Sub-Saharan Africa became independent roughly thirty years ago, and it is already hard to remember the optimism that African leaders, and most western Africanists, then felt about the future.footnote1 Yet the history of the previous ninety years—i.e. since 1870—seemed to justify optimism. The colonial regimes established in the last quarter of the nineteenth century had set Africans to work—initially through all too often barbaric forms of compulsion, later through a mixture of coercion and inducements—to produce primary commodities for sale in the west. Spectacular results were obtained. In the space of only a few generations Africans were supplying huge tonnages of coffee, cocoa, cotton, palm oil, groundnuts and many other crops, as well as minerals, to markets in Europe and elsewhere.footnote2 Most of the benefit went to others—western consumers got cheap commodities, western mining and trading companies made big profits, and western colonial officers got good salaries and services—but the forces of production expanded; and while a high price was paid in social and cultural dislocation, not to mention political subordination, for many Africans in export crop zones incomes did rise, and besides railways and ports, hospitals and schools were built, so that mortality rates fell and literacy rates rose. At independence, while departing colonial officers and settlers predicted gloomily that the African leaders would make a mess of things, even they did not doubt that in general, the African ex-colonies were viable; while the African nationalist leaders and their western supporters were confident that with independence their countries’ economic growth rates would accelerate and the gap between Africa and the industrial world would be progressively closed.footnote

We now know that this was a tragic delusion, and that after two ‘development decades’ most people in sub-Saharan Africa are poorer than they were thirty years ago, while a chronic dependence on ‘aid’ has made a mockery of their countries’ formal sovereignty. What has yet to penetrate the consciousness of most people, however, is that this is not just a disappointment: what is happening in Africa is a perhaps irreversible decline towards that capitalism-produced barbarism of which Rosa Luxemburg warned, gradually engulfing most of the sub-continent.footnote3

It is hard to convey this appropriately. What it comes down to is that in sub-Saharan Africa most people are facing a future in which not even bare survival is assured: to use André Gorz’s term, they are being made into ‘supernumeraries’ of the human race. Out of a total population of about five hundred million, nearly three hundred million are already living in absolute poverty, and it is getting worse.footnote4 Per capita incomes have been falling at over 2 per cent a year since 1980, and there is no obvious prospect that this will be reversed in the foreseeable future.footnote5 World demand for what sub-Saharan Africa produces is growing slowly or even declining, while world supplies are being constantly expanded (to a significant degree, at the World Bank’s urging);footnote6and many of the commodities in question are increasingly being produced several times more efficiently outside Africa under capitalist conditions of production, forcing prices steadily downward towards levels at which Africans will no longer be able to live on what they can get from a day’s labour in producing them.footnote7

There is even less prospect of industrial development solving the problem in most African countries. In the first place, social and political conditions in much of Africa have reached the point where manufacturing investment no longer appears profitable; on the contrary, many African countries have seen significant disinvestment by foreign companies over the past decade. And secondly, manufacturing based on ‘normal’ technology will never soak up Africa’s surplus population, while the things that can still be made by labour-intensive methods are less and less in demand.

Meanwhile, the scramble for whatever surplus is still extracted from the direct producers through taxation has reached crisis proportions; corruption has drained the African states of their efficiency and legitimacy. Obscenely vast fortunes have been siphoned from public treasuries into private bank accounts (President Mobutu of Zaire is only one of the most flagrant examples: in 1984 he had an estimated $4 billion, mainly in personal accounts overseas, almost equivalent to Zaire’s foreign debt), while the apparatus of government decays.footnote8 Roads have become largely impassable. When crops fail people die because there are no longer any food reserves or delivery systems, and when people fall ill they die because there are no longer any doctors or nurses or medicines to be had except on the black market, which is beyond most people’s reach. The ‘second’ or ‘black’ economy, which operates outside the law and avoids taxes, depends on personal connections and payments and is usually wildly expensive and inefficient compared with the rationally coordinated provision of the services and infrastructure for which it is a substitute; but it is now generally reckoned to account for anything from a third to two-thirds of economic activity in many African economies.footnote9

And then there is the grotesque charade of Africa’s debt, now the highest in the world as a proportion of gdp. No one imagines it can ever be repaid; but the creditors adamantly resist writing it off. The result is an endless (and expensive) process of recycling, new loans being made to permit the continued payment of interest on old ones. Some African countries are currently spending more than half of all their export earnings on servicing foreign debts, and in some recent years the flow of capital from Africa to the west has almost equalled the flow of new capital to Africa. As many critics have pointed out, had these loans been made to private borrowers, the borrowers would have declared bankruptcy and the lenders would have had to share in the losses;footnote10 and even states can default on debts without much real penalty provided they are big enough.footnote11 But African states are small and weak; and so Africans are obliged to go on working to pay interest on debts that were incurred by their governments for projects that in many cases were ill-conceived to begin with, and could never have yielded returns adequate to pay off the debt, however profitable they were to foreign contractors (and through corruption, to local politicians, military officers and bureaucrats). In effect, Africa now represents a form of debt peonage on a continental scale.

The net result is increasing social disintegration, accelerated and made more dramatic and violent by superpower-fostered militarization (Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia), sometimes aggravated by white settler intransigence (Zimbabwe, Namibia, Mozambique, Angola), but hardly less catastrophic elsewhere—in Liberia, for example, or Uganda, or Sudan, or the Central African Republic, or Zaire, or Burundi. In fact it is getting hard to find African countries where the infrastructure is not deteriorating to the point of collapse, where corruption and extortion are not taken for granted, where violent city crime is not endemic, where malnutrition and rising morbidity rates are not widespread.