The African palaver tradition and the western postmodern consensus : convergences and divergences


Taken as processes, the African palaver tradition and the western postmodern consensus converge on a number of points.

Let us try and identify some of them.

A western postmodern consensus-building exercise and the African palaver both are :

1. An informal process whereby a problem is managed horizontally rather than governed top-down, thereby valuing the equality of each participant and of each contribution.

2. A process managed by a “facilitator” (sometimes called a “horizontal leader” in the West).

3. A method to reach consensus, i.e. a harmonious agreement between all members of a given community ; on principle, this method excludes opposition and “majority-minority” type divisions. The goal is to find a solution that is agreeable to all parties (known in the west as a “win-win” resolution).

4. A method using a friendly, pacific, pleasant, open (at least in appearance) approach ; a method that is attractive because it dynamically favors community integration (a sense of creating a community).

5. A “bottom-up” process that consults the grassroots and is based on dialogue.

6. A participatory and inclusive process that takes into consideration each person’s contribution, particularly that of minorities.

7. A process that takes whatever time is necessary to reach consensus and can be long term.

8. A process that obeys a wide, integrated, holistic perspective and takes into account the whole situation in all of its aspects.

9. A process leading to a consensus that is morally, socially or culturally (albeit not legally) binding. At the end of the process, all parts claim “ownership” of the consensus. A commitment is demanded on the part of all participants, so as to ensure effective implementation of the consensus. Implementation is monitored by diverse social mechanisms.

Let us note that such similarities also exist between western postmodernity and other non-western cultures that are traditionally consensual and seek harmony as a matter of priority - Asian cultures in particular. A historic convergence is therefore taking place today, causing the emergence of a global “consensus culture”.

As a method or political process, a consensus is morally neutral. It acquires a moral character (positive or negative) through its content or object.


So far, we have spoken about consensus as a process. As far as content is concerned, the divergences between the African palaver and postmodern consensus are fundamental.

Hence the global consensus culture is ambivalent, encompassing a number of interpretations that are substantially different.

The object of the palaver is the search for what is real, true and good for the community and for each of its members. The palaver is open to the wisdom of the elders and contains a transcendental factor that enables it to move from the sacred to God. It is a dynamic driven by a sense of community and seeking to preserve, restore or grow interpersonal communion. It is also a dynamic searching for truth. This being the case, it is a permanently open process.

As for the object of a postmodern consensus, it is often virtual rather than real. The individual’s arbitrary right to choose replaces the search for what is real and true. As this right leads to constantly changing or even contradictory choices, the content of the consensus becomes a process of change. Such a consensus has no stable or transparent content. Its building occurs within a secularist ethical framework that is closed to what is sacred and to God.

In the absence of a real search for what is good and true, the postmodern consensus process is often flawed. If the starting point is evil or incomplete, so is the rest of the process. A consensus without an identifiable content could not possibly be authentic. It also rapidly becomes manipulative and serves the purpose to impose ideological goals on the majority. The western postmodern consensus, pre-established by experts or lobbies with no real consultation of the grassroots, tends to be closed from the onset of the process. Participation, consultation and dialogue are then fictitious : they turn into social engineering techniques whereby the will of a few is appropriated by all. This kind of process does not respect its participants, their identity, their values or aspirations. The law of the strongest, of the most participatory, rules, sometimes even without people being aware of it, precisely because the new techniques “are consensual”.

Concepts belonging to the “new global consensus” express the logic of postmodern processes. Today, they are being imposed on Africa through “soft”, friendly methods akin to the palaver and African values. The danger for African cultures is to be seduced by a “consensus” that comes from abroad and will deconstruct them from within if they accept it passively and without critical discernment.

The external similarities between the new western culture and African traditions could facilitate a rapid and efficient global absorption of the contents of the dominating – and often domineering - culture, that of a decadent West.

© 2009 Marguerite A. Peeters
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