Understanding Africa

BY RHECKER@LAW.HARVARD.EDU

By: Ryan Hecker, 2L

Garry Grundy, in his opinion article “Afro-economics,” reveals that while he learned a lot about the Zulu culture while visiting South Africa, he learned very little about South Africa’s history or its political and economic systems. Grundy makes the hallow claim that “the African way of life has become vastly disjointed at the hands of market forces.” Such a statement inaccurately presupposes that all Africans experience the same “way of life.” In fact, prior to colonialism, thousands of different African societies existed with distinct social structures and governments. And today, the urban African experience in Lagos is very different from an African’s experience in rural Madagascar. In making such grandiose statements, Grundy falls into the colonialist mentality by ignoring Africa’s vast cultural complexities. He forces millions of Africans into one constrained cultural and socio-economic box.

Implicit in Grundy’s idea of Afro-economics is a view of pre-colonial Africa as a “natural,” pure, but economically unsophisticated continent. He seems to think that prior to colonialism, Africa did not experience “market forces.” In actuality, many African societies had capitalist tendencies. In West Africa, along the trans-Saharan trade route, African merchants competed in complex markets with Europeans. The Songhai Empire in the seventeenth century was wealthier than most European countries because of its ability to use “market forces” to its advantage. Similar market economies existed in East and South Africa. Yes, some African societies were more communal than others, but even these societies engaged in market transactions with surrounding communities. And prior to colonialism, all African societies had classes of “haves” and “have-nots,” often determined by cattle or property ownership.

What’s so striking about Grundy’s use of the word “natural” to describe a “harmonizing” Afro-economic system is that colonialists also regularly used the term to describe African society. Grundy is obviously not a racist or a supporter of colonialism. He, however, like the colonists before him, is using the term to further his political ends. The colonialists generalized Africa as a “natural” place in order to justify enforcing its “civilizing” foreign norms. Similarly, Grundy is generalizing Africa as “natural” in order to justify his own economic agenda. But Grundy, unlike the colonists, is trying to pass off this economic system as “African.” In actuality, his vague Afro-economic system is no more African than Victorian British morality.

Grundy also misunderstands South Africa’s modern economic system. He argues that discrimination and capitalism are the cause of his Zulu friend’s poverty. That’s only half true. To be sure, discrimination is continuing to cause major problems in South Africa. South Africa is still a race-conscious society, and many black South Africans face economic difficulties. To blame South Africa’s disparities in wealth on world capitalism, however, is too simplistic and largely false. The primary reason millions of black South Africans remain impoverished is that the current South African government continues to engage in the same economic, regulatory and corrupt practices as the apartheid government that preceded it. Large South African businesses, such as De Beers, continue to scheme with the government to maintain control of their virtual monopolies. The result of such big-business pandering is massive tax breaks and regulations that prevent upstart black entrepreneurs from being able to compete. It is therefore not “market forces” but rather corrupt government complicity with these virtual monopolies that controls and cripples any upward movement by the poor. Grundy admits this point when he argues against American agricultural subsidies, which are not “market forces.” Rather, they are attempts by government to control the free market in a manner that keeps the poor in “their place.”

Thus, when Grundy’s “global masses” arrive at America’s “twelve-foot wall,” Bush should lift the wall of agricultural subsidies, embrace free trade, and, in his southern drawl, advise: “Go ask De Beers.”

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