Article for the Cape Times

by Tracy Bailey

July 2005

 

Fairly recently I interviewed an academic who has travelled extensively in Africa, conducting research on the retail sector. She painted a vivid picture of flashy shopping malls going up in crumbling cities, of fast food chains and video stores opening on streets where the poverty is pervasive. She imagined that after years of conflict and war, drought and famine, it feels good to ordinary Africans to go to a coffee shop, to chat to friends on a cell phone, and to stock the pantry with foodstuffs from around the world. It means something to behave like a global citizen in a country that is otherwise wracked by social and economic decline.

The spread of technology, products and services is the most tangible sign of what we quite loosely call 'globalisation'. It is helped along by relatively inexpensive international travel and the ubiquitous worldwide web. A visible side effect is that Western culture and way of life are making their way into homes in every continent.

Globalisation is touted by First World powers, and multinational agencies and corporations, as the key to economic growth and poverty reduction. In this sense, 'globalisation' refers more specifically to the integration of the world economy, a process that is evidenced by growing trade, and greater flows of money, technology, information and people, between countries.

These processes are driven by the spread of capitalism as it seeks cheaper sites for production, and throws the net wider for consumer markets. According to the logic of capitalism, the freer the market, the more effectively it can function. The free market requires trade liberalisation, privatisation, deregulation, lower tariff protection, fiscal reform and good governance. In return, the market offers the ticket to economic prosperity. For developing countries that are struggling against the tide of economic decline, participating in the global economy is the portal to raised standards of living and the end of poverty.

But as the dominant voice of capitalism resounds in the corridors of the World Bank, African government buildings and at G8 meetings, we still hear the sounds of discontent. Can globalisation really save Africa? Or does it only serve the interests of the already-developed and the already-rich? There is evidence that liberalisation in Africa does not necessarily promote intra-African trade and capital flows, and instead only benefits multinational corporations and the stronger economies on the continent.

Where African countries have opened their economies to world trade (and here South Africa leads the way), is globalisation bringing about real economic empowerment and development, or only lining the pockets of the government and corporate elite? What does MTN or Vodacom really mean to people living in poverty? And what exactly happens to a country that doesn't buy into the global neo-liberal agenda? Do they face economic doom?

Is it just a deep-seated neurosis or cynicism that makes me think that globalisation is the new imperialism that is further marginalising the African continent, and that only rich nations stand to benefit? Is globalisation an inevitable and absolute truth? And if not, then what are the alternatives, and are they radical or do they seek to compromise?

This debate is far from over and these are just some of the questions that we must continue to ask. "Is globalisation good for Africa?" is the topic of the next Harold Wolpe Memorial Trust forum meeting. Two speakers will bring different perspectives to bear on this important issue. Kuseni Dlamini is the Head of Human Resources at AngloGold Ashanti's Corporate Office in Johannesburg, and lectures in international relations at the University of the Witwatersrand. Dot Keet is currently a Research Associate of the Alternative Information Development Centre based in Cape Town, and has been a lecturer, researcher and activist in Tanzania, Zambia, Angola and Mozambique. The forum meeting will be held on Wednesday, 27 July 2005, 6pm for 6.30pm at the LS 3b Leslie Social Sciences Building, Upper Campus, University of Cape Town. RSVP wolpetrust@mweb.co.za or 021 424 7543.

Tracy Bailey is National Co-ordinator of the Wolpe Trust.