Cultivating African Anti-Capitalism

by Patrick Bond

Z magazine, February 2003


When 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.

Consider 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.

Capitalism's Legacy

These 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 U.S.

In 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 meltingpot of war and organized criminality-hence, 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 l9th 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.

Against 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.

For example, the 1885 meeting in Berlin that carved up Africa between the main colonial powers reflected pressures directly related to the 1870s-199Os 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.

But 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, and racism.

The 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.

Names of that era's leading African revolutionary writers and thinkers-Ake, Amin, Biko, Cabral, Fanon, First, Lumumba, Machel, Nabudere, Nkrumah, Nyerere, 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.

As 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 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. "

First, 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 compradorism (local sell-outs working in league with international oppressors).

The 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.

But 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).

The 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.

The 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.

This 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.

Meanwhile, 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.

During 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.

But 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.

Developing 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.

Another 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.

Anti-Capitalism Today

Much 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.

Just 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.

The 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).

International 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.

Another 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 hoards).

The 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.

In 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.

In 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.

African 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.

The 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.

The 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.

This 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.

Along 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.

Finally, 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.

In 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.

The 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 activism.

In 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.

The 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.

For 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 conferencing; 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, 4x4 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 trick.

Thus 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 South Africa's subimperialist Nepad agenda consists of a few key components, which progressive organizations in Africa have repeatedly expressed skepticism about:

* Privatization, especially of infrastructure such as water, electricity, telecoms, and transport, will fail because of insufficient buying power of African consumers

* More insertion 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

Multi-party elections 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 states

* Grand visions of information and communications technology are hopelessly unrealistic considering the lack of simple reliable electricity across the continent

South 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 interventions.

Likewise 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.

Yet 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.

Nepad's 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. "

However, 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.

In 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.

A 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,

The 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 Compact for AfricanRecovery, include:

* The neoliberal 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

* Notwithstanding its stated concerns for social and gender equity, it adopts the social and economic measures that have contributed to the marginalization of women

The 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.

These 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. Africa Watch


Patrick Bond's recent books include Against Global Apartheid, Unsustainable South Africa, and Fanon's Warning. He teaches at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

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