When Companies Rule: Corporate Political Authority in India, Kenya and South Africa

Maha Rafi Atal

Research output: Book/ReportPhD thesis


This thesis examines the role of corporations as political authorities, focusing on corporate land acquisition and corporate provision of services and infrastructure. It considers these activities as “Company Rule,” a political project to secure corporate control of territory and population, shaping power relations between corporations and the people they govern. The thesis asks what motivates companies to rule, and whether Company Rule can achieve political legitimacy. The thesis makes four main contributions. First, it develops a framework for analysing the political agency of corporations, informed by international relations theory, management science, and economic history, including empirical analysis of three historical cases of Company Rule: the British East India Company, the British South Africa Company, and the New Lanark mill town. Second, the thesis applies the framework to three contemporary case studies: the Reliance oil refinery and township in India, the Del Monte pineapple plantation and estate in Kenya, and the Lonmin platinum mine and surrounding settlements in South Africa. It finds that company actors are motivated by one or more of three key factors: utopian visions of the society their governance can deliver, a desire to counter resistance to business operations from labour, community groups or other stakeholders, and internal bureaucratic power struggles which take governance policies as a site of conflict. Third, the thesis finds that the balance of these motives varies across time and space. The policy context in which companies operate influences the particular ideological motives expressed in Company Rule. In highlighting the significance of policies that postcolonial governments have taken on the regulation of land, the thesis situates Company Rule in wider discussions of the role of territory and the social construction of space in the creation of political authority. Fourth, the thesis finds that any legitimacy Company Rule achieves relies not only on the material quality of company-provided services and infrastructure, but significantly on their normative content. Workers, communities and regulators respond to the ideological motives expressed in company governance, and it is their acceptance or rejection of these motives that determines the legitimacy of Company Rule.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationCambridge
PublisherUniversity of Cambridge
Publication statusPublished - 2019
Externally publishedYes


  • Corporations
  • Governance
  • Corporate social responsibility
  • Development
  • Economic history
  • Political theory
  • India
  • Kenya
  • South Africa

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