At independence African governments embarked on socioeconomic policies that sort to redress the inequalities caused by the racially biased policies of previous governments. Controversial black empowerment policies mark the economic philosophies of most governments. Even more questionable are the indigenisation policies which have been employed at varying degrees by, among many countries, Uganda and of late, Zimbabwe.
While Idi Amini of Uganda expelled all people of Asian origin expropriating their businesses and properties some of which he gave to his cronies, Zimbabwe is in the process of passing a law that would make it mandatory for foreign-owned companies to sell 51 percent of their shares to locals. Another attempt at creating a just society was Julius Nyerere’s late 1960s socioeconomic concept of Ujamaa (family hood) based on what he called African socialism. He envisioned Ujamaa villages creating an equal society by redressing socioeconomic imbalances through encouraging cooperative work and industrial development in rural areas. It was basically an attempt at import-substitution.
The inward looking economic policy failed to take off due to lack of supporting technology and expertise; and the whole Ujamaa project collapsed. Most recently Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe repossessed land from mainly white commercial farmers to redistribute to black farmers most of whom lacked financial resources and technical skills for large scale commercial production. It is difficult to fathom the program as anything but an attempt to boost the ruling ZANU (PF) party’s waning popularity. The main beneficiaries of the land reform were ZANU (PF) leaders, their families and friends and party supporters. The legacy of Zimbabwe’s land redistribution programme has been the near collapse of agricultural production and associated industries, unprecedented job losses and food shortages.
Domestic socioeconomic policies have, in many ways, not deviated from the colonial era in that the African economy still benefits the rich and urban centres the most at the expense of the poor and rural areas. Perhaps no country typifies that better than South Africa. Some individuals enjoy lifestyles akin to the first world, some rich neighbourhoods enjoy facilities and infrastructure of the highest standard yet some individuals are homeless and rural areas still lack basic infrastructure. It can even be argued that only urban areas and the rich entrepreneurs will benefit from the country hosting the football world cup 2010 tournament. A good example is the decision to link the affluent neighbourhood of Sandton in Johannesburg with the OR Tambo airport by a high speed train service while the rest of the city is served by the inefficient road public transport.
Rural areas are characterised by lack of clean water, poorly built housing, poor education and health provision. Facilities in rural areas remain intolerable although attempts have been made to redistribute resources to improve infrastructure and the lives of rural dwellers. African urban areas are not doing well either; they experience high unemployment rates, poor housing and unreliable electricity supplies, inadequate sewerage treatment facilities and in some countries water supplies are erratic. In most countries, foreign investment and local industry have not grown as hoped. However, there has been an evident increase in wealth among the black elite and young entrepreneurs who are doing very well yet not creating enough job opportunities. Exports are low yet the demand for imports has been increasing at an alarming rate. The effect has been huge trade deficits, declining foreign currency receipts, large scale job losses, dwindling tax revenue and the widening gap between the rich and the poor. The social welfare systems (if in place) are not only inadequately funded but are also poorly publicised.
Politically, Africa has limited influence on the global stage as evidenced by its restricted role within the United Nations Security Council where it has no permanent seat thus cannot veto decisions. At continental level, the African Union (AU) whose membership constitutes almost all countries in the entire continent seeks to unite African states, promote good governance, peace and prosperity among other objectives. However, the AU has very little mandate to carry out its duties and is poorly funded, above all, there is a lack of political will among member states to help the organisation achieve its goals. The AU is largely an irrelevance in a continent where leaders are not keen to criticise those who do not abide by the organisation’s principles. The regional bodies such as SADC and ECOWAS are incapable of dealing with errant leaders because the same people happen to be the most influential within these organisations. Internal African politics is characterised by poorly organised opposition and volatility.
Ethnicity, kinship and corruption play a vital role in who is in power and conflicts along ethnic divisions are not uncommon as was evidenced in Kenya, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and Zimbabwe among others. Although many of African governments will claim to be democratic and most do hold regular elections, the credibility of those elections has often been questioned both nationally and internationally. The problem has been misconceiving the mere holding of elections and the relative calm on the Election Day as the only measure of democracy yet they are just a fraction of a rather long process. Pretence elections aside, Africa is home to authoritarian leadership known for its corruption and a penchant for luxurious lifestyles at public expense.
Africa has moved from the dark ages of colonialism but the strides made have not been big enough. Arguably, African independence merely replaced white colonial masters with brutal black elite completely cut off from the rest of the population. Potentially racist indigenisation and black empowerment policies have not helped the majority of the black citizens as much as they have worked against wider social cohesion. Socioeconomic inequalities are still vast while ethnic and racial divisions have thrived and show no sign of easing. The article has argued that the rich and urban areas still benefit disproportionately from African economic policies. The political environment is still far from ideal. Election outcomes do not always determine political outcomes and the democracy is not seen beyond the regular holding of elections and calm conditions on the Election Day.