The old ways have not worked for us

Employees line up for roll call at a factory in Shanghai, China. This is where the world's most profitable smartphones are made, part of Apple's closely guarded supply chain. (Qilai Shen/Bloomberg)

Employees line up for roll call at a factory in Shanghai, China. This is where the world's most profitable smartphones are made, part of Apple's closely guarded supply chain. (Qilai Shen/Bloomberg)

Since the end of colonialism, African liberation and independence governments have implemented indigenisation, Africanisation and empowerment programmes under the rubric of “economic freedom”, “radical economic transformation” and “decolonisation” of their economies.

Yet most of these programmes pursued under these auspices have either only benefited small elites linked to leaders and governing elites, or failed to bring broad-based economic development, inclusive economic growth and human development, and have left many African countries, or at least the majority of their peoples, poorer than they were before independence.

African post-colonial strategies aimed at “economic freedom”, “radical economic transformation” and “decolonisation” were rich in rhetoric, slogans and condemnation of the colonial legacy, but stunningly limited in terms of innovative ideas, evidence-based and relevant policies and pragmatic approaches.

The African post-independence and liberation strategies were often too narrowly based on taking over the colonial state, settler- and foreign-owned or -dominated private and public institutions – and replacing them with the black faces of the new elite.

In post-colonial African countries where there were genuine attempts to introduce more substantial and broad-based “economic freedom”, “radical transformation” and “decolonisation” of the economies’ policies, these were often based on woolly notions of bygone African “communal” development strategies, African-style socialistic experiments that were either too rigidly old-style Marxist-Leninist or too Maoist – at times when even the Soviet Union and China were themselves trying to adapt their own systems to rapid domestic and global changes.

Some, in the cases of the African opposition parties that replaced failed first-generation independence and liberation movement governments, attempted to be more neoliberal than Thatcher’s Britain or Reagan’s United State’s narrowly defined Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism.

Not surprisingly these new neoliberal solutions also failed.

Africa still badly needs “economic freedom”, “radical transformation” and “decolonisation” of our economies. But the challenge for our generation now is not to repeat the slogans, rhetoric and non-evidence-based policies based on supposedly a golden era of African past “communal” economies, ideological rigidity and dated blueprints, of previous African generations.

This on the basis that dated post-colonial strategies were supposedly not properly implemented, wrongly implemented, or sabotaged by colonial powers, imperialists and domestic “settlers”.

Even China is updating its development, ideological and societal models to adapt to the fast-changing world.

Of course, former colonial powers, now industrial countries, are at fault for stacking the global economic rules against developing countries. African post-independence governments are to blame for having the sometimes nonexistent, at times non-evidence-based policies.

The current backlash in Western democracy, of whatever political ideology, whether on the left or right, against the political and economic establishments is because economic democracy has increasingly been eroded in these countries.

Africans must base any new “economic freedom”, “radical transformation” and “decolonization” of their economies on economic democracy.

What should the pillars of an African project of economic democracy be?

The first is for smarter analysis – of African governments, political parties, intellectuals and activists – not to be stuck as if African countries are operating in the Year Zero. New technology, the rise of the “gig economy”, automation and the fact that global manufacturing jobs have increasingly moved to emerging markets such as China and Vietnam have changed the global economic game.

This means that, although Africa needs to diversify into manufacturing, we have to have a more nuanced analysis of how to do so.

Furthermore, to argue that Africa is “rich” because of minerals, agriculture and land and all we have to do is just to return these into the hands of the “indigenous” and there will be prosperity is simply too limited.

Substitutes to crucial commodities are being feverishly worked on in many industrial countries and China and climate change are making large masses of African land barren.

The point is we cannot just sloganeer or scapegoat imperialism or colonialism (even if they are partly to blame). African countries need new, more relevant blueprints.

The success of “radical transformation”, “economic freedom” and “decolonisation” of African economies will rest on honestly learning from the evidence of not only our experiences but the proven successes and failures from all over the globe – industrial countries and emerging markets, whatever their ideological bends. This has been the successful recipe of a booming China, South Korea, Singapore and Japan and now a growing Vietnam.

The very start would be to put together long-term industrialisation strategies that have economic growth, combined with human development, at its core.

Human development is defined by the United Nations Development Report as being about improving the lives of people as widely as possible, offering them opportunities and choices to develop to their full individual potential.

African countries must use their agricultural, metal or energy commodities to spin off new value-added manufacturing and related businesses; link their informal sectors and small business and agriculture into the supply chains of large private and public companies; and integrate their education, health and infrastructure programs into their industrialisation strategy.

Economic policy and decision-making will have to be democratised. Ordinary citizens must be involved in greater measures in decision-making, participation and debates on economic policy.

Economic institutions must be responsive, accountable and make their decisions in the widest public interest.

The markets must be better “governed” – setting fairer rules, oversight institutions and regulators.

But both state-owned and private companies must become democratic corporate citizens. They must practice good corporate governance, treat employees fairly and be responsive to stakeholders, local communities and ordinary citizens, and take care of the environment.

African countries should consider establishing social pacts between government, business, organised labour and communities, in which each partner agrees to key deliverables to grow industries in a sustainable way.

Social pacts should include foreign investors so that foreign companies sign up to partnerships with local companies and agree on transfer of technology, skills and fair labour practices.

As part of the social pact, there should be significant employee ownership and local communities and businesses should be involved in the supply chain of the businesses.

As part of such social pacts, Africa’s informal sector, small and medium-sized business should become part of the supply chains of private and public sector companies.

African companies should be the local suppliers of inputs to foreign investors.

Social businesses set up by local communities and entrepreneurs to provide for local needs are crucial to deepen economic democracy.

Local communities should also be organised into co-operatives or community trusts that could become vehicles for community-based shareholding in companies.

African countries must provide social safety nets – even if very basic – and introduce redistribution programmes for those who have been historically disadvantaged.

Social protection should not be a stand-alone policy, but linked to democratic, developmental and industrialisation programmes.

Governments ought to target poor households by providing them with assets such as land, relevant education and the skills industry needs, so that they can be self-sufficient.

Empowerment programmes for the poorest must be based on building assets for them.

Communal land should be, as in China, made available on long-term lease to rural dwellers to farm.

Subsistence farmers could be trained in how to produce different products that have a more commercial value domestically and abroad, or to produce what the country needs but does not have.

Housing must be provided to those in urban areas. Crucially, African countries need social, gender, cultural, religious and class equality – where everyone is equal before the law, whether they are kings, chiefs, traditional, religious or political or business elites.

African countries face the prospect of recycling the same outdated rhetoric of “economic freedom”, “radical transformation” and “decolonisation” – without updating the content to respond to an increasingly more complex world, rising technology-driven globalisation and new modes of economies, raising the spectre of African countries remaining stuck in poverty in perpetuity, never catching up with the former colonial powers or new emerging markets.

  William Gumede is associate professor at the University of the Witwatersrand’s School of Governance and chairperson of the Democracy Works Foundation. He is the author of Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg)

William Gumede

William Gumede

William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. He is Executive Chairperson of the Democracy Works Foundation and former Deputy Editor and Managing Editor of The Sowetan.During the anti-apartheid struggle, Gumede held several leadership positions in South African student, civics and trade union movements. He was a political violence mediator and area coordinator for the National Peace Committee during the multiparty negotiations for a democratic South Africa and was seconded to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He is the bestselling author of several books including, "Thabo Mbeki & the Battle for the Soul of the ANC” and "The Poverty of Ideas: South African Democracy and the Retreat of the Intellectuals" amongst several others. Read more from William Gumede

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