Did colonialism in Africa act ‘as a powerful engine of progressive social change advancing capitalist development far more rapidly than was conceivable in any other way’? (Warren, 1980, p. 9). The litmus test for scholars addressing this question (whether Marxist or non-Marxist) is the emergence of free wage labour employed by profit-maximising entrepreneurs in producing commodities for the market. As with all such tests, dispute arises not so much about the empirical data they yield as the data’s significance: in 1960, wage-earners were no more than one-third of the labour force in any sub-Saharan country other than South Africa, and in only one country did they constitute more than 10 per cent of the total population (Harwitz, 1964, p. 16). Some might reasonably cite this as evidence of the speed of economic advance in colonial Africa — particularly after 1945 — given that free wage labour was virtually unknown outside porterage around 1900 and that pre-capitalist relations of production (involving kinship, slavery, pawnship and clientage) were still widespread in native societies until the 1920s (Iliffe, 1983, p. 29). But for others, the data confirm the colonialists’ deep-seated reluctance to foster a permanent proletariat, and their preference for types of economic exploitation which ‘fossilised’ the native smallholder in agriculture, while relying on migrant, contract labour in the towns and mines.
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