Labour and Capital

From Walter Rodney’s wonderful How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, this passage on the making of infrastructures in Africa:

The combination of being oppressed, being exploited, and being disregarded is best illustrated by the pattern of the economic infrastructure of African colonies : notably, their roads and railways. These had a clear geographical distribution according to the extent to which particular regions needed to be opened up to import-export activities. Where exports were not available, roads and railways had no place. The only slight exception is that certain roads and railways were built to move troops and make conquest and oppression easier. Means of communication were not constructed in the colonial period so that Africans could visit their friends. More important still, they were not laid down to facilitate internal trade in African commodities. There were no roads connecting different colonies and different parts of the same colony in a manner that made sense with regard to Africa’s needs and development. All roads and railways led down to the sea. They were built to extract gold or manganese or coffee or cotton. They were built to make business possible for the timber companies, trading companies, and agricultural concession firms, and for white settlers. Any catering to African interests was purely coincidental. Yet in Africa, labor, rather than capital, took the lion’s share in getting things done. With the minimum investment of capital, the colonial powers could mobilize thousands upon thousands of workers . Salaries were paid to the police officers and officials, and labor came into existence because of the colonial laws, the threat of force, and the use of force. Take, for instance, the building of railways. In Europe and America, railway building required huge inputs of capital. Great wage bills were incurred during construction, and added bonus payments were made to workers to get the job done as quickly as possible. In most parts of Africa, the Europeans who wanted to see a railroad built offered lashes as the ordinary wage and more lashes for extra effort.

Reference was earlier made to the great cost in African life of the ( French ) Congo railroad from Brazzaville to Pointe-Noire. Most of the intolerable conditions arc explained by the non-availability of capital in the form of equipment. Therefore, sheer manpower had to take the place of earth-moving machinery, cranes, and so on. A comparable situation was provided by the construction of the Embakasi airport of Nairobi. Because it was built during the colonial era (starting in 1 953) and with United States loans, it is customary to credit the imperialists for its existence. But it would be much more accurate to say that the people of Kenya built it with their own hands under European supervision. Embakasi, which initially covered seven square miles and had four runways, was described as “the world’s first handmade international airport.” Mau Mau suspects numbering several thousand were to be found there “laboring under armed guard at a million-ton excavation job, filling in craters, laying a half million tons of stone with nothing but shovels, stone hammers and their bare hands.” (p. 209)

And after decolonisation:

The high proportion of the “development” funds went into the colonies in the form of loans for ports, railways , electric power plants, water works , engineering works.hops, warehouses , which were necessary for more efficient exploitation in the long run. In the short run, such construction works provided outlets for European steel, concrete, electrical machinery, and railroad rolling stock. One-fifth of FIDES funds were spent on prestigious public works in Dakar, which suited French industry and employed large numbers of expatriates. Even the schools built under FIDES funds were of unnecessary high cost per unit, because they had to be of the requisite standard to provide job outlets for white expatriates . Incidentally, loans were “tied” in such a way that the money had to be spent on buying materials manufactured in the relevant metropole. The “development” funds were raised on the European money market by the governments concerned, and in effect the national metropolitan governments were providing their own bankers and financiers with guaranteed profitable outlets for their capital. In 1 956, the French government started a scheme which was a blatant form of promoting their own private capitalists while paying lip service to African development and welfare. The scheme involved the creation of an institution called SDOM (Financial Societies for the Development of Overseas Territories ). SDOM was nothing but an association of private capitalists interested primarily in the oil of North Africa, and having large government subventions to achieve their goals.  (pp. 214-215)