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<nettime> Two lectures on African development
Keith Hart on Sat, 16 Jun 2007 15:57:50 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Two lectures on African development

Paul's post about Venice reminded me that I have been writing about
African culture too. For some years now I have been planning a book
called The African Revolution. Its proposed table of contents goes:


Part I The idea of Africa

1. Africa today: ?through a glass, darkly?
2. Africa on my mind
3. Africa in world history

Part II The engines of inequality

1. Waiting for emancipation: slavery, colonialism, apartheid
2. The intellectuals of the anti-colonial revolution
3. ?Development?: the post-colonial counter-revolution

Part III What happened in the twentieth century

1. Africa?s urban revolution
2. ?The informal economy?: the rise of the market
3. The explosion of the modern arts

Part IV Africa?s (neo-)liberal revolution?

1. Moral politics and the religious revival
2. The new diaspora in the information age
3. A second imperialism or emancipation at last?

 From time to time, I perform the script in public. But recently,
on the invitation of Eric Worby, I gave two lectures at WISER,
Witwatersrand University, Johannesburg. Doubling the length exposed
the holes in the argument more than before. But I now feel that I have
to write the book. So I post the pair on nettime in case anyone can be
bothered to suggest remedies. Or for your reading pleasure on a quiet
summer afternoon. I include a table of contents so that you can skip.


Lecture 1: African development in the twentieth century

1. ?Africa? and the question of ?development?

2. Africa?s traditional societies and agrarian civilization

3. Africa?s urban revolution in the twentieth century

4. A note on the North and South African exceptions

5. Urban commerce and the informal economy

Lecture 2: African development in the twenty-first century

1. The story so far

2. An African liberal revolution?

3. The cultural sources for a liberal revolution

4. Classes for and against the liberal revolution

5. Africa must unite


?Africa? and the question of ?development?

In these two lectures, I consider Africa?s development prospects in
the coming half-century, viewed in the light of the century that has
just passed. The future is unknowable of course, but whatever happens
next must build on social conditions created by recent developments,
as well as on longer-term continuities. Africa has seen extraordinary
urban growth in the twentieth century and this, rather than the
conventional view of the continent as an exporter of raw materials,
should form the basis for thinking about development in future. This
means exploring ways of linking present forms of urban commerce to the
world economy, as well as to national and regional markets. Indigenous
commerce has so far been approached mainly in terms of the ?informal
economy?. Currently 70-90 percent of African national economies
are estimated to be ?informal?; so the social forms that organize
the informal economy and mobilize its resources must surely play a
significant part in whatever happens next.

What prospects do neo-liberal markets hold for Africa as a whole?
Africa?s experience in the twentieth century is often represented as
a failure to ?develop?. I accept that economic and political trends
in post-colonial Africa have often been dire; but I do not agree that
this situation is terminal. Indeed in my second lecture I explore the
possible conditions for an African liberal revolution, an economic
turnaround rapid enough to merit comparison with Europe and America
at an earlier stage or with parts of Asia today. ?Afro-optimism? of
this sort at least goes beyond the negative or palliative limits of
much development thinking today. But I must first clarify what I mean
by ?Africa? and ?development?, before looking back over the twentieth
century for the rest of this lecture.

?Africa? refers to either a continent ? from the Cape to Cairo ? or to
a race. The two are sometimes combined as ?the land of the blacks?,
but this land is hard to pin down. North Africa has been an integral
part of circum-Mediterranean civilization from the beginning and
Southern Africa was dominated by white settlers in modern history.
The regions in between ? West, Central and East Africa ? historically
had strong external links, but most were made subject to colonial
empire only from the 1880s onwards and achieved their independence
by the 1960s. The brevity of this European occupation makes it
bizarre to periodize continental history as pre-colonial, colonial
and post-colonial; but then Africans were not principally responsible
for this division. The middle belt of African countries is sometimes
called ?Sub-Saharan Africa? or just ?Black Africa?; but it is not
obvious what they have in common or indeed where they are. The huge
country of Sudan was always part of Egyptian history; the ancient
kingdom of Ethiopia avoided being colonized; Liberia had a black
colonial elite. So it would not be hard to claim that the umbrella
term ?Africa? is untenable. Yet it persists and, I shall argue, should
be an integral part of any development strategy for the region. The
world is turning, in response to globalization, to regional trading
blocs like the EU, NAFTA, ASEAN and Mercosur; and Africa can?t afford
to miss out on this trend.

There is already some precedent for viewing Africa as a unity. The
African Union, NEPAD and other continental institutions, whatever
their limitations, do exist after all. World maps show Africa as a
seventh of the earth?s total land mass separated from Europe and the
Middle East by the Mediterranean and Red Seas and two narrows. The
first half of the twentieth century gave rise to empire?s antithesis,
?Pan-Africanism?, probably the most inclusive political movement of
its time. It was a species of nationalism uniting Africans who aimed
to recover control of their own land with New World descendants
of African slaves who were still subjected to racial exclusion
there. Getting the British, French, Belgians and Portuguese out of
Africa seemed to be of one piece with fighting the systematic racial
discrimination on which Atlantic and world society were then founded.
The idea of Africa as the home of a people stigmatized by colour and
occupying the lowest stratum of a racialized global order remains a
tremendous obstacle to the full participation of black people in world
society as equals. The continuing failure of African countries to
?develop? underwrites such prejudice. It would therefore constitute
a major upheaval in world society, if this presumption of Africa?s
eternal economic backwardness were to be dramatically refuted.

The apartheid principle of separating rich and poor spatially is to
be found everywhere in local systems of discrimination, more or less
blatant. But the Caribbean Nobel-prizewinning economist, Sir Arthur
Lewis in The Evolution of the International Economic Order (1978)
makes a plausible case that twentieth-century world society as a
whole was constructed along racial lines at a particular historical
conjuncture. In the decades leading up to the First World War, fifty
million Europeans left home for temperate lands of new settlement;
the same number of Indians and Chinese (?coolies?) were shipped to
the colonies as indentured labourers. These two streams of migrants
had to be kept apart since, although their work and skill-level was
often similar, whites were paid on average nine shillings a day, while
Asians received one shilling a day. In those areas where Asian workers
were allowed to settle, the price of local wage-labour was driven
down to their level. Western imperialism?s division of the world
at this time into countries of dear and cheap labour had profound
consequences for their subsequent economic development. Demand in
high-wage economies is stronger than in their low-wage counterparts.
World trade has been organized ever since in the interests of the
better-paid, with tax-rich states subsidizing their farmers to dump
cheap food overseas at the expense of local agricultural development,
while preventing the poorer countries? manufactures from undermining
the wages of industrial workers at home. South Africa and the United
States each encouraged heavy immigration of working-class Europeans
while seeking to retain a reserve of poorly-paid black and Asian
labour. The resulting dualism is inscribed on their shared history of
racist urbanization.

So, the idea of ?Africa? may be most suitably conceived of as a
continental territory ? Africans, Arabs and Europeans alike ?
embarked on the great march towards economic and political union.
But the legacy of imperialism means that race and development
are still linked in symbolic and practical terms; and dreams of
African emancipation have global, not just regional implications.
The long human conversation about a better society has come to be
identified with the term ?development?. What does it mean? In essence,
that society is moving, rather than being fixed. In this sense,
?development? is similar to its Victorian counterpart, ?evolution?.
But I prefer to think of ?development? as a stage of contemporary
history defining political relations between rich and poor countries,
like its predecessor ?colonialism?, and lasting for much of the
previous half-century.

This period had two distinct phases which we may identify loosely
by the terms ?social democracy? and ?neo-liberalism?. The first,
roughly 1945-1975 (?les trente glorieuses?), saw an economic boom fed
by public expenditures in the leading industrial nations. The idea
that the rich could materially assist poor countries to narrow the
economic gap between them was taken seriously at this time, even if
the recipes for ?development? now look naïve. After the oil price
shocks of the 1970s and economic problems such as ?stagflation?, a
?free market? era was inaugurated by Reagan and Thatcher and, with
some modifications, persists today. This period has seen a widening
gap between rich and poor countries, especially between Africa and
everyone else, fuelled by massive extraction of debt interest and the
undermining of weak states in the name of ?structural adjustment?.
The world economy has been depressed ever since the 70s; currently
China alone accounts for almost half of global economic growth in any
year and most of the rest comes from credit expansion in the USA. In
these circumstances, ?development? as a description of the partnership
between rich and poor countries has become a sham and indeed most
?development? activities consist of putting sticking plaster on the
wounds inflicted by an unfettered capitalism.

Africa?s traditional societies and agrarian civilization

If African ?development? is ever to break out of the unhappy pattern
established in the last half-century, its engine will have to be
sustained endogenous economic growth. Our task is to analyze why
independence did not confer the conditions for such growth and how
the conditions established then might, with the benefit of new
development strategies, feed an economic revolution now. But, in
order to understand Africa?s twentieth-century experience ? the
extraordinary compression of contradictory social developments within
a short period ? we must first take a long view of the region?s
divergence from the general historical trajectory of the Eurasian land

My teacher, Jack Goody has written a series of books seeking to
explain how and why African societies south of the Sahara diverged
before the modern period from their counterparts in Europe and
Asia (?Eurasia?). He concluded that all the agrarian civilizations
of Eurasia shared a common origin in the ?urban revolution? of
Mesopotamia 5,000 years ago. This pattern also extended to Egypt
and the African littoral of the Mediterranean millennia ago. By
the 11th century, Cairo was the hub of a mercantile civilization
stretching from Spain to India. The rise of cities was accompanied
by the formation of states whose function was to supervise a new
kind of class society, where a narrowly-based urban elite extracted
agricultural surpluses from an increasingly servile rural labour
force. Goody showed how forms of kinship and marriage reflected
property relations that were themselves made possible by more
intensive technologies, such as the plough and irrigation. Sub-Saharan
Africa, he held, had largely missed out on this urban revolution
along with its agricultural technology, higher population density and
unequal property relations. This accounts for why traditional African
forms of kinship and marriage are so different and their societies
were, relatively speaking, classless.

The contrast between egalitarian societies built on kinship and
unequal societies based on state power and class division goes
back to L. H. Morgan?s Ancient Society (1877) and before him to
Rousseau in the Discourse on Inequality (1754). Clearly it cannot
be applied unambiguously to Africa and Eurasia before the modern
age, even if we try to isolate Black Africa from its Northern and
Southern extremities. The Atlantic and Indian Ocean slave trades
generated coastal enclaves in both West and East Africa. The medieval
civilization of the West African Sahel was a significant part of the
Islamic world: when the King of Mali went on a pilgrimage to Mecca
in the 13th century, he spent so much gold in Egypt as to cause
runaway inflation there for three decades. Of the Yoruba agro-cities
that emerged as a result of nineteenth-century warfare, Ibadan?s
population had reached 200,000 by the onset of colonial rule. These
examples of pre-colonial urbanization were rightly emphasized when
the anti-colonial revolution delivered independence to most African
countries in the second half of the twentieth century.

Even so, if the contrast were presented as a statistical trend rather
than as a categorical fact, it must be admitted that large swathes
of middle Africa entered the modern epoch with a minimal urban
population and that the dominant institutions of their societies owed
a lot more to kinship than to class differences. Indigenous states
were commonplace in the early modern period, many of them emerging
in response to the political, economic and demographic upheavals
provoked by European imperial expansion. But, in a dozen volumes
ranging from productive technologies, property forms and the means
of communication to cooking, decoration and myth, Goody documents in
substantial detail how most African societies south of the Sahara
diverged from the pattern of agrarian civilization typical of all the
major regions of pre-industrial Eurasia. This institutional package
included territorial states, embattled cities, landed property,
warfare, racism, bureaucratic administration, literacy, impersonal
money, long-distance trade, work as a virtue, world religion and the
nuclear family; and its grip on modern world society is still strong.

Of course, if traditional African societies appeared to be more equal
than their European counterparts, it does not mean that inequality was
wholly absent there. Friedrich Engels, in The Origins of the Family,
Private Property and State (1884), where he drew heavily on Morgan?s
work, made much of the progressive subordination of women, first
in tribal societies based on agriculture and pastoralism, later in
pre-industrial states and finally in capitalist societies. A body of
Marxist and feminist scholarship in the 1960s and 70s extended this
analysis to the conflict between African males of different age, with
polygamous elders commanding young men?s labour through control of
access to marriageable women and the latter condemned to doing most
of the work without effective political representation. Gender and
generation differences accordingly take on huge salience in African
societies. I have gone into this issue at some length since it is
central to grasping Africa?s twentieth-century experience.

Africa?s urban revolution in the twentieth century

If Africa is normally judged these days in terms of what did not
happen in the twentieth century (?development?), what actually did
happen? In 1900, Africa was the least densely populated region in the
world with the smallest proportion of its inhabitants living in cities
(probably around 2%, near the world average for the beginning of the
modern era around 1800). By 2000, a sustained population explosion
means that the continent now has a share of world population equal
to its share of land area and up to a half of its inhabitants live
in cities (also near the world average). Since Africa?s population
(currently a bit less than either India?s or China?s) is still
growing much faster than other regions at 2.5% per annum, so too is
its relative size in the world, if not yet its purchasing power in
the world economy (which is around 2%). A simple Keynesian logic
suggests that, if Africans became more prosperous, everyone else would
benefit from the increased demand. Certainly the Asian exporters of
manufactures are keenly aware of the potential of Africans? market
share. But the Americans and the Europeans who still control global
economic institutions have not yet demonstrated any awareness of this

Instead of harping on Africa?s failure to develop, it might be more
fruitful to focus on what positively occurred in the twentieth
century. In short, Africa experienced its own version of the urban
revolution that it had largely avoided before. This means not just
that cities proliferated on an unprecedented scale, but that the whole
package of pre-industrial class society was installed there more or
less for the first time: states, new urban elites, intensification
of agriculture and a political economy based on the extraction of
rural surpluses. Africa made the transition to agrarian civilization
after Europe and America had moved on to industrial capitalism in the
nineteenth century and while the Asians followed suit in the next. The
relative success of Asians in translating their political independence
into effective economic competition with the West has significant
consequences for Africa?s prospects now. In the meantime, any strategy
for African development in the coming decades must build on the social
conditions resulting from the construction of nominally independent
nation-states on an economic foundation of pre-industrial agriculture.

The anti-colonial revolution, beginning in Asia after the war
and continuing in Africa, unleashed extravagant hopes for the
transformation of an unequal world. These hopes have not yet been
realized for most Africans who are still waiting for political forms
that will guarantee their full participation as equals in world
society. By most accounts African economies have not fared well
since independence. But what was the model of development they were
expected to adopt? I call it ?national capitalism?, the attempt to
manage markets and money through central bureaucracies organized by
the nation-state. Development in this sense never had a chance to take
root in Africa. For the first half of the twentieth century, African
peoples were shackled by colonial empire and in the second half, after
they achieved independence, their new nations struggled to keep afloat
in a world economy organized by and for the major powers, then engaged
in the Cold War.

When Kwame Nkrumah was leading Ghana to independence, he used to
declaim ?Seek ye first the political kingdom.? The idea was that
merely changing ownership of the state would be sufficient to deliver
economic development to African peoples, regardless of conditions
in the world at large. Frantz Fanon took a different view. In The
Wretched of the Earth (first published in French in 1959), written
from the depths of Algeria?s own anti-colonial struggle, he spoke
prophetically of the ?pitfalls of national consciousness? which would
undermine Africa?s post-colonial states and especially of the weakness
of the new middle class who led them:

"From the beginning the national bourgeoisie directs its efforts
towards (economic) activities of the intermediary type. The basis of
its strength is found in its aptitude for trade and small business
enterprises, and for securing commissions. It is not its money that
works, but its business acumen. It does not go in for investments and
it cannot achieve that accumulation of capital necessary to the birth
and blossoming of an authentic bourgeoisie."

In other words, Africa?s new leaders thought they were generating
modern economies, with ambitions for public expenditure to match,
but in reality they were erecting fragile states whose economic base
was the same backward agriculture as before. As Fanon predicted,
this weakness led them inexorably to exchange the democratic
legitimacy generated in the independence struggle for dependence on
foreign powers later. These ruling elites first relied on revenues
from agricultural exports, then on loans contracted under dubious
circumstances, finally on the financial monopoly that came from
being licensed to supervise their country?s relations with global
capitalism. But this bonanza was switched off in the 1980s, when
foreign capital felt that it could dispense with the mediation of
local state powers and concentrated on collecting debts from them.
Many governments were made bankrupt and some simply collapsed into
civil war.

It is hardly surprising under these circumstances that hopes for
African democracy soon flew out of the window, to be replaced by a
norm of dictatorship, whether civil or military. Concentration of
political power at the centre led to primate urbanization, as economic
demand became synonymous with the expenditures of a presidential
kleptocracy. Political scientists have long written of the patrimonial
norm for African states without pushing the analysis far or deep
enough. The growth of cities should normally lead to an expanded level
of rural-urban exchange, as farmers supply food to city-dwellers and
in turn buy the latter?s manufactures and services with the proceeds
of their sales. But this progressive division of labour was stifled at
birth in post-colonial Africa by the dumping of cheap subsidized food
from North America and Europe and of cheap manufactures from Asia. For
?structural adjustment? meant that African national economies had no
protection from the strong winds of world trade. The result was that
a peasantry subjected to political extraction and violence at home
had no option other than to migrate to the main cities and abroad
or to stagnate. Somehow the cities survived on the basis of markets
that emerged spontaneously to recycle the money concentrated at the
top and to meet the population?s needs for food, shelter, clothing,
transport and the rest. It is to these markets, often referred to as
?the informal economy?, that we must turn if we wish to understand the
economic potential of Africa?s urban revolution.

A note on the North and South African exceptions

 From the above, it should be clear why generalizations about
middle Africa need to be qualified when considering the continent?s
northern and southern extremes. North Africa did not wait until the
last century to develop agrarian civilization. It was in on the
process almost from the beginning. If countries from Morocco to
Egypt bear some resemblance to the ideal portrait I have painted
of post-colonial Africa, it is because they too have failed to
move beyond a pre-industrial level to anything resembling national
capitalism and they too have been subject to a western imperialism
not unlike what afflicted Africa south of the Sahara. In this respect
there has been a convergence between the regions of late. The lands
of white settlement of the South tell a wholly different story. South
Africa, in particular, stands out as the only African country where
national capitalism took root. This has immense consequences for its
current and prospective relationship to the rest of the continent, as
we will see in my next lecture.

Writing of Johannesburg in 1900, J. A. Hobson, the author of a famous
treatise on imperialism, described the men who headed the mining
companies there as follows:

"Never have I been so struck with the intellect and the audacious
enterprise and foresight of great businessmen as here. Nor are
these qualities confined to the Beits and Barnatos and other great
capitalists; the town bristles and throbs with industrial and
commercial energy. The utter dependence upon financial ?booms? and
?slumps? [and the political situation]?has bred by selection and by
education a type of man and of society which is as different from
that of Manchester as the latter is from the life of Hankow or Buenos
Ayres." The War in South Africa (1900)

Despite the involvement of international finance, technology and
skilled labour in the Rand?s early years, the large mining-finance
conglomerates grew to become increasingly South African in the
twentieth century, while their contribution to output, employment,
exports and state revenue was crucial to the modernisation and growth
of the country?s economy. When the Afrikaners declared their own
independence from colonial empire in 1948, South Africa embarked on
its own distinctive course of national capitalism. The contribution
of the mining and energy sector to the economy has declined in the
post-apartheid era, while the big houses have moved offshore and
restructured themselves in significant ways; but their power and
influence endures. Agrarian civilization has played a negligible part
in South Africa?s modern history; and that too is something we need to
keep in mind when contemplating Africa?s future.

Urban commerce and the informal economy

?Form? is the rule, an idea of what ought to be universal in social
life; and for most of the twentieth century the dominant forms were
those of bureaucracy, particularly national bureaucracy, since society
was identified to a large extent with nation-states. The idea of
an ?informal economy? is entailed in the institutional effort to
organize society along formal lines. Until the 1970s it was agreed
that only the state could effectively promote and manage development.
The flood of migrants into African cities after independence provoked
alarmist reports of mass unemployment there. Where were all the jobs
going to come from? Policy-makers at both national and international
levels were anxious to head off urban riots and worse. In a paper
presented to a 1971 conference, based on fieldwork in the slums of
Ghana?s capital city, Accra, I argued that the urban poor were not
?unemployed?. They were working, although often for low and erratic
returns. ?Informal? incomes, unregulated by law and invisible to
bureaucracy, were a significant part of urban economies that had grown
up largely without official knowledge or control.

In the 1970s, the informal sector was often promoted as a source
of employment creation capable of lifting a poor economy by the
bootstraps. It was still assumed that this was primarily the state?s
responsibility. Things changed in the 1980s, with the arrival of
neo-liberal regimes in the USA, Britain and elsewhere. The World Bank
and IMF embarked on a radical program of ?structural adjustment? whose
chief effect was to open up poor countries to international capital
flows and to scale down public expenditures there. Now the engine of
development was ?the market? and the informal economy was encouraged
as one of its instruments. If governments lacked the funds to provide
public services on the scale to which people were accustomed, the
latter would have to supply their own needs for health, education,
transport and utilities informally. These services would be paid for
directly and thus constituted a major boost for the free market ?
free because largely unregulated. Neo-liberal policies since then
have fostered massive growth in the ?informal? portion of global and
national economies, by reducing state controls and promoting the
gigantic money flows known simply as ?the markets?. The informal
sector is now thought to account for 70-90% of the economy in most
African countries. War-zone economies such as the Eastern Congo are
almost wholly informal. There is a gender component to the informal
economy too, in that men have a disproportionate share of formal
positions and women?s work is predominantly informal.

The label ?informal? may be popular because it is both positive and
negative. To act informally is to be free and flexible; but it also
refers to what people are not doing ? not being regulated by the
state. The ?informal economy? allows academics and bureaucrats to
incorporate the teeming street life of Africa?s cities into their
abstract models without having to know what people are really up to.
For two centuries now we have been living through humanity?s rapid
disengagement from the soil as the chief object of labour and matrix
of social life. The hectic growth of cities could not be organized
immediately as ruling elites would like. The informal economy is one
way of pointing to how people devised their own means of survival and
sometimes of prosperity in the urban markets that spring up to meet
their needs.

What the concept can?t do is show us the social forms through which
African urban economies are actually organized. In my next lecture
I will consider some of these. They include religious and criminal
institutions, for example. Rather than emphasize the absence of
bureaucracy, I would now draw attention to the growth of urban
commerce, of markets in all their various guises. This shifts the
burden of analysis, of course, from the formal/informal pair to the
relationship between markets and capitalism in the neo-liberal era.
I have argued that African markets have hitherto been concentrated
in major cities largely as a result of political concentration of
surpluses produced by predominantly agrarian economies. The undoubted
commercial energies of African peoples have of late been stifled
and locked up in a political economy of a type labelled ?the urban
revolution? or ?agrarian civilization?. Another name for this would
be the Old Regime, whose nemesis, as we all know, was the string
of liberal revolutions that inaugurated the modern age in England,
America, France and Italy between the seventeenth and nineteenth

My question is whether the conditions brought about by the
installation of an Old Regime in most of Africa during the latter half
of the twentieth century might be the launch-pad for another liberal
revolution there in the twenty-first. The only progressive antidote to
this latest stage of collective unfreedom for Africans is a drive for
genuine political emancipation underwritten by economic freedom of a
more than rhetorical sort: a liberal revolution, in other words. It
sounds counter-intuitive, I know. But I hope to persuade you at least
to consider the possibility in my second lecture.


"Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall
fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be
knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy
in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is
in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I
understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man,
I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly;
but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even
as also I am known. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three;
but the greatest of these is charity."

1 Corinthians 13: 8-13 (King James version)

The story so far

Charity?, in Christian theology, is love directed first toward God
but also toward oneself and one?s neighbours as objects of God?s
love, that is, love of humanity. St. Paul says here that most of the
time we make do with knowing a little and guess the rest. In any case
it?s usually wrong. We don?t understand ourselves and we project
onto others an image of our own dark side. One day we will be able
to recognize the humanity in everyone, when we meet each other face
to face, instead of through the distortions of identity politics.
Humanity is a collective noun, a moral quality and a historical
project for our species. What will it take to succeed in this project?
Belief, hope and love: clinging to what we hold dear. Last week I
summed up Africa?s experience of the twentieth century. Today I will
consider its development prospects for the next half-century. What
I have to say is not intended as prophecy, even less as Christian
propaganda. But social science is limited when it comes to imagining
possibility, never mind to realizing it. If the idea of ?African
development? is soon to take on the substance of rapid economic
growth, we would be unwise to neglect the part to be played in that
process by religion and the arts and indeed by love of humanity. As a
boy ethnographer four decades ago, I spent two years in the slums of
Accra. I was forced to meet people as they were, rather than through
the cracked mirror of race, since I could not have survived alone
otherwise. The book I hope to write from these lectures is my belated
attempt to express what I learnt then and have been reflecting on ever

I argued last week that ?development? is best thought of as a name for
the relationship between rich and poor countries after the collapse
of European colonial empire in the second half of the twentieth
century. In the post-war decades, when an economic boom was fed by
social democracy, ?development? constituted a serious, if often
misguided attempt to narrow the gap between the two; but it has
become a sham in the neo-liberal era of the last three decades, when
extraction of debt interest has far exceeded aid contributions. Africa
is principally ?the land of the blacks?. Every person of African
descent, whatever their actual history and experience ? they could
be Barack Obama, for example ? suffers the practical consequences of
being stigmatized by colour in a world society that has been built
on racial difference. The United States and South Africa stand out
for their racist oppression of black people, whether under slavery,
colonialism or apartheid. But many Africans do not share this extreme
history. My original experience of Africa comes from research in West
Africa, a populous region that suffered the predations of the slave
trade for centuries, but never had to accommodate white settlers and
endured colonialism for a relatively short period. 1 in 6 Africans
is a Nigerian and it makes no sense at all to approach their history
through the lens of colonial empire ? before, during and after.

As a continent, Africa is divided into three disparate regions ?
North, South and Middle (West, Central and East Africa); but a measure
of convergence between them is now taking place, raising the prospect
of economic and political union, as once envisaged in Pan-Africanist
ideology. I endorse the drive to bring Africa closer together as a
geographical unit. Such a process must be fuelled by the collective
aspiration of black people for their long-delayed emancipation, a
matter of universal concern since the blight of racism affects us all,
?through a glass darkly?. Africa?s relative poverty has increased in
the last half-century, but, from being the most sparsely populated
and least urbanized major region around 1900, Africa?s seventh of
the world?s population now equals its share of the total land mass;
and urbanization there is fast approaching the global average of
around 50%. Our task is to understand this ?urban revolution? of
unprecedented speed and scale; and specifically how the social
conditions it has generated lay the groundwork for whatever lies

Drawing on the classical tradition of Rousseau, Morgan and Engels for
an anthropology of unequal society, I distinguished between three
types of social formation: egalitarian stateless societies based
on kinship; agrarian civilizations in which urban elites control
the mass of rural labour by means of the state and class division;
and ?national capitalist? societies, where markets and money are
regulated by central bureaucracies. Although Africa south of the
Sahara has a more complex history than can be captured neatly by
this typology, I followed Jack Goody in arguing that its dominant
institutions before the modern period could best be understood in
terms of the classless type based on kinship institutions. The second
type, agrarian civilization covered most of Europe, Asia and North
Africa in a sequence whose common origin was Mesopotamia?s urban
revolution 5,000 years ago. ?National capitalism? took root within
the region uniquely in South Africa. So Middle Africa, in the course
of the twentieth century and particularly after independence, made
a belated transition to the Old Regime of agrarian civilization,
just when Europe and North America, followed more recently by much
of Asia, embraced national capitalism. This brought North and Middle
Africa closer together as pre-industrial class societies, while South
Africa?s current experiment in post-apartheid capitalism requires it
to accommodate its own African majority in new ways, as well as to
draw nearer to the rest of Africa.

A preoccupation with Africa?s post-colonial failure to ?develop? has
obscured what really happened there in the twentieth century. The rise
of cities has been accompanied by the formation of weak and venal
states, locked into dependency on foreign powers and leaving the
urban masses largely to their own devices. The latter have generated
spontaneous markets to meet their own needs and these have come to
be understood as an ?informal economy?, which has been stretched
to include 70-90% of most African economies. Whatever its value
in bringing to light hitherto invisible economic activities, this
concept is largely negative, focusing on whatever is not regulated by
bureaucracy and law. It tells us nothing about how these practices
are concretely organized. This becomes crucial when we seek to
identify trends in Africa?s urban economies today that might act as
a springboard for sustained economic development in the twenty-first
century. There is no substitute for finding out what is actually going
on now. Despite its origins in firsthand ethnographic research, the
informal economy idea mainly allows policy-makers to ignore the real
lives of the supposed beneficiaries of development.

The Old Regime in England, America, France and Italy was overthrown
in each case by a liberal revolution whose social consequences were
more mixed than was envisaged at the time. This is how the idea
of freedom entered modern history, as a popular desire to escape
from the arbitrary inequality of class societies that concentrated
power and privilege in the hands of a hereditary elite. The world
has moved on since then, of course, but in the remainder of this
lecture I will explore the prospects for such a revolution in Africa
over the coming half-century or so. Africans have already undergone
several revolutions without so far achieving the political forms
capable of guaranteeing their equal participation in world society.
These revolutions include the abolition of the slave trade, colonial
conquest, the false dawn of independence and the explosion of cities
in the post-colonial era. Of late there has grown up a sort of
?Afro-pessimism?, a genre epitomized for me by Stephen Smith?s
/Négrologie/ (2003), a pun on the French for an obituary column whose
subtitle is pourquoi l?Afrique meurt. When I read that, I could
only think that Africa is still young and growing, whereas France
is old and shows it. So I suppose what follows is an exercise in
?Afro-optimism?. I do not predict an inevitably happy outcome for
Africa, but I would claim that exploring positive scenarios can put a
more hopeful gloss on development discourse there.

An African liberal revolution?

Expectation of rapid economic improvement soon in Africa seems
counter-intuitive at this time, especially given Africa?s symbolic
role as the negation of ?white? superiority. Black people have played
this role for centuries as the stigmatized underclass of an unequal
world society organized along racial lines; and never more than now,
when American and European dominance is being undermined by a shift in
the balance of economic power to countries like China, India, Brazil,
Russia and, within its own region, South Africa. Rather than face up
to a decline in their economic fortunes, the whites prefer to dwell on
the misfortunes of black people and on Africa?s apparently terminal
exclusion from modern prosperity. Failed politicians and aging rock
stars, such as Blair and Bono, announce their mission to ?save? Africa
from its presumed ills. The western media represent Africa as the
benighted battleground of the four horsemen of the apocalypse: famine,
war, plague and death. It all goes to reassure a decadent West that
at least some people are a lot worse off than themselves. I was once
explaining my book to a French woman and noticed her face hardening
when I spoke of hopeful developments in Africa. So I added, ?Of course
Africa?s a mess in many ways?? and she said, ?Yes! It?s a mess?. She
had never been there, but it was important for her to know that Africa
was backward.

It is a curious fact that China occupied a similar slot in western
consciousness not long ago. In the 1920s and 30s, Americans and
Europeans often spoke of the Chinese the way they do of Africa today.
China was then crippled by the violence of warlords, its peasants
mired in the worst poverty imaginable. Today the country is spoken of
as the only one capable of standing up to the United States, while
its manufactures make inroads into western dominance on a scale far
greater than Japan?s ever did. This profound shift in economic power
from West to East does not guarantee Africa?s escape from the shackles
of inequality, but it does mean that structures of Atlantic dominance
which once seemed inevitable are perceptibly on the move; and that
should make it easier to envisage change. We are entering a new phase
of economic possibility, as well as altered patterns of constraint in
world society.

Africa?s advantage in current upheavals is its weak attachment to the
status quo. The world economy could easily regress to a condition
similar to that of the 1930s, when the current financial bubble
bursts and while the USA fights to maintain its grip on global power
against all-comers. In this case, Africans have less to lose; and the
old Stalinist ?law of unequal development? reminds us that, under
such circumstances, winners and losers can easily change places. I
like to tell my European friends who express concern about African
poverty, ?Don?t worry about them ? they have only one way to go,
which is up. You should be worried about your own decline.? This
applies particularly to my own country, Britain, for whom postponing
recognition of the loss of empire has become a way of life in itself.
A recent poll reported that Africa has a higher proportion of hopeful
people than anywhere else in the world, 30% if I recall. The New York
Times couldn?t understand how this could be so, since everyone knows
that Africa is the most hopeless place on earth. The idea of Africa as
a basket case goes very deep.

To speak of a possible economic upturn begs the question of what
Africa?s new urban populations could produce as a means of bringing
about their own economic development. So far, African countries have
relied on exporting raw materials, when they could. Minerals clearly
have a promising future owing to scarce supplies and escalating
demand; but the world market for food and other agricultural products
is skewed by western farm subsidies and prices are further depressed
by the large number of poor farmers seeking entry. Conventionally,
African governments have aspired to manufacturing exports as an
alternative, but here they face intense competition from Asia. It
would be more fruitful for African countries to argue collectively in
the councils of world trade for some protection from international
dumping, so that their farmers and infant industries might at least
get a chance to supply their own populations first. But the world
market for services is booming and perhaps greater opportunities for
supplying national, regional and global markets exist there.

There was a time when most services were performed personally on
the spot; but today, as a result of the digital revolution in
communications, they increasingly link producers and consumers at
distance. The fastest-growing sector of world trade is the production
of culture: entertainment, education, media, software and a wide range
of information services. The future of the human economy, once certain
material requirements are satisfied, lies in the infinite scope for us
to do things for each other ? like singing songs or telling stories
? that need not take a tangible form. The largest global television
audiences are for sporting events like the World Cup or the Olympic
Games. The United States? three leading exports are now movies, music
and software; and this is why they have sponsored an intellectual
property treaty (TRIPs) that seeks to shore up the profits of
corporations whose products can be reproduced digitally at almost
no cost. The central conflict in contemporary capitalism is between
this attempt to privatize the cultural commons and widespread popular
resistance to it. Any move to enter this market will be confronted
by transnational corporations and the governments who support them.
Nevertheless, there is a lot more to play for here and the terrain
is not as rigidly mapped out as in agriculture and manufactures. It
is also one where Africans are exceptionally well-placed to compete
because of the proven preference of global audiences for their music
and plastic arts.

Why do you think Hollywood is where it is? A century ago, film-makers
on the East Coast struggled under Thomas Edison?s monopolies of
electrical products; so some of them escaped to the Far West and
kicked off the movie industry with as little regulation as possible.
For his first Mickey Mouse cartoon, Walt Disney ripped off a Buster
Keaton movie, ?Steamboat Willie?. Now the Disney Corporation sues
Chinese cartoonists for illegal appropriation of the Mickey Mouse
logo. Did you know that the world?s third largest producer of movies,
after Hollywood and Bollywood, is Lagos in Nigeria (?Nollywood?)?
Most of their movies cost no more than $5,000, a pattern reminiscent
of Hollywood when W.G. Griffith was king. American popular culture is
still that country?s most successful export. There is no reason why it
couldn?t be for Africans too.

The classical liberal revolutions were sustained by three ideas: that
freedom and economic progress require increased movement of people,
goods and money in the MARKET; that the political framework most
compatible with this is DEMOCRACY, putting power in the hands of
the people; and that social progress depends on SCIENCE, the drive
to know objectively how things work that leads to enlightenment.
For over a century now an anti-liberal tendency has disparaged this
great emancipatory movement as a form of oppression and exploitation
in disguise; and, in common with many social revolutions, it this
is partially true. Africa today must escape soon from varieties of
Old Regime that owe a lot to the legacy of slavery, colonialism and
apartheid; but conditions there can no longer be attributed solely
to these ancient causes. It is possible that the example of the
classical liberal revolutions, reinforced by endogenous developments
in economy, technology, religion and the arts, could offer fresh
solutions for African underdevelopment. These would have to be built
on the conditions and energies generated by the urban revolution of
the twentieth century.

We all know of course that power is distributed very unequally in
our world and any new liberal movement would soon run up against
entrenched privilege. In fact, world society today resembles quite
closely the Old Regime of agrarian civilization, as in eighteenth
century England and France, with isolated elites enjoying a lifestyle
wildly beyond the reach of masses who have almost nothing. It is
not just in post-colonial Africa where the institutions of agrarian
civilization rule today. Since the millennium, the United States,
whose own liberal revolution once overcame the Old Regime of King
George and the East India Company, seems to have regressed to
presidential despotism in the service of corporations like Haliburton.

The cultural sources for a liberal revolution

It has long been acknowledged that the rise of capitalism in Europe
drew heavily on religion as one of its motors. Max Weber insisted that
an economic revolution of this scope could only take root on the back
of a much broader cultural revolution. If Africa?s informal economy
has the potential to evolve into a more dynamic engine of urban
commerce, what might be the cultural grounds for such a development?
As I said, whatever happens next must build on what has already been
put in place. The basis for Africa?s future economic growth must be
the cultural production of its cities and not rural extraction or the
reactionary hope of reproducing capitalism?s industrial phase. This in
turn rests on:

1. The energy of youth and women

2. The religious revival

3. The explosion of the modern arts

4. The communications revolution

5. The new African diaspora linked to sub-national identities

In the time available, I can only sketch an outline of what is a
book-length argument.

1. African societies, traditional and modern, have been dominated by
older men. Women have benefited less from their opportunities and
are less tied to their burdens. In many cases they have been quicker
to exploit the commercial freedoms of the neo-liberal international
economy. Even when men and boys have plunged whole countries into
civil war, thereby removing state guarantees from economic life,
an informal economy resting on women?s trade has often kept open
basic supply lines. The social reality of Africa?s cities is a young
population without enough to do and a growing generation gap. The
energies of youth must be harnessed more effectively and the chances
of doing so are greater if the focus of economic development is on
something that interests them, like popular culture.

2. The religious revival in Africa, both Christian and Muslim, is a
matter of immense significance for the forms of economic development.
This is in many cases founded on young people?s rejection of the
social models and political options offered by their parents?
generation. Fundamentalist and less extreme varieties of religion make
a different kind of connection to world society than that offered by
the nation-state, based on the assumption of American dominance or its
opposite. They help to fill the moral void of contemporary politics
and often offer well-tried recipes for creative economic organization
(e.g. the Mourides of Senegal, see below). Christian churches are
usually organized and supported by women, even if their leadership is
often male.

3. In all the talk of poverty, war and AIDS, the western media rarely
report the extraordinary vitality of the modern arts in post-colonial
Africa: novels, films, music, theatre, painting, sculpture, dance and
their applications in commercial design. There has been an artistic
explosion in the last half-century, drawing on traditional sources,
but also responding to the complexity of the contemporary world. One
recent example is the ?Africa Remix? exhibition that toured Europe and
Japan, a hundred installations from Johannesburg to Cairo, showing
the modernity of contemporary African art. The African novel, along
with comparable regions like India, leads the world. I have already
referred to the creativity of the film industry.

4. Africa largely missed the first two phases of the machine
revolution, based on the steam engine and electricity; but the third
phase, the digital revolution in communications whose most tangible
product is the internet, the network of networks, offers Africans very
different conditions of participation that they already show signs of
taking up avidly. In origin a means of communication for scientists
and the military, the internet is now primarily a global marketplace
with very unusual characteristics. Like the informal economy, it goes
largely unregulated; but this market freedom is harnessed to the most
advanced technologies of our era. The internet has also generated
new conditions for managing networks spanning home and abroad by
radically shortening the time and space dimensions of communication
and exchange at distance. The extraordinarily rapid adoption of mobile
phones has made Africa a crucible for global innovations, such as the
first multi-country network and use of phones for banking purposes
in East Africa. Nor should we neglect the role of television as a
transnational means of widening perceptions of community.

5. In the last half-century a new African diaspora has emerged,
based unlike that formed by Atlantic slavery on economic migration
to America, Europe and nowadays Asia. These migrants are usually
known away from home by their national identity, but many of them
by-pass the national level when maintaining close relationships with
their specific region of origin. They are often highly educated, with
experience of the corporate business world, while retaining links
to relatives living and working in the informal economy at home.
One consequence of neo-liberal reforms has been that transnational
exchange is now much easier than it was, drawing at once on indigenous
knowledge of local conditions and the expertise acquired by migrants
and their families in the West. Remittances from abroad are of immense
importance everywhere, but they are bound to play a major role in
Africa?s economic future.

Classes for and against the liberal revolution

You may well ask how these separate factors might generate sustainable
forms of enterprise capable of raising African economies to new
levels in the near future. Economic success is always a contingent
synthesis of existing and new conditions. There is no model of
successful enterprise, just many stories of economic innovation
waiting to be discovered by those who will look. Thus the Mourides,
a Sufist order founded in the early twentieth century, constitute
an informal state with the state of Senegal. Their international
trading operations are capable of influencing national economies, as
when they recently shifted shoe supplies to the USA via Harlem from
Italy to China. A similar network of North African Muslims has been
running cars and car parts illegally from Europe to Africa through
Marseille on such a scale that the French car industry has moved some
of its production South to meet the demand. Pioneering communications
enterprises in Kenya and Ghana are beginning to attract notice from
far afield for their exciting mix of local cultural resources and
modern technologies. The Nollywood phenomenon offers morality plays to
African audiences at an affordable price. It is often under-estimated
in part because Lagos and Nigeria are perceived as being chaotic.
Yet in seventeenth-century London, while England was going through
its political, commercial and scientific revolutions, herds of wild
pigs savaged unwary pedestrians to death and the water supply was
undrinkable. The development standard for Africa is set today by the
bureaucratized societies of the West, by a type of anaesthetized
experience that goes by the name of ?world-class city?. But it may be
that earlier phases of the West?s development offer Africans a more
appropriate framework of comparison.

In the second chapter of The Wretched of the Earth (1959),
?Spontaneity: its strengths and weaknesses?, Frantz Fanon provides an
excellent blueprint of how to go about analyzing the class structure
of decadent societies that are ripe for revolution, in his case the
anti-colonial revolution. He points out that political parties and
unions are weak and conservative in late colonial Africa because they
represent a tiny part of the population: the industrial workers, civil
servants, intellectuals and shopkeepers of the town, a class unwilling
to jeopardize its own privileges. They are hostile to and suspicious
of the mass of country people. The latter are governed by customary
chiefs supervised in turn by the military and administrative officials
of the occupying power. A nationalist middle class of professionals
and traders runs up against the superstition and feudalism of the
traditional authorities. Landless peasants move to the town where they
form a lumpenproletariat. Eventually colonial repression forces the
nationalists to flee the towns and take refuge with the peasantry.
Only then, with the rural-urban split temporarily healed by crisis,
does a mass nationalist movement take off. This compressed summary
does not do Fanon?s analysis justice. I introduce it as an example of
what must be done if we face up to the real possibilities for another
African revolution now.

The African states brought into being by independence likewise rely on
chiefs to keep the rural areas insulated from the more unruly currents
of world society. Where the state?s writ has been fatally undermined,
warlords take its place. Since the ?structural adjustment? policies
of the 1980s, international agencies have systematically preferred to
approach rural populations through NGOs, the missionaries of our age,
rather than national governments. World trade is organized by and for
an alliance of the strongest Western governments and corporations.
Some of the latter, especially in remote extractive industries,
operate as independent states with the state. The cities, massively
expanded in size, still sustain a very small industrial proletariat,
since mechanized production is poorly developed in post-colonial
Africa. The civil servants have been ravaged as a class by neo-liberal
pressure to cut public expenditures. This leaves us with the informal
economy of unregulated urban commerce, a phenomenon that is not best
summarized by the pejorative term, /lumpenproletariat/. Clearly, trade
and finance are not organized, in Africa or in the world at large,
with a view to liberating the potential of these classes. It is not
likely, therefore, that a liberal revolution could succeed by relying
solely on a popular economic movement from below. There are larger
players on the scene and their influence too must surely be felt.

Africa must unite

South Africa, the one African country to make a go of ?national
capitalism? and probably the last, is well-placed to lead the next
stage of African development as a whole. This reflects of course
President Mbeki?s vision of an African Renaissance. Since 1994, a new
national bourgeoisie has begun to emerge there, consisting of old
white capital, black politicians and Indian businessmen, linked to
Asian and Western sources of capital and with a new opportunity to
expand rapidly into their continental backyard. Capitalist development
along these lines cannot remain for long satisfied with a political
regime granting ultimate power to national sovereignties. Moreover,
it is in South Africa?s interest for such expansion not to be seen
in exclusively national terms. It should rather be represented, on
an analogy with Prussia?s role in German unification, as a drive
for African unity initially in a limited economic sense, led by the
strongest black government with a Pan-African agenda. And indeed the
two most significant continental institutions, the African Union
in Addis Ababa and NEPAD (the UN funding body) in Johannesburg are
beginning to talk about coordinating their functions. If Africans
want to have a say in what happens to them next, they will have to
tap old and new social forces to develop their own capacity for
transnational association, in the face of the huge coalitions of
imperial power mobilizing at this time to deny them that opportunity
for self-expression.

Pan-Africanism gave way to the aspiration for national capitalism
half a century ago because world society was not organized then to
accommodate it. When the anti-apartheid movement led to African
independence in South Africa, global thinking took second place to the
non-racial nationalism that was always espoused by the ANC. But, as a
result of neo-liberal globalization, one of the strongest political
movements today is the formation of large regional trading blocs:
the EU, NAFTA, ASEAN, Mercosur. This is a good time for Africans to
renew the movement towards greater continental unity, at first in
economic affairs and as a complement to, not replacement for national
governments, since the rest of the world is doing the same thing and
they would inevitably lose out again if they fail to do so. If we
needed any reminder of the contemporary salience of Pan-Africanism,
we have only to note the USA?s recent formation of a unified African
military command, with the aim of controlling access to mineral
resources there in competition with China.

I have focused on the possibilities for dramatic developments in
Africa since, it seems to me, so much thinking about the future there
is timid, being limited to ambitions for reprising some earlier
phase of the West?s economic history when the door is effectively
closed to newcomers. Ideally such developments would be an expression
of Africans? drive from below for democracy and economic freedom;
but it is unlikely to take place except within the framework of a
revolution from above drawing on forces both external and internal
to the continent. I have tried to draw attention here to scenarios
that go beyond the limits of current conventional thinking. Africa
could make rapid economic advances in the coming decades through a
mixture of top down and bottom up forces. But this would require both
a radical shift in development strategy and willingness to confront,
by whatever combination of peaceful and violent means, the entrenched
institutions of economic backwardness. Above all, it is vital for
Africans to gain historical awareness of the global context for
whatever they attempt locally and regionally. This perspective has
largely been missing before.

Real economic progress requires us to go beyond merely documenting
the scope of informal economic activities. We need to discover the
social and cultural dynamism that underpins its most progressive
clusters. What are the social forms that already organize the informal
economy and how could their prospects for engaging fruitfully with the
national, regional and global economy be enhanced in partnership with
the regulatory agencies? Ongoing research into what we may call ?the
human economy? or ?economics with people in? is indispensable to such
a programme of development.

It was never the case that a national framework for development made
sense in Africa, except possibly for South Africa, and it makes even
less sense today. The coming African revolution could leapfrog many
of the obstacles in its path, but it will not do so by remaining tied
to the national straitjacket worn by African societies since they won
independence from colonial rule.

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