Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa
Conseil pour le développement de la recherche en sciences sociales en Afrique
Conselho para o Desenvolvimento da Pesquisa em Ciências Sociais em África
مجلس تنمية البحوث الإجتماعية في أفريقيا

African Female Elites: Origins, Ideologies, and Practices


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The struggles for social equality between men and women remain an area of continuing relevance to any quest for a holistic understanding of economy, society, culture and politics in contemporary Africa – as, indeed, in every other region of the world. In fact, it can be argued that it is an arena whose construction is a permanent work in progress. And yet, the general, instinctive but misleading assumption has persisted, even in otherwise knowledgeable circles, that any reference to gender is little more than a code word for raising narrow, even parochial concerns that are specific to the interests of women only. In a bid to correct this erroneous instinct and, in so doing, open new frontiers of reflection on gender issues among African social researchers, CODESRIA has decided for the strategic plan period 2007 – 2011 to continue to build on its tradition of critical and innovative gender research by strategically focusing its annual Gender Institute on themes that will both contribute to an erosion of stereotypes about gender studies and advance the frontiers of gendered knowledge as knowledge that is holistic. To this end, the 2007 Gender Institute will be focusing the attention of participants on elite theory and praxis with an accent on the origins, ideologies and practices of African female elites.

Elite theory and praxis is one of the long-standing thematic concerns of the social sciences world-wide, including on the African continent where some of the oldest works were produced in the context of the earliest state formation processes and the challenges of statecraft that arose. More recently too, particularly in the period since the Second World War, social research on the continent has been preoccupied in one form or another with a study of processes of social transformation as intermediated, in part, by different categories of elites. The process of the creation of the modern elite, which involved the recomposition of the old, pre-existing elite side by side with the emergence of new ones, was an important element of post-1945 historical research on the continent. In this regard, particular attention was paid to the emergence of an “educated” elite – that product of various degrees of “Westernisation” that was to become the scourge of late colonialism – and its potential role in the project of “modernisation”, especially as it became the core of the immediate post-independence political class. Other social science productions – especially from the disciplines of Sociology, Economics and Political Science – focused on the role of the old “traditional” elites, the emergence of “modernising military oligarchies”, and the growth of an economic elite that drove or was expected to drive the emerging formal sector economy. From Literature came some of the most insightful studies on the cultures of these elites, especially as they were intertwined with the construction of power relations in post-independence Africa.

These different elite categories were overwhelmingly masculine, as were the cultural milieus within which they both functioned and were reproduced. To the extent that female elites entered the equation, they did so mostly as adjuncts to male elites, serving, for example, in the women’s wings of political parties. The focus of much analyses on formal sector elites also meant that the important presence which women enjoyed in the burgeoning informal sector went unaccounted for, including the many cases of female entrepreneurs who successfully established themselves as traders and producers with significant economic clout. From the early 1980s onwards, initially as part of various social crusades that ranged from the education of the girl-child and female genital incision to the impact of conflicts on women and the challenges posed by pandemics like HIV/AIDS, a major push was made by institutions of the United Nations to mobilise sections of the African female elite in support of their intervention projects. It was in this context that the office and position of the African First Lady was to be legitimated internationally even if domestically, it was attended by a considerable amount of contestation, including what African feminists were to refer to as an unhelpful genre of “state feminism” and “femocracy” that was potentially as disempowering of women as it was irrelevant to their cause. The First Lady phenomenon- and the syndromes associated with it – was to be discussed extensively in research circles and anecdotes abound on its dysfunctionalities. Nevertheless, it did unleash a momentum that became unstoppable as much for the fact that it emboldened a push for greater public participation by a growing population of female political, economic, social, “traditional”, and cultural elites as by the emergence of a confluence of structural factors that added up to increase the pool of educated young African women in most countries and the corps of professionals among them. This development calls for a much more sober approach to an understanding of the dynamic of the recomposition of elites in Africa as a field of general interest and the nature of the female component of that elite as an issue of particular concern. The latter preoccupation will require attention to the social history of female elites, their demographic and geographical spread, their ideological moorings, and their praxis both as important exercises in their own right and in relation to historically masculine power relations on the basis of which much in society has been structured.

Participants in the 2007 Gender Institute will be invited, among other things, to explore the factors and processes that make possible the constitution of female elites, the rules of entry by which other women are admitted into the corps of female elites, the processes of social mobility that underpin the formation and renewal of these elites, the degree of autonomy which they enjoy vis-à-vis male elites, their mode of engagement with non-elite females, the success with which they project their identity, and the historic significance of their emergence for broad social change. The latter concern broaches upon the different aspects and dimensions of the gender dynamics of the emergence and expansion of African female elites which the institute will explore at length. Laureates of the institute will be challenged to explore the many conceptual, methodological and empirical challenges which are posed by the theme, and proceeding from there to produce critiques that might help to develop and deepen insights into the ways in which the female elites may or may not be contributing to the transformation of power relations. The multiple arenas in which female elites are present or represented will be explored as will the impact which their presence has made on various aspects of the structuring of the public space.

December 28 2009