LONDON – Nelson Mandela was born into a continent colonized and in servitude to European powers in July 1918. Only Ethiopia and Liberia were independent. But Germany’s defeat in the first world war brought about a reworking of the colonial order with its possessions in what are now Tanzania, Cameroon, Togo, Burundi and Rwanda distributed among the war’s victors — Britain, France and Belgium. German South West Africa, now Namibia, fell under South African control.
Mandela was a citizen of a new country: South Africa had been born eight years earlier with the unification of four British colonies, including the two former Afrikaner republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, taken over after the Boer war.
The Boer struggle was widely seen as the first anti-colonial fight of the 20th century against the British Empire.
South Africa, because of its large white population, was a politically autonomous dominion under the British crown, unlike the U.K.’s other African colonies. In 1918, some territories were still regarded as the private property of commercial companies. Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, was owned by the British South Africa Co. and would not be recognized as a colony until 1923.
Whatever the status of territory, the plunder of Africa’s wealth — its gold, rubber, tobacco, diamonds, ivory and copper — was unrelenting. But the seeds of the independence movements were sown with the hundreds of thousands of Africans who served in the first world war helping to raise political awareness and challenge white claims of racial superiority.
Invasion and WWII (1936-1945):
Ethiopia was one of only two independent countries in Africa when Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini decided to expand his small “African empire.” Italy invaded in 1936, overthrowing Emperor Haile Selassie and confirming the League of Nations as toothless in the face of fascist aggression. Ethiopia was integrated into Italian East Africa with Eritrea and Italian Somaliland.
From 1940, the desert war raged across North Africa for three years, swinging from French Tunisia through Italian Libya to within striking distance of Cairo. That conflict once again remade the colonial map, with Italy forced to relinquish its rule of Libya and Somalia, and Ethiopia liberated in 1941. It was also deciding the future of imperial rule in less immediately evident ways. After the war, France recovered possession of Tunisia, where a sizeable expatriate population lived, but its authority was fatally undermined and it was independent within a few years, along with Morocco.
Newly demobilized African soldiers who served the allied cause in north and east Africa, Europe and Asia arrived home questioning the contradiction between the Allies’ trumpeting of freedom with the continued subjugation of Africa.
A smattering of well-educated anti-colonial leaders provided the arguments and the direction to draw increasingly restless Africans into the struggle for their freedom.
The dawn of Apartheid (1948):
The National Party won power in South Africa with an unexpected and narrow victory on a platform of more rigid race segregation. Afrikaner leaders portrayed apartheid as a form of social uplift for poorer whites, in part by protecting their jobs from cheaper black labor. The vote for the National Party was also in part a backlash against British influence by Afrikaners still bitter about the Boer war and loss of self-determination. At the time, Britain and its western allies sought to placate the new government in Pretoria, which did not immediately look so out of step with the colonial regimes and their systems of race-based privilege, power and segregation.
But as British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan reminded the South African parliament in his “wind of change” speech in Cape Town in 1960, the apartheid government was on the wrong side of history. South Africa left the British Commonwealth the following year.
The rapid decolonization of most of Africa helped drive the white regime’s increasingly repressive response to resistance to apartheid legislation, including the arrest and trial of Mandela and other ANC leaders.
Growing decolonization (1956):
The tumble of decolonization across sub-Saharan Africa began with the Gold Coast, reborn as Ghana in 1957.
Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, espoused a pan-African philosophy that inspired other subjugated nations and alarmed complacent imperialists who initially imagined they could drag out the independence process in other parts of Africa, especially in countries where there were large numbers of white settlers.
But Britain had learned the hard way with the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya that if it was not prepared to negotiate an end to its rule then Africans would fight for it. Within a few years, most of Britain’s colonies in Africa had gained independence or were on the brink of it.
France gave up control of two of its north African Arab colonies, Tunisia and Morocco, in 1956 in the hope of clinging to a third — Algeria, then home to close to 1 million white settlers, which Paris regarded as a department of France.
The ensuing struggle brought down the French Fourth Republic and stripped Paris of its colonial delusions. Paris’s brutal “pacification” of the independence struggle pushed Algeria to civil war. The French claimed military victory but the political shock at home was so great that Algerian independence could no longer be resisted.
The Algerian war helped dispel any lingering hopes of France holding on to its sub-Saharan colonies and most were freed in a burst of independence celebrations in 1960. Belgium pulled out of the Democratic Republic of the Congo the same year, and Rwanda and Burundi two years later.
But Paris made sure to hold its former colonies close through economic, political and military ties, including underpinning regional currencies.
White resistance (1960-1980):
As the imperial powers withdrew, the determination of the remaining settler administrations to hold on to power hardened. Ian Smith’s white government in Rhodesia made a unilateral declaration of independence on Nov. 11, 1965, in resistance to the U.K.’s plans to make the colony independent. Britain declared the move an “act of treason.” Rhodesia found backing from apartheid South Africa, including crucial economic assistance, and Portugal, which gave access to ports in Mozambique. But Rhodesia was besieged by sanctions and then an escalating insurgency in the 1970s which strengthened after Mozambique gained independence and provided a base for Robert Mugabe’s ZANU guerrillas. Eventually, the white minority regime was overwhelmed by the military and economic pressures, although Smith later blamed South Africa for Rhodesia’s collapse, saying it had been “stabbed in the back” by Pretoria. Mugabe became the first — and only prime minister — of an independent Zimbabwe in 1980.
Armed independence movements launched rebellions in the early ’60s in Portugal’s remaining territories — Angola, Mozambique and Guinea — and were met with increasing brutality. The economic and political toll of the conflict helped prompt a coup in 1974 that overthrew the right-wing regime in Lisbon. Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau gained independence the following year.
The Cold War (1960-1980s):
The early hope of the newly independent African nations was rapidly undermined by the Cold War struggle as Soviet backing for African liberation movements was countered by American support for military coups and authoritarian leadership.
Under protection of western aid based largely on anti-communist credentials with little concern about the quality of governance, military dictatorships and one-party states run by presidents-for-life emerged from Nigeria to Malawi, Kenya to Zambia, Zaire to Cote d’Ivoire, while the Soviets sponsored governments such as Ethiopia and Mozambique.
The Cold War confrontation was at its bloodiest in Angola, where the Soviet-backed government and Cuban troops fought a long war against Jonas Savimbi’s U.S.-sponsored rebels and South Africa’s army. The conflict destroyed towns and villages across the oil-rich country and cost hundreds of thousands of lives.
For many years during the 1970s and 1980s, Africa was defined to much of the rest of the world by its more brutal and extreme leaders, such as Uganda’s Idi Amin, who was regarded as part clown and part monster, and Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko, who stole billions of dollars while his country collapsed around him.
Apartheid’s end in sight (1976):
Neither South Africa’s white regime nor Mandela’s African National Congress predicted the Soweto uprising, which kicked off the escalating popular resistance that played a central role in bringing down apartheid. On June 16, 1976, thousands of students took to the streets against the government, forcing black schools to teach many lessons in Afrikaans, not only regarded as the language of the oppressor but also as a further means of keeping black people down.
The South African police responded to the protest with violence, killing 23 people on the first day, including 13-year-old Hector Pieterson, who became a symbol of the uprising. Hundreds more died in the following months. The protests put the ANC at the forefront of the liberation struggle inside the country. The white regime responded with increasing repression that only fed the popular resistance and gave rise to a broad coalition of opponents of apartheid, including trade unions, churches and civic groups, under the umbrella of the United Democratic Front. The white government’s increasingly heavy-handed response, including declaring a state of emergency, fueled international outrage and led to the tightening of sanctions.
Mandela’s release (1990):
Mandela’s release from prison on Feb. 11, 1990, prompted a wave of expectation among people across Africa weary of maladministration and political leaders clinging to power.
Old leaders were forced out across the continent, including in Zambia, Malawi and Kenya. A much heralded “new breed” of leader had already emerged led by Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, although he, too, came to be accused of authoritarian tendencies after ruling his country for longer than any of his predecessors.
The push for political change was less successful elsewhere, and in Nigeria it resulted in another military coup. Newfound political freedom could not release African nations from their dependence on foreign aid, which came with added strings requiring adherence to western neo-liberal economics. Some African states had already suffered the imposition of International Monetary Fund and World Bank economic plans that proved particularly harsh on the poorest by reversing the benefits they enjoyed, such as free schooling. More countries were forced into privatization programs and other measures that caused hardship and undermined support for newly elected democratic governments.
Mandela was elected South Africa’s president in 1994 and set an example by stepping down five years later. He was replaced by his deputy, Thabo Mbeki, regarded in the West as a steady pair of hands with a strong intellect, but his credibility was eroded by outlandish views on the AIDS epidemic and for siding with Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.
Genocide on the continent (1994):
As South Africa celebrated its newfound democracy, Rwanda was descending into its own particular hell. The post-Cold War pressure for democratization combined with the legacy of colonial racial theory to prompt Hutu extremists to attempt to cling on to power by engineering the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis. The genocide set in motion a series of events that saw the toppling of neighboring Zaire’s long-standing ruler, Mobutu Sese Seko, and years of war in what became the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Out of the tragedy emerged a new Rwanda led by one of Africa’s most polarizing leaders, President Paul Kagame.
The Rwandan genocide also helped shape international justice, with a United Nations tribunal to try the organizers of the slaughter that presaged another in Sierra Leone and the birth of the International Criminal Court.
African leaders initially welcomed the ICC after it indicted Joseph Kony, leader of the Lords Resistance Army responsible for recruiting child soldiers and other crimes in Uganda. But the mood changed as the court came to be seen increasingly as exercising a double standard in indicting African leaders, including in Sudan and Kenya, while avoiding investigation of actions of western leaders in Afghanistan and Iraq.
A future with China?
China is emerging as the new foreign economic and political force in Africa. Some have condemned Beijing’s rising influence as a new form of neo-colonization. Others praise China for helping to release African nations from their dependence on western aid.
China’s thirst for minerals and oil, and its hunt for markets for its goods, has seen it develop close ties to Angola, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It has bought up copper mines in Zambia and all but killed the textile industry there by flooding the country with cheap clothes.
Critics of Beijing’s expanding influence in Africa say that China is so hungry for resources it does deals with authoritarian regimes and doles out aid without consideration for good governance.
But China has also delivered on promised aid after decades in which western governments cared more about the political alignments of African leaders than development of their countries. Beijing has built an extensive new network of roads in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for instance, after decades in which the number of paved roads fell sharply despite billions of dollars in western aid.