Contents - Previous - Next
This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at http://unu.edu
The African predicament, only yesterday unknown to all, is now front page news. The encroaching desert, persistent drought, the distress of the people of the Sahel, or, more recently, the deadly explosion of violence in the black ghettos of South Africa have become familiar images. Increasingly, the subject of the ecological catastrophes threatening the African continent and the serious danger of national and social disintegration it faces figures on the agenda of international conferences, expert discussions and government committees. But very little has been said or written about what has given rise to these dangers. Colonization is now seen as a distant memory with very little bearing on the current situation, so it is the Africans themselves who are held responsible for what is happening to them.
Paradoxically, the increased sensitivity of public opinion, especially European public opinion, to African problems has not led to any serious enquiry into the distant or immediate causes of the present situation. The ignorance of the general public is compounded by the increasing lack of interest evinced by Western intellectuals for the problems of the Third World, and of Africa in particular. On the ground, Western NGO's have never been so active in the struggle against famine and in campaigns for better public health provision, for literacy, for the improvement of living conditions, for the transfer of technology in order to combat erosion, develop irrigation and improve the yield of traditional agriculture. Aid and solidarity work by individuals and groups is flourishing as never before. Yet despite the undeniable usefulness of these activities, they soon run into an impassable obstacle, because they cannot transform the framework within which they operate. The impatience of some and the disillusionment of others then leads them to the conclusion that local conditions are to blame for everything that goes wrong. Now this is exactly the theme put forward by the conservative ideological offensive of the last few years, which seeks to leave out the role of external factors from the explanation of Africa's social, economic and political problems, and emphasizes only factors internal to the continent.
An excellent example of this ideological offensive is the recent World Bank report on Africa's economic development, in which the current crisis of the African economies is explained essentially in terms of the policies of the African states. The report recognizes the existence of external factors, but these are said to play only a secondary role compared to government policies on prices, taxation, foreign trade, exchange rates, investment and economic organization. In any case, the external factors in question refer chiefly to the economic crisis in the West and in Japan, which reduces the demand for raw materials and the inflow of foreign capital, and to the increase in oil prices which weighs so heavily on the balance of payments of the non-oil exporting African states. The organization and functioning of the world capitalist economic system, and the specific role occupied therein by Africa are totally ignored by the World Bank report. As for the policies of the African states, they are criticized mainly for their attempts, however timid, to develop domestic industry by means of a public sector intervention in production rather than just in finance, supply and distribution. It is thus hardly surprising that the Bank's answer to the crisis in Africa is to develop agriculture, but with a view to export, to abandon protection of domestic industry, to dismantle the public sector and make greater efforts to attract foreign capital. In short, the Bank recommends policies the effect of which would be to aggravate the specialization in raw materials and foreign control over the economy which are amongst the major factors causing the African crisis!
The ideological offensive is not restricted to the economic sphere, far from it. The media, the press, literature, the cinema, political debate, everything in the West contributes to a very negative image of Africa, an image which bears a striking resemblance to the dusty old colonial cliches. Africa appears as a damned continent, marked by a congenital incapacity to assume responsibility for itself, afflicted by all sorts of calamities ranging from famine to AIDS, prey to an incredible violence, and whose leaders' corruption and mismanagement is equalled only by their contempt for the most basic civil rights. In the unflattering portrait drawn by the master of his slave, by the settler of his 'native' or by the employer of his worker, there is, alas, always a grain of truth. The dishonesty of the masters consists precisely in focusing narrowly on the negative characteristics of those they dominate, thereby blurring into the background the objective situation which explains those characteristics and for which the dominators are themselves primarily responsible.
The recent attacks on 'Third-Worldism', especially in certain intellectual circles in France, have found a wide audience precisely because some of the arguments used refer to known African realities, notably poverty, bureaucracy, waste, corruption, repression and dictatorship. The manipulation begins when these realities are cut away from the context which gave them birth, and is even worse when they are surreptitiously presented as the price to be paid for the emancipation of the continent. The implication is then that if things are getting worse and worse in Africa, it is because the whites have left!
The colonialist ideology of the 'white man's burden', revitalized in modern guise, is deployed openly in the case of South Africa. The black people of South Africa are presented as a heterogeneous collection of tribes incapable of getting on with each other, and their liberation struggle is cast as a series of violent episodes under remote control from abroad, totally irrational for the indigenous populations, who enjoy living standards and even a degree of civil liberties so much higher than those of their brothers in the neighbouring independent countries.
In fact, the impoverished peasants and unemployed workers of Africa have no need to be reminded of deficiencies they know only too well, as indicated in the possibly apocryphal story of the peasant asking the visiting official 'how soon will independence be over'. What the peasant does not know, even if he may feel it in some vague way, is that which the new conservative 'neo-liberal' ideology seeks to keep hidden, namely that 'the whites' did not really depart when political independence was won. The difficult situation with which the continent is now grappling does undeniably result in part from natural causes such as the persistent drought of the last few years, even though the tendency to desertification is closely linked to forms of land and woodfuel use. And it is also quite true that it has been brought about by the policies implemented by the local governments over the last twenty years. But the main criticism which one can aim at those policies is that they have not broken away from the colonial model of the economy and society. In most African countries, the newly independent states simply carried on where the colonial administration left off. The structures of production remained unchanged, as did the degree of agricultural and mining specialization, the extent of majority share foreign capital control, the continuing exploitation of the peasantry and the fact that urban minorities enjoyed privileged access to services, including health and education. The transition to independence left most of the structures of the colonial state intact, notably its administrative and coercive apparatus. The independent African state is thus no more than an avatar of the colonial state, in which the settlers and their administrators have been replaced by local bureaucrats who turn their back on their own people and seek honours, protection and stipends from the colonizers of yesterday.
The fundamental cause of the problems facing the African peoples today is the maintenance, in many parts of the continent, of the most 'classical' and blatant forms of dependency on the world economic system. The main merit of this book is that it shows that imperialism is more than ever the primary reality in Africa's economic and political life, and that the real emancipation of the continent is still at the top of the agenda. Far from having disappeared with the formal independence of the 60's, imperialism continues to weigh heavily upon the social and economic evolution of many African countries. It is constantly seeking new methods, rationalizing its procedures and adapting to the general evolution so as to maximize the control it exercises over the wealth of the continent and the profits it gains from their exploitation.
Another merit of this work is to show that Western imperialism in Africa is still largely motivated by the control and exploitation of the countries' mineral resources. Africa's role in meeting the developed world's demand for basic metals is clearly delineated, as is the continent's increasing specialization in the supply of minerals to Europe and Japan. Here again we have a fact that is too often glossed over, even if the growing resistance to apartheid has focused more attention on South Africa's mineral resources and their strategic importance for the West. What is true of South Africa is also true of the continent as a whole, especially concerning Africa's major role in the supply to the West of relatively rare metals such as chrome, cobalt and manganese, not to mention uranium! Most Western military interventions in Africa in the present era have been determined by the desire to retain or obtain control of mineral or energy resources, as in Katanga, in Nigeria during the war with Biafra, in Gabon, in Shaba, or in Angola. And who would deny that the major Western states' current policy of support for South Africa's occupation of Namibia and destabilization of Angola and Mozambique is based largely on the will to keep these mineral-rich countries firmly in the Western camp?
Because its position within the world economic system is structurally very weak, Africa suffers more than the other regions of the Third World from the new aggression displayed by imperialism during the current phase, just as it suffers more from the world economic crisis. This work is especially instructive on the subject. It shows that in the recent history of the mineral-rich countries of the continent, there have been far more failures than successes, especially concerning the control of deposits, the revenue derived from their exploitation or the issue of local processing.
Unlike what has occurred in the mining countries of South America or Asia, or in the OPEC countries, in Africa the nationalization of mineral deposits is purely formal and local processing is minimally developed. Mining revenues are low and no African country has succeeded or even seriously attempted to increase them by an appropriate policy. Above all, there is no co-ordination between the producing countries, which reduces to zero any chance of forestalling the control exercised by the Japanese and Western states and capital. The latter, on the contrary, take great care to coordinate their interventions, sector by sector and country by country. All this explains why Africa's role in meeting the capitalist world's demand for minerals and metals is increasing, sometimes at the expense of other Third World nations. The African continent is the preferred terrain for imperialism's counter-offensive against Third World emancipation.
It is clear that this imperialism relies in most cases on the collaboration of the local ruling strata, which is why profound political and social changes within the mining countries themselves are required before the African people can gain control of their mineral resources. The elimination from the social scene of social classes linked to foreign exploitation, and the rise to power of broadly based popular alliances are indispensable to the formulation and especially to the implementation of a programme of economic liberation. But once these conditions have been met, the room for manoeuvre available to an isolated country, even a major producer, in its effort to impose a real nationalization or an increase in its mining revenues, will remain very restricted, especially in the context of the world crisis.
Possibilities for co-operation do exist, however, with other Third World countries, in Africa and elsewhere, or with the socialist states of Europe and Asia, and these broaden this margin for manoeuvre. But it is the liberation of South Africa and Namibia, with all the consequences it will have on the regional, continental and world level, which is the fundamental precondition for the African peoples to regain control of their resources.
Contents - Previous - Next