Africa: Can Africa throw capitalism a lifeline?

“It is my firm belief that Africa represents the next global economic frontier, and I am not alone in that assessment.” So said Johnnie Carson, assistant secretary of state for African Affairs, to the US House foreign sub-committee on African Affairs on 17 April 2012. Carson is not alone in expressing growing optimism about Africa. As he also noted, the World Bank’s projection of economic growth rates for Africa during the next two years is between 5% and 6%. This exceeds the figures expected for Latin America, Central Asia or Europe.

The IMF’s forecast for five years, beginning in 2011, has seven African countries – Ethiopia, Mozambique, Tanzania, Congo, Ghana, Zambia and Nigeria – among the world’s ten fastest growing economies. An analysis by the Economist last year reveals that six sub-Saharan African countries – Angola, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Chad, Mozambique and Rwanda – were among the world’s ten fastest growing economies over the ten years to 2010.

Indeed, Africa has begun to draw positive remarks from capitalist commentators especially since the dawn of the global economic crisis. The worst capitalist crisis since the 1930s Great Depression, triggered in the United States and Europe, has apparently forced capitalist strategists to search elsewhere for a success story, and they have invented one in Africa. Leading capitalist media have suspended their characteristic bad press about the continent and now trumpet what are seen as ’positives’.

A striking example of this can be found in the Economist where Africa metamorphosed from being the “Hopeless Continent”, as in a May 2000 edition, to the “Hopeful Continent”, which was the cover story in a December 2011 edition. However, most of these countries’ high growth rate figures reflected a pick-up in raw material exports and price increases tied to the growth in global demand, especially from China.

For instance, the price of crude oil rose from less than $20 a barrel in 1999 to $147 in 2008. Generally these statistics do not reflect any generalised growth in the economy or in living standards. Besides, any sustained slowdown in the West and China will see a sharp decline in the demand for Africa’s exports.

Poverty

To most working people, who have only seen their living conditions getting worse year in year out, the impressive figures of economic growth being thrown around seem magical. In fact, the huge increases in food and fuel prices mean a continued assault on living standards. Africa today reveals a continent blighted with mass poverty and restricted access to the basic needs of life.

For example, in Ethiopia, a country on the ’golden list’, 90% of the population was classified as “multidimensional poor” by a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report in 2010.

The situation in Nigeria, Africa’s biggest oil producer is also aptly described by the UNDP. Its representative in the country, Daouda Toure, correctly noted that “for almost a decade now, Nigeria has been recording consistently a high economic growth rate that has not produced commensurate employment opportunities and reduction in poverty among its citizens.” He continued: “Available statistics suggest that the incidence of poverty in Nigeria had indeed worsened between 2004 and 2010” (The Nation, Lagos, 29 August 2012).

South Africa, the continent’s biggest economy, is the second most unequal country in the world. This is despite “black economic empowerment” driven by the ANC government in post-apartheid South Africa. In Angola, two-thirds of the population live on less than €1 ($1.25) a day and only 25% of children are enrolled in primary schools (Guardian, London, 18 November 2011). This is the country which was the world’s fastest growing economy, beating China into second position, in the decade to 2010.

Presently, it acts as a safe haven for Portuguese capitalism, a poster boy of the eurozone crisis. In a classic case of reverse economic migration between Europe and Africa, Angola has not only attracted about 150,000 Portuguese escaping joblessness but has also heavily invested its petrol dollars in Portugal. Angola’s state oil company Sonangol is the biggest single shareholder in one the Portugal’s biggest banks, Millennium BCP.

As of June 2010 the value of Angolan investments in listed Portuguese companies was estimated at more than €2 billion, according to the Financial Times. Yet there is barely electricity and clean water in the country, even in the capital Luanda.

All this is symptomatic of the situation in Africa where economic growth is reflected in the opulence of the thieving capitalist elite and not in infrastructural development or the living standards of ordinary people. But the capitalist strategists are not concerned about the fate of working people. In so far as there are natural resources to be exploited for super-profit, Africa is a bed of roses. As the Guardian (London) reports: “There is growing confidence in Africa as an investment destination with the highest returns in the world” (28 March 2012).

Hence, the global investment bank Goldman Sachs said in a March 2012 report: “Africa is something investors have to think about, for long-term growth (either participating in it or missing it).” This drive to super-exploit Africa explains why the continent, which is rich in natural resources and fertile lands for agriculture, is dominated by multinationals and run on the basis of capitalist neoliberal policies to benefit the imperialist west.

The lack of, or primitive state of, necessary infrastructure has meant that Africa is still largely dependent on exports of primary commodities and only accounts for an abysmal 2% of world output. The so-called ’investors’ are mainly interested in commodity and extractive industries which, although driving growth, create few jobs.

This failure to develop manufacturing explains why Africa, a classic example of jobless growth, cannot emulate the role of China as an engine of global capitalism despite its huge population and growing urbanisation. On the contrary, capitalism will continue to leave the continent prostrate.

Corruption

Africa’s woe is compounded by the characteristic corruption of its leaders. It is instructive however to state that corruption is not limited to Africa or developing countries. Most of the resources that are left in Africa, after losing some to unfair trade and debt repayment, are stolen by pro-western corrupt leaders and then stashed away in private foreign accounts in Europe and North America.

Neoliberal capitalism, which entails privatisation and deregulation, has given more leverage to Africa’s political leaders to loot their treasuries since they are not committed to use the resources to provide infrastructure and the basic necessities of life. But in the face of this situation the continent’s workers, youth and poor are not passive. Africa has a rich history of repeated mass struggles against colonialism, and apartheid.

More recently there have been struggles against corrupt, rotten regimes and for a better life, as exemplified by the mass uprisings in the Arab world, especially in North Africa, which claimed at least three long-serving dictators. January 2012 saw the biggest general strike and mass protest in the history of Nigeria against the increase in fuel prices.

Miners in South Africa, in their struggle for better pay and conditions, have almost brought the mining industry to its knees. Mining accounts for a huge part of the country’s wealth and is also a symbol of colossal social inequality between workers and bosses.

The struggle of miners, in which DSM (CWI, South Africa) is playing a leading role (see pages 6&7), has helped put on the front burner the demand for the nationalisation of the mining industry, and also for a working and poor people’s political alternative to the ANC.

The continued mass protests of workers and youth in Europe, especially in Greece and Spain, against cuts and capitalist neoliberal attacks on jobs, wages, education and health care will continue to raise consciousness among the working people of Africa. New struggles in Africa will mean that there is no safe haven for capitalism in a world of crisis and will serve as inspiration to intensify the search for socialist alternative.