Two Lectures on African Development

Lecture 1: African development in the twentieth century

1. ‘Africa’ and the question of ‘development’

2. Africa’s traditional societies and agrarian civilization

3. Africa’s urban revolution in the twentieth century

4. A note on the North and South African exceptions

5. Urban commerce and the informal economy

Lecture 2: African development in the twenty-first century

1. The story so far

2. An African liberal revolution?

3. The cultural sources for a liberal revolution

4. Classes for and against the liberal revolution

5. Africa must unite

African development in the twentieth century


Africa’ and the question of ‘development’

In these two lectures, I consider Africa’s development prospects in the coming half-century, viewed in the light of the century that has just passed. The future is unknowable of course, but whatever happens next must build on social conditions created by recent developments, as well as on longer-term continuities. Africa has seen extraordinary urban growth in the twentieth century and this, rather than the conventional view of the continent as an exporter of raw materials, should form the basis for thinking about development in future. This means exploring ways of linking present forms of urban commerce to the world economy, as well as to national and regional markets. Indigenous commerce has so far been approached mainly in terms of the ‘informal economy’. Currently 70-90 percent of African national economies are estimated to be ‘informal’; so the social forms that organize the informal economy and mobilize its resources must surely play a significant part in whatever happens next.

What prospects do neo-liberal markets hold for Africa as a whole? Africa’s experience in the twentieth century is often represented as a failure to ‘develop’. I accept that economic and political trends in post-colonial Africa have often been dire; but I do not agree that this situation is terminal. Indeed in my second lecture I explore the possible conditions for an African liberal revolution, an economic turnaround rapid enough to merit comparison with Europe and America at an earlier stage or with parts of Asia today. ‘Afro-optimism’ of this sort at least goes beyond the negative or palliative limits of much development thinking today. But I must first clarify what I mean by ‘Africa’ and ‘development’, before looking back over the twentieth century for the rest of this lecture.

‘Africa’ refers to either a continent — from the Cape to Cairo — or to a race. The two are sometimes combined as ‘the land of the blacks’, but this land is hard to pin down. North Africa has been an integral part of circum-Mediterranean civilization from the beginning and Southern Africa was dominated by white settlers in modern history. The regions in between – West, Central and East Africa – historically had strong external links, but most were made subject to colonial empire only from the 1880s onwards and achieved their independence by the 1960s. The brevity of this European occupation makes it bizarre to periodize continental history as pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial; but then Africans were not principally responsible for this division. The middle belt of African countries is sometimes called ‘Sub-Saharan Africa’ or just ‘Black Africa’; but it is not obvious what they have in common or indeed where they are. The huge country of Sudan was always part of Egyptian history; the ancient kingdom of Ethiopia avoided being colonized; Liberia had a black colonial elite. So it would not be hard to claim that the umbrella term ‘Africa’ is untenable. Yet it persists and, I shall argue, should be an integral part of any development strategy for the region. The world is turning, in response to globalization, to regional trading blocs like the EU, NAFTA, ASEAN and Mercosur; and Africa can’t afford to miss out on this trend.

There is already some precedent for viewing Africa as a unity. The African Union, NEPAD and other continental institutions, whatever their limitations, do exist after all. World maps show Africa as a seventh of the earth’s total land mass separated from Europe and the Middle East by the Mediterranean and Red Seas and two narrows. The first half of the twentieth century gave rise to empire’s antithesis, ‘Pan-Africanism’, probably the most inclusive political movement of its time. It was a species of nationalism uniting Africans who aimed to recover control of their own land with New World descendants of African slaves who were still subjected to racial exclusion there. Getting the British, French, Belgians and Portuguese out of Africa seemed to be of one piece with fighting the systematic racial discrimination on which Atlantic and world society were then founded. The idea of Africa as the home of a people stigmatized by colour and occupying the lowest stratum of a racialized global order remains a tremendous obstacle to the full participation of black people in world society as equals. The continuing failure of African countries to ‘develop’ underwrites such prejudice. It would therefore constitute a major upheaval in world society, if this presumption of Africa’s eternal economic backwardness were to be dramatically refuted.

The apartheid principle of separating rich and poor spatially is to be found everywhere in local systems of discrimination, more or less blatant. But the Caribbean Nobel-prizewinning economist, Sir Arthur Lewis in The Evolution of the International Economic Order (1978) makes a plausible case that twentieth-century world society as a whole was constructed along racial lines at a particular historical conjuncture. In the decades leading up to the First World War, fifty million Europeans left home for temperate lands of new settlement; the same number of Indians and Chinese (‘coolies’) were shipped to the colonies as indentured labourers. These two streams of migrants had to be kept apart since, although their work and skill-level was often similar, whites were paid on average nine shillings a day, while Asians received one shilling a day. In those areas where Asian workers were allowed to settle, the price of local wage-labour was driven down to their level. Western imperialism’s division of the world at this time into countries of dear and cheap labour had profound consequences for their subsequent economic development. Demand in high-wage economies is stronger than in their low-wage counterparts. World trade has been organized ever since in the interests of the better-paid, with tax-rich states subsidizing their farmers to dump cheap food overseas at the expense of local agricultural development, while preventing the poorer countries’ manufactures from undermining the wages of industrial workers at home. South Africa and the United States each encouraged heavy immigration of working-class Europeans while seeking to retain a reserve of poorly-paid black and Asian labour. The resulting dualism is inscribed on their shared history of racist urbanization.

So, the idea of ‘Africa’ may be most suitably conceived of as a continental territory – Africans, Arabs and Europeans alike — embarked on the great march towards economic and political union. But the legacy of imperialism means that race and development are still linked in symbolic and practical terms; and dreams of African emancipation have global, not just regional implications. The long human conversation about a better society has come to be identified with the term ‘development’. What does it mean? In essence, that society is moving, rather than being fixed. In this sense, ‘development’ is similar to its Victorian counterpart, ‘evolution’. But I prefer to think of ‘development’ as a stage of contemporary history defining political relations between rich and poor countries, like its predecessor ‘colonialism’, and lasting for much of the previous half-century.

This period had two distinct phases which we may identify loosely by the terms ‘social democracy’ and ‘neo-liberalism’. The first, roughly 1945-1975 (‘les trente glorieuses’), saw an economic boom fed by public expenditures in the leading industrial nations. The idea that the rich could materially assist poor countries to narrow the economic gap between them was taken seriously at this time, even if the recipes for ‘development’ now look naïve. After the oil price shocks of the 1970s and economic problems such as ‘stagflation’, a ‘free market’ era was inaugurated by Reagan and Thatcher and, with some modifications, persists today. This period has seen a widening gap between rich and poor countries, especially between Africa and everyone else, fuelled by massive extraction of debt interest and the undermining of weak states in the name of ‘structural adjustment’. The world economy has been depressed ever since the 70s; currently China alone accounts for almost half of global economic growth in any year and most of the rest comes from credit expansion in the USA. In these circumstances, ‘development’ as a description of the partnership between rich and poor countries has become a sham and indeed most ‘development’ activities consist of putting sticking plaster on the wounds inflicted by an unfettered capitalism.

Africa’s traditional societies and agrarian civilization

If African ‘development’ is ever to break out of the unhappy pattern established in the last half-century, its engine will have to be sustained endogenous economic growth. Our task is to analyze why independence did not confer the conditions for such growth and how the conditions established then might, with the benefit of new development strategies, feed an economic revolution now. But, in order to understand Africa’s twentieth-century experience – the extraordinary compression of contradictory social developments within a short period — we must first take a long view of the region’s divergence from the general historical trajectory of the Eurasian land mass.

My teacher, Jack Goody has written a series of books seeking to explain how and why African societies south of the Sahara diverged before the modern period from their counterparts in Europe and Asia (‘Eurasia’). He concluded that all the agrarian civilizations of Eurasia shared a common origin in the ‘urban revolution’ of Mesopotamia 5,000 years ago. This pattern also extended to Egypt and the African littoral of the Mediterranean millennia ago. By the 11th century, Cairo was the hub of a mercantile civilization stretching from Spain to India. The rise of cities was accompanied by the formation of states whose function was to supervise a new kind of class society, where a narrowly-based urban elite extracted agricultural surpluses from an increasingly servile rural labour force. Goody showed how forms of kinship and marriage reflected property relations that were themselves made possible by more intensive technologies, such as the plough and irrigation. Sub-Saharan Africa, he held, had largely missed out on this urban revolution along with its agricultural technology, higher population density and unequal property relations. This accounts for why traditional African forms of kinship and marriage are so different and their societies were, relatively speaking, classless.

The contrast between egalitarian societies built on kinship and unequal societies based on state power and class division goes back to L. H. Morgan’s Ancient Society (1877) and before him to Rousseau in the Discourse on Inequality (1754). Clearly it cannot be applied unambiguously to Africa and Eurasia before the modern age, even if we try to isolate Black Africa from its Northern and Southern extremities. The Atlantic and Indian Ocean slave trades generated coastal enclaves in both West and East Africa. The medieval civilization of the West African Sahel was a significant part of the Islamic world: when the King of Mali went on a pilgrimage to Mecca in the 13th century, he spent so much gold in Egypt as to cause runaway inflation there for three decades. Of the Yoruba agro-cities that emerged as a result of nineteenth-century warfare, Ibadan’s population had reached 200,000 by the onset of colonial rule. These examples of pre-colonial urbanization were rightly emphasized when the anti-colonial revolution delivered independence to most African countries in the second half of the twentieth century.

Even so, if the contrast were presented as a statistical trend rather than as a categorical fact, it must be admitted that large swathes of middle Africa entered the modern epoch with a minimal urban population and that the dominant institutions of their societies owed a lot more to kinship than to class differences. Indigenous states were commonplace in the early modern period, many of them emerging in response to the political, economic and demographic upheavals provoked by European imperial expansion. But, in a dozen volumes ranging from productive technologies, property forms and the means of communication to cooking, decoration and myth, Goody documents in substantial detail how most African societies south of the Sahara diverged from the pattern of agrarian civilization typical of all the major regions of pre-industrial Eurasia. This institutional package included territorial states, embattled cities, landed property, warfare, racism, bureaucratic administration, literacy, impersonal money, long-distance trade, work as a virtue, world religion and the nuclear family; and its grip on modern world society is still strong.

Of course, if traditional African societies appeared to be more equal than their European counterparts, it does not mean that inequality was wholly absent there. Friedrich Engels, in The Origins of the Family, Private Property and State (1884), where he drew heavily on Morgan’s work, made much of the progressive subordination of women, first in tribal societies based on agriculture and pastoralism, later in pre-industrial states and finally in capitalist societies. A body of Marxist and feminist scholarship in the 1960s and 70s extended this analysis to the conflict between African males of different age, with polygamous elders commanding young men’s labour through control of access to marriageable women and the latter condemned to doing most of the work without effective political representation. Gender and generation differences accordingly take on huge salience in African societies. I have gone into this issue at some length since it is central to grasping Africa’s twentieth-century experience.

Africa’s urban revolution in the twentieth century

If Africa is normally judged these days in terms of what did not happen in the twentieth century (‘development’), what actually did happen? In 1900, Africa was the least densely populated region in the world with the smallest proportion of its inhabitants living in cities (probably around 2%, near the world average for the beginning of the modern era around 1800). By 2000, a sustained population explosion means that the continent now has a share of world population equal to its share of land area and up to a half of its inhabitants live in cities (also near the world average). Since Africa’s population (currently a bit less than either India’s or China’s) is still growing much faster than other regions at 2.5% per annum, so too is its relative size in the world, if not yet its purchasing power in the world economy (which is around 2%). A simple Keynesian logic suggests that, if Africans became more prosperous, everyone else would benefit from the increased demand. Certainly the Asian exporters of manufactures are keenly aware of the potential of Africans’ market share. But the Americans and the Europeans who still control global economic institutions have not yet demonstrated any awareness of this possibility.

Instead of harping on Africa’s failure to develop, it might be more fruitful to focus on what positively occurred in the twentieth century. In short, Africa experienced its own version of the urban revolution that it had largely avoided before. This means not just that cities proliferated on an unprecedented scale, but that the whole package of pre-industrial class society was installed there more or less for the first time: states, new urban elites, intensification of agriculture and a political economy based on the extraction of rural surpluses. Africa made the transition to agrarian civilization after Europe and America had moved on to industrial capitalism in the nineteenth century and while the Asians followed suit in the next. The relative success of Asians in translating their political independence into effective economic competition with the West has significant consequences for Africa’s prospects now. In the meantime, any strategy for African development in the coming decades must build on the social conditions resulting from the construction of nominally independent nation-states on an economic foundation of pre-industrial agriculture.

The anti-colonial revolution, beginning in Asia after the war and continuing in Africa, unleashed extravagant hopes for the transformation of an unequal world. These hopes have not yet been realized for most Africans who are still waiting for political forms that will guarantee their full participation as equals in world society. By most accounts African economies have not fared well since independence. But what was the model of development they were expected to adopt? I call it ‘national capitalism’, the attempt to manage markets and money through central bureaucracies organized by the nation-state. Development in this sense never had a chance to take root in Africa. For the first half of the twentieth century, African peoples were shackled by colonial empire and in the second half, after they achieved independence, their new nations struggled to keep afloat in a world economy organized by and for the major powers, then engaged in the Cold War.

When Kwame Nkrumah was leading Ghana to independence, he used to declaim ‘Seek ye first the political kingdom.’ The idea was that merely changing ownership of the state would be sufficient to deliver economic development to African peoples, regardless of conditions in the world at large. Frantz Fanon took a different view. In The Wretched of the Earth (first published in French in 1959), written from the depths of Algeria’s own anti-colonial struggle, he spoke prophetically of the ‘pitfalls of national consciousness’ which would undermine Africa’s post-colonial states and especially of the weakness of the new middle class who led them:

From the beginning the national bourgeoisie directs its efforts towards (economic) activities of the intermediary type. The basis of its strength is found in its aptitude for trade and small business enterprises, and for securing commissions. It is not its money that works, but its business acumen. It does not go in for investments and it cannot achieve that accumulation of capital necessary to the birth and blossoming of an authentic bourgeoisie.

In other words, Africa’s new leaders thought they were generating modern economies, with ambitions for public expenditure to match, but in reality they were erecting fragile states whose economic base was the same backward agriculture as before. As Fanon predicted, this weakness led them inexorably to exchange the democratic legitimacy generated in the independence struggle for dependence on foreign powers later. These ruling elites first relied on revenues from agricultural exports, then on loans contracted under dubious circumstances, finally on the financial monopoly that came from being licensed to supervise their country’s relations with global capitalism. But this bonanza was switched off in the 1980s, when foreign capital felt that it could dispense with the mediation of local state powers and concentrated on collecting debts from them. Many governments were made bankrupt and some simply collapsed into civil war.

It is hardly surprising under these circumstances that hopes for African democracy soon flew out of the window, to be replaced by a norm of dictatorship, whether civil or military. Concentration of political power at the centre led to primate urbanization, as economic demand became synonymous with the expenditures of a presidential kleptocracy. Political scientists have long written of the patrimonial norm for African states without pushing the analysis far or deep enough. The growth of cities should normally lead to an expanded level of rural-urban exchange, as farmers supply food to city-dwellers and in turn buy the latter’s manufactures and services with the proceeds of their sales. But this progressive division of labour was stifled at birth in post-colonial Africa by the dumping of cheap subsidized food from North America and Europe and of cheap manufactures from Asia. For ‘structural adjustment’ meant that African national economies had no protection from the strong winds of world trade. The result was that a peasantry subjected to political extraction and violence at home had no option other than to migrate to the main cities and abroad or to stagnate. Somehow the cities survived on the basis of markets that emerged spontaneously to recycle the money concentrated at the top and to meet the population’s needs for food, shelter, clothing, transport and the rest. It is to these markets, often referred to as ‘the informal economy’, that we must turn if we wish to understand the economic potential of Africa’s urban revolution.

A note on the North and South African exceptions

From the above, it should be clear why generalizations about middle Africa need to be qualified when considering the continent’s northern and southern extremes. North Africa did not wait until the last century to develop agrarian civilization. It was in on the process almost from the beginning. If countries from Morocco to Egypt bear some resemblance to the ideal portrait I have painted of post-colonial Africa, it is because they too have failed to move beyond a pre-industrial level to anything resembling national capitalism and they too have been subject to a western imperialism not unlike what afflicted Africa south of the Sahara. In this respect there has been a convergence between the regions of late. The lands of white settlement of the South tell a wholly different story. South Africa, in particular, stands out as the only African country where national capitalism took root. This has immense consequences for its current and prospective relationship to the rest of the continent, as we will see in my next lecture.

Writing of Johannesburg in 1900, J. A. Hobson, the author of a famous treatise on imperialism, described the men who headed the mining companies there as follows:

Never have I been so struck with the intellect and the audacious enterprise and foresight of great businessmen as here. Nor are these qualities confined to the Beits and Barnatos and other great capitalists; the town bristles and throbs with industrial and commercial energy. The utter dependence upon financial ‘booms’ and ‘slumps’ [and the political situation]…has bred by selection and by education a type of man and of society which is as different from that of Manchester as the latter is from the life of Hankow or Buenos Ayres.The War in South Africa (1900)

Despite the involvement of international finance, technology and skilled labour in the Rand’s early years, the large mining-finance conglomerates grew to become increasingly South African in the twentieth century, while their contribution to output, employment, exports and state revenue was crucial to the modernisation and growth of the country’s economy. When the Afrikaners declared their own independence from colonial empire in 1948, South Africa embarked on its own distinctive course of national capitalism. The contribution of the mining and energy sector to the economy has declined in the post-apartheid era, while the big houses have moved offshore and restructured themselves in significant ways; but their power and influence endures. Agrarian civilization has played a negligible part in South Africa’s modern history; and that too is something we need to keep in mind when contemplating Africa’s future.

Urban commerce and the informal economy

‘Form’ is the rule, an idea of what ought to be universal in social life; and for most of the twentieth century the dominant forms were those of bureaucracy, particularly national bureaucracy, since society was identified to a large extent with nation-states. The idea of an ‘informal economy’ is entailed in the institutional effort to organize society along formal lines. Until the 1970s it was agreed that only the state could effectively promote and manage development. The flood of migrants into African cities after independence provoked alarmist reports of mass unemployment there. Where were all the jobs going to come from? Policy-makers at both national and international levels were anxious to head off urban riots and worse. In a paper presented to a 1971 conference, based on fieldwork in the slums of Ghana’s capital city, Accra, I argued that the urban poor were not ‘unemployed’. They were working, although often for low and erratic returns. ‘Informal’ incomes, unregulated by law and invisible to bureaucracy, were a significant part of urban economies that had grown up largely without official knowledge or control.

In the 1970s, the informal sector was often promoted as a source of employment creation capable of lifting a poor economy by the bootstraps. It was still assumed that this was primarily the state’s responsibility. Things changed in the 1980s, with the arrival of neo-liberal regimes in the USA, Britain and elsewhere. The World Bank and IMF embarked on a radical program of ‘structural adjustment’ whose chief effect was to open up poor countries to international capital flows and to scale down public expenditures there. Now the engine of development was ‘the market’ and the informal economy was encouraged as one of its instruments. If governments lacked the funds to provide public services on the scale to which people were accustomed, the latter would have to supply their own needs for health, education, transport and utilities informally. These services would be paid for directly and thus constituted a major boost for the free market — free because largely unregulated. Neo-liberal policies since then have fostered massive growth in the ‘informal’ portion of global and national economies, by reducing state controls and promoting the gigantic money flows known simply as ‘the markets’. The informal sector is now thought to account for 70-90% of the economy in most African countries. War-zone economies such as the Eastern Congo are almost wholly informal. There is a gender component to the informal economy too, in that men have a disproportionate share of formal positions and women’s work is predominantly informal.

The label ‘informal’ may be popular because it is both positive and negative. To act informally is to be free and flexible; but it also refers to what people are not doing – not being regulated by the state. The ‘informal economy’ allows academics and bureaucrats to incorporate the teeming street life of Africa’s cities into their abstract models without having to know what people are really up to. For two centuries now we have been living through humanity’s rapid disengagement from the soil as the chief object of labour and matrix of social life. The hectic growth of cities could not be organized immediately as ruling elites would like. The informal economy is one way of pointing to how people devised their own means of survival and sometimes of prosperity in the urban markets that spring up to meet their needs.

What the concept can’t do is show us the social forms through which African urban economies are actually organized. In my next lecture I will consider some of these. They include religious and criminal institutions, for example. Rather than emphasize the absence of bureaucracy, I would now draw attention to the growth of urban commerce, of markets in all their various guises. This shifts the burden of analysis, of course, from the formal/informal pair to the relationship between markets and capitalism in the neo-liberal era. I have argued that African markets have hitherto been concentrated in major cities largely as a result of political concentration of surpluses produced by predominantly agrarian economies. The undoubted commercial energies of African peoples have of late been stifled and locked up in a political economy of a type labelled ‘the urban revolution’ or ‘agrarian civilization’. Another name for this would be the Old Regime, whose nemesis, as we all know, was the string of liberal revolutions that inaugurated the modern age in England, America, France and Italy between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries.

My question is whether the conditions brought about by the installation of an Old Regime in most of Africa during the latter half of the twentieth century might be the launch-pad for another liberal revolution there in the twenty-first. The only progressive antidote to this latest stage of collective unfreedom for Africans is a drive for genuine political emancipation underwritten by economic freedom of a more than rhetorical sort: a liberal revolution, in other words. It sounds counter-intuitive, I know. But I hope to persuade you at least to consider the possibility in my second lecture.

African development in the twenty-first century

Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.

1 Corinthians 13: 8-13 (King James version, italics added)

 The story so far

Charity’, in Christian theology, is love directed first toward God but also toward oneself and one’s neighbours as objects of God’s love, that is, love of humanity. St. Paul says here that most of the time we make do with knowing a little and guess the rest. In any case it’s usually wrong. We don’t understand ourselves and we project onto others an image of our own dark side. One day we will be able to recognize the humanity in everyone, when we meet each other face to face, instead of through the distortions of identity politics. Humanity is a collective noun, a moral quality and a historical project for our species. What will it take to succeed in this project? Belief, hope and love: clinging to what we hold dear.  Last week I summed up Africa’s experience of the twentieth century. Today I will consider its development prospects for the next half-century. What I have to say is not intended as prophecy, even less as Christian propaganda. But social science is limited when it comes to imagining possibility, never mind to realizing it. If the idea of ‘African development’ is soon to take on the substance of rapid economic growth, we would be unwise to neglect the part to be played in that process by religion and the arts and indeed by love of humanity. As a boy ethnographer four decades ago, I spent two years in the slums of Accra. I was forced to meet people as they were, rather than through the cracked mirror of race, since I could not have survived alone otherwise. The book I hope to write from these lectures is my belated attempt to express what I learnt then and have been reflecting on ever since.

I argued last week that ‘development’ is best thought of as a name for the relationship between rich and poor countries after the collapse of European colonial empire in the second half of the twentieth century. In the post-war decades, when an economic boom was fed by social democracy, ‘development’ constituted a serious, if often misguided attempt to narrow the gap between the two; but it has become a sham in the neo-liberal era of the last three decades, when extraction of debt interest has far exceeded aid contributions. Africa is principally ‘the land of the blacks’. Every person of African descent, whatever their actual history and experience – they could be Barack Obama, for example — suffers the practical consequences of being stigmatized by colour in a world society that has been built on racial difference. The United States and South Africa stand out for their racist oppression of black people, whether under slavery, colonialism or apartheid. But many Africans do not share this extreme history. My original experience of Africa comes from research in West Africa, a populous region that suffered the predations of the slave trade for centuries, but never had to accommodate white settlers and endured colonialism for a relatively short period. 1 in 6 Africans is a Nigerian and it makes no sense at all to approach their history through the lens of colonial empire — before, during and after.

As a continent, Africa is divided into three disparate regions — North, South and Middle (West, Central and East Africa); but a measure of convergence between them is now taking place, raising the prospect of economic and political union, as once envisaged in Pan-Africanist ideology. I endorse the drive to bring Africa closer together as a geographical unit. Such a process must be fuelled by the collective aspiration of black people for their long-delayed emancipation, a matter of universal concern since the blight of racism affects us all, ‘through a glass darkly’. Africa’s relative poverty has increased in the last half-century, but, from being the most sparsely populated and least urbanized major region around 1900, Africa’s seventh of the world’s population now equals its share of the total land mass; and urbanization there is fast approaching the global average of around 50%. Our task is to understand this ‘urban revolution’ of unprecedented speed and scale; and specifically how the social conditions it has generated lay the groundwork for whatever lies ahead.

Drawing on the classical tradition of Rousseau, Morgan and Engels for an anthropology of unequal society, I distinguished between three types of social formation: egalitarian stateless societies based on kinship; agrarian civilizations in which urban elites control the mass of rural labour by means of the state and class division; and ‘national capitalist’ societies, where markets and money are regulated by central bureaucracies. Although Africa south of the Sahara has a more complex history than can be captured neatly by this typology, I followed Jack Goody in arguing that its dominant institutions before the modern period could best be understood in terms of the classless type based on kinship institutions. The second type, agrarian civilization covered most of Europe, Asia and North Africa in a sequence whose common origin was Mesopotamia’s urban revolution 5,000 years ago. ‘National capitalism’ took root within the region uniquely in South Africa. So Middle Africa, in the course of the twentieth century and particularly after independence, made a belated transition to the Old Regime of agrarian civilization, just when Europe and North America, followed more recently by much of Asia, embraced national capitalism. This brought North and Middle Africa closer together as pre-industrial class societies, while South Africa’s current experiment in post-apartheid capitalism requires it to accommodate its own African majority in new ways, as well as to draw nearer to the rest of Africa.

A preoccupation with Africa’s post-colonial failure to ‘develop’ has obscured what really happened there in the twentieth century. The rise of cities has been accompanied by the formation of weak and venal states, locked into dependency on foreign powers and leaving the urban masses largely to their own devices. The latter have generated spontaneous markets to meet their own needs and these have come to be understood as an ‘informal economy’, which has been stretched to include 70-90% of most African economies. Whatever its value in bringing to light hitherto invisible economic activities, this concept is largely negative, focusing on whatever is not regulated by bureaucracy and law. It tells us nothing about how these practices are concretely organized. This becomes crucial when we seek to identify trends in Africa’s urban economies today that might act as a springboard for sustained economic development in the twenty-first century. There is no substitute for finding out what is actually going on now. Despite its origins in firsthand ethnographic research, the informal economy idea mainly allows policy-makers to ignore the real lives of the supposed beneficiaries of development.

The Old Regime in England, America, France and Italy was overthrown in each case by a liberal revolution whose social consequences were more mixed than was envisaged at the time. This is how the idea of freedom entered modern history, as a popular desire to escape from the arbitrary inequality of class societies that concentrated power and privilege in the hands of a hereditary elite. The world has moved on since then, of course, but in the remainder of this lecture I will explore the prospects for such a revolution in Africa over the coming half-century or so. Africans have already undergone several revolutions without so far achieving the political forms capable of guaranteeing their equal participation in world society. These revolutions include the abolition of the slave trade, colonial conquest, the false dawn of independence and the explosion of cities in the post-colonial era. Of late there has grown up a sort of ‘Afro-pessimism’, a genre epitomized for me by Stephen Smith’s Négrologie (2003), a pun on the French for an obituary column whose subtitle is pourquoi l’Afrique meurt. When I read that, I could only think that Africa is still young and growing, whereas France is old and shows it. So I suppose what follows is an exercise in ‘Afro-optimism’. I do not predict an inevitably happy outcome for Af
rica, but I would claim that exploring positive scenarios can put a more hopeful gloss on development discourse there.

An African liberal revolution?

Expectation of rapid economic improvement soon in Africa seems counter-intuitive at this time, especially given Africa’s symbolic role as the negation of ‘white’ superiority. Black people have played this role for centuries as the stigmatized underclass of an unequal world society organized along racial lines; and never more than now, when American and European dominance is being undermined by a shift in the balance of economic power to countries like China, India, Brazil, Russia and, within its own region, South Africa. Rather than face up to a decline in their economic fortunes, the whites prefer to dwell on the misfortunes of black people and on Africa’s apparently terminal exclusion from modern prosperity. Failed politicians and aging rock stars, such as Blair and Bono, announce their mission to ‘save’ Africa from its presumed ills. The western media represent Africa as the benighted battleground of the four horsemen of the apocalypse: famine, war, plague and death. It all goes to reassure a decadent West that at least some people are a lot worse off than themselves. I was once explaining my book to a French woman and noticed her face hardening when I spoke of hopeful developments in Africa. So I added, ‘Of course Africa’s a mess in many ways…” and she said, “Yes! It’s a mess”. She had never been there, but it was important for her to know that Africa was backward.

It is a curious fact that China occupied a similar slot in western consciousness not long ago. In the 1920s and 30s, Americans and Europeans often spoke of the Chinese the way they do of Africa today. China was then crippled by the violence of warlords, its peasants mired in the worst poverty imaginable. Today the country is spoken of as the only one capable of standing up to the United States, while its manufactures make inroads into western dominance on a scale far greater than Japan’s ever did. This profound shift in economic power from West to East does not guarantee Africa’s escape from the shackles of inequality, but it does mean that structures of Atlantic dominance which once seemed inevitable are perceptibly on the move; and that should make it easier to envisage change. We are entering a new phase of economic possibility, as well as altered patterns of constraint in world society.

Africa’s advantage in current upheavals is its weak attachment to the status quo. The world economy could easily regress to a condition similar to that of the 1930s, when the current financial bubble bursts and while the USA fights to maintain its grip on global power against all-comers. In this case, Africans have less to lose; and the old Stalinist ‘law of unequal development’ reminds us that, under such circumstances, winners and losers can easily change places. I like to tell my European friends who express concern about African poverty, “Don’t worry about them – they have only one way to go, which is up. You should be worried about your own decline.” This applies particularly to my own country, Britain, for whom postponing recognition of the loss of empire has become a way of life in itself. A recent poll reported that Africa has a higher proportion of hopeful people than anywhere else in the world, 30% if I recall. The New York Times couldn’t understand how this could be so, since everyone knows that Africa is the most hopeless place on earth. The idea of Africa as a basket case goes very deep.

To speak of a possible economic upturn begs the question of what Africa’s new urban populations could produce as a means of bringing about their own economic development. So far, African countries have relied on exporting raw materials, when they could. Minerals clearly have a promising future owing to scarce supplies and escalating demand; but the world market for food and other agricultural products is skewed by western farm subsidies and prices are further depressed by the large number of poor farmers seeking entry. Conventionally, African governments have aspired to manufacturing exports as an alternative, but here they face intense competition from Asia. It would be more fruitful for African countries to argue collectively in the councils of world trade for some protection from international dumping, so that their farmers and infant industries might at least get a chance to supply their own populations first. But the world market for services is booming and perhaps greater opportunities for supplying national, regional and global markets exist there.

There was a time when most services were performed personally on the spot; but today, as a result of the digital revolution in communications, they increasingly link producers and consumers at distance. The fastest-growing sector of world trade is the production of culture: entertainment, education, media, software and a wide range of information services. The future of the human economy, once certain material requirements are satisfied, lies in the infinite scope for us to do things for each other — like singing songs or telling stories — that need not take a tangible form. The largest global television audiences are for sporting events like the World Cup or the Olympic Games. The United States’ three leading exports are now movies, music and software; and this is why they have sponsored an intellectual property treaty (TRIPs) that seeks to shore up the profits of corporations whose products can be reproduced digitally at almost no cost. The central conflict in contemporary capitalism is between this attempt to privatize the cultural commons and widespread popular resistance to it. Any move to enter this market will be confronted by transnational corporations and the governments who support them. Nevertheless, there is a lot more to play for here and the terrain is not as rigidly mapped out as in agriculture and manufactures. It is also one where Africans are exceptionally well-placed to compete because of the proven preference of global audiences for their music and plastic arts.

Why do you think Hollywood is where it is? A century ago, film-makers on the East Coast struggled under Thomas Edison’s monopolies of electrical products; so some of them escaped to the Far West and kicked off the movie industry with as little regulation as possible. For his first Mickey Mouse cartoon, Walt Disney ripped off a Buster Keaton movie, ‘Steamboat Willie’. Now the Disney Corporation sues Chinese cartoonists for illegal appropriation of the Mickey Mouse logo. Did you know that the world’s third largest producer of movies, after Hollywood and Bollywood, is Lagos in Nigeria (‘Nollywood’)? Most of their movies cost no more than $5,000, a pattern reminiscent of Hollywood when W.G. Griffith was king. American popular culture is still that country’s most successful export. There is no reason why it couldn’t be for Africans too.

The classical liberal revolutions were sustained by three ideas: that freedom and economic progress require increased movement of people, goods and money in the market; that the political framework most compatible with this is democracy, putting power in the hands of the people; and that social progress depends on science, the drive to know objectively how things work that leads to enlightenment. For over a century now an anti-liberal tendency has disparaged this great emancipatory movement as a form of oppression and exploitation in disguise; and, in common with many social revolutions, it this is partially true. Africa today must escape soon from varieties of Old Regime that owe a lot to the legacy of slavery, colonialism and apartheid; but conditions there can no longer be attributed solely to these ancient causes. It is possible that the example of the classical liberal revolutions, reinforced by endogenous developments in economy, technology, religion and the arts, could offer fresh solutions for African underdevelopment. These would have to be built on the conditions and energies generated by the urban revolution of the twentieth century.

We all know of course that power is distributed very unequally in our world and any new liberal movement would soon run up against entrenched privilege. In fact, world society today resembles quite closely the Old Regime of agrarian civilization, as in eighteenth century England and France, with isolated elites enjoying a lifestyle wildly beyond the reach of masses who have almost nothing. It is not just in post-colonial Africa where the institutions of agrarian civilization rule today. Since the millennium, the United States, whose own liberal revolution once overcame the Old Regime of King George and the East India Company, seems to have regressed to presidential despotism in the service of corporations like Haliburton.

The cultural sources for a liberal revolution

It has long been acknowledged that the rise of capitalism in Europe drew heavily on religion as one of its motors. Max Weber insisted that an economic revolution of this scope could only take root on the back of a much broader cultural revolution. If Africa’s informal economy has the potential to evolve into a more dynamic engine of urban commerce, what might be the cultural grounds for such a development? As I said, whatever happens next must build on what has already been put in place. The basis for Africa’s future economic growth must be the cultural production of its cities and not rural extraction or the reactionary hope of reproducing capitalism’s industrial phase. This in turn rests on:

1.      The energy of youth and women

2.      The religious revival

3.      The explosion of the modern arts

4.      The communications revolution

5.      The new African diaspora linked to sub-national identities

In the time available, I can only sketch an outline of what is a book-length argument.

1. African societies, traditional and modern, have been dominated by older men. Women have benefited less from their opportunities and are less tied to their burdens. In many cases they have been quicker to exploit the commercial freedoms of the neo-liberal international economy. Even when men and boys have plunged whole countries into civil war, thereby removing state guarantees from economic life, an informal economy resting on women’s trade has often kept open basic supply lines. The social reality of Africa’s cities is a young population without enough to do and a growing generation gap. The energies of youth must be harnessed more effectively and the chances of doing so are greater if the focus of economic development is on something that interests them, like popular culture.

2. The religious revival in Africa, both Christian and Muslim, is a matter of immense significance for the forms of economic development. This is in many cases founded on young people’s rejection of the social models and political options offered by their parents’ generation. Fundamentalist and less extreme varieties of religion make a different kind of connection to world society than that offered by the nation-state, based on the assumption of American dominance or its opposite. They help to fill the moral void of contemporary politics and often offer well-tried recipes for creative economic organization (e.g. the Mourides of Senegal, see below). Christian churches are usually organized and supported by women, even if their leadership is often male.

3. In all the talk of poverty, war and AIDS, the western media rarely report the extraordinary vitality of the modern arts in post-colonial Africa: novels, films, music, theatre, painting, sculpture, dance and their applications in commercial design. There has been an artistic explosion in the last half-century, drawing on traditional sources, but also responding to the complexity of the contemporary world. One recent example is the ‘Africa Remix’ exhibition that toured Europe and Japan, a hundred installations from Johannesburg to Cairo, showing the modernity of contemporary African art. The African novel, along with comparable regions like India, leads the world. I have already referred to the creativity of the film industry.

4. Africa largely missed the first two phases of the machine revolution, based on the steam engine and electricity; but the third phase, the digital revolution in communications whose most tangible product is the internet, the network of networks, offers Africans very different conditions of participation that they already show signs of taking up avidly. In origin a means of communication for scientists and the military, the internet is now primarily a global marketplace with very unusual characteristics. Like the informal economy, it goes largely unregulated; but this market freedom is harnessed to the most advanced technologies of our era. The internet has also generated new conditions for managing networks spanning home and abroad by radically shortening the time and space dimensions of communication and exchange at distance. The extraordinarily rapid adoption of mobile phones has made Africa a crucible for global innovations, such as the first multi-country network and use of phones for banking purposes in East Africa. Nor should we neglect the role of television as a transnational means of widening perceptions of community.

5. In the last half-century a new African diaspora has emerged, based unlike that formed by Atlantic slavery on economic migration to America, Europe and nowadays Asia. These migrants are usually known away from home by their national identity, but many of them by-pass the national level when maintaining close relationships with their specific region of origin. They are often highly educated, with experience of the corporate business world, while retaining links to relatives living and working in the informal economy at home. One consequence of neo-liberal reforms has been that transnational exchange is now much easier than it was, drawing at once on indigenous knowledge of local conditions and the expertise acquired by migrants and their families in the West. Remittances from abroad are of immense importance everywhere, but they are bound to play a major role in Africa’s economic future.

Classes for and against the liberal revolution

You may well ask how these separate factors might generate sustainable forms of enterprise capable of raising African economies to new levels in the near future. Economic success is always a contingent synthesis of existing and new conditions. There is no model of successful enterprise, just many stories of economic innovation waiting to be discovered by those who will look. Thus the Mourides, a Sufist order founded in the early twentieth century, constitute an informal state with the state of Senegal. Their international trading operations are capable of influencing national economies, as when they recently shifted shoe supplies to the USA via Harlem from Italy to China. A similar network of North African Muslims has been running cars and car parts illegally from Europe to Africa through Marseille on such a scale that the French car industry has moved some of its production South to meet the demand. Pioneering communications enterprises in Kenya and Ghana are beginning to attract notice from far afield for their exciting mix of local cultural resources and modern technologies. The Nollywood phenomenon offers morality plays to African audiences at an affordable price. It is often under-estimated in part because Lagos and Nigeria are perceived as being chaotic. Yet in seventeenth-century London, while England was going through its political, commercial and scientific revolutions, herds of wild pigs savaged unwary pedestrians to death and the water supply was undrinkable. The development standard for Africa is set today by the bureaucratized societies of the West, by a type of anaesthetized experience that goes by the name of ‘world-class city’. But it may be that earlier phases of the West’s development offer Africans a more appropriate framework of comparison.

In the second chapter of The Wretched of the Earth (1959), ‘Spontaneity: its strengths and weaknesses’, Frantz Fanon provides an excellent blueprint of how to go about analyzing the class structure of decadent societies that are ripe for revolution, in his case the anti-colonial revolution. He points out that political parties and unions are weak and conservative in late colonial Africa because they represent a tiny part of the population: the industrial workers, civil servants, intellectuals and shopkeepers of the town, a class unwilling to jeopardize its own privileges. They are hostile to and suspicious of the mass of country people. The latter are governed by customary chiefs supervised in turn by the military and administrative officials of the occupying power. A nationalist middle class of professionals and traders runs up against the superstition and feudalism of the traditional authorities. Landless peasants move to the town where they form a lumpenproletariat. Eventually colonial repression forces the nationalists to flee the towns and take refuge with the peasantry. Only then, with the rural-urban split temporarily healed by crisis, does a mass nationalist movement take off. This compressed summary does not do Fanon’s analysis justice. I introduce it as an example of what must be done if we face up to the real possibilities for another African revolution now.

The African states brought into being by independence likewise rely on chiefs to keep the rural areas insulated from the more unruly currents of world society. Where the state’s writ has been fatally undermined, warlords take its place. Since the ‘structural adjustment’ policies of the 1980s, international agencies have systematically preferred to approach rural populations through NGOs, the missionaries of our age, rather than national governments. World trade is organized by and for an alliance of the strongest Western governments and corporations. Some of the latter, especially in remote extractive industries, operate as independent states with the state. The cities, massively expanded in size, still sustain a very small industrial proletariat, since mechanized production is poorly developed in post-colonial Africa. The civil servants have been ravaged as a class by neo-liberal pressure to cut public expenditures. This leaves us with the informal economy of unregulated urban commerce, a phenomenon that is not best summarized by the pejorative term, lumpenproletariat. Clearly, trade and finance are not organized, in Africa or in the world at large, with a view to liberating the potential of these classes. It is not likely, therefore, that a liberal revolution could succeed by relying solely on a popular economic movement from below. There are larger players on the scene and their influence too must surely be felt.

Africa must unite

South Africa, the one African country to make a go of ‘national capitalism’ and probably the last, is well-placed to lead the next stage of African development as a whole. This reflects of course President Mbeki’s vision of an African Renaissance. Since 1994, a new national bourgeoisie has begun to emerge there, consisting of old white capital, black politicians and Indian businessmen, linked to Asian and Western sources of capital and with a new opportunity to expand rapidly into their continental backyard. Capitalist development along these lines cannot remain for long satisfied with a political regime granting ultimate power to national sovereignties. Moreover, it is in South Africa’s interest for such expansion not to be seen in exclusively national terms. It should rather be represented, on an analogy with Prussia’s role in German unification, as a drive for African unity initially in a limited economic sense, led by the strongest black government with a Pan-African agenda. And indeed the two most significant continental institutions, the African Union in Addis Ababa and NEPAD (the UN funding body) in Johannesburg are beginning to talk about coordinating their functions. If Africans want to have a say in what happens to them next, they will have to tap old and new social forces to develop their own capacity for transnational association, in the face of the huge coalitions of imperial power mobilizing at this time to deny them that opportunity for self-expression.

Pan-Africanism gave way to the aspiration for national capitalism half a century ago because world society was not organized then to accommodate it. When the anti-apartheid movement led to African independence in South Africa, global thinking took second place to the non-racial nationalism that was always espoused by the ANC. But, as a result of neo-liberal globalization, one of the strongest political movements today is the formation of large regional trading blocs: the EU, NAFTA, ASEAN, Mercosur. This is a good time for Africans to renew the movement towards greater continental unity, at first in economic affairs and as a complement to, not replacement for national governments, since the rest of the world is doing the same thing and they would inevitably lose out again if they fail to do so. If we needed any reminder of the contemporary salience of Pan-Africanism, we have only to note the USA’s recent formation of a unified African military command, with the aim of controlling access to mineral resources there in competition with China.

I have focused on the possibilities for dramatic developments in Africa since, it seems to me, so much thinking about the future there is timid, being limited to ambitions for reprising some earlier phase of the West’s economic history when the door is effectively closed to newcomers. Ideally such developments would be an expression of Africans’ drive from below for democracy and economic freedom; but it is unlikely to take place except within the framework of a revolution from above drawing on forces both external and internal to the continent. I have tried to draw attention here to scenarios that go beyond the limits of current conventional thinking. Africa could make rapid economic advances in the coming decades through a mixture of top down and bottom up forces. But this would require both a radical shift in development strategy and willingness to confront, by whatever combination of peaceful and violent means, the entrenched institutions of economic backwardness. Above all, it is vital for Africans to gain historical awareness of the global context for whatever they attempt locally and regionally. This perspective has largely been missing before.

Real economic progress requires us to go beyond merely documenting the scope of informal economic activities. We need to discover the social and cultural dynamism that underpins its most progressive clusters. What are the social forms that already organize the informal economy and how could their prospects for engaging fruitfully with the national, regional and global economy be enhanced in partnership with the regulatory agencies? Ongoing research into what we may call ‘the human economy’ or ‘economics with people in’ is indispensable to such a programme of development.

It was never the case that a national framework for development made sense in Africa, except possibly for South Africa, and it makes even less sense today. The coming African revolution could leapfrog many of the obstacles in its path, but it will not do so by remaining tied to the national straitjacket worn by African societies since they
won independence from colonial rule.

Public lectures given to the School of Social Sciences at WISER, WitwatersrandUniversity, Johannesburg, 9th and 16th May 2007. With thanks to Eric Worby for the invitation and support.


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