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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.


  • Vusi Gumede is a professor at the University of South Africa, also with the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute. He was previously an associate professor at the University of Johannesburg and he has also lectured public policy at the Graduate School of Public and Development Management (now the School of Governance) at the University of Witwatersrand. He worked for the South African government, in various capacities, for about twelve years. He serves on various boards and committees, including the Presidential Economic Advisory Council, the International Preparatory Committee of the Pan-African Federalist Movement and the National Council of the South African Association of Political Studies. He holds postgraduate qualifications in economics and policy studies, including a Ph.D in Economics (2003) from the erstwhile University of Natal (now the University of KwaZulu-Natal). He has been Distinguished Africanist Scholar at Cornell University and Yale World Fellow at Yale University, among other fellowships. He was in the boards of Southern Africa Trust and ActionAid South Africa and he is the former coordinator of Afrocentricity International for the South African chapter. He currently also holds an Honorary Professorship at the University of Cape Town. He has published 14 books and numerous journal papers & book chapters as well as written many essays and opinion articles and blogs. He is Editor-in-Chief for Africanus & Africa Insight as well as serving in various Editorial Boards/Committees.