Colonialism did three profound things: Firstly there was military conquest, then it imposed a new racial order and finally, it enforced a new economic order on the colonised.
The racial order humiliated the conquered with its petty and gross discrimination – you cannot live in this area, drink from this fountain, attend this school, or marry this person, etc. While the new economic order captured resources (land, minerals, water, etc), reshaping the economy to benefit the needs of the colonialist.
Liberation struggles were fought against these pillars of the colonial order, mobilising people in unions and nationalist mass movements. When these were not sufficient, military campaigns were adopted – for instance Kenya’s Land and Freedom Army or Mau Mau. None of the liberation armies won a clear-cut military victory against the departing colonialists – except perhaps in the ex-Portuguese colonies where the liberation wars provoked an internal revolution in Portugal, leading to a military retreat. Generally what occurred was a negotiated handover of power.
When the African ruling elites took over national power, the first thing they did was to change the racial order, removing the racial discriminations which had reduced opportunities and produced the daily humiliations for the colonised.
Some then wanted to go further, with the far more radical project of overturning the existing economic order, through regaining ownership of the country’s resources in order to accumulate capital to then drive investment in industry and people. Almost all would fail – Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana being perhaps the most dramatic and coherent attempt at this kind of national renewal project. The failure would be down to a number of factors: the authoritarian approach adopted in imposing the new order; the inability to generate the capital needed to finance the new plans and the huge debts that mounted; a hostile international environment controlled by departing colonialists which controlled markets and access to external capital; corruption, ethnic and regional rivalries exacerbated by economic woes; and finally military defeat at home, when the army launched a coup.
Most of the new ruling African elites would not countenance this radical approach to overhauling the old economic order – rather they would simply submit to it. The more conscientious, like Mandela, would seek to reform it gradually, hoping that by growing the economy their people would eventually benefit from “trickle down” wealth.
The more opportunistic would simply find a new berth for themselves in this existing order, gorging themselves on the opportunities for self-enrichment presented by the old colonial order. The ANC in South Africa since independence has been riding many of the tensions above. In the negotiations Mandela and the other leaders achieved the removal of the racial order. But they immediately gave up any possibility of their military independence when they traded in their nuclear shield. They also gave up on radical economic transformation, hoping that a rising wave would lift all the boats, including labour wages.
But this hasn’t happened – at least not quickly enough. It was predicated on 5% annual growth just to absorb new job seekers – let alone the historically unemployed, or the millions from Zimbabwe and elsewhere who have flooded into the country. In reality growth has averaged around 3% since 1994, triggering a growing crisis – expressed first as a crime problem, then in xenophobic attacks against other Africans.
The shooting of miners and the attempts to level murder charges using old apartheid legislation have now starkly forced us all to confront the issues of how we truly reform the neo-colonies we inherited at independence. Removing the old colonial racial order is welcome – but far more critical is controlling the military/security services, and ensuring that the economy benefits ordinary Africans and not just the national elites, who have shown time and again their willingness to maintain the old economic order, with its structural inequalities.