Growing up poor in black America you get your economic lessons early on. Mommas are always at the center of these economies, ensuring that all are not trampled in this “Get Rich or Die Trying” age in which we are now living.

But after living and working in Africa this summer, my notion of afro-economic behavior has become amplified.

The problem that all economies are attempting to resolve is that of scarcity. Afro-economics treats the problem of scarcity with considerably less waste. Not wired to the impulses that fuel capitalist economies (greed, overconsumption and paranoia), nor connected with the paternalism and disengaged psyche intrinsic to command economies, Afro-economics seeks to harmonize human activities with Nature, ensuring sustainable growth over time.

Pay attention to that last part.

While eating some KFC with a college-educated Zulu brother named Tuthuthukani (TK), I was given my first lesson in afro-economics from the Motherland. While he ripped into the cartilage of the chicken, clearing all edible tissue from the bone, TK whispered: “Dis white man boomed at me, while I was eating my chicken: ‘Geez! What do your dogs eat?'” TK started licking his fingers again. “Do you know what I told that Dutchman?” he looked up at me. “I told him: ‘We serve them the desserts.’ Ha! Ha!”

TK had a funny way about him. He taught himself English and put himself through school. He now supports his entire immediate family in South Africa and Swaziland.

Placed in the largely-white, upper-class suburb of Sandton, I often fled segregation central to engage black folks on their own terms in more meaningful ways.

TK took me to the township of Heidleberg. There, I got a chance to meet the whole family and practice my newly-acquired Zulu catch-phrases. “Do you know dis is our land?” asked Mesuly, TK’s very sage uncle. “Yebo!” I replied. “Do you know this is your home too?” “Ng ya bona. Ng ya bone.” “They took this from us and took you from us. For what purpose? They have no work for us? No real land reform. No real jobs. They’ve taken our land and spoiled it.”

The fields have become unworkable for more reasons than Mesuly mentions. The HIV epidemic has impacted agrarian work capacity in rural regions. Global climate changes have also forced rural farmers dependent upon a regular rainy season to locate other means of supporting their families during especially dry winters like this past one.

“The weather has no rhyme anymore,” says Gogo, Mesuly’s elderly mother, as she remains transfixed on “Days of Our Lives.”

The African way of life has become vastly disjointed at the hands of market forces.

* * *

Collisions between the post-industrial and agrarian worlds are at play right now. When President Bush came to South Africa this summer, the issue of reducing subsidies to American farmers was again on the table. Americans and South Africans both stand to benefit greatly from a more robust agricultural trading relationship. However, with Bush’s declining popularity ratings and the Midwest as a must-win for Dubya, no meaningful change can be expected before the election – translating to bad news for Mesuly, as empty promises continue to reign from across the Atlantic.

AIDS, crime and unemployment are the major challenges confronting African nations. With roughly 80 percent of all violent crimes in Johannesburg going unprosecuted, crime actually does pay. Fear preoccupies the white South African, as massive twelve-foot-high walls with electrical wire separate the “haves” from the black Africans. It’s quite logical: The more you have, the more you must try to conserve – hence the conservative moniker.

But when the SOBIG and HIV viruses are working in tandem to check our over-consumptive, self-indulgent ways; when power in the East is intermittent, and the price of water and gas become prohibitively expensive because all of the world’s resources have been earmarked, bought up or drained up; when guys like Mesuly ask why their daughters can’t grow up with the same clean air and opportunities that Barbara and Jen do; what will Bush say to those global masses that come to the twelve-foot wall erected around America – sick, hungry and defeated? What will he tell them?

“Let ’em eat cake!”

Garry Grundy’s column appears biweekly, although his next column will appear next week.

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