Colonialism and Civil Society in Africa

Helge Ronning, Professor, Department of Media and Communication, University of Oslo

If one were to draw a brief historical outline of civil society in Africa it would have to start with a description of how it in the beginning must be defined as a society of the colonisers. It was created by the colonial state for the white colonial class. This was most obvious in the settler colonies such as Kenya and Rhodesia, but it was the case also in the other colonies, and it did not really matter whether the colonies were British, French or Portuguese. There are historical examples of aberrancies from this. One is the creole societies that existed in the West African cities in the nineteenth century, which also served as the embryo for the first Pan-African movement, and which incidently also partly formed the background for the emergence of the counter public sphere of much of the West-African anti-colonial movement. The anti-colonial struggle may thus be interpreted as being directed both against the colonial state and colonial civil society, and it partly took the form of the establishment of a counter civil society by the anti-colonial movement, which in all colonies suffered milder or harsher forms of oppression. The demands of the anti-colonial movements implied that fundamental civil and human rights should be extended to all members of society, not only the colonisers.

[From Helge Ronning. "Democracy, Civil Society and the Media in Africa in the 90s." Media and the Transition of Ciollective Iderntities. Ed. Tore Slatta. Oslo: University of Oslo, 1996, page 39. 145. Available from Department of Media and Communications [].

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