Africa’s “wind of change” and a 50 year struggle

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When UK Prime Minister Harold Macmillan addressed the whites-only South African parliament in February 1960, he could not have known that his remarks would come to be seen as the epitaph of European colonialism in Africa: “The wind of change is blowing through this continent and whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact. We must all accept it as a fact, and our national policies must take account of it.”

The dramatic events of 1960 (17 African countries achieving their independence) would have a far-reaching effect for decades to come – unifying the newly independent states around a common commitment to self-determination, and giving moral purpose and political direction to African foreign and regional policy. By the end of the long campaign against apartheid and colonialism in 1994, Africa’s struggle had gone global.

Ghana, the first ‘liberated zone’

For the early African nationalists, support for full decolonization was both a moral imperative and a practical necessity.

It was Ghana’s independence in 1957 under the leadership of Kwame Nkrumah that is most widely seen as the beginning of the African decolonization campaign. Mr. Nkrumah, a noted pan-African activist, committed the new nation to assisting other anti-colonial movements in his Independence Day speech. He declared, “Our independence is meaningless unless it is linked up with the total liberation of the African continent.”

Speaking in 1997, former Tanzanian President, Julius Nyerere, remarked that “Ghana was the beginning, our first liberated zone… Ghana inspired and deliberately spearheaded the independence struggle of the rest of Africa.”

In 1958 Ghana hosted a meeting of independent African states, including Ethiopia, Morocco, Egypt and Sudan, followed by a conference of anti-colonial movements from across the continent. Those events would help lay the groundwork for the launch of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and its liberation committee five years later. Other African countries, including Tanzania, would soon follow Ghana’s example.

Africa at war

By the time the OAU was established on 25 May 1963, the number of independent African countries stood at 32, and the principal of self-determination and majority rule was entrenched in the organization’s charter, which pledged its members “to eradicate all forms of colonialism from Africa.”

African support for armed resistance commenced well before the founding of the OAU. Amilcar Cabral, the head of the liberation movement in Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau, for example, issued his declaration of war against Portugal from Conakry, the capital of independent Guinea in 1961. OAU support would prove critical for the insurgents as the fighting escalated, and competition for influence and allies in Africa intensified among the superpowers.

Headquartered in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, the OAU’s Liberation Committee, as it was known, became the primary conduit for aid to the anti-colonial movements, including arms and training from socialist countries and rear bases and support from African states. Those were dangerous times.

Tanzania and Zambia opened training and base camps for the Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo) guerrillas in 1964, drawing retaliatory attacks from Portuguese forces into their territories. Guerrillas from Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress would be granted military facilities in those countries the following year, making them targets for South African attacks as well. Frelimo leader Eduardo Mondlane was killed by a Portuguese parcel bomb in Dar es Salaam in 1969.

On the front line

In a memoir of the time, Tanzanian journalist Godfrey Mwakikagile described Dar es Salaam during the 1960s and 1970s as “the epicentre of seismic activity on the African political landscape and beyond” and “a haven and an incubator for activists and revolutionaries from around the world,” due to the presence of the liberation movements and their supporters.

The military coup that overthrew the Portuguese government in 1974 brought an unexpectedly quick end to Portuguese colonialism in Africa, and changed the strategic balance in the region. With Zimbabwean guerrillas now operating across the long border with independent Mozambique, and its principal ally South Africa under mounting international economic and political pressure over its apartheid policies, the Rhodesian authorities had little choice but to negotiate the terms of independence. Those talks, held at Lancaster House in the UK, were greatly aided by a regional grouping of African countries, Angola, Botswana, Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia, known as the Front Line States.

Formed in 1976, the Front Line States maintained military and diplomatic pressure on the white minority regimes to accept the principal of majority rule. At the same time the front line presidents successfully demanded that Zimbabwe’s divided anti-colonial movement negotiate as a united front and accept some unpalatable compromises in order to reach a settlement. As a result, Zimbabwe became Africa’s 51st independent country on 18 April 1980 and the sixth front line state.

South Africa responded to the loss of its Portuguese and Rhodesian allies with stepped up repression at home and a “total strategy” of military and economic destabilization against its independent neighbours.

From destabilization to democracy

The Front Line States responded to South Africa’s new strategy with the Southern African Development Coordination Conference, a regional economic federation intended to lessen economic dependence on South Africa. The body would lay the groundwork for the post-apartheid Southern African Development Community (SADC) 12 years later.

The failure of South Africa’s regional strategy and the steady escalation of mass protests at home led to the removal of the hardline South African president, Pieter W. Botha in 1989. His replacement, F.W. de Klerk, released Nelson Mandela from prison the following year and unbanned the exiled anti-apartheid groups. Their negotiations eventually led to the end of apartheid on 10 May 1994 when Mr. Mandela became South Africa’s first democratically elected president.

Fifty years on, the “wind of change” blows across a transformed continent. A new generation, born independent, confronts the continuing challenges of forging unity, building democracy and enabling development. The struggle continues.

Africa Renewal  Africa Renewal magazine, published by the United Nations, examines Africa's development, achievements and challenges. It provides expert analysis and on-the-spot reporting to show how policies affect Africa's people.
Michael Fleshman
Michael Fleshman has been a writer and consultant for the UN Department of Public Information in New York since 2000, working primarily for the UN’s Africa Renewal Magazine and Africa Renewal Online programme. Prior to joining the UN he spent 20 years at the anti-apartheid American Committee On Africa and The Africa Fund, working to build US solidarity with the African liberation struggles in South and southern Africa, and with the Nigerian pro-democracy and environmental movements.
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