The silences about capitalism in Africa

Many African countries are by now capitalist societies and analytically need to be treated as such when we talk about or study them.

Iron ore loaded trains at the Saldanha terminal, South Africa. Image credit JB via Flickr.

African Studies has a significant problem to engage collectively, explicitly, and critically with the thing that is ever more a point of discussion around the world: capitalism, more specifically with capitalism as a social phenomenon, topic and concept. There is a significant shortage at the heart (and top) of the African Studies community in Western Europe, and arguably across the entire Global North, of an explicit, focused, sustained, large-scale collective exploration, about the many, multifaceted features of contemporary capitalism on the continent, and about characteristics of African societies as capitalist societies.

I first made the argument about the under-utilization of capitalism as an analytical category in 2016. I subsequently organized a roundtable titled “African capitalist society” at that year’s African Studies Association of the UK (ASAUK) annual conference, and started a blog series on the Review of African Political Economy’s blog titled Capitalism in Africa (CiA) a few weeks later.

Here, I want to continue this line of enquiry and basically to make two points. The first is to present some actual data concerning conference titles of major African Studies conferences in the Global North. The second point is to make an argument in favor of one of the positions that is at the heart of the CiA series on that many African countries are by now capitalist societies and analytically need to be treated as such. In other words, that a number of social phenomena in several African countries can be seen to be typical of a capitalist society, and thus are comparable to similar phenomena in other capitalist countries, across the world, including the Global North.

For example, in countries such as Uganda and Kenya, and especially in their major cities, one can find plenty of social phenomena that are typical of contemporary capitalist society across the world. Whether they occur in the Global North–London, Berlin, Paris–or in Africa–Pretoria, Nairobi, Kampala–the mix and type of similar phenomena is striking: social media (Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, influencers, followers, twitter shit storm; fake news debates); dating apps (Tinder); marketing and advertisement; the entertainment industry (comedy; music; lotteries; commercial TV including shows with a focus on investment, property, jackpots, dating, cultural competitions [best voice, comedian etc.], and formats such as reality TV [e.g. Big Brother] or we-change-your-life-in-an-instant [e.g. house improvements in poor neighbourhoods]); urban transport (Uber, Taxify); international commercial sports events, especially European football, broadcasted in bars, clubs, hotels,  restaurants and gyms; shopping arcades; corporate sponsorship of social events and initiatives (education, health, culture, sports); books present/advertised about individual success, wealth, happiness, turn-around-your-life and thinking-like-the-successful; privatizations and public-private partnerships; commercialized education and health sectors; the presence of powerful TNCs (in banking, business consulting, communication, security, transport and logistics, tourism, real estate, food & beverages, hospitality, etc.); gated communities; evictions; gig/night/24-7-moneyneversleeps economy; jobless growth; precarity; under-/unemployment; poverty wages; fraud and corruption; economic inequality; luxury and opulence; 4×4; VIPs and celebrities; sugar daddies; betting; loan offers (via TV, radio, newspapers, billboards); personal indebtedness; mental illnesses; protesters vs. riot police battles; surveillance technology, public debates about an economic, political and moral crisis, etcetera. In short, to the question can some African countries be regarded as capitalist countries from the point of view of observable social phenomena in everyday life, in the big cities, then the answer I would give is an emphatic yes, of course. What else do you think these examples point to: pre-capitalist, feudal? But I will get to this second point later.

First, some statistics: an incident earlier this year made me curious about the usage of the word “capitalism” in titles of European African Studies conferences. I started my search with the titles of past European Conferences on African Studies (ECAS) and guess what? Nothing. Not a single reference to capitalism or imperialism. However, I realized I needed to get more data to see if ECAS was the norm or an outlier. So, I asked my long-term research collaborator, Nataliya Mykhalchenko, to extend the search to include other major Northern conferences from the last decade. This sort of ad-hoc, rough, time-pressed analysis of the conference titles of some of the major African Studies gatherings in the Global North gives clear—yet what some might all “anecdotal”—evidence of a very peculiar relationship of the discipline with Capitalism-as-social phenomenon and Capitalism-as-analytical-frame. At the minimum, the overview of conference titles shows that the term has hardly ever made it into any main- or sub-title of an African Studies conference for years.

So, we compiled the conference titles for the following (the tables can be viewed in an earlier, longer version of this post, here): ECAS (2005-19; 8 entries), African Studies Association Germany (VAD, 2008-18, 6), Canadian Association of African Studies (CAAS, 2009-2018, 10), African Studies Association (ASA in the United States of America) (called annual meetings; 2008-18, 11) and African Studies in Italy (ASAI, 2010-18, 4 entries with titles). Out of 39 entries then, exactly 1 entry (or 2.56%) had capitalism in the conference title. The VAD 2016 Berlin had the title “Africa in a capitalist world”; though note that for various reasons, this 2016 gathering was an unusual, shortened mini-VAD conference, with only one main conference day, instead of the usual three. If we include in the sample other regular major African studies gatherings in Western Europe–the Nordic Africa Day (2007-18, 8 entries), and the gatherings organized by the Netherlands Association for Africa Studies (NVAS; lately called NVAS Africa Day) (2006-18, 13 entries)–the ratio goes up to 1/60 (1.67%). We have also checked the titles for the African Studies Association of Australasia and the Pacific (AFSAAP, 2008-2018, 11 entries) given that Australia is regarded to be part of the Global North and seems to be major if not dominant actor in the Association. Nothing, still. So, ECAS was not an outlier after all, quite the opposite.

What does this data indicate?

I don’t want to speculate about the cognitive or political dimensions of the process of title setting here. But everybody who has ever been part of a conference (or workshop) knows that titles—as well as conference blurbs, programs, panels, roundtables, catalogue of abstracts etc.—are typically products of a longer collective process of deliberation, laying out and weighing the options, (de-)selecting, drafting, editing etc. So, it is evident that “capitalism” as a conference theme has not won the day very often, and this must be weighed against a background of a widening public debate across several countries in the North on capitalism-as-point-of-discussion. Yet, capitalism has not been deemed suitable to headline these large important, days-long scholarly gatherings across Europe (and North America) that actually, in one way or another, shape the intellectual framing and priorities of a significant number of the hundreds of attending scholars, students and researchers and related publications down the line.

Of course, some might argue that conference titles are very general and surely conferences that have transformations, inequality, and so on in the title are discussing capitalism and/or its current variant neoliberalism. Still, there is a difference here between a theme being implied or explicit, in the blub or in the title. So again, we can ask the question, why did capitalism-as-a-scholarly-theme lose out, while other themes carried the day and were crowned with a conference title? I could easily end the analysis with this question, but let’s carry on a bit.

First, there are of course occasionally panels and even streams in these very big African Studies conferences that directly refer to “capitalism” in the title and of course, there are workshops or other scholarly gatherings in the North that are dedicated in one way or another to the analysis of capitalism in Africa. In addition, of course, there are plenty of African Studies conference panels that neither have capitalism in their title nor blurb, but discuss some of the many issues on the continent that are shaped by capitalism, whether explicitly acknowledged and analyzed by paper presenters or not: think of panels, papers and workshops on extraction, poverty, hunger, conflict, inequality, tradition, migration, and so on. And, of course, articles get published that deal with capitalism more or less head-on and extensively. And finally: There are discussions in African Studies that explore, in one way or the other, aspects of the CiA theme. Relevant discussions run under different headings such as production, (fair) trade, industrialization, agrarian change, labour markets/relations, employment, urbanization, middle class, youth, informal economy, entrepreneurship, hustling, futurity etc. But this is not the point.

What I am talking here about is the place of the capitalism-theme in the overall analytical landscape of the discipline. The titles of major conference are important; they play a special role in shaping political and intellectual debate. They signal intellectual relevance and urgency and are set-up against alternative themes. They indicate the play of forces concerning (i) analytical and thus also political priorities (and frames), and therefore (ii) set the agenda for the discipline as a whole. There is a difference, one would expect, between keynote speeches about, say, Capitalist Africa-Capitalist Africans vs. Urban Africa-Urban Africans (the theme of ECAS 2017).

So again, at this point I can conclude: there is a long-standing pattern here of those who have the power to set major-conference agendas in the North—via selecting particular titles and keynote speakers, and, consciously or not, de-selecting other possibilities—to not choose “capitalism” as a conference title. In other words, conference organizers across the North have for years, possibly decades, pursued other framings for major conferences and appear for unknown reasons uninterested, reluctant, or whatever in using capitalism as a core frame of conference discussion. There seems to be something particular then about the way African Studies engages with capitalism, as a social phenomenon, theme and concept.

Still unconvinced? Go to the conference theme text of ECAS 2019. The conference title is “Africa: Connections and Disruptions.” While many past and present analysts of the global economy and society regard capitalism—i.e., “the system,” “the machine,” this particular form of social order—to be the mother of disrupters, does capitalism get a mention in the conference blurb? Is it not a fairly established analytical insight of the social sciences that capitalism brings relentless change, often very radical, turbulent, disruptive and tragic? Isn’t the African continent a major example of this core global feature of capitalism? And yet, the theme blurb of seven-hundred and fourteen words makes no reference to capitalism as a force of change and, surely, this cannot be an issue of limited space. Yet the blurb refers to amongst other things, North-South interventions, finance, financialization, financial inclusion, global economy, global value chains, transaction, consumer markets, economic and debt relations, etc., but not a word on capitalism, imperialism, class, TNC/corporation/firm. I used the search engine repeatedly to make sure I had captured the data correctly but there were no matches. Why is capitalism not mentioned even though reference to it could have been made easily and appropriately? To press the point: Why does capitalism in Africa not get a bullet point of its own? Maybe I am splitting hairs, yet, equally, perhaps this blurb is an excellent exemplar of my overall point, with all my disclaimers.

Just for comparison: earlier this year I attended the Mwalimu Nyerere Intellectual Festival at the University of Dar es Salaam. The festival theme was the following: “The Second Scramble for Africa: The Quest for Socio-Economic Liberation of the Majority Poor.” Although not using the C-word directly, the use of the term “scramble” is a very direct reference to the topic of imperialism on the continent, and therefore to a major general phenomenon in capitalist political economy. The political difference between this gathering’s title and the typical titles of European conferences that I have encountered over the years (headlined with words such as mobility, connections, flows, engagement, creativity, transformation, past-present etc.) was striking.

With my curiosity on this topic of conference titles and blurbs still running high, I recently looked at the program of the ASA (US) 2018, a gathering, according to ASA website information, of “about 2000 scientists and professionals,” with “more than 300 panels and roundtables.” I had very limited time at hand, so I searched the program document only for the following: capitalism (3 entries, one of it a roundtable, titled: “Capitalism and African history: A conversation”), “capitalist” (1), “class” (5), “class conflict” (0), “class struggle” (0). Neither the title (“Energies: Power, creativity and afro-futures”) nor the CfP blurb (or list of “Themes and chairs”) makes reference to “capitalism” or “capitalist.” There is one reference to “class” in the CfP (“How have hierarchical systems along axes of age, gender or social class been reproduced or contested in reference to the management of mobilities and labor?”). The quick check confirms the earlier finding: CiA is a fringe topic in major African Studies conferences in the North. Notably, there is another Area Studies field that has, for historical reasons amongst others, a particular relationship with the capitalism concept as well: Eastern European studies.

This state of affairs has of course consequences concerning what gets analyzed and how, what gets (mis-)represented, marginalized, left out etc. For example, concerning one of my own area of interests, corporate crime, very few academic studies exist on this topic that are exploring an African case study. Thus, the available global literature on corporate crime, the respective criminological theories and conceptual tool sets (crimes of the powerful, state-corporate crime, etc.) are hardly mobilized for the study of CiA. Roughly the same, as far as I can see, can be said about the investigation of many other political-economic and socio-cultural phenomena of capitalist society; corporate lobbying and spin, for example. If one breaks it down to particular countries, the literature on capitalism in contemporary Uganda for instance is sparse. The scholarly situation is not much different in neighboring Kenya. I regard South Africa as an exception in this regard. We could also extend this discussion to the issue of the many political-economic, social and cultural aspects of imperialism in Africa as well. In my view, there are major deficits and gaps here too.

Before I conclude, I want to share with you one final bit of data we assembled. Conference titles are one thing, but what about African Studies journals? Does capitalism get some significant analytical attention in the published work? To start with, how about the top-ranked journal: African Affairs? Let’s find out. This is how my collaborator Nataliya summed up her research and analysis:

Through some basic word searching I counted how many research articles had a term (at least) once in either title or abstract in the last five years (2013 – 2017). I focused on words “capitalism,” “capital,” “neo-liberal/neoliberalism,” “class” and “market.” In the leading African Studies journal African Affairs, the word “capitalism” appears in two articles in this period: one by Alex Beresford in 2015 and the other one by Anne Pitcher in 2017. This amounts to about 1.77% out of all the one-hundred and thirteen studied articles. The related concept of “capital” appears in four articles, so does the word “class.” “Neoliberalism/neo-liberal/neo-liberalization” has seven articles and the word “market” six. The Journal of Modern African Studies contains two articles that mention “capitalism” (one of which is “green capitalism”); two with “capital”; five with “class”; one with “neo-liberal”; and seven with “market” (total of one-hundred and nineteen articles). The Review of African Political Economy has nine articles with “capitalism” (plus one with “philanthrocapitalism”); nineteen with “capital”; seventeen with “class”; fifteen with “neoliberal/neoliberalism”; sixteen with “market” out of a total of one-hundred and sixty-six articles. The Journal of Southern African Studies has three articles with “capitalism”; ten articles with word “capital”; ten with “class”; eight with “neo-liberalism”; and twenty with “market” out of a total of three-hundred and five articles.

So, to pick out just one figure for the purpose of analytical narrative: the rate of capitalism for African Affairs speaks to the earlier finding coming out of the conference analysis, capitalism—as a phenomenon, theme, or concept—is peripheral, at least in the vital title and abstract section. Which term then is the top-term in this top-journal? Today, we have no time for that important question. And, in this text I can also not analyze relevant conferences that are taking place on the African continent or relevant journals produced in Africa.

Finally, let me repeat the key points: First, many social phenomena in a range of African countries can be regarded as social phenomena of capitalist society, and that this has implications for the debate about and study of (Ci) Africa. Second, CiA is a fringe topic in African Studies (and African Studies has, for various reasons, a very peculiar analytical relationship with capitalism). African Studies only studies a rather limited range of the many social phenomena of CiA. The collected and analyzed CiA data is rather minimal given the size and diversity of the phenomena. In short, CiA doesn’t get the analytical attention it deserves. In other words, yes, there is scholarship on CiA; yet, as of now, it is too little.

Importantly, this observation and argument seems to be applicable beyond the academic community. The issue seems to be similar when it comes to government officials and public servants/technocrats, both in Europe and Africa: they rarely use the C-word in their public analyses, speeches or statements regarding specific affairs on the continent/in particular countries. You may want to check for donors, NGO staff, and public commentators too. All in all then, while so much of the Africa related analysis we see is framed around matters of development, security, poverty, democracy, ethnicity, policy, agency and so on, a considerable amount of these writings, does not acknowledge or make much of the fact that the phenomenon occurs in a capitalist context, which is both global and local (Graham Harrison made a related point a while ago when he observed that scholars of development regularly do not acknowledge that what they actually study, namely capitalist development).

A few final questions then: Can anyone please point me to the state of the art article on contemporary CiA? Or point me to information about, say, just a handful of large scale, well-funded, years-long research projects that explored, via critical analysis, one of the themes of CiA head-on and produced a website, tweets, blogs, news feeds, web discussions, working papers, multiple workshops, special issues etc., i.e. the range of output formats that are common for (the most) well-funded, visible, less fringy topics in African/development studies? Did we already have a collective discussion about whether some of the African countries can indeed be regarded as capitalist societies, and what sort of analytical implications follow from whatever one’s position might be on this topic? Or is this not a relevant discussion to have? What has the here discussed state of affairs in African Studies concerning CiA have to do with processes of academic knowledge production in the capitalist Global North?

Against this background, I argue the case for (the analytical usefulness of) a substantial expansion and intensification of both analysis and debate on CiA—a de-fringing of CiA in African Studies. This is a call for a scholarship that pays considerably more attention and is much better equipped to analyze the varieties, complexities and dynamics of CiA in the contemporary period.

I end with one closing thought: if indeed capitalism is in town, then the status quo, the business as usual in African Studies concerning CiA is, in analytical terms, with every passing day ever more inadequate, for capturing this fast-moving empirical reality: the expansion and intensification of capitalism in the cities and beyond. Much of what goes on regarding capitalism in countries like Uganda or Kenya remains unstudied. As the history and science of capitalism tells us it is a system that constantly expands and permeates, throughout the globe. Welcome to Capitalist Africa, then! And, African Studies, let’s talk…


In the journal analysis, (i) only research articles were included (not editorials, briefings, reviews); (ii) some of word combinations included: capital market, labour market, drug market, social capital, human capital, middle-class, working class and others (all of which were counted separately); (iii) “keywords/tags” that are often included alongside articles were not included. After the first publication of this data on Nataliya also searched for the word “capitalist” in African Affairs and ended with two results: one in the referenced article by Anne Pitcher from 2017, and the other by Sonia Languille (2016) in reference to “capitalist class” (an article that we captured already under “class”).

Further Reading