Barclays may leave Africa – good riddance?

Artwork: 'How Much Longer You Bastards?' by Eddie Chambers

There is growing speculation that Barclays bank may be withdrawing from Africa as part of new chief director Jes Staley’s plans to reform the bank.

Barclays currently operates in Botswana, Ghana, Mozambique, Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Egypt.

Likely reasons for Staley’s doubts over investing further in Africa include South Africa’s recent economic decline, compounded by president Jacob Zuma’s appointment of three different finance ministers within one week – not creating financial confidence in South Africa among investors like Barclays.

It is questionable, however, whether Barclays will actually extract itself from Africa given the significant contribution of the continent to its profits. In the first nine months of 2015 Barclays African operations generated a sizeable 13% of the company’s core profits. Pulling out, then, would be a hugely risky – and quite possibly counterproductive – move.

Barclays has been operating in Africa for over 100 years now and it has often been a highly troubled partnership.

A brief look at the history of Barclays in Africa reveals a rather sordid pattern of exploitation of ordinary Africans in the name of financial gain.

Notoriously Barclays helped prop up the brutal, racist apartheid regime in South Africa by continuing its operations in the country when other companies were pulling out on moral grounds. This led to mass protests in the UK, where students in particular – through boycotts and prolonged campaigning – pressurised Barclays to withdraw from South Africa, which it finally did in 1986 after 16 years of campaigning.

A protest outside Barclays bank in the 1980s

In 2006 a new case was brought against Barclays, among other large companies which benefited from apartheid, by a group of 87 South Africans who claimed they were subject to human rights violations.

A badge worn by protestors calling for Barclays to

withdraw from South Africa

Then, in 2007, Restitution Study Group, based in New York, revealed evidence which suggests that some of Barclays’ profits has its roots in the trade of African slaves. The research found that in 1968 Barclays took over Martins Bank, formerly Heywoods Bank, which was founded in 1773 by Liverpudlians Benjamin and Arthur Heywood, using slave trade profits. This discovery led to calls from some for Barclays to pay millions in reparations.

A spokesman for Barclays said: “Barclays has been in business for over 310 years and, while it is possible that some organisations acquired by Barclays may have had some linkage with the slave trade, our founders, by virtue of their very strong Quaker connections, were members of the abolitionist movement.”

Most controversial of Barclays activities in Africa in the 21st century is the bank’s financial support of Robert Mugabe and his regime in Zimbabwe, where millions are suffering abuses of human rights under his rule, including the forced removal of opposition supporters to remote rural areas.

Just one of the ways in which Barclays has directly aided Mugabe is through a £30,000,000 loan which has seen white-owned farms be confiscated by the government and over 100,000 black employees forced from these areas.

By financially aiding Mugabe, Barclays has been accused of repeating the kind of immoral investing in an unpopular African regime carrying out human rights abuses which it formerly carried out in apartheid South Africa. As Tendai Biti, secretary of Movement for Democratic Change (Zimbabwe’s largest opposition party) puts it: “It is immoral and it is criminal. Barclays defended their immoral actions in supporting the apartheid government in South Africa and they seem intent on repeating history in Zimbabwe.”

Whether or not Barclays does decide to withdraw from Africa, it must be remembered that the bank’s presence in the continent has not always helped ordinary Africans. If Barclays chooses to stay in Africa its activities need to be scrutinized and if the bank is proven to aid and abet unjust regimes then sanctions and other appropriate actions need to be taken where necessary to ensure that unethical banking is not being practised.

Africa contributes significantly to Barclays wealth and so Africans should be dictating the terms of the relationship and insisting that where Barclays is operating in the continent it does so under the condition that it is benefiting the general population. Where Barclays is failing to do this, such as in Zimbabwe, the question being asked should not be ‘Is Barclays going to withdraw from Africa?’ but, rather: Do Africans want Barclays to be allowed to continue operating in Africa?