Last semester I enrolled in a class on “Africa and (Neo)liberalism.”  As part of the course requirements, I kept a weekly critical journal about the class readings. The following series of articles detail my observations throughout the 15 weeks the class lasted.

What is Neoliberalism?

The recent academic literature on Africa is replete with debates on neoliberalism and its effects on the social, political, and economic lives of people of Africa.  But compared to other common concepts such as capitalism, socialism, democracy or even liberalism, this concept is yet to be definitively defined. Moreover, it has become an academic expression that is repeatedly and conveniently used by scholars to represent political-economic changes, particularly those influenced by World Bank and International Monetary Fund programs, commonly known as Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs).

I first came across the concept of neoliberalism during a Medical Workers’ strike in Kenya. Medical health professionals and other concerned wananchi pointed out that the Kenyan government had become a neoliberal client state because of its plans to privatize health care. The government denied these claims and argued that their strategy was merely to collaborate with the private sector under the framework of established public-private partnership policies in order to provide excellent healthcare to the people of Kenya.  The government’s strategy hinged on the assumption that the private sector is more efficient in delivering public services, and it can easily be regulated. This idea that everything including public services can be privatized, monetized and be distributed in a market is perhaps the common denominator in all the definitions I read about neoliberalism.  As I wrote in my journal during the second week of class:

Reading Harvey (2005), Peck (2013), and Lemke (2001), one learns that neoliberalism does not have a single definition because the concept cuts across multiple disciplines. But at its core, neoliberalism refers to an assemblage of social-economic, political, and cultural relations that favor market-based initiatives.

But what I found more interesting is Jamie Speck’s discussion of neoliberalism as an analytic framework that is always becoming. Furthermore, this concept tends to operate differently from one region to another. In other words, how we discuss or analyze neoliberalism in the context of Africa need not necessarily resemble Eurocentric analyses. This view does not disentangle Africa or any region from the world economy. It merely shows that political-economic concepts are rarely one size fits all concept as they are interpreted and applied differently across the world. For instance, one question we discussed during a presentation on James Ferguson’s Global Shadows, is why Africa is poor despite its abundance of natural resources. I wrote in my journal:

Scholars confuse the issue of “political-economic inequality” in Africa with the concept of development. They divorce inequality from its global consideration and discuss it at the nation-state level as “development” issue. This articulation is inaccurate as it ignores the historical contribution of Africa into what we now call modernity or globalization. Furthermore, scholars who look at global capital flows often ignore Africa. Obviously, to them, Africa is not part of the global capital equation. The few who look at global flows in Africa, constrain themselves to capital related to mineral-resource extraction.

Ferguson goes to great lengths to explain how capital flows to specific enclaves in Africa while it bypasses national economies. In other words, it does not benefit all citizens. In this case, global is reconceptualized as a point-to-point connection as opposed to a focal point of convergence. As Ferguson indicates, there is a danger to this new conceptualization of global because it poses challenges in dealing with complex issues such as global warming, which does not work point-to-point.

Reading Ferguson contributed greatly to my understanding of capital and how neoliberalism manifests in Africa.  His discussion in a chapter about “paradoxes of sovereignty and independence: ‘real’ and ‘pseudo-nation-states and the depoliticization of poverty” enabled me to see that our understanding of global inequality and cultural differences should be examined from a global social, economic, and political perspective as opposed to the localization of such. Perhaps the story of Lesotho and Transkei illustrates this concept better. Despite Lesotho being a sovereign country, its economy, especially during apartheid, was worse than Transkei, a formerly Bantustan enclave in South Africa. Lesotho could not (and perhaps still does not) have an independent economy that is not dependent on its neighboring countries such as South Africa. As I wrote in my journal, all these underscores the fact that there can be no local culture that is divorced from the wider and encompassing sphere within which they are conceptualized and articulated. Thus, Ferguson concludes that anthropologists should reconsider ideas of “the field” as a unique site of culture.

During our third and fifth week of class, I realized that although neoliberalism is a recent phenomenon, its roots can be traced back to the era of slavery and colonialism. In other words, concepts of capital, capitalism, and neoliberalism are neither alien in Africa nor late entrants. On the contrary, capitalism is entrenched in the African past, and as Cooper points out, it has been slowly “coming.” Furthermore, as I reflected in my journal, slavery and colonialism are not departing point for African economy, or its entry into the world economy as African suppliers of slaves were not necessarily part of the global economy that this kind of trade created. In fact, they did not even know what happened to the slaves once they crossed the Atlantic (see Gikandi’s Slavery and the Culture of Taste).

Africa had its own economy that catered for their needs and adapted to its ecosystems, but slavery and colonialism disrupted this economy. Karuna Mantena’s Alibis of Empire and Mahmood Mamdani’s Define and Rule trace transitions that led to political-economic changes in Africa. Their discussions enabled me to understand how colonialism was conceptualized in the metropolis and how colonizers interpreted their “mandate.” Of importance here is the idea that colonial practices continue to have adverse political-economic effects in Africa. Ato Quayson’s book, Oxford Street Accra, in a way, is an exposition of some of these effects. Quayson employs a cultural lens to trace the genesis of Accra city and its development into a neoliberal city. The history he discusses situates Accra as a commercial coastal city that became the gateway to Gold Coast (now Ghana). The centrality of commerce or business in slavery and colonialism cannot be underestimated.

Over the course of eight weeks (the first part of the class), I learned a lot about neoliberalism including the concept of human capital and technologies of subjectivity, which most African scholars tend to ignore. These ideas provide new frameworks for interpreting economic changes taking place in Africa.

The following sections of my journal highlight some of the major points from class readings and discussions.

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