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African elites

June 27, 2009

In his latest book Moeletsi Mbeki blames African elites for not doing enough against poverty on the continent. The former South African President Tabo Mbeki's younger brother's tale is one of missed opportunities.

A picture of Moeletsi Mbeki
Moeletsi Mbeki, the former South African president's brother, says Africa's elites are damaging the countryImage: picture-alliance / PictureNET Africa

Moeletsi Mbeki's new book is a blow for the ruling African National Congress party, ANC, which he once served as an advisor. In an exclusive interview with Deutsche Welle, Mbeki says that the model of Black Economic Empowerment, as introduced by the ANC after the apartheid era in South Africa, was never meant to give power to the broad masses.

"Black Economic Empowerment was created by the ultra wealthy white business community in this country, who were involved in mining and financing and other big business. They used Black Economic Empowerment as a method of countering a programme of nationalisation. It was a matter of co-option, to co-opt the African nationalist leaders by enriching them privately."

Dominic Johnson is a journalist and Africa expert with the Berlin-based leftist daily Tageszeiting. He also says that poverty in Africa is not a matter of economic growth in the first place, but one of sharing.

"Economic growth figures are looking good in most parts of Africa, but it doesn't mean the standard of living is increasing. A lot of countries are benefiting from prices for raw materials and export goods, but that isn't really dripping down to the general population; the poverty level is fairly stagnant."

Three African children sitting on a street
Unemployment and poverty are taking an increasing toll on Africa's poorImage: AP

The World Bank estimates that the current international recession will lead to an additional 700,000 people dying from poverty and hunger in Africa. The fact that little is undertaken to prevent such a catastrophe is also a matter of accepting a certain type of mentality, Johnson says:

"Inside African countries inequality, which we would consider to be something shocking, is still regarded as something normal and something that you can't do anything about. So the rich don't see it as their responsibility to help those who do not have these opportunities."

Social welfare for votes

In South Africa the ANC has always identified itself with the poor, seeking to rectify the injustices in employment, land and housing, that stem from apartheid. Consequently it allocates part of the government budget to the very poor, but, says Moeletsi Mbeki, there are two sides to the coin.

"The other side is making sure that the poor vote for the ANC. So it's not quite as altruistic as it is presented by the politicians. It's a way of buying votes from the poor."

Simultaneously many poor in South Africa and elsewhere on the continent want more than social welfare: they want equal opportunities. Mbeki is not surprised that it is taking time.

"The colonialists created an elite, that was very powerful relative to the people. In our old indigenous structures of power, the poor had a huge amount of power themselves. So what we need now to look at, is how to increase the power of the poor, so that we have a real countervailing force to limit the power of the elites"

Mbeki refuses to blame yesterday's colonialism for today's poverty in Africa. There are plenty of examples elsewhere in the world, he says, which show that a colonial past is not an obstacle to stamping out poverty, in Asia for example.

"What should have been done in Africa, is what is being done in India and also China today for example, which is to promote entrepreneurship among the citizens of those countries."

Growing disparity between rich and poor

Workers looking for diamonds in a mine
Western multinationals no longer have the same clout in terms of exploitation in AfricaImage: AP

One reason to stop blaming former colonial powers for not doing enough for Africa, Mbeki says, is that they simply don't have the influence they used to have. During the time of colonialism western multinationals were partners with their governments in exploiting natural resources in Africa.

"After the colonial period they lost the political power. So foreign companies became subordinate to the political elites, that took over power. Many of them were even expropriated, for example Union Minière of Belgium in the Congo by Mobutu."

Dominic Johnson from the Tageszeiting in Berlin agrees that the time of blaming colonialism has passed:

"We now have a new generation in Africa, which exercises economical and political control. And they are not particularly concerned about resolving the social problems around them. What they do is helping the people they know, but they don't see themselves as having enough influence to really change society. That leads to a growing disparity between the world of the rich in Africa, which is a globalised world, and the world of the poor, who are basically trying to find a place for themselves."

Author: Patrick Vanhulle
Editor: Rob Mudge