Sub-Saharan Africa in Global Capitalism

By Saul, John S.; Leys, Colin | Monthly Review, July-August 1999 | Go to article overview
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Sub-Saharan Africa in Global Capitalism


Saul, John S., Leys, Colin, Monthly Review


If we define sub-Saharan Africa as excluding not only north Africa but also bracket off, for the moment, the continent's southern cone, dominated by South Africa, the key fact about the rest - the greater part of the continent - is thrown sharply into relief: after 80 years of colonial rule and almost four decades of independence, in most of it there is some capital but not a lot of capitalism. The predominant social relations are still not capitalist, nor is the prevailing logic of production. Africa south of the Sahara exists in a capitalist world, which marks and constrains the lives of its inhabitants at every turn, but is not of it. This is the fundamental truth from which any honest analysis must begin. This is what explains why sub-Saharan Africa, with some 650 million people, over 10 percent of the world's population, has just 3 percent of its trade and only 1 percent of its Gross Domestic Product; and why income per head - averaging 460 dollars in 1994 - has steadily fallen, relative to the industrialized world, and is now less than a fiftieth of what it is in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries.(1) It also explains why sub-Saharan Africa's economies have responded worse than others to the market-oriented development policies urged on it by the World Bank and other outside agencies since the 1980s. Now the aid flow is declining, while population growth is still racing towards a barely imaginable 1 to 1.2 billion in the year 2020.(2)

As we shall see, some forms of capital see plenty of profitable opportunities in sub-Saharan Africa, but the likelihood that the region is going to be developed by capitalism seems smaller than ever. On a continent of household-based agrarian economies with very limited long-distance trade, colonialism imposed cash-crop production for export, and mineral extraction, with manufacturing supposed to come later. Today, however, world demand is weakening for the export crops that African farmers produce - coffee, cocoa, tea, cotton, sugar, tobacco - and competition from much more productive capitalist agriculture in Asia and Latin America is intensifying; while industrial country dependence on Africa's minerals and metals is also declining (by about 2 percent a year).(3) And takeoff into manufacturing for internal consumption is blocked by an inability to compete with imports and by tiny domestic markets; meanwhile collapsing infrastructures, political risk, and poorly trained workforces tend to make manufacturing for export uncompetitive, even at very low wages.(4) As the Economic Commission for Africa says in most of Africa industrial expansion faces "impossible difficulties."(5) South Africa is, of course, the big exception, with a diversified and relatively sophisticated economy and a population growth rate well below that of the rest of sub-Saharan Africa: if we include all of southern Africa in our definition of sub-Saharan Africa (the more usual definition), South Africa alone accounts for about two-fifths of its total gross domestic product (GDP).

Africa in Global Capitalism: Two Perspectives

There are two ways of picturing Africa in the context of global capitalism. One is from the point of view of the people living and hoping to improve their lot in sub-Saharan Africa's forty-eight nation-states with a considerable variety of kinds of "insertion" into the global capitalist economy, and a corresponding range of experiences of development (or the lack of it).(6) The other is from the point of view of capital, for which Africa is not so much a system of states, still less a continent of people in need of a better life, as simply a geographic - or geological - terrain, offering this or that opportunity to make money.

On the first view, what stands out are two general features. First, besides South Africa, the one large industrialized country in the sub-continent, there are just six other countries with over twenty million inhabitants each - Congo/DRC, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda - and one super-large country, Nigeria.

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