Africa and the Future

An interview with Achille Mbembe, including on the consequences of global capitalism on the continent.

Image credit Heike Huslage-Koch via Wikimedia Commons.

Within a short period of time, the global, corporate discourse on Africa has swapped a refrain of hopelessness with a near eschatological discovery of a new el dorado — a place of gold from which global capital hopes to regain its lost mojo. Africa is a Country has debunked the discourse of an ‘Africa Rising’ in several postings, and collectively they make it quite clear that a future in Africa worth striving for is beyond the growth of the GDP, the rise of the ill-defined African middle class or the increase in return on investment.

In the following interview, Achille Mbembe reflects upon the category of the future for Africa, the consequences of global capitalism on the continent, and on Africa’s contribution to an emerging world in which Europe has provincialized itself.

Since 2008, when you initiated the Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism (JWTC), you were very much concerned with thinking about the future — why and why now? Is there something about our current epoch that requires us to think about the future?

Mbembe: There were two reasons. The first was that the category of the future was very central to the struggle for liberation if only in the sense that those who were involved in it had constantly to project themselves towards a time that would be different from what they were going through, what they were experiencing. So the political, in that sense, was about a constant engagement with the forces of the present that foreclosed the possibility of freedom, but it was also the political, closely associated with the idea of futurity. And what seems to have happened after 1994 [in South Africa since the first democratic elections after apartheid], is the receding of the future as a temporary horizon of the political, and of culture in general, and its substitution by a kind of present that is infinite and a landing. This receding of the future and its replacement by a landing present is also fostered by the kind of economic dogma with which we live; to use a short term, neoliberalism. The time of the market, especially under the current capitalist conditions, is a time that is very fragmented and the time of consumption is really a time of the instant. So we wanted to recapture that category of the future and see to what extent it could be remobilized in the attempt at critiquing the present, and reopening up a space not only for imagination, but also for the politics of possibility.

At a recent colloquium in Avignon, you said that in order to have an open future, to be emancipated, meant in the past to separate the object from the subject. Why is this no longer possible and could we imagine another route to emancipation since this avenue seems no longer available to us?

It is true that in the tradition of Western, critical theory, emancipation consists fundamentally in the making of a clear distinction between the human subject and the object, on the one hand, and the human and the animal, on the other hand. The idea being that the human subject is the master, both of himself, and of the natural and animal world. The natural and the animal worlds, he subjects to his use. And that freedom is really the result of that capacity to master oneself and to master the universe and to act rationally. So the argument I was making was that in an age when capitalism has become somewhat of a religion — a religion of objects, a religion that believes in objects having become animated, having a soul of which we partake through the operations of consumption which means that capitalism has become a form of animism. In such an age the old division between subject and object is no longer as clear as it used to be and that in fact, if we look carefully at the operations of consumption world-wide today, we might observe that, many people want to become objects, or be treated as such, if only because becoming an object one might end up being treated better than as a human. All of this creates a terrible crisis in the foundational theories of emancipation we used to rely on in order to further a kind of politics of openness and equality. So that was the point I was making and my thoughts on this issue have not gone further.

Let’s move more directly to the African continent. Since 2008, also because of the economic downturn in the West, there is much talk about ‘Africa rising’. People now talk about all these possibilities that are on the continent. Is this about global capitalism searching for more places to exploit? Is capitalism attempting to advance into places that have not been properly penetrated before? Is this what is happening now, or is there perhaps something more positive that is coming out of this recent turn of global capitalism on Africa?

It is true that there is a huge shift in the global discourse on Africa — a shift from the discourse of crisis and emergency that dominated the last quarter of the 20th century and the current kind of optimism that is predicated on a few hard facts. For instances, the highest rates of economic growth we have witnessed over the last ten years have happened in Africa; that the continent is somewhat on the verge of major demographic transformations; that the continent is experiencing higher rates of return on investments and is therefore attracting the attention of foreign investors at a speed we had not witnessed before, and that the middle class that has been decimated during the use of Structural Adjustment Programmes, is reemerging as an economic force. So there is a whole set of indicators that seem to suggest that something is going on which is different from what we used to witness in the past. The fact is also that a huge number of the investments being made are made in the extractive sectors of the economy and therefore subject to the kinds of volatilities and shifts which characterizes not only the economic cycle in general, but especially that sector. So there is a mineral boom the extent of which is quite important, the length of which we are not quite sure of. And clearly, a number of people are getting rich, both locally as well as those who come and invest in the continent. But the result — or the paradox — of this type of growth is that, as we know, it is not creating many more jobs, it involves a process of deepening social inequalities, and Africa is still facing massive challenges in terms of investment in basic infrastructures, in roads, in communications, airports, highways, and railways. Moreover, the continent is still threatened by political instability, either in the form of localized wars, or in the form of social disorder. While the overall picture has to be balanced, it seems to me that Africa does indeed represent the last frontier of capitalism. The question is under what conditions will these new forms of exploitation be conducted, by whom, and for whose benefit.

Africa is known for violent conflict that holds the continent back – do you think there is the possibility that Africans will be able to overcome this kind of violent politics?

I don’t know. It might be that we will have to live with violence. Just as we have seen other political communities living with it for a very, very long time. Colombia has been at war with itself for a very long period of time now. In Mexico, it is more or less the same thing. Violence in Mexico is taking different forms. In places such as Brazil, India or Pakistan, there is a level of social violence that is pretty high and it goes hand in hand with institutions of civil politics, if one wants to use such a term. So, if you look from a historical point of view, there will never be a moment when we are at peace with ourselves and our neighbours, and that the kind of social, economic and political formations that are emerging in the continent and elsewhere too, will always be a mixture of civil peace and violence. But having been said this, it seems to me that one of the main challenges in the continent has to do with the demilitarization of politics. The project of the demilitarization of politics is a precondition for a regime of economic growth that might benefit the biggest number of people. For the time being, the combination of militarism and mercantilism in places such as the Congo, even in plutocratic regimes, such as Nigeria – that combination of mercantilism and militarism is only benefitting predatory elites and multinationals.

You have also been critical of the role of Europe, and the continued colonial relationships that are maintained. At the same time, Europe is almost shutting itself off, and as you wrote, even provincializing itself. Is this newly-emerging Europe in stark contrast with Africa and other developing countries that are steaming ahead, advancing economically, socially, and politically thereby creating their own world?

In relation to the continent, Europe has developed over the last 25 years or so an attitude of containment in sense that the biggest preoccupation has been to make sure that Africans stay where they are. The fixation with the question of immigration has jeopardized to a large extent the development of more dynamic relations between Africa and Europe. The obsession with boundaries and visas, the emergence of racism in most parts of Europe, the strengthening of right wing parties in the context of an economic crisis that is quite obvious — all of that has been detrimental to the development of productive and mutually beneficial relations between Africa and Europe. Europe has tended to withdraw into herself while still playing an important role in world politics, especially when it comes to waging imperialist wars. Meanwhile, we have seen the extent to which new actors, such as China, India, Turkey, Brazil and a few others have tried to play a role in the on-going geopolitical reconfiguration that is on the way. The ultimate challenge, however, is for Africa to become its own centre. In order for Africa to become its own centre, it will need, as I said earlier, to demilitarize its politics as a precondition for the democratization of its economy. The continent will have to become a vast regional space of circulation which means that it will have to dismantle its own internal boundaries, open itself up to the new forms of migration, internal as well as external, as we see happening, to a certain extent in Mozambique , and Angola where some Portuguese are coming back. As Europe closes its borders, Africa will have to open its borders. So it seems to me that only in becoming that vast space of circulation that Africa might benefit positively from the current geopolitical reconfiguration of the world that is going on.

Within that reconfiguration, what is perhaps still holding back Africa is the stereotypical image that Europeans and Americans have of Africa and her people. Recently, when sociologist Jean Ziegler launched his book about global hunger crisis, a Swiss journalist asked him whether the low productivity of agriculture in Africa was because of the laziness of African farmers – this is a very stereotypical, if not racist proposition to make, but it seems to me that such prejudice is common among Europeans. Should Africans be worried about this image or should they just ignore it?

I think that we should leave it to Europeans to deal with their own stupidities because we have far more urgent tasks and projects to attend to. We cannot afford wasting our precious energies dealing with the kind of mental illness that Europe has caused in Africa and elsewhere. So Europe will have to deal with its own mental illnesses, racism being the first of these. What I was saying is that the African agenda in the world that is shaping up in front of us, a world in which China is emerging as a very major player, a world in which the only proposition coming from the dying American empire is more militarism, a world in which the only idea coming from Europe is a retraction and building a fortress around oneself. What Africa needs to pursue is becoming its own centre, and putting its people to work for this. As I was saying, re-imagining a new policy of mobility which implies internal migrations, formations of new diasporas, linkages with old ones, and a redirection of energies in order to tap into energies coming from other places in the world, such as Brazil, India, and China. All of that seems to me more exhilarating than the old and failed attempt at bringing Europe to see itself more than just a province of a broader planet.

What is then the African contribution to a future world? Especially with the idea in mind that we move away from a world in which Africa is dependent on others. What different ways of doing things, you mentioned earlier the existing modes of circulation can Africa offer to the world? What role would indigenous conceptions of humanity, such as Ubuntu, play in this movement?

From a theoretical perspective, there are a number of possibilities. When we look at the cultural history of the continent, it seems to me it is characterized by at least three attributes that can be conceptually deemed creative. The first one is the idea of multiplicity. Look at any single thing on the continent, it always comes under the sign of the multiple: the idea of one God is totally foreign to the continent, there have always been many Gods; the forms of marriage; the forms of currencies; the social forms themselves always come under the sign of multiplicity. One of the tragedies of colonialism has been to erase that element of multiplicity which was a resource for social development in pre-colonial Africa and which was replaced by the paradigm of ‘the one’, the kind of monotheistic paradigm. So how do we recapture the idea of multiplicity as precisely a resource for the making of the continent, its remaking, but also for the making of the world? Another important concept that we haven’t explored much, but which comes from the African historical cultural experience is the modes of circulation and of mobility, of movement. Almost everything was on the move. It was not at all true as Hegel, and those who rely on him, intimated that Africa was a closed continent — not at all. It was always a continent that was on the move. So that concept of circulation is something that can also be mobilized to show what it is that can come from this experience. I spoke first about multiplicity, second about circulation, and the third concept is composition. Everything is compositional — in the way the economy is lived on an everyday basis. You mentioned Ubuntu: meaning the process of becoming a person, a certain proposition, not about identity as a metaphysical or ontological category as in the Western tradition, but as a process of becoming as a relation; a relation in which the ‘I’, meaning the subject, is understood as being made and remade through the ethical interaction with what or who is not him. In fact, the idea that other is another me, the other is the other only to the extent that he or she is another me. That the other is not outside of myself, I am my own other to a certain extent. So there are a whole set of areas where Africa’s contribution to the world of ideas and praxis can be highlighted for the benefit for the world with implications for all sorts of things: theories of exchange, theories of democracy, theories of human rights, and the rights of other species, including natural species, in this age of ecological crisis. It is work that has not been done, but it is time that we are doing it.

  • This is an edited version of an interview first published in Swissfuture 03/2013.

Further Reading

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Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.