Kleptocratic capitalism: Challenges of the green economy for sustainable Africa

Published on Pambazuka News, by Yash Tandon, June 30, 2011.

Africa remains at the mercy of a self-interested international ruling class interested purely in maximising profit at all costs and consolidating its position, writes Yash Tandon. As the continent faces up to the enormous challenge of climate change and the creation of a sustainable ‘green economy’, it must look inwards and draw upon its own expertise and resources and resist the temptation to rely on compromised external ‘experts’, Tandon stresses … //


Africa has been one of the major resource providers of global kleptocratic capitalism. By means of the so-called ‘development aid’ and FDIs, Africa’s resources are exploited to sustain ‘the system’. In real terms the investments and ‘aid’ are a gigantic credit system that creates a mountain of debt which Africa has been paying in the form of transfer of real values – coffee, cocoa, cotton, cobalt, platinum, gold, chromium, manganese, uranium and titanium, to name but a few. (Africa holds 90 per cent of the world’s deposits of cobalt, 90 per cent of its platinum, 50 per cent of its gold, 98 per cent of its chromium, 64 per cent of its manganese, 33 per cent of its uranium and 80 per cent of its columbite-tantalite).  

In a recent paper by Kandeh Yumkella, director general of UNIDO, and Rob Davies, South Africa’s minister of trade and industry (from which the above figures are taken), the authors say that Africa has 80–200 billion barrels of hydrocarbon reserves, but most of these are exploited by global corporations. A ton of African titanium sand, to give but one example, brings about US$100 in export revenues, whereas a ton of titanium alloy brings $100,000 but to countries outside Africa – a ratio of 1:1000.

The gross exploitation of Africa’s resources is underpinned by a global credit system run by the World Bank, the IMF and the aid industry. ‘Development aid’ is a charade. (See Yash Tandon, ‘Ending Aid Dependence’, 2009). What the IMF and the German–French dominated banking system has been doing to the peripheral European countries (Greece, Ireland, Portugal) in recent years is exactly what the IMF, the World Bank and the so-called ‘donor’ community have been doing to Africa for the last 50 years. They have been sacrificing the welfare of the people of Africa so that the ‘system’ of corporate greed and ‘rent seeking’ by the rich and powerful can survive and prosper. It is no wonder that people in Africa remain poor and unemployed.

Africa has its own domestic over-consuming power and economic elite (the plutocrats) in league with their imperial overlords – the bank-robbers and global corporations – that exploit the masses of the people. One of the manifestations of their greed is the massive land grab that we are witnessing today. A lot of the land grabbing is done by these domestic plutocrats. Also, many African governments are selling off or leasing agricultural lands to foreign investors from Europe, the US, India, China, the Gulf States and further afield. There is a rush for all of Africa’s resources, not just land, but also its forests, oil, gold and diamonds.

The price of this intense exploitation is paid by the ordinary people. In recent court cases in South Africa, for example, tens of thousands of former mineworkers received little or no compensation for occupational lung diseases working in asbestos mines and other kinds of toxic environment. Hundreds of thousands of African rural people are displaced and dispossessed to make space for domestic and foreign land grabbers – often, ironically, to grow food ‘for the poor’ – using agro-chemicals or the magical biofuel ‘green gas’ jatropha. These climatically displaced refugees (CDRs) are swarming rural countryside and peri-urban areas across Africa.

AGRA (Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa) is one example of this kind of exploitation that is encouraged by mainstream African economists and power elites. Under the guise of providing Africa with ‘climate-sensitive’ food crops and flowers, Rockefeller and Gates foundations-funded AGRA (with the blessing of the former secretary general of the United Nations Kofi Annan) is pushing agro-chemical crops using multi-genome patents. Their objective – or at least the end result – is plain to see: the control over Africa’s plant biomass to generate super-profits for mega-chemical and seed corporations.

From Mali to Mozambique small peasant farmers are resisting the takeover of their lands and life-saving meagre means of sustenance. But they are scattered and weak in political organisation to mount an effective resistance. When the ‘Arab spring’ hits the cities of these countries – as inevitably they will – these displaced and disempowered millions will enlist in droves into ‘rebel armies’ to remove the neocolonial dictators of Africa from their perched thrones.

This, in brief, is the first point. Africa is run by a global kleptocratic system, a system which enriches a minute number of economic and power elites in Africa and the global bankocrats and corporatocrats at the one end of the pole while impoverishing the masses of African people at the other. Economists call this ‘rent seeking’, but it is, bereft of linguistic and technical finesse, simply looting.

What can be done? It is too vast a subject to take on. I will give two contrasting models that exemplify polar conceptions on how to go about addressing the challenges Africa faces. One is South Africa’s second Industrial Policy Action Plan (IPAP-2) based on ‘market-based policy measures’, mega-projects such as the Coega complex near Port Elizabeth and carbon trading. This is the route of the trodden past – its outcome is predictable.

The second is the pledge the government of Rwanda made at the ninth session Forum on Forests around tackling poverty in ‘forest communities’ with a 25-year plan to tackle ecosystem degradation and improve rural livelihoods. What is significant about the Rwandese concept is its dual objective of saving the forests and also the ‘forest communities’. For the environmentalists forests are simply biomass that on the one hand provide fuel and on the other hand carbon dioxide absorbing ‘lungs’ as a counter against global warming. But besides the forests there are also forest dwellers. The challenge is to save the forests and the forest communities; the people as well as the environment. Those who are sensitive to the welfare needs of the people within African governments and African parliaments must support people’s movements that take on this dual challenge. One example of this is the ROPPA (Network of Farmers’ and Agricultural Producers’ Organisations of West Africa) which coordinates and strengthens a number of rural women’s associations working towards saving the communities as well as the environment.



Real knowledge comes not from information but from a thorough and deep understanding of Africa’s situation. There is a vital and strategic distinction between information and understanding (verstehen) – an interpretive or participatory examination of social phenomena. The fundamental reality of Africa is that it is integrated into a global system of kleptocratic capitalism characterised by primitive accumulation or ‘rent seeking’ by the rich nations and within each nation by the rich power elite. This creates at the opposite polar end the dispossession and disempowerment of the masses of the people. The present phase of the evolution of capitalism is caught up in its own contradictions, but capitalism is not about to disappear. It is a long road. In facing the challenges of the demands of a ‘green economy’ that ensures ‘sustainable Africa’, Africa has to balance the human rights and needs of the masses of its people with the imperative of protecting Africa’s environment. Africa should not hand over policy matters and negotiating strategies to outside ‘experts’, however benign they might appear. Above all, Africa must build a common united position on climate negotiations in alliance with the other countries of the South, leading with the COP-17 and then Rio+20. The African Union and the South Centre can play a significant role in leading towards Rio and beyond. (full long text).

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