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Book Excerpt: Architects of Poverty by Moeletsi Mbeki

Architects of PovertyShehmilla Mohamed & Moeletsi MbekiThe title of Moeletsi Mbeki’s new book, Architects of Poverty: Why Africa’s Capitalism needs Changing, has a progenitor: namely, the phrase architects of apartheid, which is deployed at the drop of a hat (a fedora from the 1950s, no doubt) whenever the bad old days come under rhetorical fire.

We’re used to hearing architects of apartheid, and thus Mbeki has done a neat trick here, forcing our minds to recalibrate the notions that inhere in the phrase – of powerful men doing wrong in Africa, for instance (they are black, suddenly, not white) or of the scale of the wrong (which now extends beyond South Africa’s borders).

Mbeki’s book is designed to posit “what needs to be done to break the stranglehold of the African elites on political power and to set sub-Saharan Africa once more on the road to development”. BOOK SA is pleased to bring you both the complete preface and a section of Mbeki’s chapter on BEE:

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The curator pointed to a large musket hanging on the wall – one of the items sold to Africans as part of the infamous Triangular Trade whereby manufactured goods were shipped from Europe to West Africa and exchanged for slaves, who were shipped to the Americas to grow sugar, cotton and tobacco that were then shipped back to Europe. This was mercantile capitalism in action.

With my South African mindset I queried the wisdom of European slavers selling guns to Africans: surely the guns would be turned on the Europeans, I ventured, betraying my ignorance about the workings of the African slave trade. The curator, a patient professor from the University of Dakar, explained that it was the Africans who caught the people in the interior and sold them to the owners of the ships that transported them to the Americas to be sold into slavery. So it was the Africans who needed the guns to protect

themselves against the communities they raided for people to sell.

This little drama happened in the dingy Slave House on Gorée Island, off the coast of Dakar, the capital of Senegal.

The Slave House was, in reality, a prison-cum-warehouse, the ground floor of which was used to house Africans destined for enslavement in the Americas. Upstairs were the traders’ quarters, linked to the ground floor by a dramatic staircase. The cupboard under the stairs served as a solitary confinement cell for ‘difficult’ slaves. The curator told me that tears had trickled down Nelson Mandela’s cheeks when he was shown the isolation cell.

The Slave House is the only building on Gorée Island whose back door opens directly to the sea. It’s known as ‘the door of no return’. The people walking through the door onto waiting ships would never see their home country again.

Fast forward from the Slave House to the oil rigs along the Gulf of Guinea. One evening I flew from Lagos to northern Namibia along the gulf. Running the length of this amazing coastline are hundreds of oil rigs, rendered visible at night by the flames of the natural gas they flare. The rigs are not connected to the mainland; they pump crude oil from the bowels of the earth to waiting oil tankers – those ships again! – which carry the oil straight from the rigs to the great oilrefining industries in the United States, Asia and Europe; another commodity Africa is selling to the rest of the world. In the past it was its people; today it is its natural resources.


These two experiences are what led me to the central theme of this book – the way the powerful in Africa instead of enriching their societies sell off the continent’s assets to enrich the rest of the world. In return for this service these powerful Africans – who I call the political elites – receive the crumbs from the tables of the foreigners who make their fortunes by processing Africa’s resources.

What I have described, whether slave trade or oil trade, is known as mercantile capitalism. Mercantile capitalism is the earliest form of capitalism and its principle is buying cheap and selling dear. Capitalism in the West has moved a long way from the days of mercantile capitalism; it went through the stage of industrialisation and Western countries are now referred to as post-industrial societies.

The problem with Africa is that it is still locked in the mercantile stage of capitalism. The challenge facing the continent is how to modernise capitalism from mercantilism to industrialism. Two countries are an exception to this observation – South Africa and Mauritius.

Why don’t the powerful in Africa ever learn that mercantilism is a road to nowhere? Africa needs new rulers – the people themselves – who understand that the path to a prosperous future lies in hard work, creativity, knowledge and equity.

from the chapter on Black Economic Empowerment

Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) has not … proved to be the fatal blow to South Africa’s oligarchs that Nelson Mandela and black nationalists of his era once envisioned. In fact, it strikes a fatal blow against the emergence of black entrepreneurship by creating a small class of unproductive but wealthy black crony capitalists made up of ANC politicians, some retired and others not, who have become strong allies of the economic oligarchy that is, ironically, the caretaker of South Africa’s deindustrialization … BEE in South Africa is, in reality, another attempt to siphon savings from private-sector operators in an environment where there are no peasants and where most of the private sector is locally owned.

The fact that BEE is an uphill battle for South Africa’s political elite is the result of the ability of the private sector to resist dispossession. But these are early days. Time will tell who will emerge best from what could be a titanic struggle by the political elite – recently joined by organised labour – to confiscate the wealth of South Africa’s current private-sector owners.

An even bigger question, however, is what impact these struggles will have on the growth potential of the South African economy … Most people in South Africa, in Africa, and the rest of the world naively believe that BEE was an invention of South Africa’s black nationalists, especially the African National Congress (ANC), which won the first democratic election in April 1994, leading to Nelson Mandela becoming the country’s first black president. This could not be further from the truth. BEE was, in fact, invented by South Africa’s economic oligarchs, that handful of white businessmen and their families who control the commanding heights of the country’s economy, that is, mining and its associated chemical and engineering industries and finance.

The flagship BEE company, New Africa Investments Limited (Nail), started operating in 1992, two years before the ANC came to power. It was created by the second-largest South African insurance company, Sanlam, with the support of the National Party government-controlled Industrial Development Corporation (IDC), a state-owned industrial investment bank created in 1940. The formation of Nail was soon followed by the creation of Real African Investment Limited (Rail), sponsored by mining giant Anglo American Corporation through its financial services subsidiary Southern Life.

The object of BEE was to co-opt leaders of the black resistance movement by literally buying them off with what looked like a transfer to them of massive assets at no cost. To the oligarchs, of course, these assets were small change.

Sanlam created Nail by transferring control of one of its small subsidiaries, Metropolitan Life, 85 per cent of whose policy-holders were black, to several ANC and Pan Africanist Congress affiliated leaders. The device used was to split shares of MetLife into a small package, dubbed high-voting shares, which gave the politicians (funded by a loan from the IDC) control of the company. Overnight the politicians were transformed into multi-millionaires without having had to lift a finger because all the financial wizardry was performed by Sanlam’s senior executives. All the politicians had to do was show up at the party to launch Nail and thank their benefactor. Even the debt the politicians incurred was largely fictitious as it was MetLife that had to pay it back to the IDC.

This financial razzmatazz was designed to achieve a number of objectives. It was intended to:

wean the ANC from radical economic ambitions, such as nationalising the major elements of the South African economy, by putting cash in the politicians’ private pockets, packaged to look like atonement for the sins of apartheid, that is, reparations to black people in general;

provide the oligarchs with prominent and influential seats at the high table of the ANC government’s economic policy formulation system;

allow those oligarchs who wanted to shift their company’s primary listings and headquarters from Johannesburg to London to do so;
give the oligarchs and their companies the first bite at government contracts that interested them; and
protect the oligarchs from foreign competition while opening up the rest of the economy, especially the consumer goods and manufacturing sector, to the chill winds of international competition.

All these machinations were eventually incorporated into South Africa’s democratic Constitution by the creation of a category of citizens, apparently 91 per cent of the population, to be known as Previously Disadvantaged Individuals (PDIs). The ingenious legal notion of previously disadvantaged individuals created the impression that all black South Africans could or would benefit from BEE. This legitimised the co-option payment to the black political elite by dangling before the black masses the possibility that one day they, too, would receive reparations for the wrongs done to them during the apartheid era.

BEE and its subsidiaries – affirmative action and affirmative procurement – which started off as defensive instruments created by the economic oligarchs to protect their assets, have metamorphosed. They have become both the core ideology of the black political elite and, simultaneously, the driving material and enrichment agenda which is to be achieved by maximising the proceeds of reparations that accrue to the political elite. As we shall see below, this has proved to be disastrous for the country.


The black elite, which describes itself as made up of PDIs, sees its primary mission as extracting reparations from those who put it in a disadvantaged position. To achieve this requires the transfer of resources from the wrongdoer – perceived to be white-owned businesses and the South African state – to the victim, the PDIs. By this logic the South African state owes the PDIs high-paying jobs. This transfer of wealth from the strong to the weak is what has come to be known as BEE.

Enormous consequences follow from this apparently simple formulation:

1. In order for the wrongdoer to be able to pay reparations, the wrongdoer has to maintain a privileged position. This is the principle of fattening the goose that lays the golden egg. What this means is that the corporations that were allegedly responsible for victimising the PDIs must not be transformed beyond putting a few black individuals in their upper echelons. The protection of these corporations has gone so far as to allow them to move their head offices and primary listings from Johannesburg to London in order to shield them from possible economic and political upheaval in South Africa. At a broader level, the battery of Washington Consensus policies – which include trade liberalisation, balanced budgets, privatisation, inflation targeting, as well as the small state – all serve to protect the interests of South Africa’s big business, one of the two main payers of reparations.

2. For the victim to continue to draw reparations it is critical that he or she remains perceived as a victim and as weak. This means that the former freedom fighter must be transformed from a hero who liberated South Africa into an underling. The payment of reparations to the black elite thus achieves the opposite of what it is claimed it was designed to do, that is, make its members leading players in the economy. In reality, it makes members of the black elite perpetual junior support players to white-controlled corporations.

3. One of the most destructive consequences of the reparations ideology is the black elite’s relationship with, and attitude to, the South African state. As the state is said to have been party to the disadvantaging of the PDIs it is therefore also perceived to owe them something. By way of reparations the state must therefore provide PDIs with high-paying jobs. By extension, the assets of the state are seen as fair game. The approach of the black elite to the state is, therefore, not that of using the state to serve the needs of the people but rather of using it, in the first instance, to advance the material interest of PDIs. Not surprisingly, corruption under the ANC government has grown by leaps and bounds, leading Transparency International – the worldwide watchdog on corruption – to downgrade South Africa in the world’s corruption tables. According to the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index South Africa dropped from number 34 in 2000 to number 54 in 2008. In 2008 the least corrupt countries were Denmark, New Zealand and Sweden and the most corrupt country was Somalia, ranked at 180.1 Ironically, one of the most important restraining influences on the abuse of the state for the self-enrichment of the black elite is the white-controlled corporations – the abovementioned layers of golden eggs – because these corporations need the South African state to function efficiently in order to provide a stable business environment as well as functioning transport and communication infrastructure. The judiciary and the independent mass media also play an important role in this regard.

4. The ideology of reparations traps members of the black elite into seeing themselves as the beneficiaries of the production of other social groups and therefore primarily as consumers. To facilitate their role as consumers the black elite sees the state essentially as distributive rather than developmental. Most importantly, the black elite don’t see themselves as producers and therefore do not envisage themselves as entrepreneurs who can initiate and manage new enterprises. At best, they see themselves as joining existing enterprises, the process of which is to be facilitated by the distributive state through reparations-inspired legislation. This is the most striking difference between the black elite of South Africa and the elites of Asia, where the driving ideology is entrepreneurship.

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Book details



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