Cultivating African Anti-Capitalism
it comes to anti-capitalist resistance, the most economically marginalized
sites are among the most interesting. Not because the greatest number
of militant activists are out in force—but because the trials
and tribulations they overcome along the way, and the consciousness
they express, teach us vital lessons about uneven capitalist development.
the African continent, where from Accra and Dakar in the West to
Lilongwe, Lusaka, Harare, Mbabane and Johannesburg in the South,
growing movements closely parallel the most sophisticated international
protesters. Their targets are the same—the World Bank, IMF,
WTO, particularly venal corporations and other purveyors of commodification
and exploitation—but because of conflicting legacies of African
nationalism, the going is slower and more careful.
were, after all, also sites of intense, bloody resistance to previous
epochs of globalization. The British, French, Belgian, Portuguese,
German, Spanish, Italian, and Afrikaner states, which ran diverse
colonies here during most of the 20th century—independence
was mainly won during the 1960s—were among the most brutal
in human history. In earlier centuries, they accounted for tens
of millions of slaves; in Southern Africa alone at least two million
civilian deaths during the last third of the century can be traced
to destabilization by the apartheid regime and allied forces, including
the aftermath of formal independence, Cold War politics and patronage
battles broke out in and around many African states, between clients
of the United States and Soviet Union, with Cuba and China playing
mixed roles. Under the circumstances, Africa became a melting pot
of war and organized criminality—hence, an excellent platform
for short-term capital accumulation by extraction-oriented multinational
came in waves. The anti-colonial tribal- based uprisings of the
19th century were suppressed by the Europeans’ brutal military
superiority, ultimately requiring automatic weaponry. Twentieth
century settler-capitalism could only take hold through coercive
mechanisms that dragged Africans out of traditional modes of production
into the mines, fields, and factories. Rural women had the added
burden of subsidizing capitalism with an infrastructure that reproduced
cheap labor, since schools, medical insurance, and pensions for
urban families were largely nonexistent.
superexploitation, Africa’s rich, interrelated radical traditions
grew and intermingled. They included vibrant nationalist liberation
insurgencies, once-avowed Marxist-Leninist political parties, mass
movements (sometimes peasant-based, sometimes emerging from degraded
urban ghettoes), and powerful unions. Religious protesters, women’s
groups, students, and youths also played catalytic roles that changed
history in given locales. These were some of the most important
anti-capitalist campaigns ever.
example, the 1885 meeting in Berlin that carved up Africa between
the main colonial powers reflected pressures directly related to
the 1870s-1990s capitalist crises, particularly in the London and
Paris financial centers. The stock markets reacted as badly to news
of, for example, Ndebele raids on Cecil John Rhodes’s mine
surveyors in Zimbabwe, as modern brokers did to the Zapatista uprising
and failure of WTO negotiations in Seattle a century later.
what kinds of globalized resistance can be retraced? Anti-slavery
was one of the most important international solidarity movements
ever. Later, an attempt was made by Marcus Garvey to relocate African
Americans to Liberia. African nationalist movements exiled in London
and Paris established even greater Pan-African visions, as well
as solidarity relations with Northern critics of colonialism, apartheid,
combined anti-colonial/imperialist phase, from the 1960s through
the liberation of South Africa in 1994, gave leftists and anti-racists
(from militants like Malcolm X and Stokely Carcmichael to church-basement
activists) inspiration—although as Che Guevarra found out during
a hellish year (1965) organizing and occasionally fighting in what
was then Mobutu’s Zaire, not all peasant societies proved ripe
for the struggle.
of that era’s leading African revolutionary writers and thinkers—Ake,
Amin, Biko, Cabral, Fanon, First, Lumumba, Machel, Nabudere, Nkrumah,
Nyer- ere, Odinga, Onimode, Rodney, Sankara, Shivji—still grace
political reading lists and book clubs, ranging from the world’s
great universities to political clubs deep in African shantytowns.
predicted, especially by Frantz Fanon, terrible disappointments
accompanied virtually all the transitions from colonialism to neocolonialism
in Africa. This is crucial to point out at a time when blame-the-victim
analysis of what the
magazine has termed “the
hopeless continent” is rampant. Africa’s worst socio-
economic problems are better considered as deep-rooted manifestations
of a peripheral capitalism manipulated at will by imperialist powers,
accompanied by the rise of complicit local ruling elites. Three
sets of closely-related problems can be identified, associated with
what Fanon described as “false decolonization.”
colonialism’s artificial borders, racism and ideological control,
ethnic divide-and-rule strategies, land acquisition, labor control,
suppression of competition from indigenous sources, military conflict
(independence struggles), and replacement by African nationalism
together guaranteed a future of distorted economics and failed states.
Second, for women, pre-colonial patrilineal systems evolved into
colonial forms of inequality (e.g., minority status and legal guardianship),
which often persisted and evolved as post-colonial forms of structured
oppression (e.g., market-related brideprice). Third, political continuities
from past to present include unreformed state structures, international
political and cultural relations with colonial powers, and especially
class alliances involving
(local sell-outs working
in league with international oppressors).
economic structure of Africa’s neocolonial societies was relatively
homogenous, suffering from international commodity price fluctuations,
an overdose of foreign debt and “dependency.” That structure
resulted in uneven formal working-class organization across the
continent, resulting periodically in strikes in especially the mining
and railway industries.
the forces of law and order were invariably stronger and treacherous.
Racism often flared worst just prior to independence, as settlers
held on to privileges with sophisticated state repressive capacity,
much of which carried over after majority rule was won. So the post-colonial
state was quickly harnessed for neocolonial duty. This allowed,
in turn, Africa to continue expanding exports notwithstanding terribly
unfair terms of trade (the difference between prices paid for exports
in relation to prices paid for imports).
peak of demand for Africa’s raw materials, before synthetic
substitutes were invented, was during World War II. From the mid-1970s,
terms of trade worsened dramatically, in part because of export-oriented
policies, which most African countries were compelled to adopt once
they experienced debt crisis.
prices of primary commodities (other than fuels) have risen and
fallen according to a deeper rhythm. Exporters of primary commodities,
for example, have fared particularly badly when financiers have
been most powerful. The cycle began with falling commodity prices
(1973), rising foreign debt (1970s), dramatic increases in interest
rates (1979), a desperate intensification of exports, which lowered
prices yet further (1980s), and in some cases outright bankruptcy.
process impoverished nearly the entire non-industrialized Third
World, with occasional, erratic exceptions in oil-producing regions.
For Africa, the trend to declining terms of trade was especially
devastating because of the continent’s extraordinary dependence
on a few export commodities. Export-led growth strategies, pursued
since the 1970s by virtually all Third World countries, meant that
Africa’s market share also shrunk drastically.
willing bankers promoted corruption and capital flight—in the
DRC, for example, Mobutu sese Seko was thought to be illegitimately
worth U.S.$5 billion by the time of his 1996 overthrow. The cost
of imported oil rose dramatically in 1973 and 1979 and markets for
raw materials stagnated and declined, requiring a short-term substitute
for foreign-currency revenues in the form of loans.
the first part of the 1980s, the World Bank and IMF took over as
creditors to ensure that African countries repaid Northern commercial
bank loans in exchange for power over virtually all aspects of public
policy in African countries. This resulted, uniformly, in austere
macroeconomic policies that emphasized liberalization, export orientation,
and an end to social subsidies.
incoming funds continued to decline and by 1984 net financial resource
transfers to the Third World were negative for the first time, as
countries spent more on interest payments than they gained in new
loans. By the end of the decade, the net South-North transfer had
reached $50 billion a year, which reflected the success of financiers
in shifting the repayment burden to not only Northern taxpayers
but also to Third World citizens.
countries found that by 2000 they still had more than $2 trillion
in foreign debt to repay (up from $1.3 trillion during the early
1980s when the debt crisis broke out and $1.4 trillion in 1990).
Each year during the late 1990s, African countries paid $162 billion
more than they received in new loans, up from $60 billion in 1990.
There was little hope of balancing accounts by attracting inflows
of foreign direct investment.
crucial issue was the militarization of the continent associated,
initially, with colonial resistance to change and then to neocolonial
power plays that inexorably resulted from partial transitions. Thanks
in part to Cold War machinations and lubrication provided by arms
dealers, many African countries witnessed extraordinary social,
civil, and regional conflicts ranging from genocide to attempted
coups. In sum, debt, trade, investment, wars, and more recent scourges
like HIV/AIDS—exacerbated by the refusal of pharmaceutical
corporations to sell medicines at affordable prices—all compel
Africans to fight for peace and justice locally, by invoking continental
and international anti-capitalist themes.
can be gleaned from specific social struggles associated with local
campaigns by popular organizations. Many such campaigns centrally
involve labor. An occasional catalyst for regime change during the
colonial era was the mass strike. During the 1980s-90s, these intensified.
Organized workers and the urban poor invoked the “stayaway”
periodically against undemocratic regimes, as well as IMF riots
against the lifting of subsidies on vital inputs like staple foodstuffs
and transport. During the early 1990s, these strikes and riots resulted
in dozens of overthrows of governments, but without ideology and
solid organization of oppressed people, the parties that replaced
the ruling elite kept the systems of oppression intact.
as interesting are specific struggles against local injustices.
For example, in mid-2000, when the U.S. EximBank offered $1 billion
in loans for African countries to import anti-retroviral drugs to
combat HIV/AIDS, Africans involved in grassroots advocacy (especially
South Africa’s Treatment Action Campaign) recommended that
their nation-states reject the advice and instead import parallel,
generic drugs at as little as 5 percent of the U.S. corporate price
from countries like Thailand, India, and Brazil.
fight against Big Pharma was one of the most important in recent
anti-capitalist history, for it forced the South African government
and World Health Organization to reluctantly confront the power
of patent protections in the World Trade Organization. That fight
did not end because Pretoria’s rulers appear ambivalent about
keeping five million mainly unemployed poor people alive (their
stance is regularly labeled genocide by serious observers).
allies like AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) and Medicins
sans Frontiers assist Africa’s courageous campaigners to the
point that South Africa’s undertaker-in-chief, the mercurial
president Thabo Mbeki, reportedly claimed in desperation in late
2000 that the Treatment Action Campaign was part of a CIA plot.
emblematic struggle is the grassroots campaign by Jubilee debt activists
for the return of Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha’s billions
in looted funds, hoarded in Swiss and London banks. Early success
has helped to break open Swiss secrecy (following similar campaigns
over 15 years waged by citizens’ groups and governments in
the Philippines and Haiti in relation to the Duvallier and Marcos
British government was particularly embarrassed by its regulators’
nodding and winking at the largest London banks, which laundered
Abacha’s—and no doubt many other tyrants’—dirty
money without qualms. This followed well-publicized Nigerian activist
attacks on oil companies, which in Ogoniland and other parts of
the Delta continue to trash the environment and people. Ken Saro
Wiwa’s Mossop movement had a subsequent boost, after Abacha’s
1995 execution of the fearless writer, when in mid-2002 Nigerian
women conducted sit-ins at the local oil complex offices of multinationals
just prior to the World Summit on Sustainable Development.
addition, progressive local African groups and international allies
have critiqued specific World Bank projects, including the Chad-Cameroon
oil pipeline, the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, which supplies
Johannesburg with water, and the Bujagali Dam at the headwaters
of the Nile in Uganda. Other growing campaigns that link African
and international civil society organizations include the environmental
debt that the industrial North owes the South and the campaign to
ban “conflict-diamond” trade that has contributed to civil
war in Sierre Leone, the DRC, and Angola.
addition to various oil-related solidarity campaigns, particular
environmental justice struggles have linked South Africans with
counterparts elsewhere over dumping of toxics (e.g., mercury), compensation
for asbestos, anti-incinerator campaigns, and air pollution. Corporate
accountability is the overall demand, but a much more radical politics
lies behind the international solidarity networks. Likewise, movements
against privatization of basic services—mainly water and electricity—began
in Accra and Johannesburg in 2000 and have attracted great international
support. Their influence is spawning similar campaigns across Southern
and West Africa. The Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee’s
Operation Khanyisa (Switch On) illegally reconnects people whose
supplies were cut because of poverty and rising prices associated
with services commercialization. Similar community-based protests
in Durban and Cape Town against disconnections, evictions, and landlessness
have won international recognition.
networks that build these campaigns are evolving continually. The
Lusaka Declaration was signed in May 1999 by the leading African
social movement and church organizations working on debt. Dozens
of Lusaka meeting participants launched a process for drafting a
mass-popular African People’s Consensus to transcend the development
orthodoxy of the Washington Consensus and the slightly reformed
Post-Washington Consensus, and to do so by building upon similar
regional meetings in Accra, Lome, and Gauteng in 1998-1999.
African People’s Consensus went to West Africa in December
2000, via the Dakar 2000 Coordinating Committee. This initiative
took on momentum in a Yaounde conference in January 2000. The Dakar
summit was supported by groups like the Association des Femmes Africaines
pour la Recherche et le Developpement, as well as numerous West
and Central African social movements and NGOs. Dakar 2000 is networked
across the Third World through the International South Group Network’s
well-respected Harare branch and internationally through the Paris-based
Association pour la Taxation des Transactions financieres pour l’Aide
aux Cityens (Attac), and the Comittee pour l’Annulation de
la Dette du Tiers Monde in Brussels.
Accra-based Africa Trade and Development Network was similarly active
in opposing the United States free-trade legislation known as the
Africa Growth and Opportunity Act. Its member organizations pledged
in October 2000 to lobby their governments to refuse entry into
the deal, which provides a slight amount of market access to those
countries that Washington (this time, the U.S. State and Commerce
Departments) deems economically responsible.
follows similar work by the network to promote Africa-Caribbean-Pacific
unity in relation to Lome and European Union trade negotiations
more generally and early critiques of the Poverty Reduction Strategy
Paper initiative of the IMF and Bank. The Trade and Development
Network secretariat NGO, Isodec, is also affiliated to the Penang-based
Third World Network and has consistently been the most powerful
African critic of the WTO.
with the Harare NGO Seatini (Southern and Eastern African Trade
Information Initiative), these were the major African players behind
the collapse of the proposed WTO Seattle Round, working both in
the streets and inside the official African delegation. South Africa
attempted to cut a side deal in the Green Room deliberations of
key countries, but Pretoria was eventually shamed into accepting
the Organization of African Unity resolution that prevented insider-consensus
on establishing a Seattle Round.
an example of a superb network in a subregion of Africa is the Southern
African Peoples Solidarity Network. Key participants include leftist
think tanks, NGOs devoted to social movements, radicals from the
faith community, especially in the Jubilee debt cancellation movement,
trade unions, and the Gender and Trade Network.
January 2002, dozens of African social movements met in Bamako,
Mali as the African Social Forum, in preparation for the Porto Alegre
World Social Forum. It was one of the first substantial conferences,
since the era of liberation, to combine progressive NGOs and social
movements from all parts of the continent and was followed by African
Social Forum sessions in Johannesburg (August 2002) and Addis Ababa
(January 2003). African groups began networking more actively in
2002 when the neoliberal New Partnership for Africa’s Development
(Nepad) was introduced by Mbeki and a handful of other African leaders.
main point to make here, is not that these and other progressive
African movement networks (e.g., labor-related, health equity specialists,
numerous types of environmentalists, and so on) are advancing strong,
mature, ideological statements about the debt, trade, and related
economic oppression they face. What is perhaps of greater interest
is that instead of working merely through NGO-type circuits, they
are increasingly tying their work to militant street action, as
was evident at the Durban World Conference Against Racism in August
2001 and the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development
a year later. Both cases involved militant anti-capitalist and anti-Pretoria
other situations, however, instead of synthesizing with mass protest,
some local activities undertaken by grassroots groups too easily
fall into the trap of neoliberal economic policies. This was a logical
corollary to the global rise of civil society discourses, and was
not unique to Africa by any means.
rise of Community-Based Organizations (CBOs) and associated development
NGOs closely corresponds with the desire of the international agencies
to shrink Third World states as part of the overall effort to lower
the social wage. The result is an ongoing conflict between technicist,
apolitical development interventions, on the one hand, and the people-centered
strategies (and militant tactics) of mass-oriented social movements
of the oppressed, on the other.
this reason, there was a more rapid initial acceptance of NGOs and
CBOs within the broad configuration of forces that reproduce, however
weakly, African capitalism. Donors and reformist international NGOs
could justify more resource flows and international con- ferencing;
African ruling elites could appear more tolerant; neoliberal agencies
could get on with the job of shrinking African states, now supported
by the mopping up role of NGOs, which more “efficiently”
rolled out the tattered safety net; and the NGO petit-bourgeoisie
garnered hard-currency salaries, 4×4 vehicles, and a certain degree
of local prestige. These elements gave paternalistic African rulers
greater breathing space and when NGOs became an occasional nuisance,
repressive legislation and registration processes usually did the
by 2000, African civil society outside the networks mentioned above
had mainly been civilized, tamed, and channeled. In this context,
geopolitical maneuvers were solely between African capitals, Paris,
Washington, and London, although another new player, Pretoria, would
have to be accounted for.
Africa’s subimperialist Nepad agenda consists of a few key
components, which progressive organizations in Africa have repeatedly
expressed skepticism about:
especially of infrastructure such as water, electricity, telecoms,
and transport, will fail because of insufficient buying power
of African consumers
of Africa into the world economy will simply worsen fast-declining
terms of trade, given that African countries produce so many cash
crops and minerals whose global markets are glutted
are held, typically, between variants of neoliberal parties, as
in most countries, and cannot act as a veil for the lack of participatory
democracy required to give legitimacy to so many failing African
of information and communications technology are hopelessly unrealistic
considering the lack of simple reliable electricity across the
Africa’s self-mandate for peacekeeping gives no peace of mind,
in the wake of Pretoria’s ongoing purchase of U.S.$5 billion
worth of offensive weaponry and its unhappy record of regional military
in areas of economic reform, such as debt, financial flows, and
foreign investment, Nepad offers only the status quo. Instead of
promoting debt cancellation, as do virtually all serious reformers,
the Nepad strategy is to “support existing poverty reduction
initiatives at the multilateral level, such as the Comprehensive
Development Framework of the World Bank and the Poverty Reduction
Strategy approach linked to the Highly Indebted Poor Country debt
relief initiative.” Only after trying these discredited strategies,
replete with neoliberal conditions such as further privatization,
would African leaders seek recourse through Nepad.
Malawi’s 2002 famine occurred because the country’s grain
stocks were sold following IMF advice to first repay commercial
bankers, a telling indicator of power relations—although one
which has raised consciousness and helped mobilize grassroots protests
through the Malawi Economic Justice Network. In Zambia, the Bank
and IMF continue to insist that the Poverty Reduction Strategy Program
must include the privatization of the only bank that offers black
Zambians reasonable service, a mistake that has provided leftist
critics of neoliberalism a fresh organizing handle on a silver platter.
solution to the foreign investment drought is consistent with international
rhetoric about Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) in privatized
infrastructure: “Establish and nurture PPPs as well as grant
concessions towards the construction, development and maintenance
of ports, roads, railways and maritime transportation…. With the
assistance of sector-specialized agencies, put in place policy and
legislative frameworks to encourage competition.”
most infrastructure is of a “natural monopoly” type, for
which competition is unsuitable: roads and railroads, telephone
landlines, water and sewage reticulation systems, electricity transmission
and distribution, ports, and the like. Nepad cannot make a case
for competition in these areas. There is, in contrast, an extremely
strong case, based on public-good features of infrastructure discussed
in previous chapters, for state control and non-profit operation.
Most noticeably, privatization of infrastructure usually prevents
cross-subsidization to enhance affordability for poor consumers.
all these respects, Nepad’s core arguments reflect residual
neoliberalism. Just as disturbing, the potentials for democracy,
good governance, and genuine participation by civil society through
Nepad appear slim, particularly after an attempt by Mbeki to toss
out political criteria from a voluntary (hence already suspect)
peer review mechanism.
succinct critique of Nepad was issued by an Accra meeting of the
Council for Development and Social Science Research in Africa (the
continent’s main academic body) and Third World Network-Africa
last April. To list just three of the meeting’s conclusions,
most fundamental flaws of Nepad, which reproduce the central elements
of the World Bank’s
Can Africa Claim the Twenty-first Century?
and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa’s
for African Recovery
economic policy framework at the heart of the plan repeats the
structural adjustment policy packages of the preceding two decades
and overlooks the disastrous effects of those policies
The fact that
in spite of its proclaimed recognition of the central role of
the African people to the plan, the African people have not played
any part in the conception, design, and formulation of the Nepad
its stated concerns for social and gender equity, it adopts the
social and economic measures that have contributed to the marginal-
ization of women
result of such critiques has been to revitalize the search for an
African People’s Consensus as an alternative program to Nepad.
To that end, the anti-capitalist movement in Africa is both old
and new, with the wisdom of patience borne of fighting colonial
and imperial powers for 3 centuries, winning only token control
of states—and conversely, a freshness based on new conditions
for intracontinental unity. As a result, the movement is both militant
and careful because false steps and excessive aggression are severely
punished by more brutal dictators and state security apparatuses
than exist elsewhere.
are some of the grounds for expressing solidarity with a movement
that has great momentum going into the World Social Forum and whose
anti-capitalist cadres are as determined as those to be found anywhere.
recent books include
Against Global Apartheid, Unsustainable
He teaches at the University of the
Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.