Sunday, 29 January 2012

‘This Africa to come’

by Mandisi Majavu, Pambazuka

Frantz Fanon once wrote that the challenge facing civil society and progressive governments in Africa is how to organize African countries around values that promote and encourage participatory democracy, equity and mutual aid. Although most African countries gained independence from European colonial rule in the 1960s and 1970s, that remains the biggest challenge facing the continent today.

It is for this reason that many political commentators expected the Arab Spring in North Africa to spill over to Africa south of the Sahara. When that did not happen it was hastily pointed out that Africans are too technologically disconnected and rural to organize protest movements that would topple dictators on the continent. The weakness of this argument, however, is that it does not take into consideration the political protests that have been taking place on the continent for the past two years.

These political events indicate that people on the continent are increasingly demanding to participate in socio-economic decision-making that affects their lives.

The recent general strike and mass protests against the fuel subsidy removal in Nigeria show that people want to be included in economic decision-making that impact on their lives. Similarly, the Mozambique food riots of 2010 illustrated this point well. The food riots were sparked by a jump in the price of bread which led to a three days of protests in Mozambique, and that in turn forced the government to reverse the increase in the price of bread.

The walk-to-work campaign in Uganda in 2011, which was also a protest against high living costs and rising fuel prices in that country, did not quite achieve the same results that people in Mozambique won. Nevertheless, these protests, as well as other ongoing social conflicts in other parts of the continent, point to the fact that African societies are failing our people. It is a truism to argue that African societies are incapable of meeting people’s economic desires and people’s political aspirations.

A liberatory politics is warranted, and a better way of organizing African economies is long overdue. The starting point would be to recognize that neo-liberal economic policies are not the solution. As Ha-Joon Chang points out in his book ‘Bad Samaritans: The myth of free trade and the secret history of capitalism’, even developed countries, which include Britain and the US, did not become rich on the basis of following the neo-liberal economics mantra. “Today’s rich countries used protection and subsidies, while discriminating against foreign investors,” writes Chang.

Further, the self-serving worldview of the African elite that economic development should take priority over democratic demands has proven to be a very effective propaganda trick that keeps the African masses in line. The economic relationship between China and African states is based on this notion. Thus dictators such as Robert Mugabe are able to access financial aid from China for ostensibly economic development while, simultaneously, overseeing one of the most repressive regimes on the continent.

It is also worth noting that although Chinese financial aid comes with no strings attached, economists argue that international borrowing tends to entangle poor countries in debt traps from which it is impossible for them to escape. Additionally, the current global economic system is designed to favour stronger and bigger economies as opposed to weak economies. Naturally, in such a system, the Chinese will always come out the winners in their engagements with African states.

What is to be done? The African Union (AU) has, among other things, been grappling with this question for a long time. Since its establishment in 1999 the AU has ineffectively tried to accelerate the “process of integration in the continent to enable it to play its rightful role in the global economy”. The meetings and summits that the AU holds regularly do not seem to lead to any fundamental political changes in African countries.

I am of the view that fundamental economic and political change in Africa will only come when ordinary people agitate en masse for political changes. The Mozambique food riots of 2010 and the recent mass protests in Nigeria show that people are capable of forcing governments to back down from enforcing policies that have a negative impact on their lives. It is this history that ought to inform our politics, and not the AU summits and meetings.

There are political and economic models that African states could emulate. For instance, research shows that societies that are organized along social democratic policies tend to have low poverty rates, low unemployment rates, and high standards of living. That is one model for those with a liberal bent.

For the rest of us who are for social revolution, we want nothing less than the elimination of social hierarchies, authoritative decision-making, poverty and inequality. We seek to build liberatory and human centred societal institutions for production, consumption and allocation. For a new Africa to function, it is necessary to create societal institutions that complement and support one another across different societal realms. This means that the new economic institutions that we create ought to be consistent with the aims of our political institutions as well as our mental outlook.

This is the Africa that Fanon had in mind when he wrote the essay, “This Africa to come”. As Fanon once wrote, the current oppressive system will not commit suicide for the new Africa to be born. The first step toward building new societies is through events that change history, such as, the mass protests against the removal of the fuel subsidy, which recently took place in Nigeria, as well as the Mozambique food riots of 2010.

The most important step in bringing about a social revolution is to develop a vision for a better society. It is the lack of such a vision that prevents mass protests from becoming full-blown uprisings. Developing a coherent vision that is relevant to the 21st century Africa is the task facing the new generation of activists in Africa.