On Colonialism

Any reasonable discussion of colonialism on the African continent must be accompanied by an analysis of the differences in political economy. If one examines West Africa, for example, its political economy of colonialism was concentrated in the hands of local producers and large foreign firms, in sharp contrast to South African economy, which was shaped by the British South African Company. In his magnificently fine-grained book The Political Economy of West African Agriculture, Keith Hart delineates multiple factors that contributed to its underdevelopment.

Factors include ecological challenges, the detrimental effects of the slave trade on the social structure and production of the region, and above all, the “growing discrepancy between labor productivity in Europe and West Africa during the period of mercantilist expansion.” It was Europe’s Industrial Revolution and especially Britain’s that changed West African palm production. It’s important to note that West Africa was put in a vulnerable position by relying on palm oil production due to World Bank stipulations. Let’s look at another example provided by Hart — rubber production. In 1926 the Firestone company of tire production bailed out the Liberian government in exchange for leasing a million acres of land for 99 years at low rent. This is an example of colonial corporate/state rule which guaranteed cheap labor and low pay. What’s fascinating about the cocoa industry in West Africa is high level of success by indigenous farmers. Early farmers relied on family labor and at times, they formed companies in order to purchase and distribute land before dividing them into individual enterprises (60). Many people who went into the cocoa business had capital to invest; this capital usually came from profits made on palm oil, rubber and slaves. Hart argues: “one major reason why the productive organization of the cocoa industry has remained so determinedly small scale and noncapitalist is that the state has skimmed off much of the wealth it has produced, through monopsonistic marketing arrangements, thereby reducing incentives to reinvest in farm maintenance and improvement.”

Compared to West Africa, the southern part of the continent was shaped in large part by the discovery of minerals. The British South African Company received a charter from the British government in 1880s which enabled it to profit tremendously from the extraction of resources such as gold and diamonds. Resource extraction had significant implication for labor. In the case of copper mining in Zambia, colonial officials imposed multiple taxes which essentially had the effect of coercing Zambians into the cash economy and the mining industry. Audrey Richards, also a remarkable scholar and anthropologist, mentions in her book Land Labour and Diet that Bemba youths went to mines in groups of five or six for a year or two and this changed the social structure of their communities by placing a group of older men in charge. The lack of young productive labor in the villages led to decline in agricultural output. Over time, those working in the mines lost interest in village life.

In southern Rhodesia, the colonial government began to institute labor boards designed to manage labor pools. Labor boards changed laws to make it possible for people to enter the labor pool and impose new levy taxes and so forth. Sara Berry, who draws from Frederick Cooper, makes the brilliant observation in “Debating the Land Question in Africa” that British colonialism was concerned with development insofar as it involved measures to stabilize the labor pool. Strikes broke out in the Zambian Copperbelt in 1935 and thereafter, demonstrating to colonial officials that African workers were similar to European workers in wanting higher wages, better conditions, family allowances, benefits and compensation, decent housing and healthcare. When faced with the prospect of extending welfare programs beyond the labor market to colonial society as a whole, colonial administrators withdrew. They appropriated and used “tradition” and “progress” whenever it suited their needs. When Africans went on strike they were told they were forgetting their traditions (Berry 16). Yet they instituted policies that privileged the modern, “progressive” African farmer by allocating private property. “In effect, Africans were being asked to act like economic men and tribesmen at the same time: to build a modern, commercial agrarian order on the foundations of tribal solidarity.”

When examining the current state of African countries, one must consider the vestiges of the past. As Berry puts it, “colonial regimes left behind a series of hastily built governing structures, and an improbable vision of Africans as selfless modernizers, drawing on a communitarian past to create new societies that would combine the benefits of European commerce and technology with the virtues of traditional self-help…they ignored the profoundly destabilizing effects of colonial rule….”

If we are to understand China and African relations, we must analyze it not as a “new” event marked by a departure from the past, but rather a piece in continuity of Africa’s long and complicated history


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