Capitalism in Africa: The Old and the New Lyrics

View from the Carlton Centre - Johannesburg's inner city went into decline when the ‘Money’ relocated to Sandton and the destitute moved in. Certain parts are still ‘no-go’ areas, such as Hillbrow, but Bramfontein and the city centre are clawing their way back to respectability. Seen from the panorama deck of Johannesburg’s tallest building the city does remind me of the dystopia portrayed in the movie Blade Runner (1982).

By Horman Chitonge

The Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE) hosted a Round Table discussion at the 2016 African Studies Association UK (ASAUK) conference held at Cambridge University and the topic for discussion centred on whether African societies are capitalist or not, and also on the status of political economy scholarship on Africa. In this blog post, I focus on the question of whether African societies can be classified as capitalist or not. I argue that the answer one gives, depends, largely, on the meaning of capitalism that one adopts; and there have been different meanings which scholars have espoused. For this reason, it is crucial to clarify the question of what constitutes a capitalist society. Can African societies (and I would like to use the plural and not the singular here to emphasise the heterogeneity of societies in Africa) of yesterday and today, be classified in the same way?

Stating ones understanding of what constitutes a capitalist society is crucial for the simple reason that not all people have the same understanding of what a capitalist society (or capitalism for that matter) is. As Laclau wrote in 1971, given the “extended debates that have occurred over the concept of capitalism” the term, should, “by no means be term for granted”. Some scholars think of a capitalist society as one where free enterprise and private property dominate, while others take a capitalist society to be one in which the profit drive overrides any other motives in society. Other scholars see the taking root of capitalist relations and structures of productions as the definitive feature of a capitalist society. For many people a capitalist society is simply one characterised by exploitation of one section of society by another, while for other people it is defined by the existence of free market enterprise, the freedom to sell and buy goods and services. For example, Bartlett characterised capitalism in Africa in 1990:

Throughout Africa today, capitalism is staging a comeback.  After a century of colonialism and 30 years of “African Socialism,” the continent is at last returning to its capitalist roots. It is often asserted that Africa has no capitalist tradition, but this is not so. Africans are natural traders with a long history of barter, exchange, and entrepreneurship that was stifled by government control (emphasis added).

Though Bartlett does not explicitly define capitalism, it is apparent that free exchange and enterprise seem to be central to his understanding of capitalism and what constitutes a capitalist society. From this understanding of capitalism, Bartlett is convinced beyond doubt that African societies are capitalist; he even thinks that capitalism is ‘natural’ in Africa.  However, few analysts would agree with Bartlett. In fact, during the 1960s, there was a widely held view that capitalist relations were ‘unnatural’ to African societies (unAfrican), and therefore unacceptable on social, cultural and ethical grounds.

Broadly, there are two sides to the discussion. On one side of the debate it has been maintained that most of African societies are pre-capitalist, perhaps still on the ‘long road’ to become capitalist. On the other side of the debate it has been asserted that capitalism is the dominant social and economic system in Africa, and therefore African societies are capitalist. Those who support the pre-capitalist thesis argue that although African societies have for a long time been interacting with the capitalist world, they are not yet capitalist societies; that the “predominant social relations are still not capitalist, nor is the prevailing logic of production” as Saul and Leys argued in 1995 and that, according to Hyden, “Africa is only at the first gate on the road to capitalism”. Several arguments are provided to support this view, including that African peasants have not been “captured” into capitalist relations and structures of production; that the capitalist mode of production in Africa has not yet completely subsumed pre-capitalist modes of production, giving rise to what some analysts have referred to as “a stunted form” of capitalism as Cox and Negi wrote in 2010. On this side of the debate, it has been asserted that the disarticulated nature of class formation in Africa has prevented the emergence of a pure capitalist class that can exploit Africans sufficiently to unleash the productive forces of capitalism.

Critics of this view, notably Amin and Wallerstein writing in the 1970s and 1980s, have long argued that from the time Africa came into contact with the capitalist world, African societies have been irreversibly drawn deeper and deeper into capitalist relations, and as a result these societies have been radically transformed by capitalist relations. Those who support this view argue that restrictive meaning given to the term capitalism, as a system defined primarily by a particular mode of production, amounts to reducing society to a mode of production. They argue that society is much more than a mode of production, and therefore one has to take into account the broader social, cultural, economic and political context to appreciate the forces at play.  While analysts on this side of the debate do not agree on when exactly capitalism spread to the continent, there is general agreement that from the time Africa came into contact with the capitalist system, it became part of this system as the “periphery of the periphery”.

My task in this blog post is not to go into detailed debates about how capitalist relations manifest in different places and times; what I want to do here is to try and isolate fundamental features of capitalist relations, and then proceed to see if we can identify similar features in African societies. I argue that while capitalism should not be expected to be monochromic in its concrete expressions, its effects are essentially the same. If capitalist formations can in fact differ according to the material conditions on which they act, then it might be useful to focus on the basic effects rather than take a rigid single path approach.

If we focus on the basic features of capitalism, it is possible to isolate common elements, regardless of time and place. Looking at capitalist relations across different spheres of time and place, there are three fundamental features which I would like here to focus on here: i) exploitation of the majority by a capitalist class (whatever form this may take), ii) concentration of power and control in a few hands (this might be corporations and a political elite) and, as a result, iii) highly unequal distribution of resources and wealth in society. If we apply these three fundamental elements of what constitute a capitalist society, it would be hard to deny that African societies have for a long time been and are still capitalist. However, as Laclau observes in 1971, exploitation can be found in many societies including non-capitalist, and as such it is not unique to capitalist societies. It is rather the specific form of exploitation which sets capitalist societies apart; particularly the systematic exploitative relationships involving ‘economic surplus’ extracted through wage labour and unequal exchange. In other words, exploitation in a capitalist system is through economic means mediated through specific relations and structures.

Restricting capitalist exploitative relations to wage labour dynamics yields an incomplete story of how capitalism has unfolded in the continent, and this has often led to some serious misunderstanding of capitalist dynamics in Africa. For instance, the extraction of economic surplus has not only been restricted to wage labour relations (which affect only a tiny section of Africans), but through a complex network of capitalist operations raging from multi-national companies engaged in extractive industry to service oriented capitalist firms such as Banks, shipping companies and insurance firms which have been operating in Africa for centuries now. Thus, restricting the existence of capitalism to the dominance of wage labour relations has offered little insight into capitalist dynamics in Africa. For this reason, it is essential to pay attention to the unique forms of economic surplus extraction through direct and well as indirect means. The key issue is that capitalism has fundamentally affected the way African societies operate and are structured.

In the debates on capitalism in Africa, there is little disagreement on the view that African societies have been in contact with the capitalist world for a long time.  Although the nature of this relationship has always been one of crude exploitation of African peoples, the mechanisms and rules of engagement have been changing overtime, as African societies are transformed through these engagements. For example, the nature of engagement during the mercantilist period when merchant capitalism was dominant is quite different from later forms of engagements and the attendant mechanics of exploitation. While in earlier engagements through the slave trade, imperial (civilising) missions and colonial rule, the nature of exploitation was largely through naked, brute force, driven by the imperatives of primitive accumulation, later forms of engagements have become more sophisticated, so they may appear as beneficial to the centres of capital and African societies. Today, the circulation of capital has become so complex, interweaving foreign and local capital into a colossal network of financial capillaries, penetrating every corner of the globe including the most remote villages. This sophistication has in turn affected the way capitalism manifests itself and shapes African societies. To appreciate capitalist dynamics in Africa, one cannot ignore its changing nature and outward expressions.

Scholarly debates on capitalism in Africa, particularly, have been, and I guess are still, heavily contested. One of the reasons for this is that capitalist formations in Africa have often been analysed based on some ideal model of a capitalist “path”; and since this prophesied path has not materialised in Africa, there is a strong temptation to see African societies as non-capitalist, often implying that they are pre-capitalist. Such views are often supported by appealing to a very restrictive idealised conceptualisation of capitalism as a system defined by the prevalence of wage labour. Societies, like most in Africa, where wage labour only accounts for a tenth of the population are summarily bracketed as non-capitalist societies (perhaps a good thing, but it ignores the reality on the ground). If we critically examine the social relations and the dominant forms of engagement (exchange), it becomes apparent that wage labour alone may not be an adequate concept for analysing capitalist manifestations; it then becomes apparent that we need a much more sophisticated understanding of the system to unmask its basic features and the complex ways in which it restructures and transforms social relations and entire societies. Indeed, as we move into an era where wage labour, in the traditional sense, is rapidly shrinking, globally, it becomes imperative to find new tools for analysing capitalism so as to yield new insight into its intricate operations and how these shape society, in specific contexts. In the African context, a strictly wage labour analysis offers limited insights into the nature and mechanisms of capitalism.

Horman Chitonge is Associate Professor and Head of African Studies Section at the Centre for African Studies, University of Cape Town (UCT). His research interests include agrarian political economy, and alternative strategies for economic growth and poverty reduction in Africa.  His most recent books include: Economic Growth and Development in Africa: Understanding Trends and Prospects and Beyond Parliament: Human Rights and the Politics of Social Change in the Global South.

Featured Photograph: Johannesburg viewed from the Carlton Centre (Andrew Moore, 2015)


  1. a brilliant analysis and intellectually stimulating debate on the nature of capitalism in Africa. The question is , are they still spaces and landscapes in Africa which have not yet been penetrated by the logic of capitalism: the network of commodity production and its relations; and above incorporation into the global capitalist system. If you go to rural Zimbabwe which relatively limited wage-labour relations you will witness the massive incorporation of tobacco, cotton and maize farmers into the global capitalist system. They themselves are begining to appreciate the vicious cycles of falling and rising profits- how the global market system affect them. But their relations are not purely capitalist. Its a strange mixture of capitalism and aspects of feudalism. Labour is organized at a clan level but for profit/ surplus value. There is barter trade- exchange of livestock with modern capitalist commodties


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