ethnicity as a determiner of political identification is in decline across the continent.

Where voters identify by class and occupation, a candidate who can present evidence of solid professional qualifications and professional success is at an advantage; competence is a mighty electoral boost.

Where that condition is in place, we should not be surprised to find more white male African professionals doing well in African electoral politics.

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