Embryonic African anti-capitalism

Introduction: Africa’s structural burdens

When it comes to anti-capitalist resistance, the most economically-marginalized sites are amongst 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.

Consider the African continent, where from Accra and Dakar in the West to Harare and Johannesburg in the South, growing movements closely parallel the international anti-capitalist 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.

These were, after all, also sites of intense, bloody resistance to previous epochs of globalization. The British, French, Belgian and Portuguese (and to a lesser extent German, Spanish, Italian, and Afrikaner) states which ran diverse colonies here during most of the twentieth century were amongst the most brutal in human history. At one historical bookend of colonial repression, they accounted for tens of millions of slaves; at the other, leading up to 1994, at least two million civilian deaths in Southern Africa alone can be traced to destabilization by the apartheid regime and allied forces, including the US.

Simultaneous with formal independence from weakened European powers mainly during the 1960s, two debilitating processes–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: i.e., an excellent platform for short-term capital accumulation by extraction-oriented multinational corporations.

Resistance came in waves. The anti-colonial tribal-based uprisings of the 19th century were only 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. On the other side of the struggle, 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.

In the sense that the imperialist stage of capitalism was a logical outcome of pressures building up in the early 20th century world system–as insisted by socialists like Lenin and Luxemburg, and conceded by liberals like Hobson–these were some of the most important anti-capitalist campaigns ever. For example, the 1885 meeting in Berlin that carved up Africa between the main colonial powers reflected pressures directly related to the 1870s-90s 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’ mine surveyors in Zimbabwe, as modern brokers did to the Zapatista uprising and failure of the Seattle WTO negotiations a century later.

But what kinds of globalized resistance can be retraced? Anti-slavery was amongst 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-Africanist visions, as well as solidarity relations with Northern critics of colonialism, apartheid and racism. The combined anti-colonial/imperialist phase, i.e., from the 1960s through the liberation of South Africa in 1994, gave leftists and anti-racists (from militants like Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael to church-basement activists) inspiration–although as Che Guevara 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. Names of that era’s leading African (and African-diaspora) revolutionary writers and thinkers–Ake, Amin, Biko, Campbell, Cabral, Fanon, First, Lumumba, Machel, Mafeje, Magubane, Mamdani, Nabudere, Nkrumah, Nyerere, Odinga, Onimode, Rodney, Sankara, Shivji, Soyinka–still grace political reading lists from the world’s great universities to political clubs deep in African shantytowns.

As predicted especially by Frantz Fanon, terrible disappointments then accompanied virtually all the transitions from colonialism to neo-colonialism in Africa. This is crucial to point out at a time when blame-the-victim analysis of what the Economist 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;


• 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), in part because colonialism’s migrant labor systems required ultra-inexpensive workers who women would subsidize through child-rearing, home-based medical care and retirement (in lieu of the standard set of business-financed schools, medical plans and pensions offered to workers elsewhere); and


• political continuities from past to present include unreformed state structures, international political and cultural relations with colonial powers, and especially class alliances involving compradorism (local sell-outs working in league with international oppressors).


The economic structure of Africa’s neo-colonial societies was relatively homogenous. Although as settler-colonial societies, South Africa and Zimbabwe did develop quite extensive manufacturing capacities, several economic features apply equally to other countries across the continent:


• extractive industries, primary product export orientation, international commodity price fluctuations and ‘dependency’;


• lack of internal linkages between production and consumption, and between urban and rural areas;