HomeOpinionStrong Middle Class Helps Develop Modern Leaders

Strong Middle Class Helps Develop Modern Leaders

MOELETSI Mbeki: ‘Architects of Poverty: Why African Capitalism Needs Changing’. 196 Pages
Published by Pan MacMillan SA
Review by James Mitchell.


PERHAPS unconsciously, the preface makes us aware of the essential difference between Moeletsi Mbeki and those condemned to remain transfixed in a “blame the West” mindset.
In the Slave House on Goree Island, off Senegal’s Dakar, Mbeki views “a large musket hanging on the wall — one of the items sold to Africans as part of the infamous Triangular Trade whereby manufactured goods were shipped from Europe to West Africa and exchanged for slaves, who were shipped to the Americas to grow sugar, cotton and tobacco that were then shipped back to Europe. This was mercantile capitalism in action.
“With my South African mindset I queried the wisdom of European slavers selling guns to Africans: surely the guns would be turned on the Europeans, I ventured, betraying my ignorance about the workings of the African slave trade. The curator… explained that it was the Africans who caught the people in the interior and sold them to the owners of the ships that transported them to the Americas to be sold into slavery. So it was the Africans who needed the guns to protect themselves against the communities they raided for people to sell.”
An uncomfortable realisation: that Africans were complicit in their own enslavement. (Equally unpleasant to realise that, long after the European nations had internalised the immorality of the slave trade and moved to stamp it out, Africa continued selling children to Arab slavers… well into the last century.) In the past, Africa harvested its progeny; today it sells what it extracts out of the ground: we are, Mbeki believes, stuck in the earliest form of capitalism, “mercantile capitalism”, which depends on the principle of buying cheap and selling dear. “Up to a point, Lord Copper.”
 Not to suggest that Moeletsi Mbeki parallels the fictional owner of the Daily Beast newspaper in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. (Nor, one hopes, that he agrees with Lord Copper that the least among his employees is a book reviewer.) Mbeki notes that Africa was not always behind the rest of the world. He quotes a World Bank comparison of Ghana and Korea in the mid-1960s, when the West African state’s incomes and exports per capita were higher. But within three decades, Korea’s exports increased by 400 times, Ghana’s by just four times, while “real earnings per capita fell to a fraction of their earlier value”.
Far from industrialising, he writes, our continent is de-industrialising. This includes not only the most obvious and notorious example of Zimbabwe, but even South Africa, whose “manufacturing sector has declined from 25% of GDP in 1990 to 16% today”. The new post-colonial elites, Mbeki alleges, are not producers or facilitators of wealth creation. They are consumers. The state is distributive (in their favour) rather than developmental (to the benefit of all). Hence reparations-inspired legislation such as BEE.
“This is the most striking difference between the black elite of South Africa and the elites of Asia, where the driving ideology is entrepreneurship.”
Again (but this time in the reference to Asia), up to a point. Malaysia’s “New Economic Policy”, sometimes touted as a worthy exemplar for South Africa — though thankfully not in this book — had such a strong distributive element that it reduced non-Malays (mainly Chinese) to the status of productive prey for the indigenous majority. Like non-black South Africans in this country?
Only societies “with an independent middle class with significant scientific knowledge and managerial skills have produced a modernising political leadership”, Mbeki writes. Required, before such a middle class could emerge, were… “well-travelled merchants, independent artisans and scholars in feudal societies; and “ethnic minorities, such as the Jews in parts of Europe or the Parsee in India”.
Whether such individuals and cosmopolitan groups are appreciated here or on our continent as a whole is open to question. This country, Mbeki writes, has fallen into the “resource curse” trap, so that at least “a quarter of the population receives social grants that would not be available if South Africa were not rich in minerals”. The insecure recipients of this largesse resent their marginalisation. To regain self-respect, they “support demagogues who claim they, too, are marginalised and therefore want to replace the ruling elites with people-friendly governments. This, in a nutshell, is what happened at the ANC conference in December 2007…”
Mbeki depicts, sans polemics, the disaster of Zimbabwe, then asks: Why the blind eye turned by the governments of other southern African states? In part, “fear of the emergence of more democratic political forces in Zimbabwe that might threaten the status quo of southern Africa’s established political elites”. It was “the spectre of new, well-organised, cosmopolitan and vocal constituencies no longer interested in the politics of race but in the accountability of governance (that) struck fear into the hearts of these elites and explains their solidarity with Zanu PF and Mugabe”.
This spectre of accountability helps explain the rejection by the ANC of changes to South Africa’s electoral system. Ask yourself: Who is my Member of Parliament? No name, no accountability, no need for change. Simple, really.
Numerous issues are considered. For example, the question of unification, whether regional or continental (mercifully, would-be Brother Leader Muammar Gaddafi doesn’t get a look-in here). Must — as is frequently argued — borders and sovereignty be abolished to eliminate barriers to growth? Mbeki’s answer: “Electrolux, Volvo, Saab, Nestlé, Philips, Unilever, Royal Dutch/Shell, Carling, Interbrew, Heineken, AAB, Ericsson, Nokia, Norsk Hydro, Roche, Maersk, UBS, ABN-AMRO” are but a few of the world-class companies developed, he reminds us, “long before European integration became a reality”. It isn’t the size of the population that matters, “rather it is its skills pool and its control over its economic and social policies that, in the final analysis, determine the level of industrialisation”. Alarming reading, one might think. In a logical society this should serve as a wake-up call. But will it?
Let us not hold our breaths. There are many in power or leeching on its fringes who will be perfectly happy as South Africa de-industrialises, as our doctors and engineers flee, as our skilled farmers trek, as our entrepreneurs relocate, in short, as our “brains” drain. With less and less to redistribute, our new elites will remain consumers, not producers, unless we change radically.
For Mbeki’s suggestions as to how we change, I strongly suggest you read his book. As is customary, on the cover the author is depicted in words that must at least have been approved by him. His political path, his business and academic interests are summarised. But first, he is described as “a journalist, private business entrepreneur and political commentator”.
Interesting that he should accept — even claim — the label of journalist, at a time when this occupation is more undervalued, and more under pressure, than ever. It suggests that he sees himself in the primary role of journalism: speaking truth to power while informing citizens about what is being done in their name. This task requires, above all, a keen ethical sense and the ability to clarify complex issues and happenings, while explaining them fairly and accurately. Moeletsi Mbeki has most certainly done this in Architects of Poverty, between whose covers clarity reigns supreme. One need not agree with everything, but one can understand all: an accolade of which any journalist might be proud. This small book deserves a wide readership.

Recent Posts

Stories you will enjoy

Recommended reading