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Sub-Saharan Africa in Global Capitalism

John S. Saul is a member of the editorial working group of Southern Africa Report and Colin Leys is co-editor of the Socialist Register; both live in Toronto. The authors wish to thank Jane Borges and Pablo Idahosa for assistance and advice during the preparation of this article.

If we define sub-Saharan Africa as excluding not only north Africa but also bracket off, for the moment, the continent’s southern cone, dominated by South Africa, the key fact about the rest—the greater part of the continent—is thrown sharply into relief: after 80 years of colonial rule and almost four decades of independence, in most of it there is some capital but not a lot of capitalism. The predominant social relations are still not capitalist, nor is the prevailing logic of production. Africa south of the Sahara exists in a capitalist world, which marks and constrains the lives of its inhabitants at every turn, but is not of it. This is the fundamental truth from which any honest analysis must begin. This is what explains why sub-Saharan Africa, with some 650 million people, over 10 percent of the world’s population, has just 3 percent of its trade and only 1 percent of its Gross Domestic Product; and why income per head—averaging 460 dollars in 1994—has steadily fallen, relative to the industrialized world, and is now less than a fiftieth of what it is in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries.1 It also explains why sub-Saharan Africa’s economies have responded worse than others to the market-oriented development policies urged on it by the World Bank and other outside agencies since the 1980s. Now the aid flow is declining, while population growth is still racing towards a barely imaginable 1 to 1.2 billion in the year 2020.2

As we shall see, some forms of capital see plenty of profitable opportunities in sub-Saharan Africa, but the likelihood that the region is going to be developed by capitalism seems smaller than ever. On a continent of household-based agrarian economies with very limited long-distance trade, colonialism imposed cash-crop production for export, and mineral extraction, with manufacturing supposed to come later. Today, however, world demand is weakening for the export crops that African farmers produce—coffee, cocoa, tea, cotton, sugar, tobacco—and competition from much more productive capitalist agriculture in Asia and Latin America is intensifying; while industrial country dependence on Africa’s minerals and metals is also declining (by about 2 percent a year).3 And takeoff into manufacturing for internal consumption is blocked by an inability to compete with imports and by tiny domestic markets; meanwhile collapsing infrastructures, political risk, and poorly trained workforces tend to make manufacturing for export uncompetitive, even at very low wages.4 As the Economic Commission for Africa says, in most of Africa industrial expansion faces “impossible difficulties.”5 South Africa is, of course, the big exception, with a diversified and relatively sophisticated economy and a population growth rate well below that of the rest of sub-Saharan Africa: if we include all of southern Africa in our definition of sub-Saharan Africa (the more usual definition), South Africa alone accounts for about two-fifths of its total gross domestic product (GDP).

Africa in Global Capitalism: Two Perspectives

There are two ways of picturing Africa in the context of global capitalism. One is from the point of view of the people living and hoping to improve their lot in sub-Saharan Africa’s forty-eight nation-states with a considerable variety of kinds of “insertion” into the global capitalist economy, and a corresponding range of experiences of development (or the lack of it).6 The other is from the point of view of capital, for which Africa is not so much a system of states, still less a continent of people in need of a better life, as simply a geographic—or geological—terrain, offering this or that opportunity to make money.

On the first view, what stands out are two general features. First, besides South Africa, the one large industrialized country in the sub-continent, there are just six other countries with over twenty million inhabitants each—Congo/DRC, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda—and one super-large country, Nigeria. Between them, these eight countries account for 61 percent of all Africans south of the Sahara (and Nigeria, with an estimated 118 million inhabitants in 1997, contains almost one in five of them); the other forty are small, including twelve mini-states with populations of less than two million.

Second, however, is the fact that, in terms of income per head, size and wealth do not go together: Nigeria is one of the poorest African countries, in spite of its formidable oil production, with a per capita income of only 240 dollars in 1996. The so-called “middle-income” African countries are Senegal, Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Cote d’Ivoire, Congo PR, Cameroon, Botswana, Gabon, and South Africa. Yet with the exception of South Africa and its near neighbors, and the partial exception of Cote d’Ivoire, most of the citizens of these countries are often no better off than their apparently poorer neighbors: most of the “middle income” countries are mineral exporters, their per capita income figures boosted by the value of the oil and other minerals that the big transnational corporations extract and export from them.

In most of Africa, even in countries with major mineral exports, economic life still largely revolves around an agricultural cycle that remains acutely dependent on capricious weather conditions. Growing pressure of population means a constantly expanding landless labor force, partly working for subsistence wages on other people’s land, partly unemployed or underemployed in the cities, sometimes migrating to neighboring countries (e.g., from Burkina Faso to Cote d’Ivoire), living on marginal incomes and with minimal state services, including education and health. This situation seems set to persist, or get worse; after a moment of optimism in the mid-1990s, no one now expects to see the 5 percent growth in GDP per annum that is agreed to be necessary for any significant reduction in poverty (given average population growth in the sub-continent of 2.7 percent per annum), let alone any hope of even beginning to close the gap with the industrialized (or post-industrial) world.7 As the Economic Commission for Africa puts it, “according to current estimates, close to 50 percent of the population [of Africa] live in absolute poverty. This percentage is expected to increase at the beginning of the next millennium and to prevent that, African countries will need…to create seventeen million new jobs each year [merely] to stabilize the unemployment rate at the current level.” And this is not something the Commission seems to think likely.8

Even the 1998 Report of the much more market-oriented African Development Bank has, in spite of every effort to identify bright spots, a somber tone overall, and understandably so. In the foreseeable future, there are no good reasons to think that capitalist development is going to transform the situation.

Africa through Capital’s Eyes

On the other hand, from a corporate viewpoint, in which the aim is not to develop countries but to exploit profitable opportunities, the prospects can still appear bright enough. Above all in the oil, natural gas, and minerals industries there is optimism, even excitement. Africa’s resources are still substantially untapped, many existing discoveries are yet to be developed and many new ones still to be made. The “investment climate” has been made easier, thanks, as we will see, to a decade and a half of aid “conditionality,” and the returns can be spectacular; the rates of return on U.S. direct investments in Africa are, for example, the highest of any region in the world (25.3 percent in 1997).9 Under World Bank-International Monetary Fund (IMF) prompting, stock markets have been established in fourteen African countries with another six in prospect, with brokers in London and New York beginning to take an interest in speculating on them; the Economist Intelligence Unit notes that in some of them annual returns “in excess of 100 percent” have been “generated.”

An economic profile of Africa drawn from this perspective would pay relatively little attention to countries or states, except as regards the physical security of fixed investments and the availability of communications and transport facilities. Instead it would highlight a group of large transnational corporations, especially mining companies, and a pattern of mineral deposits, coded according to their estimated size and value and the costs of exploiting them (which technical advances are constantly reducing)—and a few associated African stock exchanges worth gambling on.

This map would also include numerous agricultural opportunities, such as the plantation or outgrower production of tea, coffee, cocoa, cotton, sugar, and the like; some low-tech manufacturing for local markets, such as beer and soft drinks, plastics, and cement; and a very limited amount of export manufacturing (e.g., of textiles) by subsidiaries of foreign firms, especially under the Lom convention which gave African countries special access to European markets. A larger-scale version of this map, for smaller capitalists, would, of course, show many more modest-scale opportunities from which individual fortunes may be made, ranging from construction to transportation, import-export businesses, hotels, and so on. And on no actual map, but existing in reality, are the illegal business opportunities, from diamond smuggling to gun-running and drug trafficking, that corruption and the collapse of state authority increasingly open up. In short, a profile of “crude, neo-imperialist” capitalism, exploiting people and resources, but often not needing—and usually incapable of building—the wider social, economic, and political structures required for the development of capitalist production relations and sustained, broad-based capital accumulation.

The two perspectives just outlined raise a familiar question: is Africa a victim of exploitation or of marginalization? The short answer must be that it is both. In the popular meaning of exploitation, Africa suffers acutely from exploitation: every packet of cheap Kenyan tea sold in New York, every overpriced tractor exported to Nigeria, every dollar of interest on ill-conceived and negligently supervised loans to African governments that accrues to western banks—not to mention every diamond illegally purchased from warlords in Sierra Leone or Angola—benefits people in the West at the expense of Africa’s impoverished populations. On the other hand, as Geoff Kay once provocatively suggested, in the Marxian sense of the term Africa has “suffered” not from being exploited, but from not being exploited enough;10 not enough capital has been invested; too few Africans have ever been employed productively enough to create relative surplus value; the reinvested surplus has been too small.

Either way, the result is relegation to the margins of the global economy, with no visible prospect for continental development along capitalist lines. Population growth has outstripped production growth; the chances of significantly raising per capita output are falling, not rising; the infrastructure is increasingly inadequate; the market for high value-added goods is minuscule. Global capital, in its constant search for new investment opportunities, finds them less and less in Africa.11This does not mean that nothing is happening, let alone that no alternative is possible. It simply means that Africa’s development, and the dynamics of global capitalism, are no longer convergent, if they ever were.

Disciplining Africa

This is not what was supposed to happen. At independence—between 1955 and 1965—the structural weaknesses of Africa’s economic position were generally recognized and it was assumed on all sides that active state intervention would be necessary to overcome them. Although Africa would still be expected to earn its way by playing its traditional role of primary-product exporter, the “developmental state” was to accumulate surpluses from the agricultural sector and apply them to the infrastructural and other requirements of import-substitution-driven industrialization. And some left variants of the developmental state sought, in the name of various brands of socialism, to press this interventionist model even further.

For various reasons, internal and external, this project was not notably successful, even in mineral-rich countries. Globally, by the 1970s, the terms of trade had turned significantly against African agricultural products while rising oil prices also hit most of them hard. Loans, both public and private, advanced in the hey-day of African optimism, became crippling burdens as the era of high interest rates set in, while Africa’s own economic backwardness discouraged any great influx of private capital from abroad. Internally, as well, the class basis was too weak for either a real capitalist or a real socialist project; under these circumstances the “developmental state” became primarily a site for opportunist elements to pursue spoils and lock themselves into power. The result: a stagnant Africa that has become “the most indebted area in the world,” one in which, “as a percentage of GNP, total external debt [rose] from 39.6 percent in 1980 to 78.7 percent in 1994; and as a percentage of the value of exports it went up from 97 percent in 1980 to 324 percent in 1990.”12

Fatefully for Africa, this debt came due, in the 1980s, just as the premises of the dominant players in the development game were changing. The western Keynesian consensus that had sanctioned the agricultural levies, the industrialization dream, the social services sensibility, and the activist state of the immediate post-independence decades—and lent money to support all this—was replaced by “neoliberalism.” For Africa this meant the winding down of any remnant of the developmental state. The new driving premise was to be a withdrawal of the state from the economy and the removal of all barriers, including exchange controls, protective tariffs and public ownership (and with such moves to be linked as well to massive social service cutbacks), to the operation of global market forces. Agriculture was key: free markets, low taxes, and the abolition of urban food subsidies were now to stimulate a reassertion of the “comparative advantage” of rural Africa’s cash-crops within the global division of labor.13 States in Africa felt compelled to comply: they were debtors, after all, and, with the decline of the Eastern bloc, were also fast losing whatever limited leverage this alternative source of support had given them.

Enter then, crucially, “the age of structural adjustment”14 in which the neoliberal reorientation of economic policy became required medicine for virtually all sub-Saharan African economies. Given the fact that most of Africa’s debt was to the World Bank and other multilateral agencies, the Bank and the IMF emerged as particularly central to the process of dictating global capitalism’s new terms to Africa. As manifested in their aggressive administering of “Structural Adjustment Programmes” (SAPs), the invasive impact of the international financial institutions (IFIs) on the national sovereignty of target countries cannot be overstated: “What has emerged in Accra,” Eboe Hutchful once wrote of the Ghanaian SAP experience, “is a parallel government controlled (if not created) by the international lender agencies…[while] the other side of the external appropriation of policy-making powers is the deliberate de-politicalization that has occurred under the ERP [Economic Reconstruction Programme], and the displacement of popular participation and mobilization by a narrowly-based bureaucratic management.”15 Of course, as this process has proceeded the IFIs have come, in theory at least, to modify somewhat the more hard-boiled dictates of the 1983 document, the Berg Report, that first codified this approach. Subsequent reports have emphasized both the need to better protect the poorest of the poor against the “transitional” costs of adjustment, and also to permit a more active role for a transformed (“market-friendly”) state. Yet such fine-tuning changes little that is essential to the overall project: the sustained downgrading of the claims of the social vis à vis the counterclaims of the market—alongside the loss of any sense of what a genuinely democratic state (as distinct from an “enabling” state, “insulated” from popular pressures) might hope to accomplish.

What has been the upshot of this kind of structural adjustment even when measured in strictly economic terms? Certainly the economic weaknesses of Africa have not been overcome. As one leading academic commentator, John Ravenhill, concluded, “[A]ny expectations that adjustment would bring a swift turnaround in the continent’s economic conditions have been dashed—despite the occasional claims of the World Bank to the contrary.” Indeed, he continued, “looking back on Africa’s first decade of structural adjustment and looking forward to the end of the century, there are few grounds for optimism. Few countries have been able to sustain a multi-sector program of adjustment, while, in those that have, several key economic indicators give cause for concern—especially the increasing levels of indebtedness and the failure of investment to revive.”16 This is also the considered judgment of many African experts. “During the past decade and a half, African countries have gone through the phase of adjusting their economies with the support of the World Bank and the IMF,” writes the Economic Commission for Africa, but “an authoritative and candid evaluation of the ESAF [Structural Adjustment Facility agreements] programmes shows that the results were disappointing compared to the programme targets and to the performance of non-ESAF countries.”17

Others have been even more critical: “[Africa’s] crisis and the IMF and World Bank Stabilization and Structural Adjustment Programmes,” writes Nigerian economist Bade Onimode, “have generated and exacerbated a serious decline in the African economy, and created the catastrophe of suffering facing the rural and urban poor, women, children, workers, peasants and other vulnerable social groups.”18 In an important article about Mozambique, David Plank echoes Onimode in defining the current phase of Africa’s positioning within the global capitalist system as “recolonization,” a situation that, in his view, is more, not less, confining than the phase of formal colonialism itself. “Recent developments in Mozambique and elsewhere,” he writes, “suggest that the most likely successor to post-colonial sovereignty will be neo-colonial vassalage, in which the Western powers assume direct and open-ended control over the administration, security and economic policies of ‘deteriorated’ states under the banner of the U.N. and various donors.”19

To be sure, even with Plank’s suggestive elaboration in his text, the term “recolonization” may remain more evocative metaphor than scientific concept. Nonetheless, it does capture much of the reality of contemporary Africa. Formal colonialism, sometimes consciously, sometimes not, subordinated sub-Saharan Africa’s development to the needs of stronger economic centers. Nothing now on the official agenda significantly changes this. The situation in which Africa finds itself, shaped both by its long established weaknesses and by the terms of its current subordination, makes it a mere taker of global capitalist signals, forced at least for the moment merely to slot into the role, sketched above, that has been defined for it by capital and its functionaries beyond the continent’s borders.

The Politics of Marginalization

What accounts for the degeneration of Africa’s erstwhile “developmental states”? A sad story of inexperience, incompetence, corruption, ethnic competition, decline, indebtedness; then structural adjustment, state contraction, state breakdown, war; further decline, further war: such is the consistently overgeneralized media account tinged, all too often, with a barely-concealed element of racism.20 But “it is merely in the night of our ignorance that all alien shapes take on the same hue.”21 In fact, several quite different trajectories are discernible in the histories of African states, with different potentials for the future.

To understand this we must backtrack briefly to the 1960s. The newly independent African states inherited the colonial state structures, geared to expanding export production of taxable primary crops and minerals. For political support, the new leaders had to rely not on urban working classes or middle classes, which mostly barely existed, but on rural notables, whose allegiance they secured through chains of patronage stretching from the ministers’ offices to the villages. By the mid-1970s—sooner in many places—this system had become unstable. There was not enough patronage to go round and those excluded from it mobilized their districts and ethnic groups in increasingly unmanageable opposition. In response to this, “centralized bureaucratic” regimes were created in which an all-powerful President controlled the patronage system with the help of a centralized bureaucracy and army;22 the best-known examples are perhaps Nyerere’s Tanzania, Kenyatta’s (and Moi’s) Kenya, and Mobutu’s Zaire, but there were others. Where this kind of system was not created, “clientelism” persisted without central control and degenerated into ever more unstable “spoils” systems—Nigeria, Ghana, Uganda, Sierra Leone, Somalia, amongst others—in which everything was eventually up for plunder.

Economic decline tended to be faster and worse in spoils systems, but virtually no regime was immune from the economic regression of the early 1980s. The impact of the structural adjustment that followed was severe on both kinds of regime. Shorn of patronage by cuts in state spending and jobs, and under pressure to “democratize”—really, to liberalize—even the centralized bureaucratic regimes weakened, while the spoils systems staggered towards terminal crisis. At this point, however, significant differences emerged in the capacity of African states of both kinds to survive, due to important differences in their underlying economic and social structures.

States that relied on peasant export production for revenue and growth had had to build robust links with the rural areas and these proved surprisingly resilient even in face of the acute stresses of structural adjustment, especially when centralized bureaucratism had maintained a degree of prudential control over inequality and injustice in the way state patronage was deployed.23 States that depended on mineral exports from foreign-run mining enclaves, however, had not needed to develop such widespread networks of support, and this proved a crucial weakness in the new situation. Moreover mineral exports offered extremely rich and vulnerable pickings to well-armed gangs that armies were less and less able or willing to combat; indeed in many cases the new warlords were former military officers who had struck out on their own as army pay and privileges dried up and armies disintegrated in the wake of coups, counter-coups, and civil wars. It is therefore in mineral-rich countries like Angola and Congo/DRC, with less developed political links to the rural areas—and especially where extreme “spoils politics” had already ruined the state (as in Sierra Leone and Liberia)—that warlordism, fueled by oil and diamonds, threatens to become endemic.24 In this region of Africa, says defense specialist Dale Grant, “what is left of the old Belgian Congo has become a vast pipeline for African rebel movements to smuggle gems and minerals out of their own nations and into the world market.” He adds:

Even the promise of concessions before a victory is won is a marketable commodity, a sort of futures’ market in African outcomes. In early 1997, Kabila sent a representative to Toronto to talk to the mining companies about “investment opportunities.” This man may have raised as much as $50 million to support Kabila’s march on the capital of Kinshasa. A few months later, the Canadian mining industry was reading announcements like this May 1997 press release [before Kabila was in power]: “Vancouver, B.C. Tenke Mining Corp…is pleased to announce that the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the liberation of Congo-Zaire has signed an agreement ….” Kabila was not in power when this statement was made. The AFDL is a political figleaf for his personal rule. His final push to power was spearheaded by fresh troops with new uniforms, weapons and vehicles.25

Of course export crop economies are not immune to the risk of warlordism, which can spill over from neighboring countries (e.g., from the Congo and Sudan to northern and western Uganda) or arise from other causes; the originally ethno-religious conflict in southern Sudan is a tragic case in point, and also illustrates the way humanitarian aid to the victims of warlordism can become another source of funding for warlordism, with rival forces extracting a large share for themselves as the price of allowing any of it to reach sick and starving civilians.26 But in the long run warlordism probably does need a source of revenues greater than peasant-export crop production can provide, and by no means are all African countries doomed to undergo it. On the other hand, small-scale production of export crops alone spells continuing economic marginalization. It is hardly credible that successive generations of young Africans will be content to accept this, and political networks of rural notables held together by patronage, as the last word in African economic and political development.

Socialism and South Africa

There was, of course, another trajectory to African politics—some states which professed to bend the logic of global capitalism in favor of more progressive outcomes: Ghana, Tanzania, and Mozambique, among others. The earliest of these attempts, most often instigated from the top down and more populist than socialist perhaps (“African Socialism”), foundered in both developmental and democratic terms, although not in the long-run any more noticeably than did their African capitalist counterparts. Still, the absence of self-conscious class action from below, the administrative and ideological weaknesses of the leaderships, and the severe challenge of finding space for autonomous maneuver within the global economy proved intractable. Better sited, in Chris Allen’s view, were socialist attempts of more Marxist provenance that grew out of some of the liberation struggles in southern Africa, most notably in Mozambique.27 In such cases it remains difficult to extract the morals to be drawn from their ultimate failure, because they were given so little scope to learn from their initial mistakes as a result of the vicious destabilization they experienced at the hands of apartheid South Africa and various hostile western interests (Reagan-inspired “rollback,” for example).

Still, certain characteristic weaknesses of their socialist practice are discernible, contributing at least in part to the often grim outcome—including resubordination to the most overbearing of demands from global capitalism—of the projects mounted in such countries as Mozambique and Angola: far too many instances of overweening industrial plans and of forced villagization in the countryside, far too little democratic sensibility towards the complex values and demands of their presumed popular constituencies. Future attempts to develop counter-hegemonic projects in Africa will have to learn lessons from such experiences and also determine how to disentangle, for purposes of popular mobilization, the discredited notion of socialism from this troubled past.

In this respect the overthrow of apartheid in South Africa was once thought to hold some special promise. Recall Magdoff and Sweezy’s mid-1980s formulation in these pages to the effect that “[South Africa’s] system of racial segregation and repression is a veritable paradigm of capitalist super-exploitation. It has a white monopoly capitalist ruling class and an advanced black proletariat. It is so far the only country with a well developed, modern capitalist structure which is not only ‘objectively’ ripe for revolution but has actually entered a stage of overt and seemingly irreversible revolutionary struggle.”28 Magdoff and Sweezy did leave open the possibility of other, less palatable outcomes, but noted, by way of summary of what was at stake, that “a victory for counter-revolution—the stabilization of capitalist relations in South Africa even if in somewhat altered form—would…be [a] stunning defeat for the world revolution.” Unfortunately, if measured against such a standard, defeat would seem to be an appropriate description of what has transpired during the present decade in South Africa. For “the stabilization of capitalist relations” is, by any measure, one clear attribute of that country’s transition.29

True, there have been many other devastating defeats for the cause of “world revolution” since those words were written, but the implications for Africa of the taming of South Africa’s promise in this respect may serve to reinforce the gloomy mood evoked above. At the same time, others may see a different kind of promise in South Africa’s size and relatively high level of development in economic terms. As Manuel Castells reminds us, “South Africa accounts for 44 percent of the total GDP of all sub-Saharan Africa, and 52 percent of its industrial output.” In consequence, he suggests, “the end of apartheid in South Africa, and the potential linkage between a democratic, black majority-ruled South Africa and African countries, at least those in eastern/southern Africa, allows us to examine the hypothesis of the incorporation of Africa into global capitalism under new, more favourable conditions via the South African connection.”30

No doubt (as Castells’ himself soon concedes) South Africa’s continental importance in this respect can be overstated. After all, it occupies only the southern tip of what is a vast continent. Even more to the point, the ANC’s decision to abandon the more directive and mobilizational “growth through redistribution” model that initially drove its project has produced a market-driven, export-competitive, neo-liberal strategy that, pace Castells, has limited promise of growth and even less promise of delivering substantial returns to the vast mass of South Africa’s own impoverished population.31 Not only have possible alternatives been abandoned then, but, as even Castells concludes, “the real problem for South Africa is how to avoid being pushed aside itself from the harsh competition in the new global economy, once its economy is open.”32

And there is also the question of just what the fallout from hopes denied in South Africa will ultimately be: political decay, heightened criminality, increased authoritarianism—or reactivation of the popular struggle to realize humane and genuinely developmental socio-economic outcomes?


In sum, the destiny of Africa under actually existing global capitalism is stark; not even the World Bank’s experts pretend otherwise.33 Without a change in World Bank/IMF policy on debt relief, without the end of dogmatic market liberalism as a condition of aid, without a clampdown on predatory outside forces, without protection of all sorts, Africa seems doomed to stay marginalized. Yet American policy remains blindly market-oriented, as is shown by the U.S. Congress’ new “Hope for Africa” bill that seeks to make market-oriented policies obligatory for African states seeking free trade with the United States. What chance is there of change in this external context, without which all independent African initiatives seem so painfully vulnerable?

In the short run, not much, perhaps. In the medium run, however, a lot seems likely to change. First, African countries will present increasing dangers to the rest of the world: leading exporters of AIDS and other diseases, happy hunting grounds for mafiosi and mercenaries, anomic black markets for money, weapons, unlicensed drugs, untested blood, dangerous food additives. As this becomes clear, Africa will gradually move back towards the head of the aid queue. Second, the climate of opinion is changing in the countries of the “north” as the social costs of global deregulation become more and more evident. The hegemony of the “Washington consensus” is in decline. As a new generation of Africans is forced by worsening conditions to go beyond the all too understandable political cynicism that tends to prevail now, and to spearhead new movements for reform and development based once more on collective goals and traditions, it will find new sympathy abroad. Third, global capitalism is unquestionably coming up against the limits of the environment; within a few decades continued broad-based growth will be increasingly impossible, and market logic will be in question on all sides.

What role can Africans—and African states—themselves be expected to play at this global level in any attempts to transform capitalist structures that negatively frame the continent’s prospects? Africans have certainly been participants in debates about the possibilities of debt relief, both in the assertions of “global civil society” around this issue (the church-driven Jubilee 2000 initiative, for example) and, through their states, in attempts to extract such adjustments as the IFIs are prepared to grant, for example, in the recent (and extremely limited) “Highly Indebted Poor Countries” (HIPC) initiative. African states have also sought, since the 1980s, to formulate continental terms of reference for modifying global imperatives through such initiatives as the Lagos Plan of Action and the All-African Alternative Framework.34 And they have attempted regional undertakings—the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), for example—that, in various stages of gestation, seek in proposed common markets (and modest regional planning mechanisms) the kind of scale that might make greater global leverage possible.

However, these diverse initiatives must remain limited since such actions of African states to roll back the debt and/or secure the benefits of the larger scale units are premised precisely on the kind of quasi-capitalist national economies whose vulnerabilities we have sketched above. Insofar as these economies remain unlikely to generate investment of a more productive and transformative variety—whether from (still extremely weak) domestic bourgeoisies, from international capital, or from complementary state initiatives—investment of the hit-and-run variety is likely to remain the commonest kind, with predictable lack of developmental results continentally, regionally, and nationally. In sum, the dream of a transformative capitalism in Africa remains just that: a dream.

But what are the signs that Africans may generate the will and the resources to go further? There are, of course, multiple developmental assertions at the very local level that demand to be chronicled. Thus Jonathan Barker speaks of the existence, in Africa and beyond, of “thousands of activist groups addressing the issues of conserving jobs and livelihoods, community health, power of women, provision of housing, functioning of local markets, availability of local social services, provision and standard of education, and abusive and damaging working conditions.”35 And there are also resistances directed more broadly and self-consciously against the kind of parasitic governments that attempt to ride the African crisis to their own advantage. What is more, IFI-induced austerity has rendered such governments even more vulnerable to challenge from below: in response to economic adjustment measures, write Riley and Parfitt, “African peoples have adopted many diverse strategies to challenge, deflect, or avoid bearing the costs of austerity involved and to seek a political alternative to the politicians they hold responsible.”

They also document an impressive range of (primarily urban) actors—“lawyers, students, copper miners, organizations of rural women, urban workers and the unemployed, journalists, clergymen and others”—whose direct action in recent years has shaken numerous African governments.36

Such resistances—what Célestin Monga refers to as the “collective insubordination” of Africa37—have been one factor driving the renewed saliency of democratic demands on the continent. True, democracy of a sort has also been high on the agenda of western interests. For the latter see some limited form of “liberal democracy” as both a possible means for helping legitimize their broader agenda, and a possible check upon state elites that have become just too corrupt to stabilize a viable business climate. To the extent, however, that this latter project has taken hold in some countries it will have achieved little more than to stabilize property-threatening situations by a momentary re-circulation of elites. The class and productive bases for a stable hegemonic bourgeois democracy are just not there, making likely, as Riley and Parfitt argue, “persistent domestic unrest over further austerity.” “In Africa, as perhaps globally, ‘democracy cannot sustain the debt; the debt cannot sustain democracy.’”38

But to what extent might this climate of democratization also open up space for popular initiatives that could prove more transformative? For, in the end, the greatest obstacles confronting the mounting of an African alternative remain as much internal as external: how to act collectively when the mass of the society is still grounded in precapitalist production relations, and already under growing economic and social stress? It is still easier to mobilize people in terms of ethnicity, or religion, than in terms of a social and economic project beyond the local level. Moreover, those with the education and experience to develop a project for radical change are often cut off from the majority by language and distance. Well over a quarter of a million African professionals are now living outside Africa altogether, a very significant proportion of the continent’s intelligentsia. For those who remain, the natural desire to live like a “normal” (Western) person tugs constantly against the poverty, insecurity, and constant setbacks of a life dedicated to the struggle for radical change, and the old problems of democratic and accountable leadership that have dogged all popular movements in history reappear.

Yet the fact remains that more dramatic possibilities are in the air, and even beginning to take organizational form. Crude predatory capitalism is already being confronted, in Ogoniland and elsewhere, most often in the name of democracy but also with a redistributive thrust that the idea of “democracy” cannot in the end entirely encompass. As the need to attach the demand for socio-economic rights more self-consciously to the demand for political rights becomes even more widely felt, so too can the popular critique of power be expected to expand its focus beyond local abuses of office to confront global injustices (from the abusive Nigerian state, in the Ogoni case, via Shell Oil to a fresh perspective on the workings of the global system, perhaps). In Zambia, for example, the broad trade union-led democratic movement that brought down the autocratic Kaunda government throws up only the far more IFI-dominated, austerity-driven and authoritarian Chiluba regime. Can one expect to find Zambians asking much more searching questions about the nature of power, national and global, next time round—while also beginning to imagine struggles that could narrow the sweeping prerogatives of capital which now frame their negative circumstances? And when merely “democratic” challenges to power in countries like Kenya collapse into squabbling, often cast in ethnic terms, between rival opposition leaders—entirely to the electoral advantage of the ruling Moi clique—a younger generation of political activists seems likely to draw lessons relevant for crafting more progressive political practices in the future.

In Zimbabwe, for example, one does find the strong trade union movement that has driven the dramatic strike wave in Zimbabwe in recent years arguing (alongside other popular organizations) for the formation of a new party to challenge the rancid Mugabe regime from the left: as Patrick Bond writes of this initiative, “What is crucial is that the opposition’s political orientation is potentially both post-nationalist and post-neoliberal, perhaps for the first time in African history.”39 No doubt moves such as this—towards creating the broader united fronts capable of pulling together politically both very local resistances and the kind of diffuse national ones we have noted above—are required. In continental terms they are still in their infancy, however. For one thing, finding a language of “popular democracy”40 that is both unifying and empowering enough to link together the very diverse realities of urban and rural Africa will be a challenge, as Mahmood Mamdani has emphasized in recent writings.41 To link that language, in turn, to the kind of socialist discourse—still to be rescued from the debris of recent socialist practice, worldwide and African—that could be expected to illuminate the capitalist underpinnings of Africans’ problems will be even more challenging. And yet, in some circles of African intellectuals, this task of recuperation has begun: reaching all the way from the deliberations of Codesria, the prominent Dakar-based progressive research organization (and home base of Samir Amin),42 to the assertions of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa which regularly evoke just such socialist premises to critique the neo-liberal predilections of the ANC government there.

The odds being so long, and the alternative so hard to see, it might be thought that this projection of a renewed socialist thrust in Africa is pure fantasy. And yet it is hardly realistic to imagine that nothing radical is going to happen. What the prominent South African historian Colin Bundy wrote several years ago of the struggle to retain a radical vision in his own country seems equally true of the continent as a whole. “There will be many who remain unconvinced,” he notes. “They believe that would-be socialists in [Africa] are doomed to defeat: epochally quixotic, tilting forlornly at windmills driven for the rest of history by capitalist energies. To speak of ‘prospects’ for socialism, they say, requires a leap of faith.” And “perhaps it does,” Bundy concedes; at the very least it “requires stamina, creativity and collective resourcefulness.” And yet, as he continues, “to imagine that a milder mannered capitalist order can secure a decent future for the majority of [Africans]…or that [Africa] can somehow be absolved its economic history and enter a future like that of Sweden or Taiwan: now that really requires a leap of faith.”43


  1. World Bank, World Development Report 1996 (Washington, 1996).
  2. Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), Economic Report on Africa 1996(Addis Ababa: ECA, 1996).
  3. African Development Bank (ADB), African Development Report (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 33 and 47-48.
  4. Ibid., pp. 51-52.
  5. ECA, African Economic Report 1998 (Addis Ababa: ECA, 1998; available at http:// [no pagination]).
  6. The figure of forty-eight states actually includes a number of island states and statelets which are more or less near Africa and conventionally included in it, but whose history, resource endowment, present economic structures, and cultures distinguish them in various ways from Africa proper. These are Cape Verde (pop. 0.4 m.), Madagascar (pop. 15.8 m.), Mauritius (pop. 1.1 m.), Sao Tome and Principe (pop. less than 100,000), and Seychelles (pop. 100,000). Seychelles and Mauritius have relatively high per capita incomes, based on tourism and also, in the case of Mauritius, on clothing exports.
  7. In the eight years leading up to 1997, thirty African countries had per capita income growth of over 1.5 percent, while only twenty-three had less, or declining incomes (ADB, op. cit., p. 3). This was markedly better than the 1980s, but starting from a lower base: many countries had still to get back to the per capita income levels of 1980, and, in any case, counting countries rather than populations distorts the picture since many of the better-performing economies were small.
  8. ECA, African Economic Report 1998 (op. cit.).
  9. The average rate of return on U.S. FDI in 1997 for all countries was 12.3 percent. The average rate of return on U.S. FDI in Africa for the whole period 1990 to 1997 was 29 percent (United Nations, World Investment Report 1998: Trends and Developments (New York and Geneva: United Nations, 1998).
  10. Geoffrey Kay, Development and Underdevelopment: A Marxist Analysis (London: MacMillan, 1975), p. x.
  11. In 1997, the whole of Africa (including north Africa) attracted less than 3 percent of all the world’s foreign direct investment, and sub-Saharan Africa excluding South Africa, barely half of that—i.e., 2.7 billion dollars; and slightly over half of this went to the half-dozen oil-exporting countries (United Nations, op. cit.).
  12. Manuel Castells, The Information Age, Vol III: End of Millennium (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998), the section entitled “The dehumanization of Africa,” pp. 88-90.
  13. As we will see, there was a rough, if misleading, plausibility to all of this. African states were not, by and large, “developmental” in any meaningful sense of the word, but had instead become predatory excrescences, parasitic upon the peasantry certainly and with little residual popular legitimacy. It was therefore that much easier for outside actors to present Africa’s problems as being exclusively internal…and as largely state-inspired.
  14. This is the title Bill Freund gives to the last chapter—on Africa’s most recent period—of the new edition of his definitive short history of the continent, The Making of Contemporary Africa (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 1998).
  15. Eboe Hutchful, “From ‘Revolution’ to Monetarism: The Economics and Politics of the Adjustment Programme in Ghana,” in Bonnie Campbell and John Loxley, eds., Structural Adjustment in Africa (London: Macmillan, 1989), pp. 122-3.
  16. John Ravenhill, “A Second Decade of Adjustment: Greater Complexity, Greater Uncertainty” on Thomas Callaghy and John Ravenhill, eds., Hemmed In: Responses to Africa’s Decline (New York: Columbia, 1993), p. 47.
  17. ECA, African Economic Report 1998 (op. cit.).
  18. In his book, A future for Africa: Beyond the politics of adjustment (London: Earthscan, 1992), Onimode mounts a powerful case against structural adjustment, capping the point we have quoted here with the observation that, “a generation of Africans has been lost and a second is under serious threat, while the marginalization of Africa has accelerated alarmingly in most spheres” (p. 1).
  19. David Plank, “Aid, Debt and the End of Sovereignty: Mozambique and Its Donors,” Journal of Modern African Studies 31, 3 (1993), pp. 429-30.
  20. A notorious example is Robert D. Kaplan, “The Coming Anarchy,“The Atlantic Monthly, February 1994, pp. 44-76.
  21. Perry Anderson, Lineages of the Absolutist State, (London: New Left Books, 1974), p. 549.
  22. Chris Allen, “Understanding African Politics,” Review of African Political Economy 65, pp. 301-20. The account given here draws heavily on Allen’s important analysis.
  23. Catherine Boone, “States and ruling classes in post-colonial Africa: the enduring contradictions of power,” in Joel S. Migdal, Atul Kohli, and Vivienne Shue (eds.), State Power and Social Forces (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 108-40.
  24. Catherine Boone, “’Empirical Statehood’ and Reconfigurations of Political Order,” in Leonardo A. Villalon and Philip A. Huxtable, eds., The African State at a Critical Juncture (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 1998), pp. 129-141.
  25. Dale Grant, “Canadians cry ‘Havoc’ and let slip the dogs of war,“Toronto Star, March 9, 1999.
  26. Ankie Hoogevelt, Globalization and the Postcolonial World (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), pp. 180-81.
  27. Allen, op. cit., sub-section entitled “Guerilla War and Socialist States,” pp. 315-6.
  28. Harry Magdoff and Paul Sweezy, “The Stakes in South Africa,”Monthly Review, vol. 37, no. 11 (April 1986).
  29. On the taming of the South African transition see, inter alia, John S. Saul, “Liberal Democracy vs. Popular Democracy in Southern Africa,” Review of African Political Economy 72 (June 1997).
  30. Castells, op. cit., the sub-section entitled “Africa’s hope? The South African connection,” p. 122.
  31. See Hein Marais, South Africa: Limits to Change: The Political Economy of Transition (London: Zed Books, 1998).
  32. Castells, op. cit., p. 127.
  33. “Even after successfully implementing most of the broad elements of this [the World Bank’s] agenda…the incidence of poverty will still rise in both absolute and relative terms. Dependence on foreign assistance will continue unabated. There should be no illusions,” writes Israt Husain in his contribution, “Structural Adjustment and the Long-term Development of Sub-Saharan Africa,” to R. Van der Hoeven and Fred Van der Kraaij, eds.,Structural Adjustment and Beyond in Sub-Saharan Africa (The Hague/London: Ministry of Foreign Affairs/James Currey, 1994), p. 170. For other critical, and heterodox, reflections from within the Bank, see R. Agarwala and P. Schwartz, “Sub-Saharan Africa: A Long-Term Perspective Study” (internal document, May 1994).
  34. For an analysis of such initiatives in the 1980s, see Onimode, op. cit.
  35. Jonathan Barker, “Debating Globalization: Critique of Colin Leys,” Southern Africa Report, vol. 12, no. 4 (September 1997), p. 21; see, however, Leys’ response to Barker (“Colin Leys Replies”) in the same issue of SAR which emphasizes the parallel need for “nation-wide movements and/or parties” through which such local groups and initiatives can ultimately “unite to confront the political and economic power of the transnationals and the states that back them” (p. 22-3).
  36. Stephen P. Riley and Trevor W. Parfitt, “Economic Adjustment and Democratization in Africa,” in John Walton and David Seddon, eds., Free Markets and Food Riots (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994), p. 167.
  37. Célestin Monga, The Anthropology of Anger: Civil Society and Democracy in Africa (Boulder: Lynne Reinner, 1996).
  38. Riley and Parfitt, ibid., p. 170; they, in turn, are quoting P. H. Smith, “Crisis and Democracy in Latin America,” World Politics, vol. 43, no. 4 (1991).
  39. Patrick Bond, “Post-nationalist politics for Zimbabwe?” Red Pepper (April 1999).
  40. On the importance of the distinction between “liberal democracy” and “popular democracy” in Africa see John S. Saul, “’For Fear of Being Condemned as Old Fashioned’: Liberal Democracy vs. Popular Democracy in Sub-Saharan Africa” in Kidane Mengisteab and Cyril Daddieh, eds., State Building and Democratization in Africa (Westport: Praeger, 1999).
  41. Mahmood Mamdani, Citizen and Subject (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).
  42. See, for example, Paul Tiyambe Zeleza and M. C. Diop, “Report of Codesria Eighth General Assembly,” Codesria Bulletin 4 (1995).
  43. Quoted from an unpublished paper by Bundy entitled “Problems and Prospects for South African Socialists” and presented to the Political Science Seminar, York University, October 1991.

1999, Volume 51, Issue 03 (July-August)
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