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Series: Adverse International and Local Conditions for Sub-Saharan Africa (Part 4)
Africa’s Renewed Crises of Unbalanced Trade, Disinvestment, Debt
by Eric Toussaint , Patrick Bond , Ishmael Lesufi , Lisa Thompson
29 October 2019

In addition to China, Africa is meant to be one of the most critical markets for South Africa’s SEZs, and attracting other investment, trade and finance to the continent was one justification for entering the BRICS bloc, according to Jacob Zuma and his colleagues.

In 2013, for example, deputy foreign minister Marius Fransman (2013) argued is that “South Africa presents a gateway for investment on the continent, and over the next 10 years the African continent will need $480 billion for infrastructure development… Our presence in BRICS would necessitate us to push for Africa’s integration into world trade.”

Part 1 South African Special Economic Zones : History of Limited Successes

Part 2 Global Economic Volatility and Socio Political Reactions

Part 3 The China Factor

Part 4 Africa’s Renewed Crises of Unbalanced Trade, Disinvestment, Debt

Part 5 Local South African Economic Conditions

Part 6 New Threats, New Resistances and New Alternatives

Africa’s Renewed Economic Crisis

The drive to make Africa more competitive appeared effective during the 2002-11 commodity super-cycle, but since its peak in 2011 and crash in 2014-15, commodity export values ebbed along with aid, foreign investment and remittances. Some of the largest economies in Africa – South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt and Angola – fared very badly in this process, but the fate of Africa’s 32 “Least Developed Countries” (LDCs) is even more revealing, especially in large countries: Angola, DRC, Ethiopia, Senegal, Sudan and Tanzania. At the end of the commodity price rise, African LDCs’ terms of trade plateaued in 2011-14 before suffering a substantial drop. Export revenue from these countries peaked at levels 360 percent higher than in 2000. But imports continued rising to 570 percent of the 2000 level by 2014.

As a result, Sub-Saharan Africa’s current account balance – incorporating both the trade deficit and outflows of interest, profits and dividends – fell to negative $55 billion per annum. Incoming flows of overseas development aid (ODA), remittances from workers and new foreign direct investment (FDI) declined in absolute and relative terms. African LDCs were hardest hit of all poor countries in these categories (Unctad 2018, 2). All LDCs witnessed a decline in export revenues, from $255 billion in 2014 to $190 billion in 2016 due to “weak global demand and low commodity prices.” Moreover there was a 13 percent decline in FDI inflows to LDCs from 2015-16, and total North-South ODA disbursement of just $43 billion in 2016, far below the UN Sustainable Development Goal target range of $75-96 billion.

Adding to Africa’s 31 poorest countries the other 17 in Sub-Saharan Africa reveals even gloomier estimates of looting. The London-based campaigning NGO Global Justice Now and its allies estimate that exploitative economic processes – not including the $100+ billion in resource depletion – were responsible in 2015 for a net outflow of $41.3 billion. According to their report, “African countries received $161.6 billion in 2015 – mainly in loans, personal remittances and aid in the form of grants” (Curtis 2017). Against that, outflows that year amounted to $203 billion, including $68 billion in illicit financial flows (TNCs “deliberately misreporting the value of their imports or exports to reduce tax”), $32 billion in repatriation of profits and dividends (licit financial outflows), and $18 billion in debt servicing. Curtis (2017) also recommends adding other costs imposed on Africa: $37 billion in damages related to climate change; and $29 billion in illegal logging, fishing and trading in wildlife and plants. The net negative $41 billion in 2015 would have been much larger were it not for the dramatic commodity price decline in 2014-15.

The 2014-15 crash decimated not just Africans, but also many foreign investors in Africa. Platinum mining house Lonmin’s London listing had peaked at a value of $28.6 billion in 2007 and then fell 99.4 percent to a near-bankruptcy level of $172 million in late 2015, before a fire-sale to a Johannesburg firm at the end of 2017 for $383 million. Anglo American’s share value fell 93.6 percent from a 2008 peak to 2016 trough, and the world’s largest commodity trader, Glencore, fell 86 percent from a 2011 high to its 2016 low (Bond 2017).

Africa’s LDCs in 2018 are Angola, Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Central African Republic, Chad, Comoros, DRC, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Lesotho, Liberia, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Mozambique, Niger, Rwanda, Sao Tome and Principe, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Togo, Uganda, United Republic of Tanzania and Zambia.

From mid-2016, commodity prices then rose slightly, but this made little difference to macro-economic balances by early 2018, when the ordinarily upbeat African Economic Outlook issued by the African Development Bank (2018) (AfDB) admitted that current account ratios “are not sufficiently robust; dollar interest rates are expected to edge up, bidding up the cost of capital; and external debt ratios have begun to rise across the region.” To repay debt and TNC dividend and profit outflows requires a steady inflow of hard-currency investments, including FDI, portfolio investment, remittances, official development assistance, and external debt. The AfDB (2018) continued,

Unsustainable current account deficits are an indicator of a poor state of the economy. They discourage foreign investors from holding assets denominated in African currencies. Large current account deficits also increase the probability of a currency crisis. They lead to the accumulation of foreign debt, which has to be repaid at some point, triggering expectations by domestic investors of higher taxes to service and repay the debt.

Sub-Saharan Africa’s external debt was in the $170–210 billion range from 1995 to 2005, at which point the Highly Indebted Poor Countries initiative returned the high stock of debt to more sustainable levels by writing off unrepayable debt, albeit with sometimes extreme conditionality. However, the IMF compelled Africa’s lowest income countries to increase their rate of debt payment in the period immediately after the 2006 debt relief. Then came a slew of Chinese loans worth at minimum $86 billion from 2000-15; a third of these were collateralized by commodities. By 2015 Sub Saharan African debt had reached nearly $400 billion. Adding North Africa, the Economist Intelligence Unit counts $560 billion in foreign debt for the continent as a whole, up from $240 billion in 2006.

In addition to Beijing’s credits, there were also numerous Eurobonds subscribed by private investors that represented a substantial share (percent) of the total public debt stock in some countries: Gabon (48), Namibia (32), Côte d’Ivoire (26), Zambia (24), Ghana (16), Senegal (15), and Rwanda (13). Africa’s oil-based economies witnessed an increase in debt servicing from an average of 8 percent of revenues in 2013 to 57 percent in 2016, led by Nigeria (66 percent) and Angola (60 percent). The continent’s most relatively indebted countries to foreign lenders are Mozambique (79 percent external debt to GDP ratio), Zimbabwe (77 percent), Mauritania (76 percent), Djibouti (71 percent), Namibia (64 percent), The Gambia (61 percent), Tunisia (56 percent) and South Africa (49 percent). Not including Mauritius – due to its complicated status as a tax haven – the highest level of African foreign debt is owed by South Africa: $163 billion in late 2017 (up from $25 billion in 1994) followed by Egypt ($80 billion), Sudan ($45 billion) and Angola ($45 billion).

By 2014, the danger of such high foreign debt was already a source of concern to The Economist (2014):
The continent has been deep in debt before, and is in danger of a rerun… This time is different – and could be worse. Africa used to borrow from official lenders: governments, the World Bank, the African Development Bank and the IMF. Today most of its borrowing is from private sources. Government loans and “assistance” are out of fashion. Instead it is private investors that are betting on Africa’s future ability to pay, with bond funds, private-equity and individual investors (including African ones) buying government debt… If governments get into trouble and need to reschedule their debts or borrow more even while they pay less, official lenders typically oblige. Private lenders are less forgiving.

Though more than 70 percent of Africa’s foreign debt is privately sourced, one public lender – Beijing – may also be unforgiving, if the warnings of ideologically-conservative critics are to be taken seriously. From Texas, the private intelligence agency Stratfor (2018) issued a warning about Chinese financial geopolitics. Given that African state debt “has increased markedly since the 2008 financial crisis… widespread default could create opportunities for outside powers that covet the region’s natural resources.” As Stratfor notes,

China has used a form of financing that functions like a bartering system: In return for investment capital and infrastructure development projects, some sub-Saharan African countries grant China resource concessions. (Such was the case with the Sicomines copper project in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in various oil projects in Angola.) The arrangements differ. Sometimes Chinese entities take an ownership stake in the newly constructed infrastructure project. Sometimes loans are secured against resources as a form of collateral. Sometimes debt service is paid in resources instead of money.

But just because a loan is backed with an asset – in this case, commodities – doesn’t mean loans can’t turn sour if the borrower struggles to extract or sell enough of its natural resource to service the debt. These terms can also leave the borrowing country with little left over from their commodity production to generate their own revenue. Angola and Congo have both encountered this problem. Africa is a minor player in geopolitics. Unfortunate as it may sound, its relevance stems from how stronger countries interact with it and manipulate it. So while its current indebtedness may not shape the course of international affairs directly, it may, in fact, benefit China. Defaulting on their debt would cause foreign investment to dry up. China’s willingness to accept repayment in commodities would leave it as one of the few remaining options for countries struggling to build infrastructure. Beijing could, therefore, drive as hard a bargain as it wanted. China will continue to mine Africa for its resource needs. The only thing that will constrain its behavior in that regard is its own capital needs.

One key testing ground for whether this strategy will be useful for China is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), not only because of enthusiasm that a renewed construction boom similar to the 2009-13 urban and transport construction boom, will revive demand for raw materials. There is also the matter of rising debt levels in the recipient countries, such as Kenya where the Mombasa-Nairobi rail line financed and built by the Chinese has already added a crippling debt load. Likewise, the BRI is extremely unpopular with Indian elites, who view China’s Kashmir rail, pipeline and road corridor through Pakistan on land Indians believe is theirs. Critiques of Chinese “creditor imperialism” made by Brahma Chellaney (2017) of the Delhi-based Center for Policy Research are hard hitting:

Just as European imperial powers employed gunboat diplomacy, China is using sovereign debt to bend other states to its will… As [the bankrupt Sri Lankan port of] Hambantota shows, China is now establishing its own Hong Kong-style neo-colonial arrangements. Like the opium the British exported to China, the easy loans China offers are addictive. And, because China chooses its projects according to their long-term strategic value, they may yield short-term returns that are insufficient for countries to repay their debts… China can force borrowers to swap debt for equity, thereby expanding China’s global footprint by trapping a growing number of countries in debt servitude… Kenya’s crushing debt to China now threatens to turn its busy port of Mombasa – the gateway to East Africa – into another Hambantota.

Like the 1980s when Western loans were the source of a debt crisis catalysed by a massive US interest rate increase, this debt allows its holders to gain substantial power. But like the 1980s, social tensions will also rise, as discussed below. As Stratfor (2018) warns, “A debt crisis would have social implications that would make doing business extremely difficult, limiting the upside to China and decreasing the likelihood of other powers opting to compete with it.”

Artistic impression of the Musina EMSEZ

The Rise of Protest as an Economic Phenomenon

The ‘social implications’ are already very visible across Africa, dating to the era of ‘IMF Riots’ in the 1980s-90s, and perhaps starting most forcefully in the recent era in Tunisia, in December 2010, sparked by Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation. Tension associated with neoliberal policies including the cutting of corporate tax rates and application of a more ‘broadly-based’ Value Added Tax, both compelled by the IMF that year, as its managing director praised the Ben Ali regime as an ideal type for the Third World (Bond 2011).

These policies, coming just as the commodity supercycle hit its peak, contributed to Tunisia’s explosion. This was an early part of the process which can be considered ‘Africans Uprising’ against the ‘Africa Rising’ meme and all that it represented in the 2002-14 era and after. The protests rose in spite of durable military battles underway, as well as extreme forms of violence against civilians, such as in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) elsewhere.

Africa’s Battle, Repression and Protests, 2009-2018

Source: Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED) (2019).

To measure such uprisings, the University of Sussex ‘Armed Conflict Location and Event Data’ (ACLED) project has gathered media-based data. The project provides temporally- and spatially-sensitive statistics and maps that reveal where both unrest and repression have occurred, over a two decade-long period. There were, in at least a third of Africa’s countries, moments (or series of moments) where at least once, the peak of either category – top-down repression or bottom-up resistance – occurred more than 50 times within a single month. Alphabetically, the 18 countries are Algeria, Burundi, Central African Republic, Cote d’Ivoire Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Libya, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Africa, South Sudan, Sudan, Tunisia, Uganda and Zimbabwe. Indeed eight of them witnessed extremely high social-dissent peaks in the period 1998-2018, in which at least 100 riots or protests occurred in the course of a single month: Egypt: 250 in early 2013; Burundi: 180 in mid-2015; Tunisia: 175 in early 2011; South Africa: 170 in early 2017; Ethiopia: 160 in early 2016; Kenya: 140 in late 2017; Nigeria: 110 in early 2015; and Algeria: 100 in early 2011 (Bond 2019).

Africa’s Incidents of Fatalities, Repression and Protest, 2013-18

Source: ACLED (2019).

Tunisia, Egypt and other countries generated such intense revolutionary bursts of energy because their independent labour movements were also ascendant.
Notwithstanding extreme unevenness across and within the continent’s trade unions, Africa is ripe for a renewed focus on class struggle. The socio-economic conditions continue to deteriorate, the World Economic Forum’s (WEF’s) annual Global Competitiveness Reports – an annual survey of 14 000 business executives in 138 countries – have ranked the continent’s workers as the least cooperative on earth. In 2016, workforces from South Africa (the world’s most militant every year since 2012). Chad, Tunisia, Liberia, Mozambique, Morocco, Lesotho, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Algeria and Burundi were in the top 25 most confrontational proletariats (WEF, 2016) (while the most cooperative workers are in Norway, Switzerland, Singapore, Denmark and Sweden).

This is the context on the continent, mixing a new round of economic crisis and much greater political turbulence which together, leaves us to doubt Africa’s potential as a market for South African SEZs. A great deal more could be said about the high level of popular resentment against South African firms and products on the continent, in part because of their very bad behavior (Bond 2018) as well as because of the implications of South African working class xenophobia. In 2015, for example, South African corporate branch offices (as well as SA embassies) were targeted for protests in several countries on the continent. There is always hype about how South Africa is a genuine contributor to Africa’s development, but the many ways in which South Africa helps to underdevelop the continent reflects the extreme inequalities between those exercising power within the centre of the world economy and their African allies in Johannesburg and Cape Town, on the one hand, and the rest of Africa on the other. Just as severe conditions of inequality exist within South Africa, conditions which are the result of neoliberal public policy, suggesting that a different approach is vital.

Labour Militancy of Working Classes, Measured by Reputation Among Corporations

Source: World Economic Forum 2016

Source : Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Policy Paper #1/2 on South Africa’s Special Economic Zones in Global Context September 2019 By Eric Toussaint, Ishmael Lesufi, Lisa Thompson and Patrick Bond

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Eric Toussaint

is a historian and political scientist who completed his Ph.D. at the universities of Paris VIII and Liège, is the spokesperson of the CADTM International, and sits on the Scientific Council of ATTAC France.
He is the author of Greece 2015: there was an alternative. London: Resistance Books / IIRE / CADTM, 2020 , Debt System (Haymarket books, Chicago, 2019), Bankocracy (2015); The Life and Crimes of an Exemplary Man (2014); Glance in the Rear View Mirror. Neoliberal Ideology From its Origins to the Present, Haymarket books, Chicago, 2012, etc.
See his bibliography:
He co-authored World debt figures 2015 with Pierre Gottiniaux, Daniel Munevar and Antonio Sanabria (2015); and with Damien Millet Debt, the IMF, and the World Bank: Sixty Questions, Sixty Answers, Monthly Review Books, New York, 2010. He was the scientific coordinator of the Greek Truth Commission on Public Debt from April 2015 to November 2015.

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).

Ishmael Lesufi
Lisa Thompson