Labor, Poverty and the Social Question in Africa after Independence
African independent states inherited a complex and potentially explosive combination of authoritarian governance, high expectations for improved living conditions, a limited extent of formal employment, and already fragmented trade unions. Thus, even before the devastating impact of the oil crisis in the early 1970s, followed by structural adjustment programs, wage labor was never available as the foundation of an egalitarian and democratic society. Labor coercion and dependence did not disappear; they were often facilitated by poverty at all levels. At the same time, informal and precarious work became omnipresent. After all, the globalization of labor has only provided a minority of unionized workers with new opportunities to converse with the global working class. It has also, more importantly, excluded and marginalized multitudes of producers, households, and communities. However, it would be misleading to see this only as a new phase in capitalism in which workers in Africa have become unnecessary and disposable. Multinational capital might still need many workers from Africa, as long as they are cheap, to reach customers of modest means in particular. Moreover, precarity could be seen as a constitutive feature of capitalist labor, insomuch as uncertainty and instability have always been inherent characteristics of wage labor in Africa and elsewhere. Yet political mobilization of and collective bargaining for precarious and informal workers remains a challenge. In addition, given the ongoing increase in “land grabs”, with states helping to alienate land to both foreign and domestic capitalists, in combination with the increasing pressure of the population on land and on soil fertility, it is not unlikely that landlessness will supersede the lack of labor power as the major source of poverty in Africa.
Andreas Eckert is professor of African history at Humboldt University Berlin and, since 2009, Director of the Käte Hamburger Collegium “Work and Human Life Course in Global History” (re:work). He has published widely on modern African history, global labor history, slavery and colonialism. His recent publications include General History of Labour in Africa. Workers, Employers and Governments 20th-21st Centuries (Woodbrigde/Rochester 2019, ed. with Stefano Bellucci) and Geschichte der Sklaverei. Von der Antike bis zum 21. Jahrhundert (Munich: C.H. Beck, 2021).