A history of plunder and struggle in Africa

July 4, 2018

Jonathan Ellis reviews Extracting Profit, a new book by an SW contributor that traces how colonialism and imperialism have scarred Africa over the centuries.

WESTERN ANALYSTS often point to “corruption,” “bad governance” or a “lack of democracy” for Africa’s problems.

But in Extracting Profit: Imperialism, Neoliberalism and the New Scramble for Africa, Lee Wengraf gives a thorough analysis of what has and is happening on the African continent — providing a rich theoretical, historical and political framework for understanding the exploitation of Africa and its resources.

Wengraf begins with early capitalism and its use of enslaved African labor for the primitive accumulation of capital. This labor, along with the colonization of Indigenous lands, put European powers at great economic, political and advantage in the world.

In a quote from Capital excerpted in the book, Karl Marx connects the origin of modern capitalism with the transatlantic slave trade:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalized the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation.

Workers take part in mass demonstrations in Burkina Faso during the 2014 Burkinabé uprising
Workers take part in mass demonstrations in Burkina Faso during the 2014 Burkinabé uprising

To understand Africa’s current place in the global capitalist system, one must understand the tragedy of the transatlantic slave trade and the subsequent colonization of Africa.


EXTRACTING PROFIT connects the legacy of colonialism with the current socio-political landscape. In this context, finger-wagging about human rights violations and corruption in Africa from politicians like Barack Obama becomes disingenuous.

This victim-blaming narrative detaches any analysis of African politics and economics from the global system of capitalism and seeks to minimize the legacy of colonial oppression.

Wengraf explains how the institutions set up by colonial powers thwarted real change in many countries after they won independence. Financial dependence, anti-democratic structures, and sectarian and tribal conflicts have plagued many African countries since formal independence.

Some independence leaders sought to maintain ties to European powers while others aligned themselves with the former USSR or the Non-Aligned Movement. While the Soviet Union, as well as China, provided crucial resources for African anti-colonial and independence movements, they also provided cover for brutal regimes.

Many African socialists attempted to skirt around capitalist development by following a state capitalist-led development model that was often confused for socialism. They looked to the USSR and China, and adopted similar models, but ran into problems due to underdevelopment, changing international capitalism and the past legacies of colonialism.

Many African states were dependent on single or limited exports on the world market, and with the rise of neoliberalism, they found themselves mired in debt. Former “socialists” and “Marxist-Leninist” governments became capitalist overnight.

The legacy of such experiments, Wengraf writes, “has proven decisively that the notion of socialism in one country is a myth, and the enduring relevance of the idea of permanent revolution as a vision of internationalism.”


THE WESTERN press has commented extensively on the competition between China and the U.S. on the African continent.

But all the hue and cry of Western capitalists about Chinese exploitation of African resources is hypocritical. The West hasn’t aided development in Africa. On the contrary, it has supported or looked the other way as various leaders have sucked resources dry.

At the same time, China as a rising capitalist power seeks to exploit and extract profit in Africa. African countries may be getting better deals from China than Western countries, but Chinese capitalism isn’t benign or equitable.

Africa Command, or AFRICOM, represents a rise in the militaristic aspect of U.S. imperialism in Africa. In the context of the “war on terror” and competition over crucial resources, AFRICOM allows for the U.S. to have justifications for intervention in a post-Cold War world.

“Humanitarian intervention” is another marketing tool of U.S. imperialism. As Extracting Profit explains, the real intention of U.S. intervention is “energy security,” maintaining access to resources, and putting down movements that may get in the way of those resources.

U.S. intervention in Somalia, for example, proved to be a disaster, and support for the Rwandan Patriotic Front didn’t help stop bloodshed or stop the genocide. U.S. allies in Africa continue to be just as repressive and brutal as many of “our enemies,” but this is hidden in the rhetoric of “democracy,” “human rights” or “humanitarian intervention.”

The Congo is probably the most egregious example of how capitalism and imperialism has plundered Africa. Multiple civil wars, poverty and resource plundering has plagued Congo since its independence.

Institutions like the International Monetary Fund have loaded African countries with debt, giving them no other recourse to pay their debts other than to slash budgets. The slashing of necessary resources like education, health care and other services has meant immense poverty for the most vulnerable.


EXTRACTING PROFIT also argues that, contrary to those who downplay or reject the idea of the African working class as leaders in the struggle, history as well as current social movements prove the opposite.

Throughout history, many have underestimated the power of the African working class, and seen other classes as leaders of revolution. Wengraf cuts against this idea. The African working class has been key in anti-colonial revolutions and in modern-day social movements.

In South Africa, the anti-apartheid movement inspired millions around the world, and the election of Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) in 1994 raised expectations about what was possible.

Decades later, the Marikana massacre, in which striking miners were shot down by South African police in 2012, exposed the ANC government as not being an ally of the working class.

The legacy of the ANC as anti-apartheid and anti-colonial leader has been brought into question after its ascent to power and assimilation into the capitalist order. While the working class was a key component of the anti-apartheid movement, the ANC held onto a stagist conception of socialism where socialism would come at a later date.

The Burkinabé protest movement of 2014-15 threw out Burkina Faso’s longtime president Blaise Compaoré after he attempted to amend the constitution to extend his already 27-year-long rule. Miners in Burkina Faso played a crucial role in bringing down Compaoré through strikes that affected the entire country.

Extracting Profit provides many of these examples of workers in action, such as Nigerian workers’ massive protests against the non-payment of wages and the oil unions long history of strikes, militancy and combativeness.

“The examples of mass struggles from below, such as in Burkina Faso, Nigeria, South Africa, Ivory Coast, Zimbabwe and elsewhere, show conclusively the power of working classes on the continent,” writes Wengraf.


IN ONE section, the book explains the continuing relevancy of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution in relationship to Africa.

Taking up an argument posed by socialist Neil Davidson, who challenges the idea and its application for today, Wengraf argues why this analysis is still key. “The relationship between democratic movements and other struggles, the unbroken relationship between national and international revolution make the case for permanent revolution,” she writes.

Combined and uneven development is a key feature of capitalism, and countries that seem relatively less developed or economically advanced can still have robust revolutions that have implications for the broader region and world.

Since these underdeveloped regions are connected to a global system, working classes can provide leadership for other oppressed classes as well as influencing movements abroad.

Guyanese historian and activist Walter Rodney argued that any underdevelopment in Africa is directly correlated with Western development. In other words, the extraction of value and resources in Africa provides capitalists with their wealth and power in the global system.

Various writers like Rodney, Samir Amin and David Harvey have sought to understand inequality in Africa through different theories. Wengraf absorbs their contributions while also providing critique.

For anyone who wants a detailed and well-documented analysis for the continued exploitation of African peoples and resources, Extracting Profit is a go-to account. It has added a perspective of capitalism on the African continent that includes historic and economic considerations as well as pointing to sites of resistance and the agency of the African working class.

Wengraf brilliantly provides an analysis that isn’t just descriptive but provides a framework of understanding the social forces that extract resources from Africa. Her book adds to the scholarship Africa and its relationship to capitalism and imperialism, as it also challenges perspectives of other scholars and activists.

Extracting Profit is a must-read for activists, academics and anyone who is interested in the subject.

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