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NEPAD and the Challenge of Africa’s Development: towards the political economy of a discourse

1. Introduction
The development challenges that face Africa, especially Sub-Saharan Africa, are enormous and varied. The crisis of poverty, genocidal conflict and civil wars, the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and the crisis of economic and social policy outcomes are often presented as emblematic of the region. Understanding the nature of the crisis and dynamics that feed it has been the object of considerable contention. The analyses are to a considerable extent driven by ideological locations and paradigms. As I have argued elsewhere (Adesina 2002b), the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) is best understood as having specific ideological location and driven by specific development paradigm. This paper is a follow-up to this earlier one. While the earlier paper was concerned with specifying the epistemic basis of NEPAD as a policy framework, the present paper is concerned with the nature of the social forces that undergird the document as a development paradigm.

Often, reactions to NEPAD and the mode of its deployment have been driven by a sense of betrayal. Similar feeling of astonishment and betrayal is documented in the reaction of community-based organisation (CBOs) activists to the contents and policy thrusts of country Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (Nyamugasira and Rowden 2002:15). While we can argue about the specific manner in which NEPAD involves the extension of the policy orthodoxy that has governed South Africa’s macroeconomic policy making and economic relations, it does not explain why the African leaders at the 2001 Lusaka conference of the OAU Heads of State signed up to the document. The explanation, I will argue, lies elsewhere. The organising framework for this paper therefore is to understand NEPAD as a class project, and to tease out the emergence of this class configuration, which while bourgeois is distinctly different from its primogenitors of the pre-1980s. The defining shift in the African terrain of class relations is around the dominant project of the petty bourgeois class. While in the 1970s, the dominant pattern was of the African petty-bourgeoisie taking up Amilcar Cabral’s (1979: 136) injunction of the necessity to commit class suicide (in order to be one with the people), the dominant shift in Africa’s class topography since the late 1980s is that of a petty bourgeois class least intent on committing class suicide. In other words, the shift is from the 1970s of a petty bourgeois class with proletarian/peasant aspirations to one that since the 1980s is set on realising its bourgeois aspirations. This is the importance of what I call Africa’s silent revolution of the late 20th century. The objective of the neoliberal project since the 1980s, has not only been to restructure Africa’s economy (to meet the expansionary needs of global capitalism) but create an enabling environment—the class basis of making such project sustainable. In other words, create a class whose interest is inexorably linked to preserving the neoliberal project. That, I argue in Section 4 of this paper, is the full import of NEPAD as a project. It is within this framework—rather than a sense of betrayal—that constructing an alternative project and rethinking Africa’s development must begin. It is within this framework that I very briefly explore some antinomies and blind spots of NEPAD. I conclude with a prolegomenon to what must be the focus of the agenda for an alternative development framework.

To set the stage for the core discussions in this paper, I outline in Section 2, the analytical framework that I employ. Much of the debate around NEPAD—both from its sponsors and several of the opponents—has been driven by a binary logic. I suggest a different logic. Much of the criticism and defence of NEPAD has been driven by this posing of binary opposites: “if it is neoliberal, it cannot be concerned with poverty”. In a specifically South African context: “if it is bourgeois/neoliberal, it cannot be concerned with poor black issues.” This posing of binary opposites, I argue, obscures the fundamental nature of identity as it is played out in the content and deployment of NEPAD. It is possible to be bourgeois and be concerned with poverty; to genuinely raise the issue of the need to end global apartheid but deploy policy frameworks that actually reinforce it; to deeply affirm one’s Africaness and yet have a prosaic understanding of its history; to be black and bourgeois! That, obviously, is axiomatic, but it is often lost when we get into the arena of political contestation. It is in understanding the mutual self embeddeness of opposites, which we can fully come to grips with the discourse of NEPAD. In essence, this is the key to a political economy of the discourse. Crucial to this is re-visiting the essence of neoliberalism. In the earlier paper, I have sought to demonstrate the extent to which NEPAD is driven by the neoliberal logic of the post-Washington consensus. Untangling the ‘rational kernel’ of neoliberalism is essential to overcoming the binary logic of the political debate around the idea. In the current atmosphere (especially in South Africa), there is a sense in which most activists deploy the label and those implementing neoliberal project vehemently reject the label.i Again, we confront the crisis of binary discourse. It is in understanding the policy terrain not as a pristine and ideal-type proposition of Normative Economics, but as the contested terrain of actors that are multi-layered and multi-dimensional, in the identities they bear. It is in understanding how biographies (individual and collective) impact on the policy arena that we can grapple with multidimensional nature and outcomes of policymaking. It is in this context that we understand the concrete forms that neoliberalism assumes in the broad daylight of active human agencies’ contestations.

A bridge between the analytical framework and the discussion of the understanding of NEPAD as a class project is the understanding of the development and evolution of NEPAD. This allows for a better understanding of the technocratic mode of its formulation, and the distinctly South African reading of Africa’s development past and future at the heart of NEPAD. This is outlined in Section 3.


  1. In the South African context, this took a hugely acrimonious form that came to a head in late September and early October 2002, in the conflict over policy direction between the African National Congress and its partners in the ruling Congress Alliance, especially the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). On 1st and 2nd October, COSATU staged a series of “anti-privatization” strikes to press home its demands for fundamental policy review. The ANC, led by its President, Thabo Mbeki, lashed out at COSATU with claims of “ultra-Left” tendencies (cf. Mbeki’s statement to the ANC Policy Conference: and SACP,
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