In recent years there have been growing questions about capitalism and its impact/ Photo: Getty Images

By Matthew Chan-Piu

Critiques of history, community, individualism, struggle, life, and dignity in the prevailing capitalist system are at the core of the school of thought known as New Africanism – a philosophy created by African intellectuals in the 20th century to articulate their entrance and participation in the new historical experience of modernity.

This was seen as a way to merge the old and new Africa with what African intellectuals had learned about the western world. In a sense, this mindset would give Africans the advantages of the new world, preserve our heritage, and provide us with a decolonised future.

But, has this actually happened? Has it been successful? Has it been fair?

Thinkers on this subject, like Natasha Shivji, describe the subject as what morphed from the Pan-Africanist idea. “The Pan-Africanist discourse of the 1940s, 1960s, and 1970s combined and produced a different idea of what it meant to be African,” says Dr Shivji, the Director of the Institute for Research in Intellectual Histories of Africa in Dar es Salaam.

Pan-Africanism is the principle or advocacy of the political union of all the indigenous inhabitants of Africa. Pan-Africanism aimed to protect Africa and Africans from further exploitation by the imperialists who had done it for centuries.

The first Pan-Africanism meeting in mid-July of 1900 had various commitments and outputs, including a letter titled ‘Address to the Nations of the World’. Sent to European leaders, the letter was an appeal to them to crack down on racism and to grant colonies in Africa and the West Indies the right to self-governance and political and other rights for African Americans.

“This course of Pan-Africanism, which is very clear and agenda-driven, was very political and very anti-imperialist,” Shivji adds. They didn’t want to have anything to do with culture. The concept of cultural specificity in terms of what it meant to be African was not considered by nationalist leaders in the 1960s and 1970s.

Exchange of ideas

African intellectuals began to observe and experience life in societies that gave the impression of perfection: governance was just, strong social networks existed, effective educational systems worked, freedom of speech was a God-given right, and, most importantly, a political setting that appeared to encourage people to choose the governments that would guide them in the years ahead.

Indeed, this must have made them yearn for more of the same back home.

Unfortunately, this was not the case for most leaders who returned to Africa and rallied the masses to seek, demand, and even fight for independence from the colonial masters. The opportunity was right there, but for many of these leaders, the true agenda would reveal itself several years later.

I have always asked myself, did our leaders then really intend ever to treat us any differently, or were the rallying calls they made once back home nothing more than a ruse?

After all, they knew their fellow citizens back home who had never been to the white man’s land would listen to them in awe of what they could promise: a utopia based on the carefully hand-picked elements they wanted from the western world embedded back into their African countries.

The benefit of being the first to learn about something is the ability to tailor the narrative to the reactions of those you relay this information to. Our African intellectuals suddenly had an advantage: they could rally the masses to independence and defy the colonial masters.

This part was correct. However, the intellectuals would determine and control the future; after all, most of the masses did not have the same education or life experiences that gave them the upper hand as the leaders did.

Don’t get me wrong: not all of our African leaders had terrible intentions. However, the majority did. Look at how many African countries have not suffered from oppression, severe corruption, and political turmoil.

Capitalism, a fancy word for greed?

Shivji explains that it was very unclear who the imperialists were in the ’80s and ’90s after colonialism had been defeated. “Who is the imperialist? Who’s the colonial enemy? Who’s the real enemy?” she asserts on several occasions. This is not necessarily about fighting a political enemy because we don’t know who the political enemy is.

The people in power look exactly like us and share the same language and beliefs.

They may be exploiting us. In fact, many times, the people who are grabbing land from Africans are Africans, for example.

As an economic system, capitalism has been both a blessing and a curse for Africa. On the one hand, capitalism has brought about economic growth and increased investment, leading to improved infrastructure, better access to goods and services, and a higher standard of living.

We had a new enemy, one that was within, one who was one of us, not from some far-off foreign land. The colonial masters had been defeated, but our new leaders maintained ties with the former colonial rulers. And with those ties, they became symbols of betrayal.

An example is the number of new African leaders who emerged and wined and dined with the former colonialists in exchange for money and political support that ensured they maintained the status quo of authority back in their respective countries.

Capitalism has good and bad sides but is not confined to Africa, it’s a global problem. But all political and economic systems have their pros and cons. Because the very nature of humans hinges on their needs and desires, no system can work for all of us.

These human needs and desires drove our leaders to deliberately oppress their people into submission, creating fear, hatred, and paranoia so the masses would fall in line.

Shivji would reveal that it’s unclear who those adversaries are now.

So, what does it mean to be African in such a case? Was it the idea of self-determinism in an economic sense or more in line with a political sense, or both, in other words, the ability to have economic independence but also have a clear say in the politics of one's country?

So, defending your economic resources meant protecting them from capitalism because it was unclear where they were as Africans. Were they there for capital gain or for something more profound?

It became necessary to define being African - was it blackness that made you African? Is your religion what makes you African or what you wear?

As a result, this same dreaded capitalism has been fueled by this new Africa-rising ideology. This has favoured the few who can profit unfairly at the expense of the majority of the population.

This greed is ingrained across our global system. One will be exploited for someone else’s benefit.

On the exploitation of labour driven by capitalism, Shivji gives the example of the Maasai Shuka, the African garment traditionally used by the Maasai people of East Africa. When the dress is turned into a fashion item, it is cultural appropriation, as the Maasai will not get a share of the profits. But it is an even bigger problem when those who exploit the dress don't acknowledge it as cultural appropriation.

Furthermore, “none of the profits reflect on the plight of the Maasai who are being driven away from their homes in Loliondo for the profit of thrill-seeking hunters.”

This is also what Neo-Africanism and Africa Rising intend to do, but the lines have been blurred. The waters have become murky because it is unclear who is exploiting whom and because the new exploiters of labour in our countries are also Africans claiming to be on the new wave of Neo-Africanism for the benefit of the Africans.

Again, this exploitation is not new; capitalism is an economic system based on private property, competition, and market exchange principles. The pursuit of profit and the creation of wealth through economic activity characterises it.

The Africa Rising narrative refers to the idea that Africa is experiencing economic growth and development driven by increased investment, urbanisation, and improved governance.

Capitalism has played a significant role in the Africa Rising story, as foreign investment and private enterprise have fuelled economic growth in many African countries.

However, this growth has not been evenly distributed and has often benefited a small elite rather than the wider population. Critics of capitalism in Africa argue that it has contributed to income inequality, environmental degradation, and the exploitation of workers.

There is an ongoing debate about the role that capitalism should play in Africa’s future development.

Some argue that capitalism is the key to unlocking Africa’s economic potential. In contrast, others believe that a more equitable and sustainable economic model is needed to ensure that the benefits of growth are shared more broadly.

Ultimately, the impact of capitalism on Africa will depend on the policies and institutions put in place, as well as the ability of African governments to regulate and manage their economies effectively.

An Africa beyond capitalism is only possible if we create an entirely new economic system based on the ultimate form of perfect political leadership. Which, in reality, will never exist. For now, we must try and enforce laws and policies that give us a chance at a free and fair political and economic system.

(Matthew Chan-Piu is a writer and filmmaker based in Kampala. Uganda)

TRT Afrika