Performing Royalty in Contemporary Africa

Peer Reviewed


Sovereignty and governance in contemporary Africa are hotly contested issues with important—even dire—consequences for all those interested in the continent’s markets, resources, people, and welfare. This essay focuses not on questions of how authority is assigned or removed, but on how it is shaped, worn, and performed for diverse audiences, particularly in the arena of “traditional governance.” Here, the Bafokeng “ethnic corporation” meets Africa’s last absolute monarchy, the Swazi Kingdom, in a juxtaposition of styles, symbols, and strategies that illuminates the difference between an aesthetic of defiant African alterity and an Afromodern capitalist cosmopolitanism. 

Rebecca Hardin, "Coronation of Kgosi Leruo at the Royal Bafokeng Sports Palace, South Africa." August 16, 2003.

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published a number of articles on the practical and theoretical intersections of politics, aesthetics, and cultural performance. See Dominic Boyer and Alexei Yurchak's "American Stiob: Or, What Late-Socialist Aesthetics of Parody Reveal about Contemporary Political Culture in the West" (2010), Deborah A. Thomas' "Democratizing Dance: Institutional Transformation and Hegemonic Re-ordering in Postcolonial Jamaica" (2002), and Ana Maria Alonso's "Conforming Disconformity: 'Mestizaje', Hybridity and the Aesthetics of Mexican Nationalism" (2004). 

Cultural Anthropology has also recently published a number of articles on globalized brands and cultural identities. See Kedron Thomas' "Brand 'Piracy' and Postward Statecraft in Guatemala" (2013), Andrew Graan's "Counterfeiting the Nation? Skopje 2014 and the Politics of Nation Branding in Macedonia" (2013), and William Mazzarella's "'Very Bombay': Contending with the Global in an Indian Advertising Agency" (2003).

About the Authors

Rebecca Hardin, "Susan Cook in a helicopter returning to South Africa from Swaziland." September, 2004.

Susan Cook, currently Executive Director of the Committee on African Studies at Harvard University, is an Africanist anthropologist who has, over the past 24 years, worked at the intersection of scholarship, advocacy, documentation, and development in Eastern and Southern Africa. Most recently, Cook served as a senior policy advisor and head of research in the Royal Bafokeng Nation in South Africa, a traditionally-governed, Setswana-speaking community. Dr. Cook spearheaded data-driven development strategies for the Bafokeng Nation, as well as novel approaches to combatting the "resource curse" in the platinum-mining belt where the Bafokeng Nation is located. Previously, Cook was Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pretoria, Visiting Assistant Professor for Research at the Watson Institute for International Studies (Brown University), and Director of the Cambodian Genocide Program at Yale University. Trained as a linguistic and cultural anthropologist, Dr. Cook maintains an interest in language policy debates, specifically issues regarding the status of urban hybrid languages in Africa. Cook has published widely on language-related issues, as well as traditional leadership and democracy in Africa, comparative genocide and crimes against humanity, and post-conflict democratization. Cook is the author of "Community Management of Mineral Resources: the Case of the Royal Bafokeng Nation" in the Journal of the South African Institute for Mining and Metallurgy (Jan 2013), and co-author (with Kenneth L. Shropshire) of a business case study for the Wharton School of business entitled "The Bafokeng: Using Sports to Develop a Nation" (2011). She is the editor of Genocide in Cambodia and Rwanda: New Perspectives (Transaction 2006). Cook earned her PhD from Yale in 1999 and her BA in Literature & Society from Brown in 1988.

Susan Cook, "Rebecca Hardin in a helicopter returning to South Africa from Swaziland." September, 2004.

Rebecca D. Hardin, Associate Professor teaches courses in both the School of Natural Resources and Environment and the Department of Anthropology at the University of Michigan. Her areas of interest and scientific study include human/wildlife interactions, and social and environmental change related to tourism, logging, conservation and hunting in the forests of Central Africa. Recent projects focus on the increasingly intertwined practices of health and environmental management in southern and eastern Africa. She also studies historical and ethnographic aspects of concessionary politics involving corporations, NGOs, and local communities, particularly in Africa. She advises students interested in international environmental practice and policy, wildife management, human relationships to landscape, environmental justice, and cultural dimensions of natural resource management. She received her MPhil in History and Anthropology in 1994 and PhD in Anthropology in 2000, both from Yale University. Additional information on Professor Hardin's research may be found here.

Related Resources

Information portals for the Royal Bafokeng Nation:

"The Royal Bafokeng Nation Operations Room"

"The Bafokeng Digital Archives"

"The Royal Bafokeng Nation"

Documentary on Bafokeng political and economic history:

"Playing the Game the Bafokeng Way"

Questions for Classroom Discussion

1. Reconsider Mr. Mamba's interactions with the authors in light of Cook's subsequent position as an administrator for the Bafokeng nation. What is the role of anthropologists in the creation and modification of African "tradition"? How has their role changed from the colonial to the post-colonial eras for communities in Africa and elsewhere?

2. Alternatively, what role have anthropologists played in the creation of African "modernity" or "modern" subjectivities and practices? Is this an example of potential "alternate modernities," and how? How might current global economic conditions, as theorized in this article, qualify this reading?

3. Exercise the comparative question: how is this practice like or unlike what is seen elsewhere around the world? How are royal performances here like or unlike performances of European monarchies or other state spectacles like inauguration ceremonies?

Rebecca Hardin, "Swazi hillsides viewed from a royal guest house." August, 2004.

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