Is Africa still rising?
When teaching undergraduate students about colonial legacies and the basics of underdevelopment and dependency, I project a map of colonial railways onto the screen and ask my students to comment on what it tells us.1
On the one hand, perhaps, this image of railways encapsulates ideas of modernity, progress, or even colonial benevolence. On the other hand, of course, when we force students to scratch below the surface, the image of rail networks linking mines to ports (and rarely cities to cities) reflects the manner in which the economies of Africa’s newly formed states were structured primarily toward servicing external demands for resources; facilitating Europe’s modernity while rendering the dream of modernisation ever more difficult to achieve for African states themselves.
This is, of course, part of what Walter Rodney (2012) famously described as the establishment of dependency relationships between Europe and Africa, which would develop the former at the expense of the latter. Meanwhile, a combination of economic dependence, weak state authority and divided societies encouraged the consolidation of ‘gatekeeper states’ which have often been mired in recurrent economic and political crises (Cooper 2002). In order to reproduce their economic and political power, elites sought to control the seat of the internationally recognised sovereign government – which served as a gateway to resources that they could subsequently redistribute at their discretion in order to remain in power. Managing and sustaining a dense network of patron–client relationships in this context was often essential for political survival, and the endemic corruption that would result further exacerbated economic underdevelopment.
In recent years, however, a more optimistic narrative has emerged. The core tenets of modernisation theory (though rarely cited as a source of inspiration) have experienced something of a renaissance. Africa, we are told, is a continent ‘rising’ despite centuries of economic underdevelopment and what we had previously been led to believe was the ineluctable, neopatrimonial fashion in which African politics ‘works’ (Chabal and Daloz 1999. Glossy magazines, editorial columns and a growing body of literature point to a range of factors that are thought to reflect Africa’s rise, including: the increasing attractiveness of African markets to foreign investors; positive and sustained rates of GDP growth, as well as productivity growth; ambitious new infrastructure projects; and the growth of a middle class with considerable consumptive capacity and potential political weight.
The problem, however, is that such narratives conflate the symptoms of new dynamics in late capitalist development in Africa with some form of new and distinct historical trajectory for the continent. As this issue demonstrates, we need to critically examine whether or not some of the recent upturns in economic fortunes on the continent constitute a definitive break from long-term relationships of dependency and the recurrent crises afflicting many of Africa’s states. In his article in this issue, ‘Dependency redux: why Africa is not rising’, Ian Taylor notes, for example, that ‘the dynamics which are accompanying a notional “rise” of Africa … are actually contributing to the continent being pushed further and further into underdevelopment and dependency.’ If anything, Taylor argues, Africa’s ‘rise’ has actually been underpinned by an intensification of African states’ dependency on primary resource exports. It has also, he argues, contributed to processes of deindustrialisation, rather than bringing about a definitive change in the global balance of industrial power. Furthermore, it should not be forgotten that China has played a major role in stimulating GDP growth in Africa through its sizeable investments into African infrastructure and also private investments across the continent. However, this might well prove to be a finite catalyst of economic growth: China has only just staved off a major economic crisis through short-term measures to restore trust in the economy; measures that do little to address the underlying issues that have seen continued Chinese growth propped up by a growing debt bubble.
Such dynamics point to the potential fragility of economic growth in Africa. However, in any case, Taylor is right to point out that measuring economic progress by privileging ‘growth for growth’s sake’ tells us little about broad-based development. Since, while there are reasons for optimism when looking at the African continent today, we should not privilege a narrow focus on GDP growth as a measure of success. One of the great challenges is to ‘address the social problems that the new economic growth spawns, such as inequality — problems that are too often neglected by the Africa Rising narrative’ (Mkandawire 2014, 177). Indeed, the harrowing media images of the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia were reminiscent of more stereotypical caricatures of Africa as a continent plagued by continual crisis and dependent upon Western benevolence for its salvation. They stand in stark contrast to the images of shopping malls, coffee shops and skyscrapers used to depict a continent ‘rising’. Ultimately, the Ebola epidemic reflected the social injustices reproduced by the recurrent crises of dependent gatekeeper states and continued historical patterns of underdevelopment (Anderson and Beresford 2016).
This issue also highlights the need to re-examine some of the older resource curse debates regarding Africa’s position in global relations of unequal exchange. Jon Phillips, Elena Hailwood and Andrew Brooks, in ‘Sovereignty, the “resource curse” and the limits of good governance: a political economy of oil in Ghana’, critique the limitations of the traditional resource curse arguments, as well as the good governance approach regularly espoused by donors. They argue that such approaches insufficiently grapple with the question of how power relationships shape and transform the nature of resource dependency. In their study of the oil sector in Ghana, they argue that state forces align their positions with those espousing neoliberal good governance, which at their root demand stringent adherence to ‘recognising the “economic realities” of resource extraction and comparative advantage, creating and maintaining private property regimes and stimulating foreign investment’. Although they argue that civil society in Ghana remains critical of the current agenda, the asymmetrical power relations that persist allow state elites and capital to marginalise voices calling for greater equity and social justice. This is an important point and resonates with the critique of the Africa rising narratives’ infatuation with elite accumulation as a measure of progress. As Ray Bush (2013, 51) notes: ‘Opportunities for sustainable growth and development lie not with greater integration with the world economy but with, among other things, local political and economic struggles in Africa for greater participation in local decision making and control of international capital.’ What we can see in Ghana’s case is that, while the oil sector is likely to stimulate the kind of GDP growth revered by those claiming to witness Africa rising, there are serious doubts that this will augment more broad-based development that will benefit those not already enjoying economic and political power.
The persistence of weak and collapsed states in Africa also offers little ground for universal optimism, especially given their capacity to generate regional instability and conflict for their relatively stable neighbours. As Pierre Englebert (2015) recently reflected at the African Studies Association, Mali only continues to exist in any meaningful sense because it has been propped up by external ‘life support’ from the French state. Similarly, Will Reno (2015) noted how Somalia shows no signs of improvement after spending 25 years bereft of any meaningful degree of empirical sovereignty. Nicole Stremlau, Emanuele Fantini and Ridwan Osman discuss the state of journalism in Somalia in their article ‘The political economy of the media in the Somali conflict’ in this issue, and argue that there is little hope that what passes for government in Somalia is likely to be held accountable to society. They argue that the political economy of the country continues to be dominated by informal activity and the prevalence of ‘warlord-businesspeople’. Journalism represents a relatively attractive career option in a context where few if any opportunities exist for formal employment in other sectors. However, even this form of precarious employment is persistently undermined by a constant brain drain of talent overseas and by intimidation from militant groups such as Al-Shabaab. Endemic corruption also renders the media incapable of holding politicians to account, especially given the trend of elite politicians buying the loyalty of individual journalists. In a wider African context where such everyday corruption constitutes an essential component of livelihoods strategies (Blundo and De Sardan 2006), this is not a surprising dynamic. Indeed, if such practices continue to remain a central feature of everyday political economy, they point to both the enduring nature of corruption in Africa (and the associated problems they pose to development), but also the manner in which many ordinary Africans are still fundamentally dependent upon informal, illicit strategies of survival in the absence of the sustained augmentation of alternative livelihood options.
Another state that encapsulates the uneven and paradoxical nature of Africa’s ‘rise’ is South Africa. Analyses of the country’s experiences of capitalist development should be mindful of its idiosyncrasies but not so as to reify these to the extent that convergences with broader trends of capitalist development elsewhere in the world are either obscured or left out from the analysis altogether. Most notably, South Africa has, for a long time, witnessed the importance of state patronage as a facilitator of what some refer to as ‘primitive’ capital accumulation. This requires what has been described in the context of East Asia as ‘political settlements’ between political and business elites. In this vein, Justin van der Merwe’s study in this volume, ‘A historical geographical analysis of South Africa’s system of accumulation: 1652–1994′, traces how a form of entrenched oligarchic rule was established by an English and Afrikaner elite who developed conglomerates in the fields of mining, finance and manufacturing. Such class power, however, was only achievable through the establishment of a ‘complex’ between capitalists and political elites in power.
As van der Merwe observes, when it became apparent that this relationship could not be sustained, large capital began to seek political accommodations with sections of the liberation movement – most notably the African National Congress (ANC) – as the only means of protecting their interests in the long term. Just as the capitalist classes of the apartheid era were heavily dependent on state patronage to advance their economic interests, so too are many sections of the burgeoning African capitalist classes after apartheid. But this is a relationship of mutual dependence: similar to the National Party before it, the ANC regenerates its political power through connections to business. As Roger Southall notes in this issue in ‘The coming crisis of Zuma’s ANC: the party state confronts fiscal crisis’, ‘the neoliberal development model that was pursued by the democratic government from 1996 constructed an alliance of “old” and “new” political elites that was enabled to prosper on the back of a global commodity boom, facilitating a period of reasonably rapid economic growth.’
Political and business elites are not alone, however, in benefiting from state patronage. Southall notes that the neoliberal ‘pact’ described above has generated economic growth, which has increased state revenues and allowed the ANC to extend mass patronage to the poor, most notably in the form of state transfers. Furthermore, in ‘Trade unions, the state and “casino capitalism” in South Africa’s clothing industry’, Nicoli Nattrass and Jeremy Seekings note in this issue how organised labour has in some cases profited from patrimonial links to the ANC state. This has generated contradictions and crisis for the labour movement. After all, one of the ‘great paradoxes’ confronting South Africa’s labour movement after the fall of apartheid, Sakhela Buhlungu (2010) argues, has been the manner in which labour’s apparent victory in helping to end apartheid has actually set in train dynamics that have undermined its organisational integrity. In recent years, the unions have been sucked into the patronage-fuelled factionalism of the ANC, which has contributed to ‘internecine factionalism’ within the labour movement and threatens to tear it apart (Beresford 2016). As the recently expelled Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi remarked, while ‘some of the divisions are caused by our different reading of the 20 years of this democratic breakthrough … Most of the divisions and strife in our organisations are caused by attempts by various factions to push each other away from the dinner table’ (Whittles 2014). This reflects the manner in which potential challengers to patrimonial political orders can be depoliticised and drawn into the narrow confines of party factionalism (Benit-Gbaffou 2011), a trend that has been long documented by labour historians (Freund 1988). The article by Nattrass and Seekings reinforces this political reading of the current status of union struggles in South Africa. Through a detailed study of the clothing workers’ union, they demonstrate how access to political power within the alliance not only served to help promote workers’ issues in political circles of power; it also enabled the union to gain substantial shareholdings, even within the clothing sector, facilitated through connections to government ministers and made possible under the auspices of Black Economic Empowerment deals. In so doing, they argue, this has led to a ‘blurring [of] the boundaries between labour and capital’ and has also ‘blurred the boundaries between labour and the state’. While this arrangement has benefited some privileged workers, Nattrass and Seekings highlight how this has often come at the expense of long-term job creation for more precarious sections of the working class. This would appear to support Seekings’ (2004) earlier work in this journal identifying what he calls a ‘class compromise’ between the more privileged sections of organised labour and those in informal employment relations (or, indeed, those without a job at all).
It is to this question of the reproduction of precarious labour in South Africa that Ben Scully turns to in his contribution to the issue, in ‘From the shop floor to the kitchen table: the shifting centre of precarious workers’ politics in South Africa’. He argues that the intensely vulnerable positions that workers find themselves in puts increased emphasis on the importance of pooling resources within workers’ extended households. A ‘politics of precarity’ emerges, Scully claims, because ‘workers’ material interests are focused on their household livelihood strategies rather than their workplace.’ This has profound implications because ‘for many of these individuals, their primary identity is not that of precarious worker’ and because ‘class interests and identities are not constructed on the shop floor but around the kitchen table.’ In a context where the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), formerly COSATU’s largest affiliate union, has been expelled from COSATU and has vowed to form a working-class party to challenge the ANC, this is of great importance. Its success, it would seem from Scully’s analysis, depends on NUMSA’s ability to engage in politics beyond the shop floor and to mobilise around the identities and issues of the ‘kitchen table’. Scully is not alone in this conclusion, and it has long been argued that COSATU should indeed embrace some broader form of ‘Social Movement Unionism’ reaching out beyond its core constituency of organised labour to other movements of the poor and unemployed (Webster and Buhlungu 2004). The articles in this issue therefore contribute to a critical debate at the centre of the labour movement’s current dilemmas. The unanswered questions of this issue – which indeed even those within the labour movement can probably not answer – are (a) whether enough remains of a crisis-ridden labour movement to galvanise a new political initiative; and (b) whether, indeed, such an initiative would be broadly welcomed within such a diverse demographic as organised labour in the first place. To put it bluntly, are the more privileged sections of the labour force willing to forgo the benefits they derive from the ‘class compromise’ made possible by the blurring of the state–union–capital relationship described by Nattrass and Seekings in favour of a more radical socialist politics?
On the other hand, does the ANC have the capacity to sustain the current patrimonial status quo? Factionalism within the party has not only engulfed the unions but has also led to what the party itself has identified as ‘perpetual infighting’ and ‘anarchy and decay’ within its ranks (ANC 2012). While a great deal of academic attention is devoted to analysing challenges to the ANC’s power emerging from civil society, social movements and militant trade unions, in reality, the greatest threat to ANC dominance in South African politics is the potential for it losing control over the volatile fallouts generated by internal factionalism. It is, after all, the volatility of such internal struggles that have been largely responsible for producing the greatest threats to the ANC to date (the Congress of the People – COPE, the Economic Freedom Fighters – EFF, and now NUMSA’s ‘United Front’). Adding to the ANC’s problems in this respect is the prospect of the ‘fiscal cliff’ facing the party. Southall argues that as economic growth has dried up in the face of changing commodity prices since 2008, this has produced an ANC government increasingly ‘starved of resources’. Under Zuma, Southall argues in this volume, the party has become predatory, in terms of its broader relationship with business and society, and that it is now employing increasingly desperate measures as a means to regenerate its power. The recent economic crisis in China has also raised concerns about the reliance of South Africa upon China’s continued economic success and political goodwill. Such developments draw our attention once more to the continued vulnerability of African economies where they become dependent on primary exports. Even South Africa, for all its ‘exceptional’ economic conditions vis-à-vis the rest of Africa, remains intensely vulnerable.
There may be some distinctive signs of progress towards capitalist development in Africa. However, rather than ascribing these a universally positive character or, indeed, identifying them as a unique break from historical patterns of underdevelopment, it is vital to explore the divergent nature of capitalist development in Africa. This requires a rejection of some of the core assumptions of recent efforts to reinvigorate modernisation theory. But neither should it lead to simply and uncritically rehashing the dependency theories of the middle 20th century. It perhaps requires what Yves Ekoue Amaizo (2012, 117) has called for: ‘new theories and pragmatic solutions that derive from autonomous Africa-centred positions … an alternative African developmentalism’. While many of the old patterns of dependency remain, it is critical that we continue to analyse changing patterns of accumulation and the complex and constantly renegotiated political settlements that underpin them, including the forms of protest and resistance which they can generate. Such dynamics of late capitalism not only reproduce social injustice but also generate massive contradictions for elements of civil society who might otherwise play a central role in shaping alternative paths of development. The central question therefore remains that if Africa is indeed ‘rising’, who benefits?
1. I should acknowledge that this is a teaching trick I learned from my former tutor, Sara Rich Dorman, at the University of Edinburgh.