There is absolutely no reason to be hopeless about Africa's future. We have seen in history how organized masses of people working toward the same aims can quickly change their society despite great odds. However, there is also nothing happening in the continent that should make us wildly optimistic about the potential of sweeping change under the status-quo either. Movements in Africa today are fragmented where they exist and NGO's have crowded out the spaces where radical trade unions, student associations and peasant organizations should be. Political leaders across the continent are stooges of foreign economic and military powers and the ideological choices in elections range from moderately conservative to neofascist. Voting in most African countries is roughly the equivalent of choosing between Ronald Reagan and General Francisco Franco of Spain.
I have noticed a pattern among African descendants in the United States, who share an affinity with Africa's people, to respond to the deteriorating situation of religious and ethnic conflict, economic inequality and foreign militarization by overstating progress in other areas such as cultural expression or growing consumer classes. The FIFA World Cup in South Africa is another profound opportunity to exaggerate both. Here we have a very vivid case study of well intentioned individuals making mountains out of molehills in a country where the majority of the population suffers under the tight grip of domestic elites and foreign capitalist interests.
The same African National Congress (ANC) which famously won elections and ushered in liberal democracy in 1994 is today celebrated as helping build a rainbow nation with the African continent's most shining success story. In reality, the first democratic elections in South Africa's history effectively ended centuries of white political rule but maintained the deeply unequal structure of the political economy. The only difference was this time multinational corporations helped create what author Moeletsi Mbeki, says is “a new class of rich blacks, many of them ANC politicians and former politicians," that "support the perpetuation of the migrant labour system and South Africa’s continued reliance on mineral exports.” The rhetoric of Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) after apartheid allowed elites within the ANC to enrich themselves by serving as a political buffer between the black masses and the ruthless machinations of the capitalist system its self.
Today, participants in the former national liberation struggle with the ANC are among the most articulate critics of the "black empowerment" schemes that only benefit a few well positioned black political elites and leave the black majority begging for crumbs. Activists in Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and South African Communist Party (SACP) have in recent months organized vocal campaigns against crony capitalism and corruption in the state bureaucracy and, for the first time in the last two decades, have questioned the logic of neo-liberal capitalist management of the economy. Even more antagonistic toward the social and economic policies of South Africa's political leadership, the grassroots Anti-Privatization Forum and Abahlali baseMjondolo, the South African shackdwellers' movement, have consistently resisted the ANC's policies. The later group organized their own sports event in opposition to this year's World Cup in South Africa.
This Poor People's World Cup is organized, because we feel that we are excluded from the FIFA World Cup 2010. We see that the government has put enormous amounts of money in Greenpoint Stadium and in upgrading Althone stadium, but we as poor communities don’t benefit from all of these investments. The soccer matches will be played in town, but we don’t have tickets or transport to go there. Besides this, the FIFA World Cup has negatively impacted our communities as we are not allowed to trade near stadiums, fan parks and other tourist areas any more. The poor are not only evicted from their trading spaces for the World Cup, we are also evicted from our homes and relocated to the TRA’s, such as Blikkiesdorp, far away from the centre and from job opportunities and from the eyes of the tourists.
The voices of social movements and left political parties are seldom represented in the dominant media discourse about Africa. During the World Cup these voices were even more marginalized. Take for example, an article published in the lead up to the World Cup praising the supposed "democratization" and "growth in foreign investment" in the continent.
After a year hobbled by the global slowdown, Africa is quietly preparing for a growth trajectory that could astonish the world. Its popular image is still the same: hunger; corruption; war; poverty. But take another look. Beyond the stereotypes, Africa’s potential is explosive. Its human talents, its vast natural resources, its rising democracies and new technologies – all are reaching a tipping point that could send it surging dramatically upward.
The article continues by predictably listing South Africa as an example of the continent's recent successes. The piece juxtaposes Africa's past liberation movements to the new and "ultimately more important", ( to steal a phrase from Obama), capitalist reforms.
Under apartheid, Soweto was notorious as a place of rebellion and violence. The sprawling black township was the site of the 1976 uprising that ignited the final battle against the apartheid system. But many of its two million inhabitants today are middle-class consumers, and savvy entrepreneurs are recognizing it as a place to make money.
As many well-to-do Africans begin celebrating their droves of new "middle-class consumers, and savvy entrepreneurs" the unintended consequences of un-restrained economic boom are relegated to the margins of the discussion just as are the chief victims of its excesses. Africa's economic boom is exclusively driven by the extraction of oil and strategic mineral resources. Competition over the wealth generated is fueling resource wars (Congo, Sierre Leone) and rent-seeking (Nigeria, Guinea Conakry) in the continent that thrives in an atmosphere of political instability and regional inequities.
Yes, the expanded exploitation of the continent's natural resources has led to the creation of new middle-classes in Africa, but this process has been accompanied with ever worsening social conditions among the popular classes. For example, the aforementioned post-apartheid South Africa has witnessed black political elites living luxuriously off of the country's mineral wealth while the poor majority remains mired in desperate poverty and exploitation. South African author and brother of a former president, Moeletsi Mbeki has written at length about how the white owners of the capitalist economy in South Africa protected themselves from revolution by offering top black political officials billions of dollars worth of shares in multinational corporations.
Too many well-intentioned individuals give their tacit support to some of the most reactionary leaders in the world in an effort to believe something good is happening in Africa. The biggest African success story of the last 20 years is the fact that the workers, peasants and shack-dwellers of the continent have been able to survive day-to-day under the most relentless neo-colonial plundering in the entire planet. Their strength and determination to live under conditions of abject poverty and corruption is a legitimate reason to be hopeful. As global powers loot strategic mineral resources for military weapons and consumer goods where are the consistent voices opposing that project inside the belly of the beast? In a way, we empower this status-quo when we engage Africa in order to be cultural satisfied and then quietly resume our lives as if the continent has not witnessed the deaths of millions in imperial conquests for profit.
Instead of looking to claim victories that don't exist, concerned individuals should encourage and support organized movements of the popular classes in political struggle. Only a fundamental transformation of society under the leadership of grassroots social forces can the cycle of poverty and ruthless exploitation come to an end in Africa. Anything less by proclaimed supporters of the continent's people is simply fashionably counter-revolutionary.