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Architects Of Poverty

by Kavish Chetty / 26.01.2011

There’s an old colonial proverb that goes something like this: “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Make that man a slave, exploit the natural resources of his country and generally fuck up his way of life with neo-colonial economic policies, and you’ll be fat for the rest of your life.” This imaginary invective of the colonial project is what Moeletsi Mbeki’s new book is written to deal with. Subtitled “Why African Capitalism Needs Changing”, his work is an accessible and concise account, numbering only 196 sparsely-printed pages, about why our continent appears to sink, where other (predominantly Eastern) former colonised peoples thrive. His targets are quite unwaveringly set on political elites and what he sees as an outmoded kind of capitalism (mercantile capitalism) still in effect on the continent. This is helped along with an interesting comparative study of Far East economic development relative to our own.

The first chapter introduces what Mbeki (brother of the ex-president, but a frequent and outspoken voice of dissent during his reign) thinks of as the chief theoretical problem of African Capitalism: its emphasis on trade rather than industry. The distinction isn’t particularly complicated, but is historically motivated. Mercantilism is a 16th-century phenomenon, which is based on the rather elementary principle of “buying cheap and selling dear.” Since the 18th century, western societies and their economies have been undergoing radical transformations to the point of post-industrialism. The general strategy of industrialism is the knowledge that the world’s wealth remains constant and that the increase of state wealth can only happen at the expense of another state. “The challenge facing the continent,” writes Mbeki, “is how to modernise capitalism from mercantilism to industrialism.”

Later on Mbeki analyses two primary conflicts he sees as attributing to Africa’s malaise. The first is the inheritance of (what is retroactively called) neo-colonial economic policies: policies designed to service the financial interests of an elite few, while continuing to exploit the proletariat and natural resources to this effect; strengthening the wealth of this elite, rather than the wealth of the country. His second is the effect of the cold war on the continent: forcing countries to choose sides and breeding radical infighting amongst policy makers. This is all, of course, tempered with the rise of nationalism, not to mention the threat and action of physical violence and civil war that has contoured our fractious continent.

From here, Mbeki undertakes a wide-ranging and welcome critique of South Africa’s political elites and argues our private sector is still in thrall to multinational corporations. He is equally controversial on the subject of African nationalism, which he sees as a sort of colonial institution designed to entrench a “parasitic, bureaucratic bourgeoisie living off state revenues.” Black Economic Empowerment he asserts was “invented by South Africa’s economic oligarchs, that handful of white businessmen and their families who control the commanding heights of the country’s economy – mining, its associated chemical and engineering industries, and finance.”

I was pleased by Mbeki’s economic prose, which is thankfully clear and lucid, unencumbered by arrogant academicism or reliance on jargon. His arguments, though weighty and representing an obvious challenge to the status quo, are developed cleanly and simply. The book is accessible from the gambit of its first chapter to its satisfying conclusion, calling for a new kind of democracy in Africa. He writes, “The first steps towards achieving this is to throw open land ownership to the peasants on a freehold basis, a policy that would encourage them to invest in land improvement, thereby making it possible for them to accumulate funds to invest in other sectors of the economy. This is one revolution that can be achieved by the combined efforts of Africans, in the East and the West.”

Altogether – as he goes via ‘the de-industrialisation of Africa’ and ‘the failures of African regional integration’ – this book makes provocative reading for anyone disillusioned by Africa’s seemingly magnetic attraction to corruption, the preservation of new elites and the exploitation of the working classes.

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