Vusi Gumede
Vusi Gumede

Africa’s Achilles heel: Global capitalism

In 2010, during the 50th anniversary of African political independence, I wrote an article which provocatively proclaimed that developmental states remain a pipedream in Africa. There is no consensus on what has constrained the further advancement of our troubled African continent. Could it be, fundamentally, institutions as some have argued or leadership as many have propounded or geography as a few have espoused or governance as some contend or policy as some of us have argued? Research suggests that all these factors matter.

However, the fundamental African development challenge, I would argue, has to do with the historical experience of colonialism as well as the global socio-political and economic order. Adebayo Adedeji — a former executive secretary of the Economic Commission for Africa — talks of the global merchant system as a deliberate design by the global capitalist order to perpetuate a socioeconomic and political system that advances interests of the few at the expense of the many as well as maintains the peripheralisation of the African continent.

Africa, although there have been proud moments, continues to perform poorly in many areas. Take, for instance, human development (index) — a measure that takes into account levels of education and healthcare as well as standard of living — the 2013 Human Development Report indicates that the average human development value for sub-Saharan Africa is 0.475 (which is the lowest of any region, although the pace of improvement is rising). This is against a backdrop of pedestrian economic growth rates, averaging 5% in Africa south of the Sahara.

I have been cautioning against the euphoria characterising Africa’s growth rates — the observed ecstasy is misplaced. There is nothing to celebrate because these growth rates are far below what is needed to guarantee the much-needed inclusive development in Africa.

Similarly, the so-called expanding African middle class in Africa, which is reported to be spurring this newly found economic growth, is a farce. In reality, unfortunately, we are observing an empty or premature middle class as the people so categorised are overburdened by high debt levels. This so-called African middle class is also bereft of the necessary socio-politico and cultural consciousness, with which they can raise people’s ideological awareness and reorganise the socio-economic and political order for positive change.

Africa must pursue its own paradigm for economic and social development. It is imperative for Africa to rethink the policies that are currently being pursued, as many leading African economists have recommended. Samir Amin, for instance, has consistently made a point that an “alternative social project” is paramount for any social change in Africa.

Africa and Africans clearly have an intractable development dilemma. However, we would be scratching the surface with a different/new approach to socio-economic development, by addressing governance and or institutions, addressing policy questions, capacity challenges, leadership questions and so on and so forth. What we need is the complete liberation that John Saul calls for and decoloniality that Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni and others recommend. The harsh reality is that at issue is the need for complete decolonisation and deimperialisation of the global order.

This is not an easy task, but it has to be undertaken. Hopefully the African Union processes towards Agenda 2063 would take up this obvious development challenge. Africa needs a practical programme that responds to the African development challenge. All the factors that constrain the further advancement of the African continent, as enumerated at the beginning, must be tackled head on. Leaders that can address the developmental challenges are urgently needed. Institutions that advance development are desperately required. Policies that respond to the African condition are overdue.

Thabo Mbeki — in an extraordinarily penetrating speech he gave in 1978 in a seminar in Canada — urged that “we must, by liberating ourselves, make our own history”. He argued that “such a process [of making history] by its nature imposes on the activist the necessity to plan and therefore requires the ability to measure cause and effect; the necessity to strike in correct directions and hence the requirement to distinguish between essence and phenomenon … ”.

We — as global human society in general and as Africans in particular — are dealing with an intractable development dilemma that dates back to the 15th century, which began as the primitive accumulation of capital escalating to colonial conquests resulting to imperialism. This is the basis of bourgeois societies that we live in today. In essence, therefore, we are dealing with a class question. For some societies, it is both the class and the race questions.

The solution to the intractable development dilemma we are wrestling with and the African development challenge we must address are far more complex than meets the eye. At the very least, we must make sure that we thoroughly and comprehensively understand the fundamental challenge we are confronted with. Needless to say, this requires higher levels of consciousness.

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    • michael

      Typical analysis where the answers are to be found in imperialism, revolution,politics, consciousness, consensus, developmental dilemma etc.What a load of nonsense.The wheel does not have to be reinvented, everybody knows what the path to wealth creation is, stop looking for excuses.Think more in terms of saving, investment, production, rule of law, honest leadership accountability etc.Not that difficult but africa is in denial and always seek an external source to blame for its woes.

    • Call for Honesty

      What we need is for people to work hard and to be fairly rewarded for their hard work without their government or community depriving them of what they justly deserve. Surely we cannot fault this form of capitalism? Which are the factors in Africa that prevent the countries of the continent and their peoples from benefiting from capitalism? These are the Achilles Heel of the continent. It is time that it is recognized that capitalism does not discriminate against race or gender or religion or language but it does between those who are prepared to work hard and those who are happy to live off handouts. Thabo Mbeki and those who follow him have no better alternative to this form of capitalism.

    • http://none Richard Becker

      China, Japan, Germany and most other European countries, as well as to some extent the USA, do everything in their power to ensure they have top notch education systems. Not because it’s the ‘right thing to do’, but because it assures them that they will have strong economies. In South Africa our education system has been allowed by the ANC to deteriorate from even the low level of the Nationallst regime. For once face the facts, our dismal and deteriorating financial condition has nothing to do with capitalism and/or colonialism and everything to do with political bull-dust and monumental stupidity.

    • Momma Cyndi

      The problems in Africa have nothing to do with ‘colonialism’, ‘capitalism’ or some faceless ‘west’. The problems in Africa have to do with Africa’s horrible habit of selecting leaders who will happily sell their country right out from under the citizens. Our own country sells our minerals to China at lower prices than you can get them here – how does that help us? They even sold our highways to Austria!

      There is zero reason for Africa to not be able to compete globally and become the powerhouse of the world. We have the resources and the potential. If we can get over the sense of entitlement and the mental slavery (manifest as a cripling desire to be the eternal victims), the sky is the limit

    • bernpm

      @Michael: Wow, I could not have said it in less words.
      Another one of these “we could……”, “we should……” without a serious follow up plan.

      “”Hopefully the African Union processes towards Agenda 2063 would take up this obvious development challenge. “”
      Such plans can be safely dismissed. Who -of today’s leaders- who could drive this plan today, will be alive in 2063.
      South Africa itself has its own 2030 plan. are the two linked somehow ??

      “The harsh reality is that at issue is the need for complete decolonisation and deimperialisation of the global order.”
      Which African country is going to start that war?? The European countries who tried it failed: Greeks, Turks, Crusaders, Bismarck, Napoleon, Hitler……….

      Otherwise an interesting take if you could add the players and the timeline for this project.

    • george orwell

      Michael: “Think more in terms of saving, investment, production, rule of law, honest leadership accountability etc.”

      Pray tell – to whom should Africa look for a good example?

      USA – saving /investment ?… Think bank crashes, fraudulent hedge funds, greedy Wall Street, bail-outs, crony capitalism, crumbling infrastructure, top-heavy military budget

      rule of law/honest leadership – Obama reneged on promise to close Guantanamo and stop toprture culture, illegal drone wars which pull a finger at due process, the installation of anti-democratic “detention without trial ” in the form of the NDA Act.

      UK – poodle dog to the USA.

      So all very wll to point fingers at Africa but the sanctimonious ‘leaders of the free world’ are hardly paragons of virtue.

    • MrK

      Vusi Gumede,

      Great article, we need more of it.

      The so-called growth rates are misleading (as the human development index shows), because it is measured in GDP, and GDP is a thieves’ charter.

      GDP measures the amount of economic activity within a country’s border,irrespective whether than activity is positive or negative, whether profits are immediately removed from the economy, or where the wealth congegrates in the economy (massive inequality).

      Back in the day, growth was measured in GNP, Gross National Product, which is the economic activity of a country’s natioals, wherever they are. Activity by non-nationals are not measured, which immediately gets rid of all the ‘profits’ extracted by transnational corporations.

      Guess which measure the IMF, World Bank, or Federal Reserve use – GDP. Former World Bank senior VP and Chief Economist Joseph Stiglitz:

      (YOUTUBE, FORA TV) Joseph Stiglitz – Problems with GDP as an Economic Barometer

      (YOUTUBE) Prof Joseph Stiglitz – GDP is Flawed… Citizens want depth…

      (GREG PALAST) The Globalizer Who Came In From the Cold (2001)
      Joe Stiglitz: Today’s Winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics

    • Momma Cyndi

      george orwell

      We invented humans in Africa! Do you really think we cannot invent good ones? Just because you don’t like the rough stone wheel doesn’t mean you should throw it out. Why not put some tubes and tyres on it instead?

      Just because America makes most noise, it is no excuse to throw every other country in the free world under the same bus. That is called ‘sophistry’ and not everything that is grey is an elephant

    • proactive

      Let’s ‘provocatively’ agree with Prof. Vusi:

      • Yes, on the many things “remaining a pipedream in Africa” be that (lacking) institutions (SA is tops in Africa, thanks to what?)- suggestion: why not create or copy them from advanced countries- what’s the hold up?)

      • Yes, on “leadership” (work in progress?) Problematic characters with highly egocentric, extreme capitalistic tendencies? Isn’t e.g. Zimbabwe going through ‘bottomless enlightenment” and therefore to be found on the tail end of world stats?

      • Yes, “Geography”- messed up by thoughtless and mad colonists & discoverers not knowing where the invisible African borders were- missing all border posts! Unknown to these insensitive English, French, Germans, Portuguese & Dutch- what a laps in courtesy not to knock on the doors of the Deeds Registry! Suggestion: as own masters today, just redraw borders in the AU and register them with the UN- finish & klaar- rather keep whinging?

      • “The deliberate design by the global capitalist order” around the 16th-18th century sounds amazingly advanced- if true!

      • Yes, caution to consider GPD growth only- is one sided! But more “advantageous” than using the HDI showing Africa once more at the bottom:

      Is measuring our “great” Matric achievements- assigning 30% passes (actually failures) to Math, Science etc similar? Maak a plan- want to feel great- just lower the bar. Sorry to spoil the Matric party!

    • Mark

      Personally I believe that if Africa wants to succeed it needs to pioneer its own history and economy, like the author says. But I also suggest that this can only be achieved by cutting all ties to the west/east. This includes abandoning food/medical aid and the use of foreign armies to prop up governments or stand inbetween waring factions and the everyday citizen.

      This will cause the complete collapse of africa, but what is rebuilt out of those ashes will be the catalyst for self determination and a population number that is more in tune with what existing resources can accomodate.

    • Femi

      This piece is spot on. Those who deny that history did not contribute to the current predicament of Africa are simply not sincere. The starting point is to liberate our minds and mental state as a people, raise the consciousness of our people (who are the vanguard of change) and put in place necessary political, economic and social institutions that can bring about transformational development. Whatever the name of the economic system, what Africans need is an arrangement that can engender distributive welfare and raise the living standard of the people. Ad Duncan Green of OXFAM advised, what is needed is active citizens and effective states. We must not run from the harmful effects of the current global capitalist order-which is interestingly is increasingly getting unpopular even in the West (inequality and poverty are on the rise at the core of global capitalism), it must be confronted through building of global alliances. Corporations must be be made to be sensitive to their environments, government must be be bold to makeand enforce policies that build human capabilities through qualitative education, skills upgrade and learning. The vulnerable in the society must be taken care of not from the crumbs of the rich but from the sweat of their labour made possible by creating of jobs that are appropriate to the skills of the people. African leaders must ensure access to education through provision of bursaries and loans at all levels.

    • bernpm

      @Femi: you seem to imply that today governments are in the pocket of “capitalist” practices and I believe you are right!!
      But…breaking the link is difficult. Democratic systems/behavior allow for lobbying???
      The practice of lobbying is very close to corruption!

    • Cynde Delaina

      Once I initially commented I clicked the -Notify me when new feedback are added- checkbox and now each time a comment is added I get four emails with the identical comment. Is there any method you may take away me from that service? Thanks!

    • MrK

      ” • Yes, on “leadership” (work in progress?) Problematic characters with highly egocentric, extreme capitalistic tendencies? Isn’t e.g. Zimbabwe going through ‘bottomless enlightenment” and therefore to be found on the tail end of world stats? ”

      No. Zimbabwe’s economy is recovering on it’s own, despite of economic sanctions (like ZDERA, among many others), and frankly, because of lack of government interference in towards the New Farmers, unlike in South Africa. When people are left free to grow their own economy, they do so for their own benefit. In South Africa, members of government are too stuck on what ‘proper’ agriculture is supposed to look like. What they don’t take into account, is that an agriculture by a million farmers looks very different and is much better than agriculture by 40,000 farmers. And apparently even in South Africa, farming has been corporatized, just like in the American Midwest (see: Food Inc.)

      ” Suggestion: as own masters today, just redraw borders in the AU and register them with the UN- finish & klaar- rather keep whinging? ”

      You’re the whinger around here. You keep wanting to avert blame from the ‘white man’ and colonialism. With your republican ‘personal responsibility’ talking point, you are averting blame from what happened historically and is happening to this day.

    • MrK

      Who owns the land? Who owns the mines? Who owns the banks? Those are the strategic sectors of any economy, and if you own them, you can control the rest of the economy, even without owning the rest of the economy directly.

      Now about borders. There is a reason why African borders were not re-drawn for the benefit of the people for 50 plus years.

      There is a big difference between borders re-drawn by the people themselves (say, to bring ethnic groups/identities into the same traditional rule/area) and new countries being created by the trillionairs that own Glencore, Total Fina, and other extractive industries.,_South_Sudan

      Question: who is re-drawing African borders to restore traditional authorities? Answer: no one.

      ” • “The deliberate design by the global capitalist order” around the 16th-18th century sounds amazingly advanced- if true! ”

      Such is the benefit of studying history.

      On the Berlin Conference of 1885:
      “With the provision of funding for the creation of De Beers in 1887, Rothschild also turned to investment in the mining of precious stones, in Africa and India.”

    • MrK

      (INDIA TIMES) De Beers fighting to restore monopoly; challenges lie ahead

      ” • Yes, caution to consider GPD growth only- is one sided! But more “advantageous” than using the HDI showing Africa once more at the bottom:

      This shows to things:

      1) The World Bank and IMF policies of structural adjustment have not only failed, but made African (and South American, and Asian, and of course European – Britain, Greece) people poorer, as was highly predictable.

      The famines of Somalia can be directly traced back by the World Bank’s destruction of their economy. (Google: somalia real causes of famine chossudovsky) I would say this is intentional, because it has always been colonial policy of breaking up countries and territories they want to control. Somalia is of geostrategic importance, because of the Bab-el-Mandeb waterway, without which Saudi oil cannot get to the Suez Canal (controlled by Israel), to make it into the Mediterranean. Fuel is a strategic sector of the economy, because it’s absence can stop all other economic activity.

    • MrK

      2) Policies that make transnational corporations better off and build wealth for the elites make the non-elites poorer.

      There is no ‘trickle down’, only a ‘surge upwards’ of wealth.

      It is time to claw back our wealth and resources from the super wealthy, and the $32 trillion shadow economy is the place to start, as well as taking back the land, the mines and banking.

      3) The $32 trillion shadow economy

      That’s $32,000,000,000,000.-

      This is where the transnationals divert their taxevaded wealth to:

    • proactive

      Africa speaks:
      The “Unedited” summary from the attached “my continent” web page (author?)- sounds realistic.

      “To summarised what happened in past in Africa can’t been change but future generation and future leaders of Africa can change things around. African can’t keep blaming foreigners for causes of their suffering and lack of development in Continent. If you look in deep, African leaders or African presidens are partialy to blame for suffering of African people. African leaders are putting themselve first to stay in power then to stand for what it’s right for their people. These are best lessons for african future generation and leaders to learn from past history of Africa itself and to try to have better Africa continent in future!”

      A “DRC” unedited response:

      “With african leaders becoming,Selfish egocentric, greedy,it would be good to empower young people with their origins and possibility of change of colonial borders, so that we the young can creat & find our own countries asis happening is s.sudan”
      ndiri bayo , DRC

      Historical, Berlin 1885 was “yesterday” & belonged already to the 19th century!

      But as for the future, what is best for all AU’s citizen in avoiding known mistakes & create a better future using best practice?
      Your obvious approval of the example “Zimbabwe” is noted. Yes, the evolved extreme”transnational corporatism” in cahoots with banksters is a curse!

    • proactive


      …reading once more you’re controversial, partly factually true but mainly revolutionary blog & some hints of your solutions, would require better explanations- since they seem to come from the EU? & not Africa, like:

      “What they don’t take into account, is that an agriculture by a million farmers looks very different and is much better than agriculture by 40,000 farmers.”

      Who are they & much better in which way?

      An ever increasing population (but decreasing trend) and increasing urbanization need reliable food supplies and not experiments. Are you suggesting a return to a limiting subsistence or tribal community farming method? Have you got the capacity to send food from your EU office- in case of another crop failure due to severe climate, lack of resources, knowledge, mismanagement, war or political excuses? After one generation in ~25 years the present owners offspring’s (assume 2) subdivide once more and more thereafter until all arable land is destroyed?

      I would love to hear the responses from “real & experienced farmers” who know their soil, their land, recorded climate variations and “sensible” economists! Further:

      “………as well as taking back the land, the mines and banking”

      Are you Zimbabwe’s Land reform adviser or an offspring from Hegel or Marx?

      Is that calling for and repeating another Bolshevik revolution? Would you be so kind to identify & explain yourself clearer?

    • Emerald

      Agenda 2063. Has anyone keenly read through it?

    • proactive

      @Emerald … you know, it states: “Agenda 2063 is both a Vision and an Action Plan.”

      …another key paragraph:

      “Agenda 2063 must be seen as a part of the African Renaissance which calls for changes in attitudes, mindsets to inculcate the right set of African values, i.e,, discipline, focus, honesty, integrity, transparency, hard work and love for Africa and its people. Agenda 2063 provides the opportunity for Africa to break away from the syndrome of “always coming up with new ideas but no significant achievements” and set in motion high levels of productivity, growth, entrepruenership and transformation.”

      ….some very high moral demands requested from African leadership- even measured against global competitors! No consequences however for defaulters of course- all assumed to be selfless & honest politicians!

      50 years are ~2 generations or @ normal democratic leadership’s life cycle a change of 10 xs in that period. If however blessed by another Mugabe type of a one party democracy than only ~1-2 times- besides any unforeseen revolutions, religious or civil wars, climatic or other global events overtaking or nullifying everything.

      Yes, all positive & paved with good intentions- thanks to the leadership of a good SA lady! What to say? Good luck to all the ~1 billion on this continent!

    • Emerald

      Dear Proactive,
      Much appreciated. The Agenda 2063, fortunately, is more than just rhetorical articulation (unless we want to dwell on these). I challenge you to read further than the preamble…serious stuff that is being articulated in the Agenda…I am yearning to engage….

    • proactive


      Could you please attach the direct link to the ‘actual’ content- can only find an invitation to “create contributions”. I am not sure if you would like to hear my “critical opinions”- & if, maybe rather on a different forum? I am not comfortable with expressions like Pan European, Pan American, Pan African or Pan anything! As you know, we have a PAC movement in SA. Kind Regards!

    • Emerald

      Dear Proactive,
      I have just submitted a paper that highlights the gist of Agenda 2063. Will forward this to you as soon as the editorial reviews have been submitted. I can forward you a soft copy of the agenda. Kindly do provide me with your email address.

    • Vusi Gumede

      Thanks all for engaging! We live and learn, or is it learning and living or both or the other way round. It is always difficult, if not impossible, to respond to each of the comments/inputs. Do rest assured, though, that I take every comment seriously (except those that have no relevance to the subject at hand). I should particularly thank those that tried to engage with what I think is a complex subject, which cannot be satisfactorily addressed in a blog – thanks to especially those that either clarified and or problematised my argument. I elaborate the argument that I tried to make with this blog, like all other opinion making endeavour I pursue, in my forthcoming book – I have a whole chapter on the subject of this blog. Keep an eye open for info/details in my FB page (Vusi Gumede), Twitter (@ProfVusiGumede) and website (

    • proactive

      Dear Emerald,

      thank you. Due to my wish to remain private and reserve my confidentiality, i avoid all public & “modern” chatting forms like “Twitter” etc!

      Once you are ready just post a link here, i will eventually pick it up- provided my hard drive never wipes out before that!

    • goolam dawood

      I concur, endorse, defend and promote the ideas of this piece. Its historically evidenced truth, it is what Nelson Mandela would endorse. Its ideas are the reason apartheid and colonialism ended in their overt forms on the continent. People who cannot endorse the western exploitation in the equation of African impoverishment are lying and or delusional. And they are the major barriers to African progress.