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Africa ‘rising’, South Africa lifting? Or the reverse?


Patrick Bond teaches at the University of Johannesburg Department of Sociology.

From Moody’s to the masses, any observer of Jacob Zuma’s administration will be confused by the mixed signals since Mangaung.

Here’s Zuma speaking to African National Congress followers in Durban on 12 January: “We reaffirm the character of the ANC as a disciplined force of the left, a multi-class mass movement and an internationalist movement with an anti-imperialist outlook.”

As learnt from predecessor Thabo Mbeki, the preferred dance move is to talk left at home and walk right abroad, for Zuma happily addressed the Davos World Economic Forum 11 days later: “We are presenting a South Africa that is open for business and which is open to provide entry into the African continent.”

Such confusion can be temporarily reconciled within a win-win scenario, in which African growth soars to the advantage not of the old European colonial powers and Yankees, but of a Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa bloc (Brics) increasingly committed to massive African infrastructure investment. The Brics summit in Durban next month promises participants, including 25 African heads of state invited to join the big five on 27 March, a platform from which to carve up the continent with new rail, road and port infrastructure opportunities, financed by a new Brics bank to augment the utterly hapless Development Bank of Southern Africa.

Will Pretoria’s heavy lifting work? Is it already? After all, late last year, Daily Maverick celebrated Africa’s “economic growth miracle” as “the real thing”. Days later, Time magazine’s cover story by Alex Perry pronounced, “Africa owes its takeoff to a variety of accelerators, nearly all of them external and occurring in the past 10 years”:

  • “billions of dollars in aid, especially to fight HIV/AIDS and malaria;
  • “tens of billions of dollars in foreign-debt cancellations;
  • “a concurrent interest in Africa’s natural resources, led by China; and
  • “the rapid spread of mobile phones, from a few million in 2000 to more than 750 million today.”

The reality is very different. Africa owes its economic decline to a variety of accelerators, nearly all of them external and occurring in the past centuries during which slavery, colonialism and neo-colonialism locked in the continent’s underdevelopment, but several of which – along with climate change – were amplified in recent years:

Moreover, capital flight from Africa continues to outpace aid and investment, amounting to an estimated $1.4 trillion since 1970, according to a recent study by University of Massachusetts economists.

Most crucially, Sub-Saharan Africa is losing a net 6% of gross national income each year thanks to the Resource Curse. The figure comes from recalibrating gross domestic product, which measures raw materials stripped from the soil as once-off credits to GDP. More appropriate is to also consider them as debits: the decline in “natural capital” that occurs because the minerals and petroleum are non-renewable.

According to the World Bank’s 2011 book The Changing Wealth of Nations – from where the 6% figure comes –  even South Africa’s annual “adjusted net savings” was negative R2,150 per person in 2005, a figure that has no doubt worsened since. In future, such calculations will inform SA national income accounts, if last year’s Gabarone Declaration is respected.

In contrast, the wealth of resource-based countries Canada and Australia soared because their extraction is done largely by home-grown companies that reinvest and return profits to local shareholders; most of the extractive corporations operating here send profits to London, New York, Melbourne and Toronto. In most Afro-optimist reports, information about the role of these firms – whether from the West or Brics countries–in causing the African Resource Curse is scarce. These accounts are informed by export-oriented, petro-minerals-centric, finance-driven ideologies, and Time is no exception (perhaps for advertising-related reasons).

To illustrate, other telling Time quotes are from the inimitable Bob Geldof: “The continent has 60% of the world’s unused arable land. As Geldof says, ‘In the end, we all have to go to Africa. They have what we need.’ And it is in that second scramble for Africa that the continent’s best hopes lie, because if the first scramble for Africa – as historians dubbed the period from the 1870s to 1900 – was a European imperialist carve-up, the second should leave Africa as the big winner.”

More likely, Africans will be the big losers of a Brics sub-imperialist carve-up of the continent’s land, minerals and hydrocarbons. More likely, Durban and subsequent Brics summits will resemble, economically, the political deals of Berlin in 1885. “They have what we need” says it all.

Moreover, with climate change causing only a 2 degree average warming, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that Africa’s crop revenue will fall 90% by 2100. Last November, even World Bank president Jim Yong Kim expressed concern about a 4°C rise, “which is what scientists are nearly unanimously predicting by the end of the century, without serious policy changes”(including his own institution’s world-leading financing of fossil fuels, which appears set to continue).

Already 400,000 die from climate change each year, and Christian Aid estimates that 185 millon Africans will perish this century. As the Doha COP18 and Durban COP17 and every other climate gathering shows, those with power from Washington and Brussels to Beijing and Pretoria don’t really care. Time’s praise for Resource-Cursed Africa doesn’t mention climate change even in passing.

However so as to not end in despair, it is also crucial to recall growing evidence of Africa uprising, from Egypt and Tunisia, to Senegal and Nigeria, to Kenya and Uganda, to the militant poor and working people of southern African. The best information about the continent’s social struggles comes from the ezine Pambazuka, but there are other sources.

Using data gathered even before Marikana, the Davos World Economic Forum’s 2012-2013 World Competitiveness Report gave South African workers the gold medal for class struggle, against 143 competitors (a soaring improvement over our country’s 2011-12 rating as home of the world’s seventh most feisty workers).

It is the intensity of these Africans’ critique of status quo political economy – and perhaps, soon, a growing breadth and depth, as strike committees fuse with community groups and environmentalists to transcend South Africa’s fabled popcorn protests – that provide the only real hope for a durable rising by a very oppressed continent’s peoples. And notwithstanding ever more shrill ANC claims of “anti-imperialism”, that genuine rising would necessarily include lifting off the dead weight of South African subimperialism. DM


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