Capitalists like to refer to Africa as a hopeless case, unable to advance politically or socially. But a glance at its history shows how capitalist colonisation distorted its economies and sucked out its natural resources...
Relic of the struggle for independence: burnt-out tank in Angola
After the slave trade had created what the missionary-explorer David Livingstone called “the open sore of the world” in central Africa, he called on Europe to open up Africa to commerce, Christianity and civilisation. Such pious intentions combined well with the requirements of capitalism in the mid-19th century and led to the “Scramble for Africa”. The continent must be civilised and Christianised in the name of commerce. This became the clarion call of the competing colonial countries, of whom Britain was the greatest protagonist, as they carved up Africa.
The Berlin Conference of 1884 was intended to “regulate”’ the scramble for African colonies, but in reality it only ushered in a period of heightened colonial activity. Britain grabbed the biggest slice of the colonial pie, followed by France, Portugal, Belgium and Germany, and then Italy. Most of Spain’s 400-year-old, tiny conquests in North Africa were taken by France but Spain did end up with Spanish Morocco.
This cut-throat imperial contest was ultimately to lead to the First World War and the defeat of Germany and the Ottoman Empire. The spoils of war went to the victors and German African colonies were redistributed among Britain, France, Belgium and Portugal. Only Abyssinia, modern-day Ethiopia, remained beyond the reach of the European imperialists, until fascist Italy conquered it in the 1930s.
But what was behind this race to colonise Africa? Led by Britain, Europe in the 19th century experienced its industrial revolution. Industrial production requires labour, capital and natural resources. There was no shortage of labour, but there was a shortage of natural resources. Two hundred years of trade with Asia, the Americas and Africa had brought great profits to European traders, much of which was invested in the industrial revolution.
The trade with Africa had mainly been the Atlantic slave trade. Because Europe was resource poor, European capitalists were dependent on raw materials from Asia, the Americas and Africa. For example, although Manchester had a thriving textile industry, all cotton, as the raw material, had to be imported. Consequently, competition for raw materials grew and there was a strong lobby of capitalists, not only in Britain, to encourage their governments to colonise Africa as a method of guaranteeing sources of raw materials.
At the same time, capitalism in Europe was producing more goods than could be consumed in domestic markets. The same lobby of capitalists pressurised governments to colonise Africa so as to protect their markets there from competition.
Many of these lobbyists on behalf of capitalism were people like Livingstone, who provided the “acceptable” face to a ruthless and murderous colonisation. Before colonisation, there were perhaps 10,000 different states or political entities in Africa.
By the end of the First World War, there were a handful of colonial powers governing Africans in territories with artificially created borders dividing most of the political entities. Borders were merely the consequence of rival colonial armies reaching their limits or making deals between themselves. The colonising powers used a combination of warfare, threat of force and treaties with African rulers to establish control over Africa.
At the end of the 19th century, Europe slumped into an economic depression and the colonies were told that they had to be self sufficient, raising taxes and funds from within the colony to pay for colonial administration, including the colonial army and police force. Consequently, the material and human resources in the colonies were ruthlessly exploited.
After 1900, European colonial governments began to introduce changes to colonial rule to increase revenues. These changes included taking land from Africans and giving it to European settlers. They also introduced taxes such as the hut tax and poll tax that forced the Africans to work for the settlers in order to pay taxes in cash instead of cattle or crops, as was the previous practice.
The exploitation of African labour only fuelled resentment against the European employers. Resistance movements began to rise in colonies with a growing number of settlers where more and more land was being taken from the Africans.
Some tribal chiefs organised revolts against this exploitation. One such Chief was the Zulu Chief Bambatha, who organised an armed rebellion against the British after they had imposed a poll tax of £1 on his people and taken land from them. It took the British a full year to suppress the uprising, killing 3,000 Zulus and Chief Bambatha.
Similar revolts took place in Eastern Africa, South West Africa and Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). Similar patterns of forced labour and taxation across Africa led to revolts that were ruthlessly crushed by overwhelmingly superior firepower.
Most colonies, except South Africa, developed single- or double-industry economies. For example, Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) became a series of copper mines while Southern Rhodesia grew tobacco and had huge cattle ranches. Angola and Kenya grew coffee whilst Tanganyika grew cotton. All of it was to service the industrialisation of Europe.
Political parties began to be formed in urban areas where some men had received education at missionary schools, but these were no more than civil rights campaigners. Perhaps the biggest single factor in spawning the liberation movements that followed the Second World War was that Africans fought as soldiers in that war.
Africans played an important role in liberating Ethiopia from Italian rule and creating an independent Ethiopia. If it could happen in Ethiopia it could happen anywhere. In 1947 India won its independence from Britain, providing yet another example.
After the war, Britain occupied Libya but the UN set a deadline for its independence. In 1951, Britain handed power to a safe pair of hands in Libya – King Idris – but faced the Mau Mau uprising in its Kenyan colony from 1952, and a campaign of strikes and civil disobedience by Kwame Nkrumah’s followers in Gold Coast (Ghana).
By 1954, Algerians were using weapons left from the Second World War to launch their revolution against French colonialism and won independence in 1962. Inspired by these struggles, liberation movements grew across the African continent.
Colonising to the end
Was capitalism’s colonisation of Africa coming to an end? It didn't go quietly. As soon as Algeria declared independence, France encouraged Morocco to invade. When Congo gained independence from Belgium in 1960 under Patrice Lumumba, the US and Belgium tried to separate mineral-rich Katanga Province from the rest of the country. Lumumba was toppled in a coup and shot.
By the 1970s, Portugal was engaged in military conflicts in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea Bissau, where Soviet and Cuban assistance was given to liberation movements. Cubans fought alongside freedom fighters in Guinea Bissau, inflicting a major defeat upon Portuguese troops – precipitating a military coup that brought down the fascist Portuguese regime and leading eventually to independence for all of Portugal’s African colonies.
Zimbabwean nationalists were fighting the illegal settler government while the ANC in South Africa and SWAPO in occupied Namibia were taking on the apartheid settler regime in South Africa. These two settler regimes, backed by the USA, continued with a bloody and ruthless war against newly independent Mozambique and Angola as well as their own people, with South Africa taking over the war against Mozambique after Zimbabwe won its independence.
Their wars were effectively ended in 1988 when the Apartheid regime was defeated by Cuban, SWAPO and Angolan forces at Cuito Cuanavale. So the fall of the apartheid regime marked the end of colonialism as we knew it in Africa. ■