“The black man certainly has to pay dear for carrying the white man's burden.” - George Padmore, 1936
“The white man has no kin, his kin is money” - a South African saying
Nothing in nature ordains that African agriculture should be impoverished. Here there is water (a series of rivers whose flow is equal to that of the Nile, exceptional underground water supplies, sources of energy, land suitable for cultivation, and, of course, people. Yet we live in a social system that proves itself incapable of co-ordinating these factors in a way to even feed the people involved, much less offer a decent standard of living . It is a system of society that does not deserve to be described as rational.
What did colonial governments do in the interest of Africans? Supposedly, they built railroads, schools, hospitals and the like. The sum total of these services was amazingly small. The Portuguese stand out because they boasted the most and did the least. Portugal boasted that Angola, Guinea and Mozambique have been their possessions for 500 years, during which time the `civilizing mission' had not managed to train a single African doctor in Mozambique, and the life expectancy in Eastern Angola was less than 30 years. As for Guinea-Bissau, some insight into the situation there is provided by the admission of the Portuguese themselves that Guinea-Bissau was more neglected than Angola and Mozambique! The southern part of Nigeria was one of the colonial areas that was supposed to have received the most from a benevolent `mother country'. Ibadan, one of the most heavily populated cities in Africa, had only about 50 Europeans before the last war. For those chosen few, the British colonial government maintained a segregated hospital service of 11 beds in well-furnished surroundings. There were 34 beds for the half-a-million blacks. Altogether the 4,000 Europeans in the country during the 1930s had 12 modern hospitals, while the African population of at least 40 million had 52 hospitals. Often, at local levels of a given colony, there would be discrimination in providing social amenities, on the basis of contribution to exportable surplus. For instance, plantations and companies might build medical facilities for their workers, because some minimum maintenance of the workers' health was an economic investment. Usually, such a clinic was exclusively for workers of that particular capitalist concern, and those Africans living in the vicinity under `subsistence' conditions outside the money economy were ignored altogether.
The combination of being oppressed, being exploited, and being disregarded is best illustrated by the pattern of the economic infrastructure of African colonies: notably, their roads and railways. These had a clear geographical distribution according to the extent to which particular regions needed to be opened up to import/export activities. Where exports were not available, roads and railways had no place. The only slight exception is that certain roads and railways were built to move troops and make conquest and oppression easier. More important still, there were not laid down to facilitate internal trade in African commodities. There were no roads connecting different colonies and different parts of the same colony in a manner that made sense with regard to Africa's needs and development. The story is often told that in order to make a telephone call from Accra in the British colony of the Gold Coast to Abidjan in the adjacent French colony of Ivory Coast it was necessary to be connected first with an operator in London and then with an operator in Paris who could offer a line to Abidjan. That was one reflection of the fact that the Gold Coast economy was integrated into the British economy, and the Ivory Coast economy was integrated into the French economy, while the neighbouring African colonies had little or no effective economic relations.
The most outstanding characteristic of the transportation systems of Africa is the comparative isolation in which they have developed within the confines of individual countries and territories. This is reflected in the lack of links between countries and territories within the same geographical sub-region. All roads and railways led down to the sea. They were built to extract gold or manganese or coffee or cotton. They were built to make business possible for the timber companies, trading companies and agricultural concession firms, and for white settlers. Any catering to African interests was purely coincidental. Yet in Africa, labour rather than capital, took the lion's share in getting things done. With the minimum investment of capital, the colonial powers could mobilise thousands upon thousands of workers. Salaries were paid to the police officers and officials, and labour carne into existence because of the colonial laws, the threat of force and the use of force. Take, for instance, the building of railways. In Europe and America, railway building required huge inputs of capital. Great wage bills were incurred during construction, and added bonus payments were made to workers to get the job done as quickly as possible. In most parts of Africa, the Europeans who wanted to see a railroad built offered lashes as the ordinary wage and more lashes for extra effort. The great cost in African life of the railroad from Brazzaville to Pointe Noire is explained by the non-availability of capital in the form of equipment. Therefore, sheer manpower had to take the place of earth-moving machinery, cranes, etc. it is customary to credit the imperialists for the existence of what infrastructure there is but it would be much more accurate to say that the people of Africa built it with their own hands under European supervision.
Neither did the partition of tropical Africa, carried out with no major pre-existing economic motive, give rise to the development that might have been expected. The colonial trade economy continued to be based on pillage, animated by the feverish desire to extract from African productive systems as much as possible, as quickly as possible and as cheaply as possible. Colonisation continued the old tradition of the slave trade; exploitation by theft that guaranteed neither the long-term reproduction of the labour force, nor the reproduction of the natural conditions of production.
African rulers who were chosen to serve as agents of foreign colonial rule were quite obviously nothing but puppets. The French and the Portuguese were in the habit of choosing their own African `chiefs'. The British invented `superior' or `paramount' rulers. Very often, the local population hated and despised such colonial stooges. There were traditional rulers such as the Sultan of Sokoto, the Kabaka of Buganda and the Asantehene of Asante, who retained a great deal of prestige in the eyes of Africans, but they had no power to act outside the narrow boundaries laid down by colonialism. When the traditional chiefs were agreeable, they were kept in office. The recalcitrant were exiled. To achieve greater efficiency in the exploitation of the peasant masses, a colonial administration was added on top of the African aristocracy. Colonial rule meant the effective eradication of African political power throughout the continent.
It was easier to secure an immediate super-profit at no cost (involving no investment) by forcing the peasants of Africa to perform unpaid - or very poorly paid - surplus labour through forms of indirect control. When capitalism deemed it in its interests the lands of the peasants were seized; labour was removed from areas with a low productive potential to areas with a high potential; money was introduced in order to impose a certain type of production. The expropriation of the peasants led in some regions to the appearance of private ownership of land and hence destroyed, partly at least, its communal appropriation. The introduction of money for the payment of taxes, in particular, forced the traditional formations to enter commodity systems.
The forced removal of labour led in those areas where this had taken place to partial dislocation of the lineage. All of the large states of 19th-century Africa were multiethnic, and their expansion was continually making anything like `tribal' loyalty a thing of the past, by substituting in its place national and class ties. However, in all parts of the world that substitution of national and class ties for purely ethnic ones is a lengthy historical process; and, invariably there remains for long periods certain regional pockets of individuals who have their own narrow regional loyalties, springing from ties of kinship, language and culture. Colonialism blocked the further evolution of national solidarity, because it destroyed the particular African states which were the principal agents for achieving the liquidation of fragmented loyalties. In the second place, because ethnic and regional loyalties which go under the name of `tribalism' could not be effectively resolved by the colonial state, they tended to fester and grow in unhealthy forms. Indeed, the colonial powers sometimes saw the value of stimulating the internal `tribal' jealousies so as to keep the colonised from dealing with their principal contradiction with the European overlords -- i.e., the classic technique of divide and rule. Certainly, the Belgians consciously fostered that; and the racist whites in South Africa had by the 1950s worked out a careful plan to `develop' the oppressed African population as Zulu, as Xhosa and as Sotho so that the march towards broader African national and class solidarities could be stopped and turned back.
The struggles of the African masses are manipulated for tactical ends by the African ruling classes. Western capitalism had absolutely no desire to continue to bear the burden of colonial administration and take the risk of confrontation with the African masses which might lead to revolutions. Thus the colonial system was liquidated in order to open up wider scope for modern capitalist exploitation. Far from bringing about an improvement in the conditions of existence of the essentially peasant African masses, independence and political change has contributed and even accelerated the crisis. This was so because the new African states, in accordance with the interests of the dominant classes, sought to integrate their economies into the capitalist world market. Independence came in response to the demands of the new stage of the globalization of capital (the rebuilding of Europe and the hegemony of the United States) and not in response to the African peasant problem. The World Bank weeps crocodile tears over the fate of the peasants while its counterpart the International Monetary Fund makes the poorest foot the bill for the bankruptcy of the policies that filled the Swiss bank accounts of the elites. The humanitarian rhetoric has never prevented Western 'aid' agencies from giving de facto preference to support for agri-business in the name of efficiency.
Capitalism has not only not 'solved' the problem of African poverty, a problem it created it over the last 200 years (or even over the last 500 years since the slave trade), but truly the powers that be envisages nothing for the next 50 years but the situation actually deteriorating. From their endless public charity appeals for emergency 'relief' aid Western institutions have created the impression that Africa irrevocably condemned. The challenge will therefore only be taken up by the African peoples to recover control and use of its resources, production for use and not for profit of world capitalism or local rulers.