Africa 2008 : Business v Political Power as agents of change in post - colonial Africa

After 52 years, it must be accepted that the promise of a prosperous and dynamic continent that independence was expected to bring about remains elusive.
Coffee farmers in Oreme- Ethiopia.
Coffee farmers in Oreme- Ethiopia.

After 52 years, it must be accepted that the promise of a prosperous and dynamic continent that independence was expected to bring about remains elusive.

The construction of a post colonial order was premised on the belief that restoring political power to the majority through a constitutional democratic order was in and out of itself a necessary and sufficient condition for economic and social transformation.

Business was perceived to be closely aligned to the colonial state and, therefore, in the construction of a post colonial state, the role of business in influencing the direction, rate, characteristics and consequences of physical innovations as they develop, events, activities, people by virtue of control over resources, particularly property; cultural values, habits, institutions such as family, work life, and buying habits of individuals, shape of the legal and constitutional order of post colonial Africa was and is treated with mistrust.

While there was consensus at independence that politics has a dominant role in post colonial Africa there was no consensus on what role business should play in advancing the interests of change and progress in reducing the frontiers of poverty.

The founding fathers of postcolonial Africa shared a common belief that activity in the political and not economic sphere should be the primary force for change and from this, change was expected to automatically radiate into other spheres of human endeavour.

In the colonial state, political and business power was in the same hands whereas in the post colonial state, political power is theoretically vested in the holders of sovereignty i.e. citizens while business power remains predominantly in white hands.

There is considerable debate on whether business power that remains outside the control of indigenous Africans is adequately checked and balanced for the public good.

Views about the role of business and political power in post colonial Africa cover a wide spectrum but there are basically two opposing positions.

On one side is the theory which holds that in as much as business was pre-eminent in the colonial state that is blamed for contributing to African poverty primarily because of its control over the continent’s resources, the post colonial state should be dominated by political power.

It is argued that business power was and remains both excessive and inadequately checked in post colonial Africa. 

The self interest of corporations that are in the main foreign controlled is then deemed to be harmful to the general welfare of the continent calling for state intervention.

On the other side is the theory that holds that the organisation of the colonial state was such that business power was exercised in an environment in which institutions such as markets, government, labour unions (white), advocacy groups, and public opinion had great influence and power.

Business power was counter-balanced, restricted, controlled and subject to defeat through market forces whereas political power in post colonial Africa is not easily subject to defeat because of lack of market-based pluralism.

In post colonial Africa, ambivalence still exists against business power as an instrument of change in Africa.

The role of corporate citizens in building institutions that underpinned the colonial state remains underappreciated but when the colonial state is properly contextualised it becomes self evident that companies in ascending industries changed African societies by altering all three of their primary elements – ideas, institutions and material things.

This effect is visible in the stories of dominant companies that have African origins like: De Beers, Anglo American Corporation, Impala Platinum, Old Mutual, Sanlam, Anglovaal; Rembrandt, JCI, Goldfields, Billiton, Sasol, Iscor (now Mittal), and many others.

It is not accidental that most of the key corporate drivers of African change originated from South Africa and the post apartheid era has seen the expanded role of South Africa’s corporate sector in the continent’s economic transformation. 

The role of white Africans in both the colonial and post colonial eras has to be understood in its proper context if the continent’s development possibilities are to be fully exploited.

It is important to ask the question: “What kind of Africa do we want?” so as to properly locate business and political power in a developmental Africa.

The cumulative power of business in Africa is not as massive as it is in developed states and only South Africa has a significant industrial, mining, financial, and agricultural corporate base.

Business power is ordinarily a more dependable and irrepressible shaping force of the destiny of any society than changes brought about purely from the exercise of political power.

The use of power whether political or economic in changing human societies; cannot be overstated.

There are many sources of power, including wealth, position, knowledge, law, arms, status, and charisma.  However, power in post colonial Africa as it was during the colonial era is unevenly distributed and there appears to be no mechanism to control it for wider benefit.

The mechanisms used by the post colonial state are as imperfect as they were during the colonial state and these include governments, laws, police, cultural values and public opinion.

The promise of multiple and competing formations of power in the post colonial era to check and balance each other for public good has unfortunately not materialised not because of an imperialist conspiracy but rather the inherent inability of Africa’s founding fathers to properly understand the utility of business power as an ally in the fight against poverty.

Business power is the force behind an act by a company, industry or sector.  Post colonial African founding fathers should have known that the greater this force, the more the action creates change or influences the actions of other entities in society.

To the extent that the basic origin of business power is a grant of authority from society to convert resources efficiently into needed goods and services, it should have been self evident that a social contract was required in order to energise business to take necessary actions from which profit can be generated.

The existence of a social contract in the post colonial order ought to legitimise business power by giving it a moral basis. 

Regrettably in most African economies, business is regarded as an enemy of development and more emphasis is placed on the state as an engine of growth and development.

Legitimacy is the rightful use of power.  The power of a government or a corporation is legitimate when it is exercised in keeping with the agreed upon contract.

For governments, the opposite of legitimacy is tyranny commonly defined as the “exercise of power beyond right”.
Many African governments and corporations breach the social contract when they violate social values, endanger the public or act illegally.

Business or political power is legitimate when it is used for the common good.

In the construction of a post colonial Africa, it is evident that the absence of a social contract distorts the basis on which legitimacy can be measured.

It is common cause that corporate and political actions can have an impact on society in the sense that visible and immediate changes are caused by business and political power.

However, the experience in post colonial Africa has shown that political power is not a reliable agent for change.  Rather corporations expand and contract, hire and fire, make and sell products while African politicians build a business model on intimidation, force, and illegitimacy.

It is instructive that victims of the colonial state inherited a functioning state but immediately after independence citizens find themselves unable to control the post colonial state.  The state in country after country is seamlessly converted into a “monster”.

On a deeper level, the laws of post colonial Africa – including constitutional, civil and criminal laws – have not been shaped by the consequences of economic activity rather by the consequences of political expediency. 

On the surface, African politicians acquire through state control, formidable resources that intimidate opponents as well as corporate actors.

Corporate Africa to the extent that it remains controlled on visible racial grounds has not been able to influence meaningfully the economic, cultural, technological, political, and institutional transformation of post colonial Africa and yet without a dynamic business sector, the continent will remain condemned to poverty.