Africa: Past and Present [Part 1]

We have to look back in history not necessarily to live in the past but to inform the present for the future. Development cannot be measured or ascertained unless we can make sense of our underdeveloped past and its impact to our lives. In the same token we cannot plan for the future when we do not understand the present and cannot interrogate that present. Africa suffers now because its development, although traceable, lacks plausible local links; development without roots leads to confusion and disillusion. Instead of building on local norms and values, Africa’s development undermines and at times contradicts those norms and values.

The architects of current African development were neither culturally Africans nor had any interest in African culture; some became Africans by accident, their interests were personal and certainly not always in that of their adopted countries. This article will explore the lessons from Africa’s colonial history. The article will also look at Africa’s current economic and political influence on the global stage and its internal economic policies and politics.

After slavery, colonialism is the single major tool by which Africa was shaped into a valuable resource for Western development and through which the West plundered Africa’s resources. Africa became a cheap source for raw materials yet was never fully integrated into the capitalist economic model. It was probably seen as an essential ingredient for Western economies but not good enough to partake in the economic model. Colonialism polarised people and African economic opportunities along racial lines. Black people were dispossessed of their only asset (the land) by the white settlers. Black people were forced to enter the waged labour market in the newly white-owned large farms, in mines and newly established factories in cities.

The economy worked primarily for the white population that took up better paying jobs and those out of employment had access to a fully funded state welfare. Development of infrastructure was biased towards white interests: mines, farming areas and cities. Most significantly, rural areas were disenfranchised from almost all facets of modern development and lifestyles enjoyed by urban dwellers. Rural dwellers played a limited role in the mainstream socioeconomic activities and the education offered by the few state-run schools was mainly substandard and only relevant to the economic needs of the politically powerful white settlers. The infrastructure in rural areas remained poorly developed at best, in other words the rural areas remained untouched by modern development yet the labour of the dwellers was utilised in farms and urban areas to improve infrastructure and the quality of lives of those resident there. In reality only enclaves of development were created in commercial farming areas and cities.

Churches plugged the gap left by the unfair state welfare system and the poor education offered to the natives. Notwithstanding the often patronising conversion of locals to Christianity, charitable churches provided a better education and health facilities to the natives. The education system itself was built on white values, especially culture and religion. As such Africa’s ‘best’ educated became exponents of foreign values. This was arguably the start in the creation of a black elite class that despised their own customs yet showing immeasurable greed for anything Western. Opportunities to travel and study abroad exposed these individuals to radical university politics. Although their initial political intents may have been good, their huge egos coupled with their low perception of ‘uneducated’ Africans caused them to limit other blacks to less glamorous, less influential political positions. This black elite would later suppress their own people using the same tools of oppression once used by racist white minority governments.

The urban social landscape was marked by overt racial segregation in which different races inhabited different geographical areas. White only areas were architecturally better designed, sparse and all round well groomed in contrast to the densely populated and less attractive black only areas which were even worse than mixed race and Asian areas. Within the city loop there were separate shopping zones for whites and blacks and that was true too in the public transport system. Social cohesion was never in the agenda, it basically did not save the interests of the white minority governments. Keeping black people at arm’s length and perceptively inferior to whites somehow justified the immoral lack of investment in areas inhabited by the black population.

Africa’s present global standing is best examined in the context of its economic and political role in the metaphorical global village. In terms of economic benefits, it has been a mixed bag with countries like South Africa attracting reasonable investment while some like Zimbabwe have experienced a constriction of their economies, albeit mainly due to poor local policies. Although there have been some benefits from foreign direct investment (FDI), Africa has remained largely a producer of primary goods. According to the World Economic Report (2007), despite the last quarter of a century experiencing an increase of FDI stock in absolute terms to all sectors of the industry, its share to the primary and secondary sectors has declined. The outlook for the primary goods dependent developing world and Africa in particular is at best bleak. Lambert (2000) notes that the share of FDI landing in developing countries has been declining as evidenced by a drop from 34 percent in 1995 to 24 percent in 1999.

Furthermore, it is argued that of all the FDI flows to the developing world, 80 percent is destined for only 10 countries, the major beneficiaries being China, Brazil and Argentina (Lambert, 2000). Notably, the share of FDI stock in services has been high globally, signifying a correspondingly high investment within the developed world whose economies are predominately service-based. Africa has no economic, let alone political clout to influence the decisions of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Trade Organisation (WTO): the organisations governing global finances and trade regulations, in the case of the WTO.

The three organisations are controlled by the developed countries and that control is maintained by the undemocratic nature of the organisations. The peripheral role played by Africa in these major organisations leaves the economic fate of the continent out of its hands, at least internationally; global markets determine the price of commodities and primary goods tend to be cheaper. WTO regulations frown upon protectionism leaving weak African economies open to unfair competition from stronger Western economies whose governments deliberately employ protectionist policies through various tariff regimes against manufactures from the developing world.

Continued in Africa: Past and Present Part 2

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