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Review of Africa’s Development Impasse: Towards a Political Economy of Transformation


By Giuliano Martiniello

Africa’s Development Impasse: Towards a Political Economy of Transformation. Stefan Andreasson. Zed Books, 2010. Pp. 258. ISBN. 978182779729 (pb). £18.99.

This is a provocative and path-breaking study aimed at the shortcomings and limits of orthodox development literature, and at understanding the consequences of development policies in the context of post-colonial transitions in Southern Africa. The starting point of the book is the transition from a settler-colonial to a post-colonial Southern Africa, in which African majorities, previously relegated to the sidelines, now dominate states, politics and industrialization.

One of the main hypotheses of the book concerns the fact that politico-democratic dispensations in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana have been unable to overcome the debilitating socio-economic legacies of centuries of settler colonialism. The outcome of attempts to overcome this legacy opens, Andreasson argues, routes to alternative politico-economic thinking and practices necessary to transcend the current developmental impasse where orthodox strategies for socio-economic development have failed to redress historical injustices and inequalities, both those relying on the pursuit of a developmental state and those relying on neo-liberal recipes to achieve development via a market-oriented route.

From an epistemological standpoint Andreasson attempts systematically to combine the study of the political economy of developing countries with genuinely critical development studies literature, most obviously that of post-development theory. In this context a strong critique of the modernist development paradigm is necessary to overcome the impasse in terms of development policies articulated within the unfinished transitions by different political regimes. According to Andreasson, post-independent governments have been constrained by their respective political, economic and institutional legacies, while promises of transformation of established political and economic orders have been tempered by underlying socio-economic power structures.

It is thus fundamental, according to the author, in analytical terms to disentangle state/market dichotomies that were propagated by liberal and etatist theories in radically different ways in the political economy of development literature. He underlines the tendency in Africa to entrench collusion between state and market actors, economics and politics.

From this perspective the economic transition in Zimbabwe can be read as the archetype of business association influence, while in South Africa big business and firms played a prominent role in determining the face of post-transition political and economic institutions. Andreasson charts the transformation from liberation movement to post-apartheid governing party in Africa’s most developed society, focusing on the turning of politicians to the politics of private interests under the banner of Black Economic Empowerment in South Africa. In the ex-Rhodesia, corporatist relationship between white business and the settler state were transformed into an accommodating and collusive relationship between entrenched white business interests, the Zimbabwean state and an emerging African crony capitalist class promoted by the state. Even in Botswana, considered by Andreasson as the best example of state-business relations, an increasing lack of transparency and patronage tainted this “African miracle”.

The prolonged and entrenched developmental impasse experienced during democratic transitions in Southern Africa, constitutes, here, the politico-cultural environment within which new alternatives to mainstream development policies can be (re)-thought and envisioned.

Following Fanon, the author integrates social and spiritual degradation, rooted in the long standing demeaning of Africans and cultural chauvinism, as central questions to explore the broad impact of this form of mental enslavement. This debilitating legacy represents a crucial hindrance that for the sake of development and emancipation will be as important to overcome as Africa’s economic dependency, underdevelopment and political dysfunction.

The main thesis of the work is that the Southern Africa development debate remains fixed in the orthodox conceptualization of development predicated on ever increasing economic growth, material accumulation, and consumption based on a rapacious use of natural resources. The debate is first and foremost about regional productive capabilities and how they can be enhanced and harnessed more efficiently so that the regions’ poor may consume and get benefits. However sustained trajectories of aggregate levels of production and consumption may in fact exacerbate already disturbing stress placed on social, environmental, cultural and spiritual dimensions of contemporary Southern African societies. Andreasson instead centres on ubuntu, the African traditional values system based on togetherness, solidarity and sharing, an epistemological and cultural project aimed at placing identity, community and belonging as inclusive organizing principles of an alternative development project.

In this sense Andreasson does not dismiss development entirely as many post-development theorists tend to do, rather the value of the work lies in the attempt to understand what development means, combining post-development and political economy approaches to contribute to a move from an abstract level of conceptualization to the concrete playing field of politics and markets in Southern Africa.

In the last instance the work represents an endeavour symbiotically and dialogically to interlink analyses of state, markets and societal actors’ relations with a systematic and coherent critique of actual development paradoxes and dilemmas, to envision a possible and necessary switch beyond a status quo intellectual environment which prevents the conceptualization of alternative and utopian societal configurations in an increasing unjust and uneven regional politico-economic system.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 72 (Winter 2010/11), pp. 138-141]

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