The relentless pursuit of profits in Africa has its roots in imperial domination imposed on the continent by European colonizers. The liberation struggles waged across the entirety of the continent were premised on the rejection of capitalism as the official way of life for Africans. Socialism was adopted in various formats to suit local African contexts by the African intellectuals and revolutionary fighters and this delivered independence for the masses. However, this independence has, over the years, been eroded by the ferocious capitalist forces at the instance of the West and of late, China too.
The emergence of capitalism in the West portended doom for Africa – which was exploited severely, beyond the confines of humanity, for its cheap labour and raw materials. When the capital was invested in the plantations of the Americas, the profitable slave trade emerged. Millions of people were extricated from their continent forcibly, and the continent suffered an enormous deficit regarding its human capital.
The mega-profits generated by the slave trade gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and created a new need for raw materials. There was no other place to turn to except Africa, which was plundered through colonial conquests. The raw materials from Africa fueled the Industrial Revolution, creating a hegemony of private capital.
The Scramble for Africa saw the continent being carved up and partitioned among European powers, without any African say at all. Capitalism was rearing its head and all that mattered to Europeans was the attainment of profits for their companies. Especially as seen in the instance of the British South Africa Company in Southern Africa and the Royal Niger Company in West Africa.
The exploitation of cheap labour in Africa, through sheer brutality and callousness hinged on unbridled racism, created the conditions for agitation in Africa. A wave of revolutionary change gripped the continent, and several struggles for liberation as well as negotiations with the colonizers were effected by the African educated nationalists together with guerrilla fighters.
Rooted in different strands of African Socialism, the educated nationalists who led their countries to independence had their focus on the people.
Leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, and Kenneth Kaunda attempted to create social states with people-centred economics at the forefront. They knew that their common enemy was imperialism manifested in the hegemony of Western companies. For Nkrumah, the forces of neocolonialism were determined to see African economies continuously dependent on the West in almost every sphere of life (Nkrumah was later deposed in a CIA-backed coup).
When the majority of African countries got independence in the 1960s and 1970s, such euphoria for self-determination proved to be ephemeral. Although political independence had been a reality in African countries, Western capital never left the continent. Corporations from the West remained in Africa, dominating all facets of economic activity.
They remained the owners of the means of production – mining and agriculture were in the hands of Western capital. That never signified much change for Africa, as this capital kept interfering in the governance of African countries. This is seen through the proliferation of military coups during this period, as Western companies, and governments favoured their puppets being in power.
In the 1980s and 1990s, neocolonialism gained another foothold in Africa as far as controlling Africa from the outside was concerned. At this point, neoliberalism was gradually creeping in Africa (some of its main proponents were Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and even the Pinochet-led regime in Chile, at the instance of America). Neoliberal policies were dictated to Africa packaged as ‘structural adjustment policies.’
Pressurized by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), this included reducing the role of the government in the private sector, implementing austerity measures aimed at cutting government expenditure in the delivery of social services, as well as reducing labour wages. This also entailed large amounts of debt being advanced to African countries by the World Bank and the IMF. African countries were obliged to alter their economic policies because of debt relief. All the while, the working classes and rural peasantry of African countries were marginalized from owning the means of production.
When these structural adjustment programs were prevalent in Africa, some leaders like Thomas Sankara firmly rejected this notion. For Sankara, what mattered for Africa was self-reliance in economic terms. Dependence on Western capital from the global north only worked to kill African economies. Adjustment strictly meant liberalizing and privatizing African economies.
This new form of hyper-capitalism was also predicated on the liberal ideals of individualism and consumerism. Or what Karl Marx referred to as ‘commodity fetishism.’
For Western capital, Africa is seen only as a destination for its products. With the materialism that capitalism is associated with, African societies have become subservient to the desire to attain new class status. This is exacerbated by much of the educated elite in Africa who, when they helped their countries attain independence, filled the previous roles of the colonizers as well as inheriting the state apparatus that the colonizers left.
Africa is at the peripheries of capitalism, where if citizens attempt to offer dissenting opinions they are imprisoned or killed. Global capital – from both the West and the East – has intensified the race for the ceaseless exploitation of the continent. Neoliberalism has led to African countries talking about “investment” and how their countries are “open for business.” In essence, what this encapsulates is how African leaders are auctioning off their countries to the highest international bidders.
This “investment” (read: the private sector) cares only about its profits and less about human lives. Often, these companies that come to invest in Africa will pay laborers dismal wages, as well as leaving a trail of environmental degradation.
African leaders have been obsessed with privatizing their economies by outsourcing the delivery of basic social services to the private sector (funded by both local and global private capital). Governments are now neglecting their primary job to lead in the provision of social services. Healthcare is outsourced to private medical institutions while the public health infrastructure crumbles, imperiling a greater majority of people. Other services such as water supply, power supply, housing, public transport, and education are continuously being outsourced to private firms by governments – firms that are only pressed about how much profits they make.
The hegemony of Western capitalism in Africa is seen also through the internet – particularly social media. Algorithms of big tech (Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc) are modifying African behaviours to the point that Africans are envious of the lifestyles they see in the advanced countries such that they want to emulate the same, without regard for context. As such, we have a highly individualistic society that only lives “in the now” and does not care much to go beyond the headlines to dig deeper. Social media has destroyed the regard for content in Africa, particularly for the urban youths who use these mediums the most. Narcissism has supplanted the desire to envision a society where we think in terms of public interests.
Capitalism is destroying Africa’s present by creating people who care only about themselves, people concerned only with material gains, and people easily controlled by social media trends. All this is because for social media companies, Africa is simply a market where they can acquire insane amounts of profits.
The disregard for creating public systems that work for everyone so that a few companies can get some profit is disconcerting.
It should never be forgotten that the crude colonialism of the 20th century has been replaced by the domination of private capital in collusion with the state and that the history of colonialism directly affects our lives today.
Africa now needs to return to robust principles of Pan-Africanism, grounded in the different strands of African Socialism with due regard being paid to pragmatism.
All actions must have consideration for African contexts and there must always be a desire to create local solutions instead of waiting for Western capital, as well as Eastern capital. Neoliberalism (also read as contemporary hyper-capitalism) will not solve Africa’s problems and instead, the divide between the rich and the poor will keep widening.