Sub-Saharan Africa and the degeneration of capitalism

January 19, 2022
A woman asks for alms
Mozambique, Zambia, Cabo Verde and Angola have debt ratios of 100% of gross national income. Image: Pixabay

Sub-Saharan Africa stands as a stark reminder of what late capitalism has to offer. There are pockets of great wealth and power alongside widespread suffering and want. There is state indebtedness, corruption, climate ruin and refugee crisis, multinational domination of an immensely rich continent and a meanness of spirit from wealthy nations that allows for impoverishment and despair to grow.

While no African state directly mirrors any other, there are similarities in how many of these 46 countries have fared. Africa ought to be the richest continent on Earth. Its natural resources alone make this a fact and yet it remains oppressed and prey to exploitation.

Karl Marx argued that states inevitably conform to the general rules of capitalist development. Capitalism has now spread across the world and states have adopted a common economic and political worldview. The capitalism that Marx referred to once had a positive element to it. Capitalism revolutionised societies, and while oppressing the working class, provided the basis for education, health, and an overall improvement in living standards. Those days are long past.

Capitalism builds and destroys as it develops. It is unavoidable as it must constantly seek to escape the ever-present threat of a fall in the rate of profit. This quest, as Marx and Fredrick Engels so eloquently put it, “chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere”. Those connections are now global, but if capitalism once provided something like hope, Africa is a powerful symbol of capitalism’s degeneration.


For Africa this degeneration is inextricably linked to colonialism and its heir, neo-colonialism. In 1965, Ghana’s first independent president, Kwame Nkrumah, remarked that “the state is, in theory, independent and has all the outward trappings of international sovereignty. In reality, its economic system and thus its political policy is directed from outside". He was soon deposed in a military coup. He was, after all, describing the operations of the modern state and of its relationship with both domestic and global capitalism.

The façade of independence is best shown by the experience of France’s former African colonies. When these states achieved “independence”, France manipulated things to the extent that 65% of foreign currency reserves were held by the French treasury. It was not until mid-2020 that France accepted that this was no longer acceptable.

It might be unfair to single out France for special treatment, but it serves to illustrate the point that African states were hardly likely to develop fairly. The 19th century saw an imperialist “scramble for Africa”. Today we have a new “scramble” for a slice of the lucrative African pie. The usual suspects have been jockeying for their share but have been joined by other players; India, Brazil and China.

The crisis of capitalism and its need to seek new pastures to ensure profitability has placed some strains on the states that exist to serve it. This is the case in all capitalist countries. The concept of the welfare state is a fading memory. Services are run down, privatised and returned to capital. More is required of a state apparatus with fewer resources, as these are returned to private ownership. Institutions once deemed to be for the public good now struggle without appropriate state funding. How can anyone expect the story for sub-Saharan Africa to be any different?


The brutality of the capitalist world is no secret. States find vast amounts of money for their respective military budgets. The United States spends 3.7% of its GDP on the military, Britain 2.2%, France and Australia each spend 2.1% and Germany 1.4%. The foreign aid budgets tell a different story. The US spends 0.16%, Australia 0.22%, Britain 0.50%, France 0.44% and Germany 0.60%. Poverty, despair, wretchedness and want in Africa could be overturned if the figures for military spending and aid were reversed, but that is not how states and capital operate.

All states are in debt. This is just one of the facts of life of global capitalism. Africa fares no better but has little capacity to service debt. Mozambique, Zambia, Cabo Verde and Angola have debt ratios of 100% of gross national income. For these countries, there is no light at the end of any tunnel.

The total debt of sub-Saharan Africa was US$305 billion in 2010. By 2020 that figure had risen to $702 billion, which is close to 50% of the combined GDP of all sub-Saharan countries. This does not mean that the debt ratios in developed capitalist economies are all that different. The difference is that the wealth of the latter economies remains incalculably higher.

The rapacious nature of capital is clearest when the work of multinational corporations is considered. Among their problems is a difficulty with the concept of paying tax. An Oxfam report revealed that tax breaks for the six largest foreign mining companies in Sierra Leone equalled 59% of the entire budget of the country. This figure is equal to eight times the country’s health budget. Sierra Leone is not exceptional. It simply reveals the contradiction between nation-states and the global nature of capitalism. In this regard, the entrapment of individual sub-Saharan countries is not fundamentally different to the situation facing many capitalist states. It is simply the severity that stands out.

Climate, pandemic

The people of sub-Saharan Africa eke out a desperate life. Per capita GDP is just $1484, and this fell by more than 7% in the last year. Forty per cent of the population earn less than $1.90 a day. Poor health, poor life expectancy and poverty haunt the people of this immensely rich part of the world. And then there is COVID-19. G20 countries have received 15 times more vaccines per capita than those in Africa. The world is awash with wealth. Total global wealth is $418.3 trillion. There is no excuse for anyone not to be vaccinated against this pandemic. But, then again there is no reason why the planet cannot be cleaned up and climate change sorted out.

While climate change threatens us all, the people in sub-Saharan Africa live with its immediate consequences. The continent faces extreme weather events, increased drought, food insecurity, starvation, poor health outcomes and economic destruction. But it need not be so.

The cost of cleaning up the mess of climate change and repairing the planet is estimated to be $50 trillion by 2050. Governments are unlikely to fund this, and it is extremely unlikely that individual capitalist corporations will be opening their wallets any time soon. The combined global GDP is well over $100 trillion. Countries are seemingly happy to spend 2‒3% of their GDP on the military. Three percent of global GDP over 25 years would resolve the problem.

The figure to eliminate COVID-19 is $50 billion. If there were political will and a rational use of global resources, then the problem would be resolved. Instead, we see a willful disregard for the real needs of people and a willingness to sacrifice so many for the advantage of so few.

And so, we see what late capitalism has to offer. The populations of the capitalist states of sub-Saharan Africa are doubly exploited — first by their own governments and capitalist class and then by the power of global capitalism. In the 21st century, with capitalism irredeemably locked in crisis, it is an increasingly bleak picture for Africa and for the world.

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