You see them everywhere in Africa: the sharp-eyed entrepreneurs hawking anything from matches to sports cars. Many see them as a nuisance but TOM NEVIN argues that they are anything but. Without the black marketeers, he says, Africa's economy would simply seize up.

These days, in any African country, you may cut a deal in the 'alternative economy', or you may do business in 'deregulated trading', or you may buy or sell something in the 'informal sector'. Whichever it is, don't expect to hear the merry jingle of the cash register. Despite all its highfalutin titles, you'll be moving and shaking in Africa's oldest trade -- the black market. Where the formal sector has crashed it has taken on a dozen new guises as the 'other economy'. The black market is thriving today as never before. It is a reborn, dynamic market force.

Methods and commodities on offer in the black market differ widely from country to country, but the aim is universal: to turn a buck and survive. The men, women and children who ply the trade learned their skills at the university of the bush and the college of the streets. These are the toughest academies of all, and the students graduate with amazing skills. They can make a profit, however small, from virtually anything. They are traders in goods and services and they place a value on everything that comes into their hands; every service, no matter how trivial, they can render. To them it is all the coin of the realm. They are jacks of all trades and masters of them all.

To millions upon millions of Africans, it is a case of 'them' and 'us'. 'Them' are the often faceless people, mainly in government, who have jobs, money, cars, homes, food, schools and hospitals. 'Us' are the people who live outside that society, in a no-man's land of overpopulation, AIDS, starvation, illiteracy, drought and war. So it follows that what is often missing in sub-Saharan Africa is a social contract between the governed and the governing. Taking that thought a stage further, millions of Africans have found that their economic energy, their sanity and even their survival depend on how they succeed in outsmarting the state. Cynics in Kenya refer to President arap Moi's mining interests as "That's mine! That's mine! And that's also mine!" Wealthy Nigerians have enough money in personal deposits abroad to pay off the country's entire foreign debt -- more than $50bn. It is no secret that ex-President Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire (now the Democratic...

To continue reading