Rethinking, unthinking development in Africa


Busani Mpofu & Sabelo J Ndlovu-Gatsheni: Academics

This week we start serialising the introductory part of a book, Rethinking and Unthinking Development in Africa, by the two scholars.

The intellectual and academic task of rethinking and unthinking development in Africa arises from the reality of how development has continued to be elusive in Africa. The development imperative has remained caught up in 10 discernible paradoxes and contradictions that were recently delineated by Odomaro Mubangizi (2018: 1):
(i) rich and complex cultural diversity;
(ii) ever-simmering ethno politics that underlie contemporary conflicts;
(iii) underdevelopment amidst enormous resources;
(iv) a brain drain amidst limited capacity and financial illicit flows;
(v) nascent democratic and governance institutions to anchor sustainable development;
(vi) longstanding tensions between tradition and modernity;
(vii) centrifugal and centripetal political and economic forces;
(viii) longstanding contradictions between the sacred and the secular;
(ix) an ever-widening gap between rich and poor people; and
(x) the quest for homegrown solutions to African problems while relying heavily on foreign aid, foreign direct investment and imported goods and services.

These above-stated challenges coexist with two discourses on the state of development in Africa. On one level is the positive discourse of “Africa rising”, which is entangled with such initiatives as the African Union (AU)’s Agenda 2063, Sustainable Development Goals, Africa’s demographic dividend, drives towards an African Continental Free Trade

Area (AfCFTA) and “the increasing attractiveness of Africa as a choice destination for foreign direct investment” (Mubangizi 2018: 2). On another level, there is the negative discourse of the Third Scramble for Africa, taking the form of intensified competition for Africa’s abundant natural resources, which directly counters the positive discourse of a developmentally “rising” African continent (Southall and Melber 2009).

While the process of rethinking development research set in long ago, it has been accelerating since the end of 2008, when neoliberalism lost most of its triumphalism because of the global financial and economic crises (Schuurman 2009: 831–48). In 2008, the contours of a partial meltdown of global financial capitalism and the subsequent global recession1 in the real economy necessitated more than ever the need for critical development research to contribute to new, much-needed insights into processes of development and underdevelopment, and possible alternative roots towards a more sustainable future (Schuurman 2009: 835).

The financial crisis left neoliberalism, which had created a more unequal society, wounded, but surely not yet defeated and as Hart, Laville and Cattani asked, what can we, the people, do about it (2010: 1)? For Slavoj Zizek, the global capitalist system was approaching “an apocalyptic zero-point”, in the process producing ecological crises, inequalities and poverty, struggles over raw materials, food and water, as well as “the explosive growth of social divisions and exclusions” (Zizek 2011: x).

In Southern Africa’s former settler states, South Africa and Zimbabwe, and in Africa in general, conventional development theories or practices have failed to adequately lead to social transformation that reduces unemployment, inequality and poverty, and the majority of citizens are homeless, unemployed, landless, stateless and undocumented, as well as being afflicted by various diseases.

Decolonisation has remained a challenge in Southern Africa, especially in the former white settler states, Zimbabwe and South Africa, where the negative effects of colonialism and imperialism continue to linger on. In both countries, the current governing parties — the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu PF) and the African National
Congress (ANC) — both former liberation movements, secured black majority rule through negotiated settlements that involved compromises, which left the capitalist economic structure largely intact.

In order to economically empower the majority of the black population constitutionally marginalised by the colonial and apartheid governments, the governing parties introduced various black economic empowerment, indigenisation and land reform initiatives. The extent to which these initiatives have transformed the lives of the majority of the historically disadvantaged communities is debatable, but what is clear is that the majority of the populations continue to wallow in poverty.

For example, Hart and Padayachee (2010: 424) argue that the legacy of racial division excluded and still excludes the majority of South African citizens from economic emancipation. Worse still, South Africa is still racially divided economically, with an extremely advanced sector focused on mining, finance, security and retail, but a more racially mixed elite now is surrounded by black poverty. Economic growth since 2000 has failed to reduce this divide. As a result, South Africa remains a world leader in inequality, and ruling elites in most of Africa often collude with foreign extractive, commercial and military experts (Hart and Padayachee 2010: 423, 426).

National political leaders today continue the process of accumulation without development in most of Africa. As a result, Africa’s underdevelopment currently should be substantially attributed to the self-serving actions of the fragmented political class serving the interests of foreign powers (Hart and Padayachee 2010: 410–11). Mbeki (2009) blamed African ruling elites for enriching themselves at the expense of their own people by serving the interests of foreign powers determined to exploit their countries’ human and natural resources. Žižek (2013) questioned whether African leaders would dare to touch the capitalist mechanisms or whether they would decide to “play the game”? The challenge, according to Žižek, is that if one disturbed the capitalist mechanisms, one was very swiftly “punished” by market perturbations, economic chaos and the rest.

What is clear is that global coloniality produced a particular form of leadership in Africa — a petty bourgeoisie that could not invent or even transform political, economic and social institutions inherited from colonialism “into its own image” so as to “become socially hegemonic” (Nabudere 2011: 58; Taylor 2014: 5). Since 2015, South African universities have become a site of struggles for student protests against the deep-seated exclusionist tendencies of apartheid colonialism.

According to Ndlovu-Gatsheni (2016), what began as the Rhodes Must Fall movement (RMF), targeting Cecil John Rhodes’ statue at the University of Cape Town, quickly expanded into broader demands for cognitive justice. Students demanded change of curriculum; decommissioning of offensive colonial/apartheid symbols; the right to free, quality and relevant education; cultural freedom; and an overall change in the very idea of the university from its Western pedigree (“university in Africa”) into an “African university”.

There has been a demand for transformation in universities that embraces the need for a diverse and cosmopolitan student cohort, and enhanced access for talented students from poor and marginalised communities (Habib 2015: 8–10).

The issue of alienating institutional cultures features prominent as another grievance. University institutional cultures are deemed European, anti-black, racist, and patriarchal (Tabensky and Matthews 2015). In other words, these universities are what Francis Nyamnjoh depicted as “European greenhouses under African skies”, making them “a space of whiteness” even if they are inhabited by black people (Nyamnjoh 2012: 129–54).

As a result, an increase in African and Coloured (people of mixed race) representation in the university and the evolution of the institutional culture where black staff and students feel comfortable within the university is deemed the solution. There are calls to re-organise the curriculum in order to incorporate African theorists and contextual challenges. The movement also called for an end to the exploitation of workers through the in-sourcing of all outsourced services.

Finally, naming has to reflect the diversity of society and students (Habib 2015: 8–10). Broadly, the RMF movements are loudly calling for what Brenda Cooper and Robert Morrell term “Africa-centred knowledges” as a form of cognitive justice (Cooper and Morrell 2014). The “Fees Must Fall” (FMF) strand of the RMF movements specifically demands the implementation of “the right to education” for every student as stated in the Freedom Charter in 1955 (Ndlovu-Gatsheni 2016).

Generally, millions of poor people inhabit Africa. Even if the middle class has grown substantially and, to the extent that measurements in small formal economies are useful, the measurable level of inequality is also disturbingly high and few African states seem to have comprehensive policies to better the situation. Therefore, now more than ever, we need to imagine different economic development policy alternatives.

In other words, in spite of development’s dismal track record, Easterly fundamentally argued that a development ideology is needed. It appeals to people in Africa and the Third
World in general because they want a definitive, complete answer to the tragedy of global poverty and inequality, and ideologies usually arise in response to tragic situations in which people are hungry for clear and comprehensive solutions (Easterly 2007).

In 1988, Escobar (1988: 498) succinctly argued that the concept of development was embedded in the neocolonial construction of the world and was a key ideological tool in global power relations. As a result, he argued that instead of searching for development alternatives, we must search for alternatives to development, which respect local autonomy, culture and knowledge (Escobar 1997). The problem, according to Banda (2004: 98), is that in the language of “development”, Western modernity has been projected as the ideal that others from other parts of the world have to follow, while disregarding their historical, cultural and economic differences.

In other words, the 2008 financial crisis has opened up a new terrain for thinking about the economy (Hart, Laville and Cattani 2010: 4), but also about development discourses that are meant to shape the economy. Economic growth needs to translate urgently into less poverty. However, this has been very slow and hindered by high levels of inequality.

In 2013, for example, the World Bank forecast strong economic growth in Africa of about 4,9%. In spite of this growth, poverty and inequality remain “unacceptably high and the pace of reduction unacceptably slow”, with almost half of all Africans still living in extreme poverty (World Bank 2013: 2). Those “peddling” the idea of development keep on adding adjectives to the word “development”, but are actually not able to reduce poverty in general (Boaventura de Sousa Santos 2014).

For example, according to Banda (2004: 101–2), in the 1950s and 1960s, the development discourse assumed that the growth of the economy would ‘trickle down’ to the masses in the form of jobs and other economic opportunities.

Most Third World countries achieved the United Nations (UN) targeted growth expectations in the 1960s, but their economic status remained the same or even worsened.

The economists shifted their emphasis from the economic growth model to the basic needs approach in the 1970s.

When this failed to yield the desired results, a “sustainable development” with “bottom-up” planning was adopted in the 1980s.

Soon after, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) introduced “structural adjustment” policies in the 1980s, forcing governments in the Third World to cut down their expenditure on social welfare programmes.

Mpofu is a senior researcher at AMRI, College of Graduate Studies, University of South Africa.

His main research interests include Third World urbanisation and the history of African cities, urban poverty, inclusive development, development discourse and theory. His publications include The Urban Land Question, Land Reform and the Spectre of Extrajudicial Land Occupations in South Africa, Africa Insight (2017) and The Land Question, Agriculture, Industrialisation and the Economy in Zimbabwe: A Critical Reflection, in O Akanle and JOT Adesisa (eds), Development of Africa: Issues, Diagnoses and Prognoses (2018). Ndlovu-Gatsheni is the acting executive director of Change Management Unit (CMU), vice-chancellor’s office at the University of South Africa. He has published extensively in African history, African politics, and development. His major publications include The Ndebele Nation: Reflections on Hegemony, Memory and Historiography (2009); Do ‘Zimbabweans’ Exist? Trajectories of Nationalism, National Identity Formation and Crisis in a Postcolonial State (2009); Redemptive or Grotesque Nationalism? Rethinking Contemporary Politics in Zimbabwe (2011); Empire, Global Coloniality and African Subjectivity (2013); Coloniality of Power in Post-colonial Africa: Myths of Decolonisation (2013); Nationalism and National Projects in Southern Africa: New Critical Reflections (2013); and Bondage of Boundaries and Identity Politics in Postcolonial Africa: The ‘Northern Problem’ and Ethno-Futures (2013).