AFRICA

The impact of higher oil prices was great in much of Africa. In the 1950s and early 1960s that continent had undergone a startlingly rapid process of decolonization. It had been exhilarating, but had left behind some fragile new nations, especially south of the Sahara. France, Belgium and Great Britain were the major imperial powers concerned with what was on the whole a perhaps surprisingly peaceful process. Italy had lost her last African territories in 1943, and only in Algeria and the Portuguese colonies was there much blood spilled in the process of liberation, the Portuguese finally giving up after domestic revolution in 1974; thus the Iberians who had led the European adventure of overseas dominion were almost the last to abandon it. There was plenty of bloodshed to come after the roll-up of empire, it is true, when African set about African, but troubles tended to arise for the French and British only when there were significant white settler communities to consider. Elsewhere, both French and British politicians proved anxious to retain influence, if they could, by showing benevolent interest in their former subjects.

The outcome was a black Africa that owes its present form in the main to decisions of nineteenth-century Europeans (just as much of the Middle East owes its political framework to the Europeans in the twentieth century). New African ‘nations’ were usually defined by the boundaries of former colonies and those boundaries have proved remarkably enduring. They often enclosed peoples of many languages, stocks and customs, over whom colonial administrations had provided little more than a formal unity. As Africa lacked the unifying influence of great indigenous civilizations, such as those of Asia, to offset the colonial fragmentation of the continent, imperial withdrawal was followed by its Balkanization. The doctrine of nationalism that appealed to the westernized African elites (Senegal, a Muslim country, had a president who wrote poetry in French and was an expert on Goethe) confirmed a continent’s fragmentation, often ignoring important realities, which colonialism had contained or manipulated. The sometimes strident nationalist rhetoric of new rulers was often a response to the dangers of centrifugal forces. West Africans combed the historical record - such as it was - of ancient Mali and Ghana, and East Africans brooded over the past that might be hidden in relics, such as the ruins of Zimbabwe, in order to forge national mythologies like those of earlier nation-makers in Europe. Nationalism was as much the product of decolonization in black Africa as the cause.

New internal divisions were not Africa’s only or its worst problems. In spite of the continent’s great economic potential, the economic and social foundations for a prosperous future were shaky. Once again, the imperial legacy mattered supremely. Colonial regimes in Africa left behind feebler cultural and economic infrastructures than in Asia. Rates of literacy were low and trained cadres of administrators and technical experts were small. Africa’s important economic resources (especially in minerals) required skills, capital and marketing facilities for their exploitation, which could only come in the near future from the world outside (and white South Africa long counted as ‘outside’ to many black politicians). What was more, some African economies had recently undergone particular disruption and diversion because of European needs and in European interests. During the war of 1939-45, agriculture in some of the British colonies had shifted towards the growing of cash crops on a large scale for export. Whether this was or was not in the long-term interests of peasants who had previously raised crops and livestock only for their own consumption is debatable, but what is certain is that the immediate consequences were rapid and profound. One was an inflow of cash in payment for produce the British and Americans needed. Some of this came through in higher wages, but the spread of a cash economy often had disturbing local effects. Unanticipated urban growth and regional development took place. Many African countries were thus tied to patterns of development that were soon to show their vulnerabilities and limitations in the post-war world. Even the benevolent intentions of a programme like the British Colonial Development and Welfare Fund, or many international aid programmes, objectively helped to shackle African producers to a world market. Such handicaps were the more grievous when they were compounded, as was often the case, by mistaken economic policy after independence. A drive for industrialization through import-substitution often led to disastrous agrarian consequences as the prices of cash crops were kept artificially low in relation to those of locally manufactured goods. Almost always, farmers were sacrificed to townspeople and low prices left them with no incentive to raise production. Given that populations had begun to rise in the 1930s and did so even more rapidly after 1960, discontent was inevitable as disappointment with the reality of ‘freedom’ from the colonial powers set in.

DECOLONIZATION IN AFRICA AND ASIA

Nonetheless, in spite of its difficulties, the process of decolonization in black Africa was hardly interrupted. In 1945 the only truly independent countries in Africa other than Egypt had been Ethiopia (which had itself, from 1935 to 1943, been briefly under colonial rule) and Liberia, though in reality and law the Union of South Africa was a self-governing Dominion of the British Commonwealth and is therefore only formally excluded from that category (a slightly vaguer status also cloaked the virtual practical independence of the British colony of Southern Rhodesia). By 1961 (when South Africa became a fully independent republic and left the Commonwealth) twenty-four new African states had come into existence. There are now over fifty.

In 1957 Ghana had been the first ex-colonial new nation to emerge in sub-Saharan Africa. As Africans shook off colonialism, their problems quickly surfaced. Over the next twenty-seven years twelve wars were to be fought in Africa and thirteen heads of state would be assassinated. There were two especially bad outbreaks of strife. In the former Belgian Congo an attempt by the mineral-rich region of Katanga to break away provoked a civil war in which rival Soviet and American influences quickly became entangled, while the United Nations strove to restore peace. Then, at the end of the 1960s, came an even more distressing episode, a civil war in Nigeria, hitherto one of the most stable and promising of the new African states. This, too, drew non-Africans to dabble in the bloodbath (one reason was that Nigeria had joined the ranks of the oil producers). In other countries, there were less bloody, but still fierce, struggles between factions, regions and tribes, which distracted the small westernized elites of politicians and encouraged them to abandon democratic and liberal principles much talked of in the heady days when a colonial system was in retreat.

In many of the new nations, the need, real or imaginary, to prevent disintegration, suppress open dissent and strengthen central authority, had led by the 1970s to one-party, authoritarian government or to the exercise of political authority by soldiers (it was not unlike the history of the new nations of South America after the Wars of Liberation). Often, opposition to the ‘national’ party that had emerged in the run-up to independence in a particular country would be stigmatized as treason once independence was achieved. Nor did the surviving regimes of an older independent Africa escape. Impatience with an ancien regime seemingly incapable of providing peaceful political and social change led in 1974 to revolution in Ethiopia. The setting aside of the ‘Lion of Judah’ was almost incidentally the end of the oldest Christian monarchy in the world (and of a line of kings supposed in one version of the story to run back to the son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba). A year later, the soldiers who had taken power seemed just as discredited as their predecessors. From similar changes elsewhere in Africa there sometimes emerged tyrant-like political leaders who reminded Europeans of earlier dictators, but this comparison may be misleading. Africanists have gently suggested that many of the ‘strong men’ of the new nations can be seen as the inheritors of the mantle of pre-colonial African kingship, rather than in western terms. Some were simply bandits, however.

Their own troubles did not diminish the frequent irritation with which many Africans reacted to the outside world. Some of the roots of this may not lie very deep. The mythological drama built on the old European slave trade, which Africans were encouraged to see as a supreme example of racial exploitation, had been a European and North American creation. A sense of political inferiority, too, lay near the surface in a continent of relatively powerless states (some with populations of less than a million). In political and military terms, a disunited Africa could not expect to have much weight in international affairs, although attempts were made to overcome the weakness that arose from division. One abortive example was that of 1958 to found a United States of Africa; it opened an era of alliances, partial unions, and essays in federation, which culminated in the emergence in 1963 of the Organization for African Unity (the OAU), largely thanks to the Ethiopian emperor, Haile Selassie. Politically, though, the OAU has had little success, although in 1975 it concluded a beneficial trade negotiation with Europe in defence of African producers.

The very disappointment of much of the early political history of independent Africa directed thoughtful politicians towards cooperation in economic development, above all in relation to Europe, whose former colonial powers remained Africa’s most important source of capital, skill and counsel. But the economic record of black Africa has been dreadful. In i960, food production was still roughly keeping pace with population growth, but by 1982 in all but seven of the thirty-nine sub-Saharan countries it was lower per head than it had been in 1970. Corruption, misconceived policies, and preoccupation with showy prestige investment projects squandered economic aid from the developed world. Even in 1965, the GNP of the entire continent had been less than that of Illinois and in more than half of African countries manufacturing output went down in the 1980s. On these feeble economies there had fallen first the blow of the oil crisis of the early 1970s and then the trade recession that followed. The shattering effects for Africa were made even worse soon after by the onset of repeated drought. In i960 Africa’s GNP had been growing at the unexciting, but still positive annual rate of about 1.6 per cent; the trend soon turned downward and in the first half of the 1980s was falling at a rate of 1.7 per cent a year. It hardly seems a surprise that in 1983 the UN Economic Commission for Africa already described the picture of the continent’s economy emerging from the historical trends as ‘almost a nightmare’.

Unsurprisingly, political cynicism flourished and many of the leaders of the independence era seemed to lose their way. Too many of them showed an almost complete lack of self-criticism and often a frustration expressed in the encouragement of new resentments (sometimes exacerbated by external attempts to entangle Africans in the Cold War). These could be disappointing, too. Marxist revolution had little success. Paradoxically, it was only in Ethiopia, most feudally backward of independent African states, and the former Portuguese colonies, the least-developed former colonial territories, that formally Marxist regimes took root. Former French and British colonies were hardly affected.

Scapegoats, inevitably, were sought. Increasingly, but perhaps explicably, given the completeness and rapidity of decolonization in Africa and the geographical remoteness of much of it, they tended to be found near by and old ethnic differences emerged in civil war and massacre. But resentment also came to focus on the racial division of black and white in Africa itself. This was flagrant in the most powerful of African states, the Union of South Africa. The Afrikaans-speaking Boers, who by 1945 dominated that country, cherished against the British grievances that went back to the Great Trek and had been intensified by defeat in the Boer War. They had led to the progressive destruction of ties with the British Commonwealth after the First World War, a process made easier by the concentration of voters of Anglo-Saxon origin in the provinces of Cape Town and Natal; the Boers were entrenched in the Transvaal and the major industrial areas as well as the rural hinterland. South Africa, it is true, entered the war in 1939 on the British side and supplied important forces to fight in it, but even then intransigent ‘Afrikaners’, as they increasingly called themselves, supported a movement favouring cooperation with the Nazis. Its leader became prime minister in 1948, after defeating South Africa’s senior statesman, Jan Smuts, in a general election. As the Afrikaners had steadily engrossed power inside the Union, and had built up their economic position in the industrial and financial sectors, the prospect of imposing a policy towards the black African that diverged from their deep prejudices was already inconceivable. The result was the construction of a system of separation of the races: apartheid. It systematically embodied and reinforced the legal reduction of the black African to the inferior status he occupied in Boer ideology. Its aim was to guarantee the position of the whites in a land where industrialism and market economies had done much to break down the regulation and distribution of the growing black population by the old tribal divisions.

Apartheid had some appeal - on even less excusable grounds than the primitive superstitions or supposed economic necessities of the Afrikaners - to white people elsewhere in Africa. The only country where a similar balance of black and white population to that of South Africa and a similar concentration of wealth existed was Southern Rhodesia, which, to the great embarrassment of the British government, seceded from the Commonwealth in 1965. The aim of the secessionists, it was feared, was to move towards a society more and more like South Africa’s. The British government dithered and missed its chance. There was nothing that the black African states could do immediately about Rhodesia, and not much that the United Nations could do either, though ‘sanctions’ were invoked in the form of an embargo on trade with the former colony; many black African states ignored them and the British government winked at the steps taken by major oil companies to ensure their product reached the rebels. In one of the most shameful episodes in the history of a feeble ministry, Great Britain’s stock sank in the eyes of Africans, who, understandably, did not see why a British government could not intervene militarily to suppress a colonial rebellion as flagrant as that of 1776. Many British reflected that it was precisely that remote precedent which made the outlook for intervention by a remote and militarily weak imperial sovereign discouraging.

Though South Africa (the richest and strongest state in Africa, and growing richer and stronger all the time) seemed secure, it was, together with Rhodesia and Portugal, the object of mounting black African anger as the 1970s began. The drawing of the racial battlelines was hardly offset by minor concessions to South Africa’s blacks and its growing economic ties with some black states. There was a danger, too, that outside powers might soon be involved. In 1975, after the Portuguese withdrawal from Angola, a Marxist regime took power there. When civil war followed, foreign communist soldiers arrived from Cuba to support the government, while South African support was soon given to rebels against it.

The South African government soon showed that it could take action. It sought to detach itself from the embarrassment of association with an unyielding independent Rhodesia (whose prospects had sharply worsened when Portuguese rule came to an end in Mozambique in 1974 and a guerrilla campaign was launched from that country against it). The American government contemplated the outcome if Rhodesia collapsed at the hands of black nationalists depending on communist support. It applied pressure to the South Africans who, in turn, applied it to the Rhodesians. In September 1976 the Rhodesian prime minister sadly told his countrymen that they had to accept the principle of black majority rule. The last attempt to found an African country dominated by whites had failed. It was another landmark in the recession of European power. Yet the guerrilla war continued, worsening as black nationalists sought to achieve unconditional surrender. At last, in 1980, Rhodesia briefly returned to British rule before re-emerging into independence, this time as the new nation of Zimbabwe, with a black prime minister.

This left South Africa alone as the sole white-dominated state and the richest in the continent and the focus of black (which, in this context, meant non-white) resentment around the world. Although the OAU had been split by civil war in Angola, African leaders could usually find common ground against South Africa. In 1974 the General Assembly of the United Nations forbade South Africa to attend its sessions because of apartheid, and in 1977 the UN Commission of Human Rights deftly side-stepped demands for the investigation of the horrors perpetrated by blacks against blacks in Uganda, while castigating South Africa (along with Israel and Chile) for its alleged misdeeds. From Pretoria, the view northwards looked more and more menacing. The arrival of Cuban troops in Angola showed a new power of strategic action against South Africa by the USSR. Both that former Portuguese colony and Mozambique also provided bases for South African dissidents, who fanned unrest in the black townships and sustained urban terrorism in the 1980s.

These were no doubt among the reasons for changes in the position of the South African government. By the middle of that decade, the issue seemed to be no longer whether the more obnoxious features of apartheid should be dismantled, but whether black majority rule could be conceded by South African whites without armed conflict. A change was apparent when a new prime minister took office in 1978. To the dismay of many Afrikaners, P. W. Botha slowly began to unroll a policy of concession. Before long, though, his initiative slowed; continuing signs of hostility to South Africa in the United Nations, urban terrorism at home, an increasingly dangerous and militarily demanding situation on the northern frontiers in Namibia (allocated to South Africa years before as a UN trusteeship territory), and increased distrust of Botha among his Afrikaner supporters (shown in elections), all led him back towards repression. His last gesture to relaxation was a new constitution in 1983, which provided representation for non-white South Africans in a way that outraged black political leaders by its inadequacy, and disgusted white conservatives by conceding the principle of non-white representation at all.

Meanwhile, the pressure of what were called ‘sanctions’ against South Africa by other countries was growing. In 1985 even the United States imposed them to a limited extent; by then, international confidence in the South African economy was falling and the effects were showing at home. Straws before the wind of change in domestic opinion could be discerned in the decision of the Dutch Reformed Church, to which many Afrikaners belonged, that apartheid was at least a ‘mistake’ and could not (as had been claimed) be justified by scripture. There was also growing division among Afrikaner politicians. It probably helped, too, that in spite of its deepening isolation, South African military action successfully mastered the border threats, though it was incapable of defeating the Angolan government so long as Cuban forces remained there. In 1988 Namibia came to independence on terms South Africa found satisfactory and peace was made with Angola.

This was the background against which P. W. Botha (President of the republic since 1984) reluctantly and grumpily stepped down in 1989 to be succeeded by F. W. de Klerk. He soon made it clear that the movement towards liberalization was to continue and would go much further than many thought possible, even if this did not mean the end of apartheid in all respects. Political protest and opposition were allowed much more freedom. Meetings and marches were permitted; imprisoned black nationalist leaders were released. Meanwhile, an important change in the relations between the superpowers had produced agreements between the United States and the Soviet Union over ending the struggles in Angola and Mozambique and giving freedom to Namibia.

Suddenly, the way ahead opened up dramatically. In February 1990 F. W. de Klerk announced ‘a new South Africa’. Nine days later, the symbolic figure of Nelson Mandela, leader of the African National Congress, emerged at last from jail. Before long he was engaged in discussion with the government about what might come next. For all the firmness of his language, there were hopeful signs of a new realism that the task of reassuring the white minority about a future under a black majority must be attempted. Just such signs, of course, prompted other black politicians to greater impatience.

By the end of 1990 de Klerk had gone a long way. He had taken his followers further than Mandela had taken his. He had even said he would rescind the land legislation that was the keystone of apartheid. In 1991, at last, the other apartheid laws were repealed. It was an interesting indicator of the pace with which events had moved in South Africa that the interest of the world was focused by then less on the sincerity (or insincerity) of white South African leaders, than on the realism (or lack of it) of their black counterparts and their ability (or inability) to control their followers. The hopes surrounding Nelson Mandela at the time of his release soon gave way to misgivings, even if once unthinkable steps towards a democratic South Africa had been taken.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!