Samir Amin’s diagnosis of worst-case racial capitalism

“Nothing has changed, South Africa’s sub-imperialist role has been reinforced”

11 November by Patrick Bond

(Samir Amin and Immanuel Wallerstein, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, July 2006 - PB)

Abstract: Samir Amin’s critiques of both apartheid-era and post-apartheid political economy contributed to his scathing view of the crucial ‘semi-peripheral’ layer of the world system, a perspective typically ignored in binary formulations of Global North and Global South. Amin’s 1977 article “The future of South Africa” was among his first statements of how, using that era’s dependency theory language, “South African capital requires an outward policy of expansionism, so that ultimately, internal colonialism becomes coterminous with sub-imperialism.” From 1974 he began to deploy the latter theory, drawing upon the ideas of Brazilian dependencia theorist Ruy Mauro Marini. Ever since, Amin labeled South Africa sub-imperialist because of the domination of ‘monopoly capital’ in the extractive-industry circuits and because below-survival-level wages that long shaped the economy’s structure. Pretoria also imposed continent-wide neoliberalism through the New Partnership for Africa’s Development and the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) network – both of which proved incapable of transcending neoliberal economic policies insisted upon by contemporary imperialism. Following the 2023 Johannesburg BRICS summit’s failure to advance delinking (especially ‘de-dollarisation’), Amin would have nodded, knowingly, when hearing the slur ‘sub-imperial’ applied to the bloc – and looked for inspiration instead to grassroots campaigners.

Introduction: Amin in South Africa

In December 2023, the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) celebrates its 50th year. Over that period, one lasting controversy was how South Africa would evolve, and CODESRIA’s leading founder, Samir Amin, had much to offer. The country’s supposed ‘exceptionalism’ was long condemned; former CODESRIA leader Mahmood Mamdani (1998) complained that it “stained the South African intelligentsia with a prejudice that was more than just skin-deep.” Yet as discussed below, Amin offered explanations right from the outset of CODESRIA, illustrating how from racial oppression, South Africa’s durable extractive-industry super-exploitation and regional sub-hegemonic domination gave the economy an exceptionally pernicious function in Africa, a role that if anything has worsened since 1994.

Amin’s ability to move from the high theory of African development in his PhD and professional life, to global geopolitical economy, and back again to concrete analysis was unparalleled. Of his generation, Thandika Mkandawire, Dani Nabudere and Ali Mazrui also had such skills – even if not the ambitions to help network (and even guide) the international left, although Amin’s regular ally Yash Tandon did, along with a friend who began his career in Southern Africa: Immanuel Wallerstein. But this visionary scope was rare when writing from Africa or even the diaspora, given the era’s constraints.

Amin, centre front row, with the Alternative Report on Africa network, Dakar, January 2018, with Yash Tandon third from right in front row, and PB two seats to his left.

Still, Amin did take a few missteps when translating his socialist, pan-African principles to analysis and then to the resulting strategies, tactics and alliances (Bond Bond A bond is a stake in a debt issued by a company or governmental body. The holder of the bond, the creditor, is entitled to interest and reimbursement of the principal. If the company is listed, the holder can also sell the bond on a stock-exchange. 2019). This was especially true when it came to manifesto-writing, an art that Amin had perfected but again, with mixed results in practice, as witnessed by controversies over the World Social Forum’s 2005 Porto Alegre Manifesto and 2006 Bamako Appeal (Sen et al 2007), discussed below. (My concerns were these documents’ lack of connectivity to active struggles and failure to ideologically address the links between these – and not Amin’s own unwavering support for grassroots, labour and environmental campaigns.)

But it was the analytical capacity and moral clarity of his lifetime’s work that stand out, and that deserve continual revisiting. His views on South Africa are profound, and both their concrete insights and their contribution to the theory of sub-imperialism have not been superseded – but nor are they sufficiently adequately understood.

Amin’s disgust with the trajectory of post-apartheid society, economy and environment – with its deindustrialisation, failure to stem outflows of capital, worsening unemployment and poverty, exceptionally high and rising inequality, extreme degree of natural resource depletion and ecological destruction, and above all the failure to host unifying processes on the left of the political spectrum – was based on close study and, after 1992, regular visits. His conceptual approach to South Africa was consistent with two classics: Karl Marx’s Das Kapital with its the labour theory of value and crisis theory, and Rosa Luxemburg’s (1913) conception of imperialism as the form crisis-riddled capitalism takes when expanding geographically, in the process appropriating from the non-capitalism realm (as she observed from the secondary literature on South Africa).

But in exploring how the topographies of racial capitalism evolved over time, Amin ventured further into subsequent radical analysis: the most innovative dependency theory, especially from Brazil (1960s-70s), South African approaches to the ‘articulations of modes of production’ (1970s), and a broader approach to sub-imperialism pioneered by Brazilian political economist Ruy Mauro Marini (1960s-70s). Before returning to the leading contemporary sub-imperial bloc (the BRICS BRICS The term BRICS (an acronym for Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) was first used in 2001 by Jim O’Neill, then an economist at Goldman Sachs. The strong economic growth of these countries, combined with their important geopolitical position (these 5 countries bring together almost half the world’s population on 4 continents and almost a quarter of the world’s GDP) make the BRICS major players in international economic and financial activities. ) and the South African attempt to revitalise its own sub-imperial role through the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), consider each in turn.

From capitalism/pre-capitalism to apartheid super-exploitation and racial capitalism

Amin’s 1974 Accumulation on a World Scale was based on his mid-1950s doctoral thesis. It was his initial expression of capitalism’s abusive contact with what we can term non-capitalist relations. This was a vital component of Amin’s overarching theory of unequal exchange, one informed by a book written in 1913: Rosa Luxemburg’s Accumulation of Capital:

It was Rosa Luxemburg’s great merit to have seen that relations between the centre and the periphery depend on the mechanisms of primitive accumulation, because what is involved is not the economic mechanisms characteristic of the internal functioning of the capitalist mode of production, but relations between this mode of production and formations that differ from it… To Rosa Luxemburg belongs the credit of having pointed out these present-day mechanisms of primitive accumulation-in the strict sense, plundering of the Third World” (Amin 1974a, 61).

Luxemburg (2003, 76) used Marx’s crisis theory to explain the drive behind imperialist expansion, i.e., the “ceaseless flow of capital from one branch of production to another, and finally in the periodic and cyclical swings of reproduction between overproduction and crisis.” The tendency to overaccumulate capital in one geographical site, especially as it moves from productive to financial circuits, was behind not only capital’s spatial expansion but also the utilisation of state power in imperialist form.

Lenin and many other theorists of imperialism also pointed to inter-imperial rivalry as a consequence of capitalist crisis, but for Amin, the respect he gave Luxemburg’s framing reflected her insistence that capitalism would ‘eat up’ the non-capitalist spheres that it encountered. Amin (1974a, 96) noted,

Luxemburg raises a problem of a different order, because her problematic is different. She does not confine herself to the context of the capitalist mode of production (which is the context of Capital) but studies another real problem, namely, the extension of capitalism over the world – in other words, the problem of relations between formations (the disintegration of pre-capitalist societies). It is to Luxemburg’s credit that she showed how, parallel with the process of expanded reproduction through deepening of the market inside the capitalist mode of production, a simultaneous process of primitive accumulation was going on. Thus, the standing contradiction between the capacity to produce and the capacity to consume, which reflects the essential contradiction of the capitalist mode of production, is constantly being overcome both by deepening the internal (“purely capitalist”) market and by extending the market externally the development of capitalism in the periphery, by disintegrating pre-capitalist societies, facilitates and accelerates this accumulation at the centre. Luxemburg was right to emphasise this fact, but she was wrong to present it as an absolute necessity for realisation of the surplus.”

Later he would reassess and indeed in the last year of his life, Amin (2018, 159) identified the durability – the necessity – of capitalist/non-capitalist super-exploitation within imperialism:

The fundamental – fatal – contradiction of capitalism resulted into continuous overaccumulation and therefore, faced a problem of outlet for capitalist production. On that ground Luxemburg is certainly right. How has this contradiction been overcome in history? Luxemburg is right: capitalism expanded by destroying pre-capitalist modes of production both within the societies of the dominant centres and the dominated peripheries. Handicrafts are replaced by manufacturing industries, small shops by supermarkets etc. This process of accumulation by dispossession still goes on with the current privatisation of former public services.”

And without diminishing his critique of destructive articulations of modes of production and hence of social relations, Amin (2018, 159) had by them brought unequal ecological exchange into his value-transfer schema, because “Capitalist accumulation is founded on the destruction of the bases of all wealth: human beings and their natural environment.” Amin (2018, 86) continued, “Historical Marxisms had largely passed an eraser over the analyses advanced by Marx on this subject and taken the point of view of the bourgeoisie – equated to an atemporal ‘rational’ point of view – in regard to the exploitation of natural resources.”

Such exploitation of nature was abundantly obvious in South Africa, and in relation to its extractive-industry corporations’ role in Africa. In his initial statement about the then-prosperous economy’s positioning, Amin (1974a, 19) placed it in the “centre [with] North America, Western Europe, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa” (as against “Russia and Eastern Europe” in the second world, in contrast to “the periphery, the three continents”).

Though this was unusual – and temporary – as a world-systems location (i.e., early-1970s South Africa as First World), Amin (1974a, 27) remarked on how, even in its most advanced manifestation, capitalism mobilised “the internal colonial reserves, as with the proletarianizing of blacks in the United States, who have become the majority of the proletariat in a number of large industrial towns. The extreme form of this system is to be observed in the racialist states: South Africa, Rhodesia, Israel.”

In such sites of racial capitalism, Amin (1974a, 135) continued, there was a general “policy of creating inadequate ‘reservations,’ so that the African peasants are obliged to sell their labour power in the European mine, factory or plantation.” That degree of destruction meant, that unlike European capitalism which still exhibited outmoded fetters, the Tabula rasa in the form of capitalism’s domination of pre-capitalist society allowed for more rapid accumulation:

The dynamism of the simple commodity mode of production, unhindered by pre-capitalist modes of production, showed its power to achieve this stage. The same can be said of South Africa, which was at first a mere agricultural appendage to the British centre. At that stage, the white community remained isolated from the surrounding black world, and did not exploit it, merely driving it back. When it had reached the industrial stage, owing to its own dynamism as an unhindered simple commodity economy, white South African society found its own potential periphery ready to hand. This, it seems to me, is the explanation of the remarkable triumphant imperialism of South Africa, which has virtually annexed Rhodesia and does not hide its ambition to reduce the whole southern half of the continent to the status of its periphery” (Amin 1974a, 379).

But Amin’s views evolved, and instead of discussing South Africa as ‘imperialist,’ it soon became a ‘sub-imperialist’ economy, sometimes located within ‘peripheral capitalism,’ as he increasingly specified the merits of official racism insofar as apartheid allowed capitalism to maintain the non-capitalist sphere as a source of super-exploitation. In the same analytical universe, Marini’s (1972) linkage of these themes – sub-imperialism and super-exploitation – had just been translated and published in Monthly Review, which led to their interactions in Africa, according to Marini’s (1990, 82) autobiography:

The international propagation of Dialectica de la dependencia has happened, partially, because I presented the text as a paper at the Afro-Latin American Conference, which gathered in Dakar, in September of 1972, thanks to the initiative of the Institute for Economic Development and Planning, a UN organisation directed by Samir Amin, who studied both continents, as well as Europe.”

Amin was greatly empowered by that Dakar interaction with some of the great dependency and world-systems scholars, partly because they linked internal and external relations (de Oliveira and Kvangraven 2023). Then, as discussed below, Amin (1974b) offered a Review of African Political Economy article where he set out his own theory of imperialism, observing how “inequality in peripheral development” in part stemmed from areas that were “sustained principally for the purpose of providing cheap labour reserves.”

South Africa had much to teach along these lines. In the longest statement of how he saw apartheid in political-economic context, Amin’s Maldevelopment (1990, 167-172) considered the initial world-systems location of racist capital accumulation:

Apartheid, from the outset, was part of this form of expansion of peripheral capitalism, in contrast with the forms implemented in other parts of the continent, notably the coastal trade economy in West Africa. Contrary to stubborn belief, it was not the Boers who in an excess of racism of their own invented the system. Until then the Boers had developed only a crude concept of their society – agrarian and patriarchal – that entailed the conquest of land and not of men, with the latter to be driven out or exterminated rather than integrated in an effectively capitalist exploitation. In short they behaved as the Zionists hoped to treat the Palestinians” (Amin 1990, 167).

The pre-apartheid mode of racism was, indeed, crude – as it corresponded to the first insertions of Southern Africa, by white invaders, into a global economy that first traded in slaves (supplied by the Portuguese), then required more extensive, better-lubricated mercantilism (the Dutch in the Cape Colony), and then drew out unprecedented stocks of precious minerals (beginning with Kimberley diamonds and Johannesburg gold).

Ben Magubane’s (2001) formulation of the dynamic historical character of racial profiteering is vital here, because in the first two waves of racist Foreign Direct Investment – slave trading Market activities
Buying and selling of financial instruments such as shares, futures, derivatives, options, and warrants conducted in the hope of making a short-term profit.
stations and settler-colonial agricultural provisioning – the two distinct modes of production rising from 1497 with Vasco da Gama and from 1652 with Jan van Riebeeck did not share Share A unit of ownership interest in a corporation or financial asset, representing one part of the total capital stock. Its owner (a shareholder) is entitled to receive an equal distribution of any profits distributed (a dividend) and to attend shareholder meetings. the same features of super-exploitation that were subsequently commonplace in South African extractive industries that were fully reliant upon migrant labour. That process started in Kimberley under Cecil Rhodes from 1871 (followed by Ernest Oppenheimer from 1902), and was amplified by the Johannesburg Randlords from the 1880s, codified by the Anglo American Corporation’s 1917 co-founding (by Oppenheimer and New York financier JP Morgan), before being geopolitically codified when formal apartheid established ethnic-exclusivist ‘Bantustans’ (or ‘homelands’) from 1948.

For Magubane (2001), the intrinsic logic of profits meant first, stealing black Bantu bodies along the Indian Ocean coastline; second, exterminating the Khoi San who interfered with agricultural provisioning to Dutch ships; and third, imposing super-exploitation in the form of cheap-labour systems within a mass-industrial mining-compound system. This abuse of black bodies was most lucrative for capital within the mines, but extended to migrant labour-providing sites where forced displacement, hut taxes and other coercive approaches to social reproduction began in earnest, putting an added burden on women as men were pushed and pulled into mines, fields and factories.

These three insertions into different waves of globalisation, personified by the exploits of Da Gama, Von Riebeeck and Rhodes, also led to intra-white conflicts that took an extreme ethnic form when Britain took over the Dutch Cape in 1806, and then outlawed slavery in 1834 – causing the ‘Boer’ (farmer, later renamed Afrikaner) population to trek north, and, by the late 19th century, led to a national-scale war. Amin picks up the story in Maldevelopment:

The defeat inflicted on the Boers by British imperialism gave them a new place and role in the system, invented by the British governors brought up on an interpretation of race and class inspired by an Oxbridge reading of Plato. Contrary also to a widespread prejudice, nurtured by these same British who set up the system but attributed paternity to the Boers, apartheid is not a ‘remnant’ in conflict with the needs of capitalist expansion, but rather in perfect harmony with this expansion. Bourgeois ideology seeks to justify the ‘progressive’ character of capitalism by pretending that equality before the law and electoral democracy are absolute imperatives of this mode of production” (Amin 1990, 168).

Liberal-versus-radical debates about racial capitalism

This was, indeed, a raging debate as Amin surveyed South Africa in the 1970s-80s, namely whether liberal capitalist visions of non-racial meritocracy and freedom of movement would allow for gradual reforms of apartheid. Multinational corporations opened desegregated bathrooms and signed ‘Sullivan Principles’ in the hopes this would prevent economic boycotts, divestment and sanctions (now known as the ‘BDS’ pariah-making strategy). Backing them, the liberal school of reasoning, represented most confidently by Anglo American Corporation executive Michael O’Dowd (1996), had from the 1960s insisted that apartheid’s remnant-racist logic would inexorably be degraded by the dynamism, prosperity and rationality of non-racial, meritocratic capitalism.

A variety of radical analysts dissented, suggesting that capitalism needed apartheid due to an ‘articulation’ between class and race oppression and indeed between a capitalist and pre-capitalist mode of production that generated super-exploitation. To illustrate, the Lansdown Commission (1944) on Remuneration and Conditions of Employment of Natives on Witwatersrand Gold Mines had included testimony from the Chamber of Mines:

It is clearly to the advantage of the mines that native labourers should be encouraged to return to their homes after the completion of the ordinary period of service. The maintenance of the system under which the mines are able to obtain unskilled labour at a rate less than ordinarily paid in industry depends upon this, for otherwise the subsidiary means of subsistence would disappear and the labourer would tend to become a permanent resident upon the Witwatersrand, with increased requirements… The ability of the mines to maintain their native labour force by means of tribal natives from the reserves at rates of pay which are adequate for this migratory class of native, but inadequate in practice for the detribalised urban native, is a fundamental factor of the economy of the gold mining industry.”

Evidence of super-exploitation as a ‘fundamental’ (i.e., necessary) feature of racial capitalism in the extractive industries could be found in many sites, and informed Harold Wolpe’s (1972) notion of an ‘articulation of modes of production.’ O’Dowd, in contrast, asserted that South Africa could indeed march along the path set in WW Rostow’s (1960) book The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto, codifying modernisation theory through the five-stage model of development.

Source: Rostow, 1960

Within that framing, it had become obvious to corporate reformers like O’Dowd that South Africa was stuck at stage three (before meritocracy-based ‘culture change’ is generalised, through the introduction of liberal democracy). Against this line of argument, the point Amin made repeatedly is that the extractivist local and multinational corporations responsible for – and reliant upon – super-exploitation, would not allow ‘dependent development’ to ‘mature’ into high mass consumption.

For Amin and other radicals, underlying the extractive-industry circuit of capital was internal colonialism (or as Communist Party theorists put it, ‘Colonialism of a Special Type’), insofar as colonists were settlers who resided within the same national unit, not in distant European cities. And the core feature of that system was also crucial for retention after apartheid ended in 1994: super-exploitative migrant labour relations, in which patriarchal power ensured the social reproduction of workers continued to gain all manner of subsidisations from women. In earlier times, these included the child-rearing in an era in which, in distant Bantustan (labour-exporting areas), there were no creches or state schools, no healthcare facilities and no real retirement system.

Rostow’s Stage-5 capitalism in the Global North ensured (so he claimed) that welfare systems were being ‘fully developed.’ But South Africa’s migrant labour arrangements were far more profitable: corporations did not pay high taxes to cover childcare, healthcare and eldercare, instead expecting women to do such work without compensation (hence without high enough wages and taxes to assure full-fledged social reproduction). Costs were particularly low for capital, because all this occurred at long distance, without nearby home mortgage Mortgage A loan made against property collateral. There are two sorts of mortgages:
1) the most common form where the property that the loan is used to purchase is used as the collateral;
2) a broader use of property to guarantee any loan: it is sufficient that the borrower possesses and engages the property as collateral.
bond and municipal service costs to factor in. Hence mining capital, especially, used migrant labour for super-profits – a system that continued after 1994 without disruption.

The process was so extensive in South Africa that, unlike other African colonies, a massive state apparatus soon evolved. Amin’s 2010 From Capitalism to Civilisation elaborated how “In South Africa, the first settler-colonisation – the one of the Boers – led to the creation of a ‘purely white’ state involving expulsion or extermination of Africans. In contrast, the initial objective of the British conquest was to forcibly submit Africans to the requirements of the metropolis’ imperialist expansion primarily for the exploitation of the minerals” (Amin, 2010, 86).

Amin knew that ‘dependent development’ could characterise even those settler-colonial economies that had a strong, relatively patriotic bourgeoisie and heavy industrial investments, such as apartheid South Africa. As early as 1974, in one of the earliest explanations of his theory of unequal exchange, Amin (1974b) showed how biases in capital accumulation could create international dependency at the same time a small class of local elites found it possible to impose import-substitution industrialisation so as to encourage multinational corporations to locate there (instead of sending their wares by ship).

But these economies’ emphasis on luxury goods production – alongside strengths in both primary exports and the capital goods required to generate these – left the potential for mass consumption far lower than ‘normal’ economies. The reason was simple: the super-exploitation suffered by the population’s vast majority left the workers so poor that they simply could not consume even many basic-need commodities Commodities The goods exchanged on the commodities market, traditionally raw materials such as metals and fuels, and cereals. .

In his “Accumulation and Development: A Theoretical Model” for the Review of African Political Economy, Amin set out how the ‘peripheral-dependent relationship’ combined exports (Sector 1) and consumption of luxury goods (Sector 3), while the ‘central determining relationship’ focused on mass consumption (Sector 2) and capital goods (Sector 4), a simple but effective model. To explain, Amin (1974b) noted that “Even at a very advanced stage, one can imagine the development of a sector 4, i.e, heavy industry, which acts merely as a local prop for dependent development in general.”

Samir Amin’s Accumulation and Development: A Theoretical Model

Source: (Amin, 1974b)

In turn, the mix of exports and the capital goods required to make them, without the appropriate backward-forward linkages to generate balanced capital accumulation, would leave an extractive economy impoverished. In 20th-century South Africa’s case, the economy hosted some of the world’s leading deep-mining processes and equipment, largest minerals smelters, extensive coal-fired electricity generators, and most advanced petrochemical facilities. But they still needed cheap labour and relied upon non-renewable resource depletion.

Moreover, international commodity markets became extremely volatile in the 1970s-80s, especially gold whose price rose to $2700/ounce (in today’s inflation Inflation The cumulated rise of prices as a whole (e.g. a rise in the price of petroleum, eventually leading to a rise in salaries, then to the rise of other prices, etc.). Inflation implies a fall in the value of money since, as time goes by, larger sums are required to purchase particular items. This is the reason why corporate-driven policies seek to keep inflation down. -adjusted values) by 1979 as U.S. stagflation denuded the dollar’s value, but then fell to $850/ounce in 1985 once the Federal Reserve FED
Federal Reserve
Officially, Federal Reserve System, is the United States’ central bank created in 1913 by the ’Federal Reserve Act’, also called the ’Owen-Glass Act’, after a series of banking crises, particularly the ’Bank Panic’ of 1907.

FED – decentralized central bank :
’s high interest rates Interest rates When A lends money to B, B repays the amount lent by A (the capital) as well as a supplementary sum known as interest, so that A has an interest in agreeing to this financial operation. The interest is determined by the interest rate, which may be high or low. To take a very simple example: if A borrows 100 million dollars for 10 years at a fixed interest rate of 5%, the first year he will repay a tenth of the capital initially borrowed (10 million dollars) plus 5% of the capital owed, i.e. 5 million dollars, that is a total of 15 million dollars. In the second year, he will again repay 10% of the capital borrowed, but the 5% now only applies to the remaining 90 million dollars still due, i.e. 4.5 million dollars, or a total of 14.5 million dollars. And so on, until the tenth year when he will repay the last 10 million dollars, plus 5% of that remaining 10 million dollars, i.e. 0.5 million dollars, giving a total of 10.5 million dollars. Over 10 years, the total amount repaid will come to 127.5 million dollars. The repayment of the capital is not usually made in equal instalments. In the initial years, the repayment concerns mainly the interest, and the proportion of capital repaid increases over the years. In this case, if repayments are stopped, the capital still due is higher…

The nominal interest rate is the rate at which the loan is contracted. The real interest rate is the nominal rate reduced by the rate of inflation.
attracted major flows into financial assets.

In contrast to the durability of such super-exploitation and dependence, O’Dowd’s (1996) hubris included the claim that non-racial capitalism prevailed through its prowess in the 1980s, leading to 1994’s democratic transition. In reality, it was the capitalist crisis of the 1980s that led to change – and not merely because of gold’s fall (though that contributed to Pretoria’s debt crisis and foreign exchange shortage). The key moment was 1 September 1985, shortly after PW Botha’s infamous Rubicon Speech which caused financial sanctions to suddenly tighten, in turn forcing Botha into crisis management: a $13 billion debt default, stock market closure and imposition of exchange controls (Bond 2003).

The underlying dilemma for South African capitalism, upon which the financial froth continued to create chaos, was a durable capitalist crisis of overaccumulation (Bond and Malikane 2019). That crisis, dating to the Import-Substitution Industrialisation era, reflected the excess orientation of locally-produced luxury goods within the South African economy, which could not readily be displaced to the extent desired (and feasible after 1994), due to the Southern African Development Coordinating Committee’s attempt (from the early 1980s) to reorient trade from across the Limpopo River, to the Beira Port. In many such cases, “A high proportion of the export of manufactured goods,” Amin (1990, 252) argued,

is, in fact, by subsidiaries of multinationals of the North. This is mainly the case for motor cars, electronics, and pharmaceuticals, 60 percent to 90 percent controlled by foreign multinationals in Latin America (including Brazil) and to a lesser extent in Asia (especially in regard to Korea and India). In the mid-1970s, the latter factor inspired a thesis of ‘sub-imperialism.’ This was to some extent an expansion of phenomena that were not entirely new. In Africa the volume of exchange between South Africa and the countries of Southern Africa was of the same kind.”

Having described South African features of internal colonialism, super-exploitation, luxury-goods bias and capitalism’s geographical displacement tendencies, Amin was correct to regularly place emphasis on the state of anti-apartheid resistance, because the necessary precursor for those financial sanctions was nine months of intense social uprisings (starting in the Vaal townships). Botha imposed successive states of emergency and his army killed thousands of protesters, generating a new wave of international solidarity activism and sanctions pressure.

But another endogenous factor was sustained excess capacity (‘the overaccumulation of capital’ in Marxist terms) and a desire by many South African white corporate elites, to move assets abroad (Bond and Malikane 2019). As a result, within two weeks of the crisis, Anglo’s Gavin Relly and Zach de Beer began the formal separation of dominant Johannesburg English-speaking capital from the apartheid regime in Pretoria, by making a prominent visit to meet leaders of the exiled African National Congress (ANC) in a Zambian game park, hosted by Kenneth Kaunda. For white South African capitalist leaders, the expectation grew that their new allies would both reinsert the economy into a post-sanctions global capitalism, which would permit both capital flight (denied them by Afrikaner financial bureaucrats) and suppression of South African class and community anti-apartheid struggles that had become national in scope and were impossible to quell. (The ANC complied with both logics of neoliberal capital starting as early as 1992 but in earnest in the late 1990s.)

Again, Amin’s (1990, 168) Maldevelopment inserts the global context that is also required to critique the liberal narrative:

The reality suggests another interpretation stressing the qualitative difference between the centres and the peripheries in this overall capitalist expansion. If, in the centres, the struggles fought by the bourgeoisie against the absolutism of former regimes, followed by the struggles waged by the working class, have in fact imposed bourgeois democracy as we know it, in the periphery the roles assigned to the conquered peoples imposed gross forms of exploitation. Slavery in the Americas, apartheid in South Africa, colonisation (and the negation of basic rights it comports) are necessary forms of capitalist expansion as it truly is, in contrast to the mythical view that bourgeois ideology attaches to it.”

The crucial point Amin (1990, 168) makes here about racism, is that “imperialism constructed this complex system based on fundamental alliances between the interests of dominant mining monopoly capital and white settler colonialism, direct, semi-indirect or indirect British colonial rule according to regions” – without any real effort to assimilate an organic petit-bourgeoisie until too late in the decolonisation process. Amin accused leaders of Britain’s Southern Africa colonies, South Africa (and Pretoria-ruled Namibia), the Belgian Congo, and Portuguese-ruled Angola and Mozambique of relying upon a crucial feature of extractive-oriented imperialism: indirect rule through local black elites, in what were generally considered ‘tribal reserves.’ But that meant, Amin (1990, 168) reminded, that “there was no subordinate African bourgeoisie (not even in the rural areas), or embryo of a political bourgeoisie. From the end of 19th century to 1984 this system operated without a major crisis to challenge the dominant interests of monopoly capital.”

The interests of mining capital had been strengthened because initially – thanks to Rhodes’ contacts in late-19th century London financial markets (for whom public relations services were unevenly provided by Churchill family ‘journalists’ Randolph and Winston) – South African white rulers not only found the London Stock Exchange a source of support, but also, Amin (1990, 168) remarked, they

brought in North American capital into the venture from the start, as is evidenced by the establishment of Anglo-American institutions. Until the crisis of South Africa reached a decisive phase that is, until 1984 the United States had no need of active political intervention in the region. The British baton bearer until 1948, then the South African baton bearer, was enough to maintain ‘order’. The gradual decline of British hegemony gave the Boers an opportunity to avenge their previous defeat. By breaking away from the mother country in 1948, white South Africa became the senior partner in the maintenance of order for the benefit of the overall imperialist strategy in the region.”

Imperial interest Interest An amount paid in remuneration of an investment or received by a lender. Interest is calculated on the amount of the capital invested or borrowed, the duration of the operation and the rate that has been set. in South Africa’s ‘democratic transition’

What this meant, in turn, was that a crucial role was played by multilateral institutions, multinational corporations and imperialist governments in South Africa’s false-decolonisation process. Neva Makgetla and Ann Seidman (1980) had documented these connections in the late 1970s when describing the sub-imperial apartheid economy. Writing during the subsequent period in which Pretoria managed Renamo’s attack on newly-independent Mozambique and UNITA’s attack on Angola – in each case killing a million citizens but never achieving an overthrow (of Frelimo and the MPLA respectively), even though the violence was firmly supported by the Reagan and Thatcher regimes – Amin (1990, 170) observed how,

The crumbling of British and Belgian [and Portuguese] colonialism did not mean the destruction of the overall system of imperialist domination in the region… The West has regarded it as positive and useful – for it – that South Africa pursues its destabilising military aggression against Angola and Mozambique since 1974 and against Zimbabwe since 1980. These aggressions are complemented on the economic level by the destabilising aggression of the IMF IMF
International Monetary Fund
Along with the World Bank, the IMF was founded on the day the Bretton Woods Agreements were signed. Its first mission was to support the new system of standard exchange rates.

When the Bretton Wood fixed rates system came to an end in 1971, the main function of the IMF became that of being both policeman and fireman for global capital: it acts as policeman when it enforces its Structural Adjustment Policies and as fireman when it steps in to help out governments in risk of defaulting on debt repayments.

As for the World Bank, a weighted voting system operates: depending on the amount paid as contribution by each member state. 85% of the votes is required to modify the IMF Charter (which means that the USA with 17,68% % of the votes has a de facto veto on any change).

The institution is dominated by five countries: the United States (16,74%), Japan (6,23%), Germany (5,81%), France (4,29%) and the UK (4,29%).
The other 183 member countries are divided into groups led by one country. The most important one (6,57% of the votes) is led by Belgium. The least important group of countries (1,55% of the votes) is led by Gabon and brings together African countries.
acting for imperialism’s global account and profiting from the – sometimes serious – weaknesses and errors of local policies. The results of this strategy, aimed at establishing overtly neo-colonial regimes, are unfortunately not disappointing for imperialism. Angola was obliged to appeal to Cuban military assistance, to face up to South African ventures, Mozambique to sign the Nkomati agreement, without this bringing security to the country, Zimbabwe to observe the Lancaster House spirit, Tanzania and Zambia to pass through the Caudine Forks of the IMF

The metaphor Amin deploys to characterise 1980s structural adjustment Structural Adjustment Economic policies imposed by the IMF in exchange of new loans or the rescheduling of old loans.

Structural Adjustments policies were enforced in the early 1980 to qualify countries for new loans or for debt rescheduling by the IMF and the World Bank. The requested kind of adjustment aims at ensuring that the country can again service its external debt. Structural adjustment usually combines the following elements : devaluation of the national currency (in order to bring down the prices of exported goods and attract strong currencies), rise in interest rates (in order to attract international capital), reduction of public expenditure (’streamlining’ of public services staff, reduction of budgets devoted to education and the health sector, etc.), massive privatisations, reduction of public subsidies to some companies or products, freezing of salaries (to avoid inflation as a consequence of deflation). These SAPs have not only substantially contributed to higher and higher levels of indebtedness in the affected countries ; they have simultaneously led to higher prices (because of a high VAT rate and of the free market prices) and to a dramatic fall in the income of local populations (as a consequence of rising unemployment and of the dismantling of public services, among other factors).

refers to a battle in 321 BC won by the Samnites against the Romans, after the former trapped the latter in a mountainous area with no escape. For that work, imperialism needed not only a 1970s-80s deputy sheriff, the apartheid regime. Protecting white rule against the ‘terrorist’ Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress was vital for the West at least until the mid-1980s crisis when Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush along with Margaret Thatcher permitted – grudgingly, and in part because the Soviet Union’s collapse – a slow, painful transition to an even more unequal ‘democratic’ society, one which would be more prone to entering the neoliberal Caudine Forks.

The 1990s would pose a profound challenge to the Afrikaner successors of sub-imperialist rule, Amin (1990) predicted:

if the struggle does not develop to the level of a real challenge to the relations of production, a neo-colonial solution remains possible, even in South Africa. After all, some kind of Lancaster House would be quite acceptable to the West. Of course, some of the white settler interests in South Africa would be sacrificed: but just as it was done at the time of the defeat of the Boers at the beginning of the century!

The forthcoming deal, Amin (1990, 171) believed, would include “more or less broad political representation, and to the benefit of the colonisers, more or less detailed and firm ‘guarantees Guarantees Acts that provide a creditor with security in complement to the debtor’s commitment. A distinction is made between real guarantees (lien, pledge, mortgage, prior charge) and personal guarantees (surety, aval, letter of intent, independent guarantee). ’. What is essential for imperialism is to preserve the capitalist relations of production in industry and the mines and the international ‘specialisation’ of the region that flows from them.” Amin (1990, 171) presciently observed why Pretoria would make concessions, in spite of its military power:

South Africa’s nuclear power excludes any agreement, it is said, as the West would never allow the weapon to fall into the hands of a black government. Has the possibility of dismantling the weapons capability been excluded, if such were necessary? South Africa is the sole supplier of strategic minerals, unless importers turn to the Soviet Union. Granted: but is the neo-colonial solution aimed precisely at ensuring the continuance of these supplies? A final argument: white power in South Africa enjoys an autonomy sufficient to allow it to refuse ‘plans’ that require unpalatable sacrifices. The analogy is often made with Israel, also able to cock a snook at the West, demand unconditional support or even dispense with it. We venture to doubt the strength of this argument. South Africa would have great difficulty in withstanding sanctions, even the merely economic, and the white regime would crumble even more quickly if they were enforced. The spread of the war within the country could even of itself bring about the collapse.”

These observations, made in 1989 as his book went to press, are exceptionally powerful in retrospect. He conjoined his political analysis with economic reasoning in his 2010 book From Capitalism to Civilisation, as the importance of ongoing super-exploitation, internal colonialism and other durable features of South Africa’s extractive industries became obvious – and comparable with what came to be termed ‘global apartheid’:

The powers in place after the end of Apartheid have inherited that issue of internal colonisation without having, up to now, brought in its radical solution… South Africa is a microcosm of the global capitalist system. It gathers on its territory the three components of that system: a minority which benefits from the rent of situation of the imperialist centres, two majority components of more or less equal importance distributed into an industrialised ‘Third World’ (the emerging nations of today) and a marginalised ‘Fourth World’ (in the former Bantustans), similar to the non-industrialised regions of contemporary Africa. What is more, the proportions between those three components’ populations are more or less the same as those which characterise the current global system” (Amin 2010, 86).

In his “Future of South Africa” essay, Amin (1977, 368) had already described its political economy as a “hideous picture of what the world imperialist system would increasingly become if it continued to ‘develop’ according to its own logic.” And in his first autobiography, Amin (2006) again insisted that South African super-exploitation offered a mirror to global trends, because of

two characteristics that are too often overlooked. First, the project to make South Africa a modern industrial power by reduc­ing the black workforce to semi-servitude – which was started by English settlers more than a century ago and developed under the forty-year apartheid regime – has ended in failure. South African industry is uncompeti­tive, and therefore, by the key criterion for the global capitalist economy, the RSA counts for no more than the few other ‘industrialised’ countries of Africa and the Middle East. The failure is certainly due to the resistance of the black working class, from Sharpeville (1960) to Soweto (1976), and the general civil insurgency that led De Klerk to agree to talks in 1990. But it is also due to the incredible waste bound up with a ‘white’ minority that consumes as in the West without the same productivity. South Africa is a kind of microcosm of the world capitalist system: a minority of first world consumers, a large active army of ‘township’ labour concentrated in the mines, industry and colonial-style agriculture, and a no less sizeable reserve army in the Bantustans and the informal sector surrounding the cities. Under these conditions, what will become of the compromise associated with the end of apartheid? External forces hold out the prospect of an ‘advantage’ that the black majority will inherit from the ‘fine industrial infrastructure’, so long as it helps the country to become ‘competitive’ in line with the spirit of the age. In other words, the working majority is being asked to pay more to achieve what capital, with global financial, economic and political support, has failed to achieve” (Amin 2006, 174-75).

It must be noted that even earlier, in 1975, an Italian-language book of discussions between Amin, Andre Gunder Frank and the South African socialist revolutionary Hosea Jaffe (1921-2014) had already introduced this conceptualisation (Amin et al 1975). This was thanks to Jaffe, whom Amin (2021) had termed ”a South African communist activist who had understood that apartheid served capitalism in that part of the world with perfect efficiency. His analyses point out the disastrous consequences of the abandon of internationalist prospects – inevitably anti-imperialist – by the people of the United States, Europe and Japan.”

In 1978, Gernot Kohler titled a Working Paper in the World Order Models Project ‘Global Apartheid,’ and in 2001, South African President Thabo Mbeki would begin popularizing the term (Bond 2003). Not only would apartheid inequality repeatedly be used to explain processes underway at the global scale, but Amin also drew other theoretical lessons from South Africa that radical thinkers should be better aware of, especially sub-imperialism.

The theory and practice of sub-imperialism: From South Africa to NEPAD to the BRICS

Amin’s (1977) essay identified how “South African capital requires an outward policy of expansionism, so that ultimately, internal colonialism becomes coterminous with sub-imperialism.” The most important question for post-apartheid South African politics, was whether ANC governments would break with the past. In his next, posthumous autobiography, The Long Revolution of the Global South: Toward a New Anti-Imperialist International, Amin (2019, 178) answered in the negative. South Africa, he wrote,

freed from odious apartheid, is now confronted with a truly formidable challenge: how to go beyond the facade of multiracial democracy to transform society profoundly? The choices of the ANC government have, up to now, evaded the question and, as a result, nothing has changed. South Africa’s sub-imperialist role has been reinforced, still dominated as it is by the Anglo-American mining monopolies.”

Amin here harks back to the earlier definition of sub-imperialism offered by Marini (1972, 15): “the form which dependent capitalism assumes upon reaching the stage of monopolies and finance capital.” And it was a fair assessment, even if Anglo American Corporation was itself largely divesting from South Africa – starting in 1990 the week after Mandela’s release from prison (when De Beers redirected foreign flows to Switzerland), then in 1995 when many relevant exchange controls were lifted, more importantly in 1999 when the Anglo and De Beers headquarters were relocated to London, and in physical-capital terms in 2020 when both AngloCoal and AngloGold Ashanti sold their last South African mines.

Today, an electricity lobby Lobby
A lobby is an entity organized to represent and defend the interests of a specific group by exerting pressure or influence on persons or institutions that hold power. Lobbying consists in conducting actions aimed at influencing, directly or indirectly, the drafting, application or interpretation of legislative measures, standards, regulations and more generally any intervention or decision by the Public Authorities.
, the Energy Intensive Users Group, is just one reflection of the sustained power of the Minerals Energy Complex (Fine and Rustomjee 1996) to ensure the ANC would ‘evade the question’ of transforming society, even when it came to something as simple as the ‘load shedding’ power outages which reflected 27 companies’ ability to utilise 42 percent of the country’s electricity at the expense of everyone else.

To understand the sub-imperialist role, recall that Amin (1974a) paid homage to Marini by fusing political economy and geopolitics:

The political theory of sub-imperialism addresses a very real problem raised here: that of inequality in peripheral development. For it is conceivable that in the global hierarchy certain peripheral regions may ‘benefit’ through geographical concentration in their territories of industries of sectors 3 and 4, producing not only for their ‘national’ market but also for those of neighbouring areas, sustained principally for the purpose of providing cheap labour reserves… the re-shaping of Africa into an externally-oriented, dependent economy was carved into the very geography of the continent by coastal concentration and develop­ment and by the simultaneous impoverishment of the interior. The resulting massive migration has in its turn further accentuated regional disparities. Furthermore, political balkanisaton, rooted in the process of unequal dependent peripheral development, has created the conditions for smaller ‘sub-imperialist units’ within a system which, as a whole, is dependent.”

To translate to South Africa, the only friendly amendment required is that the ‘impoverishment of the interior’ had one exception in South Africa: what is now Gauteng Province. The surrounding area’s mineral belts (mainly gold, platinum, coal and diamonds) were the main reasons that at least some capital was reinvested in Gauteng, but so too, the region includes the country’s capital city of Pretoria, the Sandton financial district and a steel producing region south of Johannesburg. But another crucial factor behind Johannesburg’s rating as the world’s most unequal city (EuroMonitor 2017), is that after 1994, even greater supplies of impoverished migrant labour arrived from neighbouring countries. The society and state are not hospitable, and in his 1990 Maldevelopment, Amin (1990, 172) was pessimistic about Southern Africa:

So long as national and popular construction is not embarked upon in South Africa and in the region, relations between the countries of the region will remain marked by the inequality inherent to capitalist expansion, both in their relations with imperialism and their relations with each other. Hence the overall neo-colonial solution entails the segmentation of local and regional ruling classes, leading to a conflict of their interests. A pseudo South African ‘expansionism’, as the channel for worldwide capitalist expansion, would then be a real possibility and probability.”

For Roger Southall (1982, 57), Amin’s

formulation provides the most provocative available basis for furthering the theory of sub-imperialism within the Southern African context. Thus his emphasis upon the rise of a truly national capital, located within the world imperialist context, but operating through a system of internal colonialism (and hence underconsumption) provides an explanatory basis both for the relative autonomy of the South African formation and its impetus for expansion.”

That expansion was even more explicit after apartheid because South African capital began a new ‘scramble’ up-continent, in part to solve over-accumulation problems at home. In 2001, Thabo Mbeki worked with ex-leftists in Pretoria to fashion a ‘New Partnership for Africa’s Development’ (NEPAD), which was joined by presidents from Senegal, Nigeria and Algeria and adopted by the African Union. This was enormously distressing to Amin, in part because the strategy was explicitly neoliberal, reflected in the U.S. State Department’s celebration of NEPAD as ‘philosophically spot on.’ Hence, writing on behalf of his two main networks – the World Forum for Alternatives and Third World Forum (2002) – for the 2002 African Social Forum conference in Bamako, Amin reminded that,

Official Africa has genuinely tried to establish collective alternatives. The Lagos Action Plan was the first common framework, soon put aside for the Berg Plan and replaced by structural adjustment policies. The Lagos Plan was followed by an African Alternative to Structural Adjustment Plan, but it came up against the World Bank World Bank
The World Bank was founded as part of the new international monetary system set up at Bretton Woods in 1944. Its capital is provided by member states’ contributions and loans on the international money markets. It financed public and private projects in Third World and East European countries.

It consists of several closely associated institutions, among which :

1. The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD, 189 members in 2017), which provides loans in productive sectors such as farming or energy ;

2. The International Development Association (IDA, 159 members in 1997), which provides less advanced countries with long-term loans (35-40 years) at very low interest (1%) ;

3. The International Finance Corporation (IFC), which provides both loan and equity finance for business ventures in developing countries.

As Third World Debt gets worse, the World Bank (along with the IMF) tends to adopt a macro-economic perspective. For instance, it enforces adjustment policies that are intended to balance heavily indebted countries’ payments. The World Bank advises those countries that have to undergo the IMF’s therapy on such matters as how to reduce budget deficits, round up savings, enduce foreign investors to settle within their borders, or free prices and exchange rates.

and IMF control over the continent’s macro-economic policies. The 1990s saw the announcement of the treaty of African Economic Unity (the Abuja Treaty), and finally the birth, in 2001, of the African Union and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development. The international financial institutions ignore the African initiatives when they do not reflect their own initiatives. The help given to the New Partnership shows its neoliberal orientation. Elaborated by four African Heads of State without consultation with their population and institutions, it risks delivering a new instrument into the hands of the financial institutions and the multinationals to perpetuate their control over the African economies and macro-economic policies

Against South Africa’s corporate-neoliberal, sub-imperial expansion, Amin repeatedly argued on behalf of anti-imperialist alliances, such as in a 2016 book, The Long Term Prospects of the Arab World:

A new path of development, the only guarantee of social justice claimed by the vast majority of people, is excluded in the current economic model and is synonymous with a rupture with economic liberalism. And because this option comes into open conflict with the logic of the global system dominated by the imperialist powers, the assertion of national independence, in turn, is the condition for progress in this direction. It is therefore necessary to relinquish the exploration of ‘friendship’ with the United States and Europe, to give up seeking their ‘economic aid,’ to revive the spirit of Bandung, to open negotiations with China and the BRICS, and to flesh out the prospect of rebuilding a front of the South” (Amin 2016, 71).

But Amin (2016, 71) was already aware of the BRICS’ limitations, asking poignantly,

Could a project of this kind be implemented from above by national powers? This was the case in the era of Bandung and of national popular but undemocratic projects of that era (1955-1980). But today a replay of those projects seems hard to imagine because the new ruling classes, shaped and enriched by their adherence to the liberal globalisation established over four decades, aspire only to maintain the system from which they benefit.”

In a 2015 Monthly Review essay, Amin (2015) confirmed his negative impression:

The ongoing offensive of United States-Europe-Japan collective imperialism against all the peoples of the South walks on two legs: the economic leg – globalised neoliberalism forced as the exclusive possible economic policy; and the political leg — continuous interventions including pre-emptive wars against those who reject imperialist interventions. In response, some countries of the South, such as the BRICS, at best walk on only one leg: they reject the geopolitics of imperialism but accept economic neoliberalism.”

In a follow-up, he critiqued the BRICS because economically, “success is primarily defined in terms of the neoliberal ideology, as an example of the success of ‘happy globalisation’” (Amin 2016c, 138). Others have the same impression. For Tanzanian Marxist Issa Shivji (2019, 266-67), the initial political-economic projects of ‘Bandung and Pan-Africanism’ were

led by the bourgeois tendency that sought to install an auto-centric capitalist accumulation within their countries and nations. This proved to be its failure as peoples’ projects. The bourgeoisies in Asia and the proto-bourgeoisies, private or state, in Africa were eventually compradorised, thus yielding BRICS and NEPAD – integrationist projects par excellence. The auto-centric tendency of accumulation was subverted… BRICS and NEPAD are symptomatic of the integrationist path based on hubs and hinterland.”

Given the settler-colonial character of NEPAD’s main beneficiaries (top managers and shareholders) within South African capital, Darlene Ajeet Miller (2004, 197) asked poignantly,

Is post-Apartheid South Africa the architect of a new regional racism? Racism has its geographies, both inside countries and between countries of the region and the continent, between weaker and stronger nations. If the South African Renaissance is led by this kind of white naivete that has no conception of an African past, we are brewing a lethal regional cocktail.”

One reason, she suggests, is that

NEPAD and South African capital have an ideological convergence: the progam and material practice form part of a neo-liberal Africanist appropriation of Africa in the 1990s. Geography and politics are brought together in an attempt to discipline Africa into neo-liberal global capitalism. The ideological commonality in NEPAD and South African investment in Africa is a newly-fashioned, neo-liberal Africanism.”

But sometimes, as well, BRICS countries do accept the geopolitics of imperialism, as pointed out by Amin’s close colleague Sam Moyo, writing in 2011 (with Paris Yeros): “in the case of South Africa, it is increasingly difficult to speak of an autonomous domestic bourgeoisie, given the extreme degree of de-nationalisation of its economy, post-apartheid. The degree of participation in the Western military project is also different from one case to the next although, one might say, there is a ‘schizophrenia’ to all this, typical of ‘sub-imperialism’” (Moyo and Yeros 2011, 19).

While the post-apartheid SA National Defense Force had certainly engaged in sub-imperial militarism on behalf of both imperial and South African economic interests (especially if these involved the ruling party’s crony capitalists) in Lesotho (1998), Central African Republic (2012-13) and eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (2013-present), the most striking case was Pretoria’s role in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique from 2021. At the behest of French President Emmanuel Macron and backed by the Pentagon’s Africa Command, more than 1200 South African troops were deployed to protect TotalEnergies’ $20 billion ‘blood methane’ facility against an Islamic insurgency, as Total, ExxonMobil, ENI and China National Petroleum Corporation attempt to drill the world’s third-largest gas field. Other crucial mercenary forces supplying sub-imperial military support to the Western fossil fuel project in Cabo Delgado are the Johannesburg-based Paramount Group, and its predecessors the Dyck Advisory Group (based in the Western Cape). Dyck had taken over in 2020 from Russia’s Wagner Group following the latter’s defeat in several fatal skirmishes with rebels (Bond 2022).

One might add the persistent Sino-Indian border skirmishes that have prevented Narendra Modi joining Xi Jinping’s Belt & Road Initiative, as well as intensely nationalist Sinophobia in India and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue ‘Quad’ military partnership between India and the United States, United Kingdom and Australia against China. Also, while on the one hand, Iran – one of Washington’s most durable enemies – was invited to join the BRICS+ at the Johannesburg Summit in August 2023, on the other hand, three of the other BRICS+ additions remain close military allies of the United States: Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. That grouping of the three main sub-imperial Middle Eastern Arab powers plus India have recently favored what is termed ‘normalisation’ of Israeli apartheid – through the Abraham Accords which evaporate Palestinian interests – and moreover, Ethiopia was compelled to join Washington’s geopolitical alliance with Israel when (like India) it abstained on an October 27 2023 UN General Assembly vote for “an immediate, durable and sustained humanitarian truce leading to a cessation of hostilities” in Gaza (a resolution the other 9 BRICS+ countries supported).

And in another BRICS-schizophrenic conflict, Ethiopian migrant workers and refugees crossing the border to Saudi Arabia from Yemen were murdered by the hundreds by Saudi border guards, according to an August 2023 Human Rights Watch (2023) report. Traditionally, the armies of Ethiopia and Argentina also have long-standing Pentagon relations, although there have been recent strains. (Argentine 2023 presidential candidate – the frontrunner in August-October – Javier Gerardo Milei promised to not only pull out of the BRICS but to dollarise the local currency.)

The overarching concern of Washington has been the potential for a major geopolitical bloc to emerge around Xi and especially Vladimir Putin, including BRICS allies South Africa and Brazil, yet the Johannesburg summit did not push that agenda in any obvious way, and Putin was compelled to stay in Moscow because of the International Criminal Court warrant. The BRICS (2023) Johannesburg Declaration did indeed confirm the location of BRICS squarely within imperialism’s multilateral institutions, with explicitly-stated support for the:

rules-based multilateral trading system with the World Trade Organisation WTO
World Trade Organisation
The WTO, founded on 1st January 1995, replaced the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT). The main innovation is that the WTO enjoys the status of an international organization. Its role is to ensure that no member States adopt any kind of protectionism whatsoever, in order to accelerate the liberalization global trading and to facilitate the strategies of the multinationals. It has an international court (the Dispute Settlement Body) which judges any alleged violations of its founding text drawn up in Marrakesh.

(WTO) at its core... a market-oriented agricultural trading system... a robust Global Financial Safety Net with a quota-based and adequately resourced IMF at its center… [with] increases in the quota shares of emerging markets and developing economies (EMDCs)… including in leadership positions in the Bretton Woods institutions… global consensus on economic policies… the importance of the G20 G20 The Group of Twenty (G20 or G-20) is a group made up of nineteen countries and the European Union whose ministers, central-bank directors and heads of state meet regularly. It was created in 1999 after the series of financial crises in the 1990s. Its aim is to encourage international consultation on the principle of broadening dialogue in keeping with the growing economic importance of a certain number of countries. Its members are Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, Italy, India, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, USA, UK and the European Union (represented by the presidents of the Council and of the European Central Bank). to continue playing the role of the premier multilateral forum in the field of international economic and financial cooperation… We note the opportunities to build sustained momentum for change by India, Brazil and South Africa presiding over the G20 from 2023 to 2025

The simple message here, is that instead of overturning the high table of Western economic power, the bloc is intent on stabilizing and relegitimizing that ‘rules-based order’ – in spite of a glaring contradiction, namely that its underlying ideology, the Washington Consensus, has caused so much suffering in so many low-income BRICS communities. This obeisance is not unusual, because since 2008 when the G20 was founded, the BRICS have served as the West’s financial and multilateral-policy backstop. It is in such global-scale settings – and in Western+BRICS corporations’ foreign direct investments in poor countries – that imperialist and sub-imperialist interests tend to fuse.

Beyond participation in neoliberal multilateral institutions, in the five years after Amin’s 2018 death there were many ways that the BRICS sub-imperial project played out, which he would have found familiar. BRICS directors and staff have had entirely uncritical participation in the International Monetary Fund (without any appearance by the BRICS’ Contingent Reserve Arrangement) and the World Bank (with a BRICS New Development Bank indistinguishable from orthodox institutions except for more blatant corruption). That role included not only generous recapitalisation (at the expense of poor countries’ voting share) but regular support for their U.S. and European leaders. BRICS delegates even voted for the climate-denialist Sinophobe David Malpass, appointed to run the World Bank in 2019 by Donald Trump, as well as for IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde in 2011 and again in 2015, although she was at the time facing prosecution for political corruption during her time French Finance Minister, for which she was ultimately convicted in 2016.

As for the BRICS Bank, the main 2023 controversy surrounded the need to increase local-currency lending – because its President Dilma Rousseff confirmed a rise from 22 to 30 percent of its asset Asset Something belonging to an individual or a business that has value or the power to earn money (FT). The opposite of assets are liabilities, that is the part of the balance sheet reflecting a company’s resources (the capital contributed by the partners, provisions for contingencies and charges, as well as the outstanding debts). base in non-dollar or euro currencies by 2030, a revealingly unambitious objective. The BRICS Bank agreed to Western financial sanctions against Russia (a 19 percent owner) in 2022 due to its fear of the New York credit ratings agencies’ downgrade, bragging that Moscow loans represented less than 7 percent of the bank’s assets. The ongoing role of BRICS in United Nations climate summits fuses tightly with that of the West, insofar as adequate emissions cuts and acknowledgement of ‘climate debt’ liabilities Liabilities The part of the balance-sheet that comprises the resources available to a company (equity provided by the partners, provisions for risks and charges, debts). to the rest of the world are both rejected by imperial and sub-imperial climate powers. Numerous other instances of anti-imperialist rhetoric contradicted by sub-imperial practice suggest that the formulation of semi-peripheral capital’s joint super-exploitation and expansion, notwithstanding occasional ‘antagonistic’ forms of cooperation with imperialism – formulated by Marini and given African expression by Amin – remains valid (Samson 2009, Bond 2023).

Conclusion: Delinking advice for and from South Africa’s avant garde internationalist activists

Notwithstanding adverse conditions, opposition is possible, and through South African allies Dot Keet, Martin Legassick, Oupa Lehulere, Hein Marais, Vishwas Satgar, Ari Sitas, Langa Zita (1999), Vishwas Satgar, myself and a few others who kept Amin regularly informed about South African politics, he drew critical conclusions (e.g. when interviewed in Satgar and Zita 2009). His initial hope was for the South African Communist Party to advance post-apartheid liberation, in part as a result of his respect for the internal-colonialism critiques of the early 1960s, updated in the early 1970s with Wolpe’s theorizing of articulations of modes of production. As Amin (2010, 87) put it,

The case of South Africa is especially interesting from the point of view of the effects of colonialism on political culture. It is not only that here, internal colonisation was bluntly visible, even to blind people. It is also because communists in that country had been able to draw from the situation a lucid analysis of actually-existing capitalism… That fact certainly contributed to giving South African communists the clairvoyance which was theirs. That political culture has died out today, not only in South Africa, with the (belated) adhesion of the CP to the commonplace thesis of ‘racism’ (which gives the status of a cause to what is a mere effect); but also at global level, with the adhesion of the majority of communists to social democracy.”

One reason, remarks Salima Valiani (2021, 572) in a review of Amin’s influence, is that the South African Communist Party’s (SACP’s) reversion to its ‘two-stage’ approach to overturning capitalism (first, national liberation, and then far off in the future, socialism) led, in turn, to the party’s “support for post-apartheid policies and state facilitation of the enrichment of Black capitalists.”

But ideology was also vital, and Sitas (2023) recalls how a left network of economists advizing the ANC in the early 1990s, the MacroEconomic Research Group (led by London-based SACP economist Vella Pillay), had spurned Amin: “I linked him up with the Merg posse and whoever had a Marxist training. No one was ready to work with him as they were confident of the new non-delinking politics of the ANC.” (Merg was from late 1993 famously spurned by the ANC as the liberation movement shifted far to the right on economic policy as it prepared to take power.)

Another early-1990s facilitator of links to the South African independent left, recalls Marais (2023), was Montreal-based internationalist Pierre Beaudet. But the disdain for Amin’s agenda was one of the core features of the post-1994 ruling party’s ex-radicals as they attained state power (Bond 2014).

From a very different tradition, more consistent with Jaffe’s revolutionary Non-European Unity Movement and perpetually far from power, Keet (2005) – who was based at the University of the Western Cape and Alternative Information and Development Centre (AIDC) from 1993-2015 – argued for ‘delinking,’ a long-standing theme of Amin’s. AIDC campaigned alongside Cape Town’s Anglican Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane and Amin’s friend Dennis Brutus, for example, to advocate repudiation of the $25 billion apartheid-era foreign debt.

For Keet, an internally-oriented regionalism would logically “challenge and effect changes in what is perceived to be a dangerously polarizing and divisive global system.” Her aim was an Africa-wide

partial/tactical withdrawal from a hostile international system, to enable weaker ‘peripheral’ economies to escape the effects of exploitative ‘core’ capitalism. In the era of a so-called ‘single integrated global economy’ ... the strategic aims in this proactive approach, through regionalisation, to the current mode(s) of globalisation are: the defence of economic, social and cultural pluralism, the (re)creation of economic diversity and revived independence with/in fundamental inter-dependence, and South–South and South–North co-operation based on common interests” (Keet 2005).

Facilitated by Marais (2023), Amin’s (1993) early advice to South African civil-society radicals (in their main journal Work in Progress) was along these lines:

We have to be clear about the goals. Should it be to become a competitive exporter as rapidly as possible? I think not. Rather, it should be to achieve the changes associated with redistribution of income: more popular consumption items, greater capacity to establish better productive systems in the rural areas, to meet popular needs in housing and the like, and less wasteful consumption by the minority ... Until then, the political economy of genuine democratisation implies what one might call ‘delinking’, turning the economy inward to ensure that the democratisation process is thoroughgoing and not just cosmetic” (Amin, 1993).

The response of ANC leaders was to simply ignore this advice (and by late 1993 to take on an IMF loan replete with conditionality), although Vishnu Padayachee (1994, 516) – later a South African Reserve Bank director – did note Amin’s warning:

While I do not agree with Amin’s strategy of delinking (except perhaps as a temporary measure) his general point about the dangers inherent in a neoliberal development strategy of the kind favored by the IMF for both economic reconstruction and effective political democracy, is very important indeed. Chillingly, Amin reminds us that typical Fund and Bank solutions (wage restraint, liberalizing trade and capital movements, privatisation, deregulation etc) and federal political solutions (which have the effect of constraining a government’s attempts at redistributing income and investment from a national level, and which will as a result ensure the continued existence of ’rich and poor’ regions), were the very ingredients of the economic and political reform progam of the former Yugoslavia in the 1980s. It was a progam which the international financial institutions loudly praised at the time.”

In spite of policy-makers’ shunning of delinking during the cosmetic transition from apartheid, Amin was regularly pleased by the concrete work of South African activists, who short of effecting change in economic policy, nevertheless engaged in delinking principles, analyses, strategies, tactics and alliances. After all, it was the initial successful BDS approach called for by South Africa’s liberation movements – exiled and internal alike – and solidarity allies that weakened white English-speaking capital so much in 1985, as argued above, that the transition to democracy became irreversible.

Not all Amin’s advice was welcome, though. In a mid-2006 vizit to the Durban-hosted World Sociological Conference, Amin promoted the ‘Bamako Appeal’ manifesto that in February that year he co-authored at the World Social Forum. In Durban, he encountered some of South Africa’s more critical ‘autonomist’-oriented scholar-activists – Franco Barchiesi, Heinrich Bohmke, Prishani Naidoo and Ahmed Veriava – who presented a “Bamako Does Not Appeal” rebuttal in a panel discussion at the University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society (CCS), and fierce disagreements arose (Sen et al 2007, Bond 2019). (Other contributions to the heated debate were generated by Kolya Abramsky, Michael Albert, Peter Custers, Dorothea Haerlin, Peter Marcuse, Steve Martinot, Antonio Martins, Chico Whitaker, Sergio Haddad, Francine Mestrum, Geoffrey Pleyers, Ruby van der Wekken, Peter Waterman, Teivo Teivainen, Ruth Reitan, Tord Bjork and Marko Ulvila, in Sen et al 2007.)

Unfazed, in April 2008 during discussions with ActionAid and the CCS, Amin (2008) was welcomed when he gave explicit advice about the ways radical social movements could confront the emerging global capitalist crisis, worth citing at length:

We need a positive social alternative – a stage in the long wave to a global socialist alternative. This is the challenge that the movements are facing now. ActionAid plays a very crucial role in that. Other movements are connected to the World Forum for Alternatives. This is the challenge: A united front against global capitalism… The Chinese are more economically aggressive, moving into markets previously controlled by imperialism. Internal contradictions exist within China, so a new phase of history is possible – better than the previous one, with social compromises that benefit the working classes, and a changing balance Balance End of year statement of a company’s assets (what the company possesses) and liabilities (what it owes). In other words, the assets provide information about how the funds collected by the company have been used; and the liabilities, about the origins of those funds. of forces… We must get rid of the idea that China gives us, that there is a national capitalist strategy – an illusion which is very strong in Third World ruling classes, including South Africa… we can imagine alternative historical blocks, for the majority of the Third World: anti-comprador. Now we have the ruling of the comprador class. Their interests are associated with the continuation of inequality. We have comprador ruling classes; we need anti-comprador ruling blocks. This has started in Latin America in spite of contradictions. What interests will be represented in these alternative historical blocks? Working people! Either organised, or unorganised informal sector, and the peasantry. We must recognise that there should not be a single party; it must be an alliance of alternative, autonomous social forces, coming together in a party. It should recognise the diversity of interests, which combines a progam to move ahead. That means it will be a progressive – not ‘socialist’ – political force, fighting the comprador in alliance with dominant capitalism. As for the external dimension, we must go out of global imperialist patterns of globalisation. In my language that means delinking. That means not submitting to the global system. You should not adjust to the dictatorship of the market. Top priority should be given to internal progressive changes, and submit the external to the internal logic of progressive change. The breakdown of the financial system offers us a beautiful opportunity. There are different forces that will try to capture this movement. One is the national bourgeoisie, e.g. in China. Other national bourgeoisies may try, in Latin America or India. This is one of the possibilities, but built on illusions. The other is that the alternative of delinking could be taken by the progressive block.”

Many independent-left South African activists warmly welcomed these insights. For example, in the post-apartheid era, while the state’s neoliberal economic policy-makers desired a relinking of South African capitalism with imperialism, the most spectacular delinking movement was in 1999-2004, when the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and Congress of South African Trade Unions overturned Mbeki’s AIDS policies, by insisting upon free, state-provided generic (non-branded) and locally-produced anti-retroviral ARV medicines. To delink at least forty million people living with HIV from the clutches of drug companies’ Intellectual Property rights, activists across the world, inspired by TAC, stood up to the Western Big Pharma and their allied governments (including the United States and most Europeans), the World Trade Organisation and its Trade-Related Intellectual Property System, and powerful donors including Bill Gates. Achieving an AIDS-medicine delinking from global corporate rule, the TAC could claim most credit for the resulting rise in life expectancy from 52 to 65 from 2005-19.

There were further successful delinking campaigns against specific multinational-corporate targets in subsequent years:

  • In 2006, Paris-based Suez lost its Johannesburg Water commercialisation deal after sustained protests by the Communities Against Water Privatisation network and Anti-Privatisation Forum, especially in Soweto, and the service was returned to municipal operation (as were others briefly run by Biwater and Veolia).
  • In 2008, as state violence associated with Zimbabwe’s election manipulation intensified, there was a temporarily successful campaign of solidarity activists – led by Catholic Bishop Ruben Philip with backing from the SA Transport and Allied Workers Union, Southern African Litigation Centre and Noseweek magazine – to prevent the Chinese shop An Yue Jiang from unloading 3 million rounds of small arms ammunition and 4000 grenades and mortar rounds at the Durban harbour, destined for Robert Mugabe’s government. (The campaign succeeded in deterring delivery at many ports across the region, although it is not known whether Mugabe finally received the weaponry.)
  • In 2012, General Motors (then emerging from bankruptcy) paid a ‘symbolic’ $1.5 million to 25 plaintiffs represented by Khulumani Support Group, termed by the latter ‘reparations’ for selling vehicles used in assassinations by the pre-1994 white government’s police force. It was part of a larger ‘Jubilee 2000’ campaign for Western firms’ repayment of apartheid-era profits to South African victims. In 2017, GM closed its South African operations.
  • In 2017, amidst widespread ‘Zuma Must Fall’ protests, the London public relations firm Bell Pottinger was pushed into bankruptcy after a global campaign against its South African contract with the corrupt Gupta brothers who had state-captured Jacob Zuma’s government (and who in turn soon fled to Dubai).
  • From 2015-17, the #FeesMustFall movement won free student tuition and expenses for the working class, thanks to two years of vigorous activism, while also promoting decolonial curriculum transformation. This stance in part repelled international educational commerce.
  • In 2020, the World Bank’s main financial-technology subsidiary (22 percent-owned), Cash Paymaster Services (based in London under Net1), which distributed social grants to 17 million South Africans, was forced to declare bankruptcy after a campaign by the welfare-rights NGO Black Sash. Under the rubric of ‘financial inclusion,’ the firm had imposed absurd debit-orders on millions of the poorest South Africans who in the process lost large their monthly grants (e.g. six-year old girls getting microfinance and funeral-insurance contracts). The managers of the grant distribution system were then then ordered by the court to cancel debit orders and switch to the local post office and local banks.
  • In 2020-21, environmental NGOs EarthLife Africa, groundWork and the Centre for Environmental Rights protested two new Limpopo Province coal-fired power plants planned for Thabametsi-Grootegeluk on the Botswana border (initially by the French Suez/Genie company then Tokyo-based Marubeni) and for Makhado not far from the Zimbabwe border (by Shenzhen Hoi Mor from China), on grounds of both local and global (climate) damage. They won both because in the first case, in 2020, local courts ruled against the Japanese; and in the second, Xi Jinping in 2021 imposed investment sanctions on Chinese firms to prohibit further construction of such energy generators abroad.
  • In 2022, activists in the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse won their campaign against Vienna-based Kapsch Trafficom’s irrational e-tolling of SA National Road Agency highways in Gauteng (partly because the tolls were economically biased against distant working-class residential areas).
  • In 2022, climate and environmental justice activists on the Wild Coast protested offshore drilling and won a Makhanda High Court judgement against methane gas exploration by Shell (and its powerful local ally, media/hotel/casino mogul Johnny Copelyn). The judges ruled not only against potential ecocide due to the resulting greenhouse gases, but primarily in favor of maintaining the integrity of the Transkei shoreline and Xhosa traditions, against devastation associated with the global circuit of fossil capital.
  • In 2022, the Climate Justice Charter Movement called for a Western boycott of the pilot Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP) due to the South African government’s ongoing fossil fuel expansion plans, drawing attention to the damaging $8.5 billion in loans and opening the way for further delinking demands in relation to climate finance. Indeed, the JETP will entail Eskom using 44 percent of incoming funding to import methane gas via Western and Chinese Big Oil, including from Cabo Delgado, Mozambique, thanks to SA military protection.

In all these respects, the particular targets for delinking from malevolent corporations lined up with vital international social-resistance trends. While some might potentially be dismissed as ‘silo-based’ and NGO-ised campaigns, they helped to withstand the further sub-imperialist integration of South Africa into world capitalism. So even if there were only very rare alliances made with formal political parties (and if sometimes even the neoliberal oppositional Democratic Alliance gave support to particular struggles), South Africa’s leading civil society activists were teaching the broader society about the merits of delinking, case by case.

These are small-scale examples of what must be done, but perhaps the most substantive single delinking example, in terms of affecting vast flows of capital, was the Chinese state’s imposition of much tighter exchange controls in 2015-16, in the wake of stock market crashes and very high levels of capital flight. Along with the clampdown on Big Data starting in 2018 (initially taking the form of banning Tencent’s Japanese gaming apps, costing the firm – at the time Asia’s largest – more than 30 percent of share value in subsequent months), this regulation and the subsequent outlawing of cybercurrency trade, reflected the potential for national delinking on an incremental basis.

On the other hand, Beijing simultaneously allowed the yuan to become part of the IMF’s basket of reserve currencies and increased its voting share in that institution by 37 percent, and indeed within a year, Xi Jinping (2017) lauded corporate globalisation at the World Economic Forum: “Whether you like it or not, the global economy is the big ocean that you cannot escape from. Any attempt to cut off the flow of capital, technologies, products, industries and people between economies, and channel the waters in the ocean back into isolated lakes and creeks is simply not possible.” Debate emerged within the Chinese ruling class over capital account liberalisation, which Amin (2018b) considered such a threat to the delinking project that, in his final blogspot posting, he dedicated a long essay to warn Beijing, “Remaining out of financial globalisation is an important weapon in your hands; do not offer the weapon to your enemy!”

Finally, reflecting a sense of where the world’s progressive forces should be directing themselves, his final statement to the movements was a “Letter of intent for an inaugural meeting of the International of Workers and Peoples.” This was based upon a valid fear:

Our response as emancipatory movements of the people is not up to the danger. Our struggles are crumbled, fragmented or overly focused on national issues. We have abandoned the goals of global transformation that the World Social Forum presided over with the anti-globalisation movement at its birth… Creating a new Internationale of workers and peoples must be the main objective for the genuine militants who are convinced of the odious nature of the world imperialist capitalist system that we have at present” (Amin 2018c).

Samir Amin (1990, 171) had long hoped for ascending, bottom-up, left-international politics, and even if it would never arrive at a global scale in his lifetime, local manifestations of delinking do move society forward, he insisted in Maldevelopment:

The neo-colonial outcome is no more inevitable that its opposite, the outcome of national liberation of a popular bent and socialist vocation. It will all depend on the strategies of the struggle waged in South Africa. If the strategies have the sole aim of ‘majority rule’ and actively seek negotiations on this basis, the neo-colonial compromise may be achieved sooner than is expected. But if the strategies are based on a deepening of social aims (that is, a struggle for workers’ control over the means of production and a peasant war for reconquest of land), the outcome would certainly be very different. The historical responsibility of the avant gardes lies here.”


Aziz Fall, Vusi Gumede and Darlene Miller gave comradely feedback. A short version of this essay will appear in a South African journal, Politikon.


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Patrick Bond

is professor at the University of Johannesburg Department of Sociology, and co-editor of BRICS and Resistance in Africa (published by Zed Books, 2019).



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