Capitalism in East Africa

Some seven years ago the present scribe ventured, in the shape of an article in these columns (History in the Making), certain observations on economic conditions in East Africa. The interest in these conditions recently displayed by the British capitalist press (from the Observer to the Winning Post) tempts him to amplify these observations and bring them up to date; especially as the Great War and its effects have forced into prominence the increasing importance of the tropical and sub-tropical zones as sources of raw material and markets for the products of European industry.


The popular notion of tropical Africa derived from the mal-education provided for the workers by the masters might be summed up in three words : “swamps, jungles, and deserts”! While these are by no means figments of the imagination, they do not exhaust the picture. There are thousands of square miles of grassy plains supporting thousands of head of cattle and sheep. There are hundreds of thousands of acres of rich arable land already bringing forth to some extent cotton, sisal, flax, maize, coffee and a host of other items of foodstuffs and raw materials. There are mountain ranges, ten thousand feet or more in height, and hundreds of miles in length, covered with valuable timber, and there are immense lakes and rivers capable, when thoroughly harnessed by the aid of modern science, of irrigating the wildernesses and electrifying half the continent. In fact, there need be no wonder as to why the capitalist powers parcelled out Africa amongst them ; its economic possibilities are prodigious ! The fly in the ointment is the intrinsic character of capitalism as a system.


In the first place, being a system of exploitation, based upon the monopoly by a small class of the means of life, it meets with the resistance of a relatively intractable human element. It is one thing to proclaim political control of an area several times larger than Britain, and lease to individual capitalists and syndicates large tracts thereof, and quite another to get the small native population to work for that class so established. Extremists among the white invaders (drawn from the bankrupt middle-class of Europe) have from time to time suggested the radical expropriation of the natives from the soil, but when it is remembered that the natives have few wants, that these are easily satisfied by means of a few acres, and that in any case the total population of Kenya Colony, for example, does not amount to three millions, the technical difficulties in the way of this policy are obvious.


To be sure, bows and arrows, spears and swords would be of little avail against rifles and machine-guns, to say nothing of bombs from aeroplanes, but a solution of the labour problem which consisted simply in exterminating the available supply of labour power would hardly advance capitalist production. This lesson has, of course, had to be learnt from practical Imperial experience in more southerly portions of the continent, such as Rhodesia. A policy which has been applied with success in Europe and Asia, with their redundant millions, has had to be modified when dealing with under-populated Africa.


Secondly, the immensity of Africa’s resources is matched by the immensity of its problems. Stock and plant diseases require scientific investigation and control; huge distances require corresponding transport facilities and a comprehensive system of education, technical and literary, has to be established before the native tribes can be expected to keep pace with demands of European progress. All this involves an application of social energy and resources on a magnificent scale, for which capitalism, so far, has provided no adequate organisation.


Every form of capitalist enterprise, from that of the small individual concern to that of the State itself, has but one motive, i.e., the acquisition of profit. It shuns outlay which does not yield a rapid return. It has no interest in posterity. The capitalist class is in Africa to scratch the surface, not to dig deeply; it exhausts temporarily rather than develop natural wealth. Its public representatives talk large and ambitiously. They recognise that this is no country for the “small man,” though they have not hesitated to lure him here in considerable numbers for the purpose of sucking him dry. (They call this “encouraging population.”) But their activities get little further than talk.


The total white population of East Africa (up till recently predominantly bourgeois) would not provide a decent gate at a second-rate football match in England. Many a scarcely heard of country market-town boasts of greater numbers. Yet this brave land does not hesitate to arrogate to itself the title of “community” (the thirty thousand odd Indians and natives to the tune of two and a half million being, of course, mere outsiders). While never ceasing to regard the Government as the source of all its woes, it everlastingly appeals to this same Government for this, that or the other scheme without which the “country” must go bankrupt. The Government, in turn, pleads lack of funds; is, in fact, itself on the verge of bankruptcy. It is helpless without loans from the seat of Empire, and the Imperial financiers are not philanthropists. They, too, want quick returns.


All this means that the Government must find revenue. Its attempt to do this by means of an income tax produced, of course, the usual excruciating groans from the “community,” which promptly went economy mad. The wholesale discharge of white employees by business firms was followed by a ruthless attack on Civil servants’ salaries by the elected members of the Legislative Council. These members, most of them large land owners, recently styled themselves the Reform Party, and distinguished themselves by initiating a crusade against the Indian bourgeoisie, who are pressing even more insistently for equal political and legal rights. The pursuits of this latter group are mainly mercantile, though town property is also one of their specialities.


Enormously enriched by the war boom, they in turn have financed an active Radical propaganda, not merely among their own races but also among the natives, proving in this latter respect more astute than their white opponents. These, in turn, are now forced to adopt a most comical defence, i.e., that they (who have only recently reduced native wages by one-third all-round and who, in season and out of season, have publicly abused the native as a loafer, an ingrate and an immoral and bestial ruffian) are, in reality, the protectors of native interests against Asiatic aggression, the preservers of native innocence from Oriental corruption ! Before the war this invocation of the native as a political factor in his own land would have appeared ridiculous, but he, too, is changing his outlook.


Although the Government has been inclined to be chary of conscripting labour for the benefit of every Tom, Dick and Harry of the capitalist class, it has not hesitated to do so for its own needs. It compulsorily recruited the male natives by the thousand for the military labour corps serving in German East Africa (now Tanganyika Territory), and by the thousand these unfortunates died of starvation, disease and overwork. Vague promises of future reward smoothed the process whereby they were torn away from their homes, and, as usual, these promises proved even more fragile than piecrust. On the contrary, the shortage of labour gave the reason and excuse for a systematic attack upon the native position. In the first place the survivors, on their return, found that the system of registration to which they had become accustomed under the military authorities, was being extended permanently to civil life. Every adult male native employee was docketed and numbered, and provided with a certificate bearing his thumb-print and evidence of his economic history. This badge of slavery serves the same purpose as the brands on the bodies of English proletarians in the 16th and 17th Centuries. It is in every respect an excellent instrument of persecution.


The next “reward” for the heroes was an increase in taxation (levied at so much per head and per hut) of about fifty per cent. ! This on the top of a serious famine which quadrupled maize prices! These famines, which occur in cycles of roughly ten years, are due to rain failure, but are enormously and tragically aggravated by the financial pressure upon the population. In order to find the money for the taxes the native husbandmen (used to cultivating according to their needs) sell the surplus, which in good seasons, should be stored against the inevitable bad ones. They thus sell at the cheapest time and find it necessary to buy just when grain is dear !


This is fairly obviously the road to ruin ! Slowly, but surely, the young men drift to the plantations or the tin-shack townships in search of wages and just as surely increasing numbers of their would-be wives seek refuge in the brothels.


The white “settlers” did not take long to seize their opportunity. The same precious Reform Party above mentioned organised a universal wage-cut. The drop in the extravagant prices of their exported produce supplying the scarcely-needed stimulus.


They were encouraged by the introduction of the much-discussed Labour Ordinance, according to which the native chiefs were converted in practice into labour recruiters primarily for the Government, secondarily for the settlers. And it is curious to note that this measure was introduced by the very man (Colonel Ainsworth, Chief Native Commissioner) who earned the execration of these same settlers by his amendments to the Masters and Servants’ Ordinance.


These amendments, based on war experience, were “intended” to protect native employees from excessive exploitation by the provision of adequate housing, feeding, medical attention, etc. Like the early factory acts in Britain, however, these measures of elementary prudence remain a dead letter through lack of the official machinery necessary to give them real effect.


Having shot his bolt, Colonel Ainsworth retired from the scene of action. So often styled a “pro-native,” his real attitude may be summed up as follows : Speaking before the Legislative Council on March 12th, 1918, he said : “Whatever our policy . . . there must and can be only one fundamental as regards rule . . . the white man must be paramount—a white minority will, in reality, form the government, and consequently over ninety per cent. of the total population comprising the black races will practically remain without any real voice in their own affairs.”


Eric Boden