political economy politics public policy

Reclaiming Africa’s history of economic dynamism

Trudi Makhaya’s Business Day column of 12 April 2016

DURING my undergraduate years in the late ’90s, unlike many commerce students majoring in economics, I took a few economic history courses. African economic history did not feature much in the curriculum. Some of what was there, such as the characterisation of lobolo as a fundamentally economic exchange for reproductive labour, I disagreed with. But there was enough in it to appreciate the economic dynamism inherent in precolonial African societies.

Last month, I had a heated encounter with student leaders from about six universities. It was a small workshop with student representative council members, 20 young men and one young woman. I was invited to share my views about student financing, as an economist. I have no firm solutions. I placed a few ideas for funding free or heavily subsidised higher education within the context of a tight budget and low rates of economic growth. I highlighted some trade-offs. But I also quarrelled with the notion of free higher education for all, especially wealthy students.

Accusations of neoliberalism, of Western-centric thought, of being the messenger for my “bosses” were flung at me. The more we argued past each other, a picture emerged of what many, although not all, of the students regarded as African.

Any economic concept or calculation was dismissed as thoroughly un-African. I tried to argue that every society, African or not, thinks about trade-offs and resource allocation and strategies for prosperity.

As the discussions evolved beyond student financing over lunch, the image of Africa that emerged (at least from the more vocal members of the group) was not very different from colonial caricatures; the kinder accounts, written by missionaries, of an Africa of noble peasants, untainted by money and trade, living the simple life.

I was content to disagree with the students gathered that day on free higher education. It was the group’s dominant vision of what being African meant that bothered me.

An interesting exchange over the use of eating utensils ensued as one student explained that he was eating by hand because that is the African way. This was challenged by a lone dissenter who argued that some ancient African societies may have used utensils. And also that we don’t know what inventions may have arisen had our societies had the opportunity to evolve organically. To place such definitive limits on what being African is, given that historical context, is not wise.

The dissenter also cautioned that this is not a victim continent that can only have dignity if it rejects the rest of the world. That wasn’t so in the past and doesn’t have to be in the future.

As many have written, including economist Samir Amin, precolonial Africa enjoyed thriving and equal trade with the rest of the world. It changed with the European industrial revolution and its form of colonial outward expansion, which changed the terms of trade for African economies. It is only at this point that African societies lost their autonomy, and innovation and progress came to a halt. This impoverished and oppressed state, and the survival mechanisms that arose out of it, are often taken as “tradition”. Our notions of what is African can be incorrectly shaped by this diminishment.

In a disturbing strain of the current narrative, authentic Africans are not economically savvy, they do not build empires, they do not have questionable power relations in their societies or diverse economic viewpoints. The only strategies that are acceptable are those in which the African surrenders all economic agency to a government or central authority.

In decolonising economic thought, progressive and radical movements have to question this limited narrative of Africanhood. They will also have to grapple with why their economic solutions tend towards Western-style socialism.

• Makhaya is CEO of Makhaya Advisory

This column was first published here

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