Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
30 Dec. 1999 - 5 Jan. 2000
Issue No. 462
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues
20th century Special issue  [INDEX]

Past over present

Africa struggles to look towards the 21st century, but the appalling scars left by its brutal past --slavery and colonialism --coupled with the bitter disappointment over the post-independence promise, will take a long time to heal. Gamal Nkrumah reviews the history of 20th century Africa


In German South-West Africa the Herero people's uprising against European settler colonialism was ruthlessly put down. The Germans adopted a genocidal strategy of repression in which 500,000 people perished


It might sound rather cliché, but life for most Africans born in the 20th century was filled with despair. Disillusionment with desultory attempts to eradicate poverty, disease and ignorance was, not surprisingly, the distinguishing feature of the continent's political scene. Something went terribly wrong with the promise of the newly independent Africa of the 1960s --so wrong that some Africans today, as we usher in a new century, are calling for the re-colonisation of the continent by Western powers.

Africa, more than any other continent, has found it impossibly difficult to escape its painful past. The continent tried hard --and for a few glorious moments during this century it basked triumphantly in breaking the shackles of past centuries. Former South African President Nelson Mandela personified Africa's triumph over racial discrimination. Still, the "Dark Continent" maintained a sombre mood throughout this century. Even in South Africa, the yawning gap between rich and poor, and that between black and white, mars Mandela's noble anti-apartheid struggle. The pain of the past cannot be assuaged, because the present is far from satisfactory and the future looks bleak.

Africa, the universally-acknowledged cradle of mankind and of human civilisation, was milked dry by European invaders for the past five centuries --ever since the first European, the Portuguese navigator Joao de Santarem, landed in Elmina, on West Africa's Gold Coast in 1470. From that same coast emerged a man, my father Kwame Nkrumah, who was to symbolise the resolve of a vanquished people and rebirth of the victimised continent. He was as much a man of his times as a man ahead of his times --that latter characteristic proved to be both the secret of his success and the cause of his own undoing. Nkrumah emerged at the right historical moment, but the continent was not ready for his political message.

Men like my father were carrying the cudgel for their continent, and not just their country. "The independence of Ghana is meaningless without the total liberation of Africa," he said. For Africa, 1957 was a watershed year. The British West African colony of the Gold Coast became independent as Ghana, the name of the medieval African empire fabled as the "Land of Gold." Kwame Nkrumah, became the first prime minister of an independent African country south of the Sahara. Guinea followed in Ghana's footsteps in 1958, and in 1960 no less than 14 African countries gained their independence. Former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan memorably described the spirit of the time. In a speech to the South African Parliament in 1960, he made his now famous comment that, "a wind of change" was blowing through Africa.

The African anti-colonial struggle has had a noble history. However, its short-lived glory has culminated in the hugely disappointing political quagmire of the post-independence period. Nightmarishly, the past returned to haunt Africa like a ghost that refuses to be exorcised.

In the first half of the 20th century, Africa, the "Mother of all Continents", was reduced to the status of a "Child of Europe". As the century unfolded, Africa struggled to wean itself from the West's cultural, economic and political stranglehold. In the early decades of the 20th Century, the West to Africans was essentially Europe --the Europe of the colonial powers that ruled the continent with an iron fist. Africa had been progressively humbled by Europe in almost every sphere, until the tide was turned when Europe was embroiled in World War II. With the atrocities of the war, the Holocaust and the racism of the Nazi ideology, Europe ceased to represent the ideal and Africa gained the moral upper hand, at least for a decade or two.

But, Africa's triumph was short-lived. Towards the final years of the 20th century, Africa was fast becoming merely an appendage of America. The United States had usurped the role Europe traditionally played in Africa. What is more, the old resolve to rid the continent of European domination that climaxed with Africa's anti-colonial and national liberation struggles in the 1950s and 1960s, has succumbed to the advance of Pax Americana.


The body of Steve Biko in a prison in King Williamstown, South Africa. Biko leader of the Black Consciousness Movement, was arrested on August 1977, and died soon afterwards. In 1997 five former members of the South African security forces admitted to killing Biko who died a year after the Soweto riots which rocked apartheid South Africa.


At this historical juncture, it is the United States that has emerged as the key player in all of Africa's many conflicts. Washington, not Paris or London, apparently holds the strings to peace and prosperity in Africa. A majority of the continent's leaders subscribe to this hypothesis and base their policies on the logic of Pax Americana. How this situation came about is testament to the fact that Africa, like all the other continents --including Europe --has come under the sway of the United States.

Ironically, the most politically consequential year for 20th century Africa did not even belong to that most eventful of centuries. The year was 1884, when representatives of European powers meeting in the German capital Berlin carved up the continent according to European spheres of influence. Colonial entities that bore no relation whatsoever to the cultural, ethnic, linguistic and religious realities that existed on the African continent were concocted by European colonialists and cartographers. The 1884 Berlin Conference not only spelt disaster for pre-colonial African political entities, but condemned Africans to suffer those dreamed up in Berlin. The conference also officially inaugurated one of the most brutal chapters in the continent's history --the "Scramble for Africa".

By the time the 20th century actually commenced, the future of the ill-fated continent was already sealed. The Germans had all but wiped out the Herero people of Namibia; Britain had pacified and formally annexed the bellicose Ashanti empire in West Africa in 1900, and humbled the hitherto invincible Zulu warriors of South Africa in the battles of Rorke's Drift and Ulundi (1879); France had vanquished numerous Muslim emirates and sultanates in Central, West and North-West Africa, only to be checked by Britain at Fashoda, Sudan, in 1898. Africa has not yet recovered from the calamity visited upon it in the aftermath of Berlin. Indeed, Africa is still waiting for the iron cuffs and shackles of Berlin's legacy to be unlocked.

The war between the British and the Boer was in full swing at the end of the 19th century. The Boer people --European, mainly Dutch, settlers who had made southern Africa their homeland by displacing, enslaving and ruthlessly annihilating indigenous African tribes --were finally subdued when they reluctantly recognised British sovereignty over South Africa and signed the Treaty of Vereening in 1902.

In other aspects, too, Africa of the 20th century was a child of the 19th century. In 1885, Mohamed Ahmed Al-Mahdi, whose fighting dervishes had routed Anglo-British forces two years earlier, died mysteriously after his warriors slew Gen Charles Gordon in Khartoum. The event, which captured public imagination at the time, was to linger on well into the 20th century when in 1966 the Hollywood film Khartoum dramatised it.

Khartoum, of course, inadvertently played a significant role in the last decade of the 20th century when a military coup ousted the democratically-elected government of the Oxford-educated Sadig Al-Mahdi. He is a great grandson of the 19th century messianic leader, Mohamed Ahmad Al-Mahdi, whose militant Islamist warriors first penetrated deep inside what is today southern Sudan, incorporating a whole swathe of territory in eastern and central Africa, far beyond the boundaries of today's Republic of Sudan, into a theocratic empire under their black, red and green banner of an orthodox, but decidedly African, Islam. Had it not been for European colonialism, the forces of Islam driving southwards from Khartoum, and westwards from the Indian Ocean Island-Sultanate of Zanzibar would undoubtedly have reached the African shores of the Atlantic. The spread of Islam in Africa, of course, topped the agenda of Dr Hassan Al-Turabi, the chief ideologue and leader of Sudan's National Islamic Front --a movement that managed in the 1990s to systematically Islamise Sudan's leading professional associations and national institutions. If Al-Turabi had had his way, the rest of Africa could have followed suit.


Nasser


ARAB AND AFRICAN: Al-Turabi's experiment touched a raw nerve. Race has been a principal factor in African politics in the 20th century. When coupled with religion, race becomes a most dangerous combustible issue.

Africans of all colours have very long memories. People south of the Sahara have not forgotten the Arab slave trade which both preceded and outlasted the European slave trade and are highly critical of what they see as persisting racist attitudes in North Africa. European settlers in southern Africa, the so-called Afrikaans, who have made Africa their home for some 400 years, still tenaciously hold on to their European cultural heritage including the Protestant Christianity they fled Europe for. The descendants of Arabs who conquered the entire northern two-fifths of the continent still look towards Arabia for their cultural roots and they influenced the cultures of not only the Nile Valley and the Maghreb (Northwest Africa), but also the cultural expression of the Islamised peoples of much of West Africa, parts of Central Africa and the entire East African Indian Ocean coastline. The spread of Islam in Africa was not always peaceful. For many Africans, Islamisation was inextricably intertwined with slave raids, devastating Jihad and an alien militaristic and patriarchal culture oriented towards Arabia and Islam, which sharply contrasted with the African-centred, very often matrilineal and ritual-laden cultures of traditional Africa. Reports of captive prisoners of war in the Sudan and of Arab slave traders --the Baggara, Al-Messiriya and Ruzaigat tribal militias razing southern Sudanese villages and enslaving the hapless inhabitants --are etched into the memories of Africans south of the Sahara.

It is in this context that Al-Turabi's agenda, and in particular his now defunct "Islamic Civilisational Project" perturbed his neighbours. He propounded the export of its ideology to the rest of Africa, and regularly hosted seminars and conferences that focused on the Islamisation of Africa south of the Sahara.


Nkrumah


But hostility to Arab African participation in Pan-African issues long predates Al-Turabi's Islamic Civilisational Project. The disputes between Africans who insisted on including Arab Africa in the Pan-African project and those who resisted Arab intrusion into what they saw as an exclusively Black question have survived to this day. The 1989 war between "Black" African Senegal and its "Arab" neighbour, Mauritania, epitomised the divide. Indeed, in some quarters those who advocate excluding Arabs from the Pan-African project have become increasingly prominent, both in the continent and among the African diaspora in the US and Europe. But the disputes, which gave rise to a massive body of polemic literature, were especially charged during the immediate post-independence years.

Another important figure who greatly influenced 20th Century Africa in this respect wasn't even African, but was instead from the Caribbean --Martinique psychologist and political theorist Frantz Fanon who wrote Black Skin, White Masks (1952) and the Wretched of the Earth (1961) now classics. Fanon chose to live and work in Algeria and fought in that country's struggle for liberation. Fanon's work clearly played down the racialised identity politics of those who stressed the race factor. His Black Skin, White Masks focused on the psychological effects of racism and colonialism, while his Wretched of the Earth was perhaps one of the best studies on the pitfalls of decolonisation. Significantly, his work had a tremendous impact on the political thinking of an entire generation of Africans.

Negritude, or black cultural nationalism, which was infused with a strong dose of Francophilia, was also more prevalent in French-speaking Africa. The main proponent of Negritude was former Senegalese president Léopold Sédar Senghor. But Negritude was first used as a political concept in French literature in 1939 by Aimé Césaire, a French citizen of Caribbean origin.


Lumumba


Negritude was welcomed by the French government, especially during the Algerian war of liberation. France, which used central and West African troops to quell the struggle in Algeria had quite deliberately adopted a policy of separating Arab Africa from its other colonies and later neo-colonies south of the Sahara.

This philosophy was also anti-Marxist. In 1971, at a conference on Négritude in Dakar, Senegal, Senghor sited Négritude within the context of other liberation theories saying, "The real ideological conflict was not between Pan-Arabism and Negritude, but between the two nationalist concepts on the one hand, and Marxism-Leninism on the other."

In the Cold War years, those who espoused the philosophy of Negritude were the most opposed to linking what was termed "Black Liberation" with the "international struggle against capitalism and imperialism", to use the language of those times. A focus on the former gave rise to the founding of a League of Black African States in the late 1970s at the urging of former Zairean dictator Mobutu Sese Seku as an alternative to the more inclusive Organisation of African Unity (OAU). Founded in 1963, the OAU grouped African countries north and south of the Sahara.

On the other hand, African leaders like Sekou Toure and Kwame Nkrumah staged a concerted attack on Negritude. Nkrumah, with his close friendship and association with Gamal Abdel Nasser, was instrumental in including Arab Africa in the continental Pan-African project and the OAU. The incorporation of Arab Africa in the Pan-African project was strengthened by the creation of the so-called Casablanca Group in 1961, which included Ghana, Guinea, Egypt, Mali, Morocco and the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN). It highlighted Black Africa's interest in the affairs of North Africa and was a deliberate demonstration of solidarity with the Algerian people in their liberation war. Casablanca set the precedent for African-Arab cooperation in the OAU.

Nasser's Egypt made a point of relinquishing its claim to Sudan in 1956 and began to reach out to sub-Saharan Africa. Soon after, Nasser's Egypt began broadcasting anti-colonial messages on the then newly-established Voice of Africa, not only in Arabic, but also in many African languages, including Kiswahili, Hausa, Zulu, Tigrinya and Somali. Cairo became a hotbed of revolution with many African liberation movements opening offices in the city. Emphasising the importance of an African dimension to Egypt's identity by linking this with Arab and Islamic aspects in his three theoretical circles, Nasser made a concerted effort to establish Egypt as a key player in African affairs.


Mandela


In spite of Nasser's endeavours and the strong Pan-Africanist trend south of the Sahara, the Second World Festival of Black and African Art and Culture (FESTAC) that took place in Lagos, Nigeria (14 January-12 February, 1977) was a battleground of the pro-Arab and anti-Arab factions. Black "cultural nationalists" fought to exclude Arabs and other "white Africans" from the festivities. The host nation was at wit's end. Guinea and Arab North African countries insisted that FESTAC be a continental African cultural festival. The late Guinean President Ahmad Sekou Touré staged a virulent attack on Negritude, which he saw as diametrically opposed to African continental unity. Sekou Touré declared Negritude, "fatal to Pan-Africanism".

African countries stood by the Arabs in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war despite the fact that the sharp rise in oil prices seriously harmed most African countries which imported fuel. In 1976, Palestinian hijackers seized a French aircraft with mostly Israeli passengers on board and flew it to Entebbe, Uganda. Amid much publicity, Israeli commandos freed the hostages. The spilling over of Arab-Israeli and Arab-Western conflicts into Africa south of the Sahara was not always welcomed by Africans. The scenario came to life once again when it was alleged that Osama Bin Laden, the Saudi-born millionaire and militant Islamist ideologue, sent his hit men to bomb the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam in October, 1998. Incidents such as these, coupled with the on-going civil war in Sudan, tended to sour relations between Africans north and south of the Sahara. Still, African countries tended to sympathise politically with Arab causes and resisted the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel in order to maintain solidarity with the Palestinians, even after Egypt, Africa's most populous and influential Arab country, established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1980.

PAN-AFRICANISM: A serious exploration of the history of Africa in the 20th century requires the examination of the prominent role played by the African diaspora in shaping the course of political development in the continent, particularly in its formative stages. Within this context, the philosophy of Pan-Africanism stood out.

This philosophy, and with it the seeds of African independence and unity movements, were deeply rooted in the politics of African students that emerged in the colonial metropolitan powers, namely, Britain, France and Portugal. Similarly, movements urging African-American emancipation and struggles aimed at the elimination of racial segregation and discrimination in the US played a vital role in raising the political consciousness of Africa's independence leaders.

Key African leaders chose to study in the US --Kwame Nkrumah and Nnamdi Azikiwe, the first presidents of Ghana and Nigeria respectively, were among these. Surely, Nkrumah was not alone when he wrote that his American experience left an indelible mark on the development of his political thinking.

Jamaican-born Marcus Mosiah Garvey had perhaps the most significant impact on the development of the political consciousness of people of African descent in Europe, the Americas and the Caribbean as well as continental Africa. Politically-minded Africans of my father's generation, in particular, were captivated by Garvey's ideas. In his autobiography Nkrumah identifies Garvey as the thinker who had the greatest political and ideological influence on him.

Garvey nurtured black and African consciousness in three continents; an accomplishment facilitated in part by his founding of the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in the US in the early 1920's. This association instantly became the most popular political organisation among blacks in America, and it soon spread to Britain, continental Europe, the Caribbean and Africa. Urging all people of African descent to return to Africa, Garvey also preached self-reliance and above all he stressed organisation --both political and social.

The emergence of student groups was instrumental in the convening of the first Pan-African conference in London in 1900. Delegates came from Africa and the Caribbean as well as from the United States. This conference, which was the first of its kind, became a historical landmark in the development of Pan-Africanism. In its early stages this movement was often called "Ethiopianism" because even though hardly any of its organisers came from Ethiopia, it was a symbol of African independence since it was the only country on the continent which at that time had not been subjected to colonial rule. The Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 engendered a great surge of Pan-African sentiment and became a rallying point for activists.

In 1919 the second Pan-African Congress gathering was held after a hiatus of nearly two decades, followed additional congresses in the 1920s. "These [conferences] were mainly attended by intellectual and other bourgeois elements," Nkrumah would later remark.

The Fifth Pan-African Congress held in Manchester, England, in 1927, was radically different from previous such conferences in that it brought the theme of national liberation to the fore. This conference saw participation by an unprecedented number of continental Africans, as opposed to diaspora Africans from the US and Europe who dominated previous conferences. Notably, it was the last Pan-African conference to be held outside of Africa. Among the Africans who participated were Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya and Peter Abrahams of South Africa. "For the first time, there was strong worker and student participation, and most of the over 200 delegates who attended came from Africa. They represented the re-awakening of African political consciousness; and it was no surprise when the congress adopted socialism as its political philosophy," wrote Nkrumah.

Soon after that congress, Nkrumah returned to his native Gold Coast to pioneer the independence struggle, and was elected prime minister in 1954. Following Ghana's independence in 1957, he invited some of his old comrades, such as the celebrated Caribbean-born Pan-Africanist George Padmore, to live in Ghana and further the cause of continental Pan-Africanism. Other actions which contributed to the promotion of Pan-Africanism from within Africa were the establishment of the African Affairs Centre in Accra by Nkrumah in 1958. That same year, the centre sponsored the first Conference of Independent African States which was held in Accra. This meeting was instrumental in accelerating the pace of African liberation. It is notable that at that time there were only seven independent states in Africa, namely, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Liberia, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia. Later that same year, Nkrumah convened the All-African Peoples Conference with no less than 62 political organisations from across the continent participating.

Back in the United States, which was in the throes of McCarthyism, African American scholar W.E.B. Du Bois' passport had been confiscated by the anti-communist State Department of John Foster Dulles. Nkrumah promptly invited DuBois to come and live in Ghana, and the veteran Pan-Africanist, at that time, well over 90 years of age, renounced his American citizenship and became a Ghanaian national. DuBois and Alphaeus Hunton were subsequently invited by Nkrumah to produce the Encyclopaedia Africana (EAP), a project first envisioned by DuBois. Nkrumah's Ghana offered the first tentative opportunity for Pan-Africanism in the African continent. As successive Pan-African congresses were convened on African soil the philosophy began to take root. Tanzania's capital, Dar es-Salaam was the site of the Sixth Pan-African Congress in 1974 which was another ground-breaking event. It saw tensions between "Marxists" and "Cultural Nationalists" come to the fore. By then, Pan-Africanism was clearly an aside in African politics. The liberation struggle against settler colonialism in the southern part of the continent dominated discussions. Dar es-Salaam had become the new Mecca of freedom fighters and housed the headquarters of all the major African liberation movements, a role it had inherited from Nkrumah's Accra.

By far the single most important political development in the last two decades of the century was the anti-apartheid struggle. The drive towards political independence was delayed in southern Africa because of European settler resistance to "Black majority rule". In Namibia, Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa the whites refused to hand over power to the indigenous Africans. Denied a recourse to peaceful political action and agitation for independence, indigenous Africans in these countries, like the Algerians, took up armed struggle. Such a route contrasted with that followed by Africans in West Africa and most eastern and central African countries who were given the opportunity to follow the path of a constitutional transfer of political control from colonial power to the anti-colonial African political parties. African resistance to European settler rule was ruthlessly put down. In German South-West Africa, Namibia today, an uprising by the Herero people in 1904 was mercilessly crushed. The Germans led a genocidal war which decimated the local population. An estimated 500,000 people perished, and their traditional farming and grazing lands were handed over to German settlers. Even after Germany formally ceded all its colonial territories in Africa in the aftermath of World War I, including South-West Africa, the Germans stayed on. It was left to the South-West African People's Organisation (SWAPO) to liberate Namibia from apartheid South African rule. In Kenya, the Mau Mau insurrection led to the imposition of a state of emergency in 1952 and Jomo Kenyatta, the leader of the Kenya African Union (KANU) the main party fighting for independence was arrested and jailed for supporting Mau Mau freedom fighters.

In 1962, the Rhodesian Front (RF) came to power in Zimbabwe as a result of an election in which only whites were allowed to vote. The RF intensified segregation and racial discrimination and reinforced the repression of African nationalists. In 1965, it unilaterally declared independence from Britain. Also in 1962, a war of national liberation erupted in Zimbabwe under the leadership of first the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU), led by Joshua Nkomo and primarily supported by the former Soviet Union. A year later disgruntled ethnic Shona freedom fighters formed the Chinese-backed Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) headed by Robert Mugabe. The armed struggle against European settlers was called the Second Chimurenga, or war of liberation, with the First Chimurenga being the 19th century and early 20th century indigenous resistance to European settler appropriation of African land.In 1979, at the height of one of Africa's most brutal wars of national independence, Nkomo and Mugabe flew to London to attend the Lancaster House Constitutional Conference and conclude a negotiated settlement.

The greatest unfinished business of the 20th century is overturning the legacy of racial discrimination in southern Africa. In spite of independence, most indigenous Africans in Zimbabwe have a very small income and poverty is on the rise. Wealth is still highly concentrated in the hands of a few, and much of this still predominantly in white hands, even if not exclusively so, as in Ian Smith's day. In Zimbabwe, there is another more specific piece of business waiting to be finished: the insatiable hunger for land is growing as the country's economic fortunes dwindle. Prime agricultural land is still largely in the hands of white commercial farmers, and in spite of periodic threats by the government to confiscate their land and redistribute it among black peasants, few believe that they will see such justice in their lifetime.

Perhaps the most shockingly painful "trial" of the century was that conducted by South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) which supposedly investigated apartheid-era crimes. While it did not have a mandate to punish those who committed the heinous crimes of the apartheid era, among the most appalling of which were the use of chemical and biological warfare on the country's indigenous African population, it was empowered to grant amnesty to those who admitted to committing human rights abuses between 1960 and 1994 who could prove that their acts were politically motivated. Some 10,000 people sought amnesty from the 17-member panel established by former president Nelson Mandela and chaired by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu. "The purpose of finding out the truth is not in order for people to be prosecuted, it is so that we can use the truth as part of the process of healing our nation," explained Archbishop Tutu. Sadly, many South Africans consider Tutu's words mere wishful thinking.

Utterly unconvincing, the TRC miserably failed to heal the wounds of the past. White and black witnesses testified before the TRC as part of a special investigation into the conduct of war by both the former apartheid government and the anti-apartheid liberation movements. The victims, predominantly blacks were outraged.Leaders of the Azanian People's Liberation Army (APLA), the former armed wing of the Pan-African Congress of Azania severely criticised the TRC as a "circus". Brigadier Dan Mofokeng, a former top APLA commander who is today a member of the post-apartheid South African National Defence Force said that he did not regret ordering attacks against white civilian targets and offered no apologies to the victims' families.

Apartheid leaders, too, were incensed. White generals said the South African Defense Force (SADF) had been an effective military force carrying out its patriotic duty. The SADF, they said, was not a political tool of the then ruling National Party, dominated by white Afrikaaners. They explained that the atrocities committed by both sides had to be seen in the context of the Cold War --the SADF was allegedly protecting South Africa from communist penetration of Southern Africa.

Among the many atrocities investigated by the TRC was the prison death of celebrated political activist Steve Biko in September 1977 and the April 1993 assassination of the charismatic communist leader, Chris Hani.

The TRC subpoenaed an unrepentant former South African President P W Botha and the ex-wife of President Mandela, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, a prominent anti-apartheid activist and president of the ANC's Women's League because of her alleged implication in the killing of 14-year-old Stompie Seipei at her home in October 1988.

Meanwhile, within the framework of post-apartheid South African justice, the trial of Wouter Basson, the veritable Dr Mengele of South Africa, opened in October, 1999, in Pretoria, South Africa. The army brigadier and heart surgeon who still practices medicine freely, faces 30 murder counts covering over 200 deaths. Basson, who was the personal cardiologist of former South African president P W Botha, denies the charges. Furthermore, he is widely identified as the chief architect of a scheme to sterilise people in black townships. South Africa's apartheid past can neither be forgotten nor forgiven.

But cynics might say that the outlook is not quite so bleak. Some apartheid landmarks, like the once notorious Robben Island, have been turned into tourist sites - providing instant history for their consumption.

PERSONAL NOTES: At my father's funeral in the Guinean capital Conakry in May, 1972, there were many African and foreign dignitaries present but two Africans and one Caribbean stood out. The first, of course, was Guinean President Ahmed Sekou Toure who officiated over the proceedings. Sekou Toure recalled how on 23 November, 1958, Ghana and Guinea united to form the nucleus for the United States of Africa that Nkrumah had long urged.

The other African leader was the now legendary Amilcar Cabral, head of the African party for the Independence of Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde (PAIGC). Cabral, perhaps more than any other revolutionary intellectual of his generation, emerged as an icon of the anti-colonial struggle A radical theorist, Cabral was assassinated a year after Nkrumah's death, but his battle cry, "a luta continua," like Nkrumah's "Africa must unite," lives on. The third was Cuba's Fidel Castro. I remember his thunderous "Down with Imperialism." Castro's Cuba, undoubtedly did more than any other non-African state to further the cause of African liberation. Cuban troops fought the apartheid South African-backed forces of Jonas Savimbi's Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) in Angola which were determined, and still are, to rob the Popular Movement for the Total Liberation of Angola (MPLA) government of the fruits of independence from Portugal in 1975.

In some respects, 1972, too, was a watershed year. It was the year the US lifted its ban on the importation of chrome and other metals from the European settler government of Rhodesia, which under the leadership of Ian Smith had declared a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) in 1965. Washington's decision meant that the internationally-imposed sanctions on UDI Rhodesia were rendered ineffective.

Also that year, in an unprecedented move Uganda's military ruler Idi Amin expelled 40,000 Asians. Ever since Asians never felt entirely secure in Africa, at least not until their near total identification with the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa two decades later.

With the mention of South Africa and Uganda, one immediately thinks of the continent's struggle with AIDS, a contemporay plague that has ravished Africa. AIDS, notwithstanding, the population explosion across Africa --with the notable exception of South Africa --means that the younger generation, who account for a big majority of the population, have no personal memories of the most striking events and personalities of the past. Patrice Lumumba, Kwame Nkrumah, Ahmed Sekou Toure, Julius Nyerere are no more. Only Mandela will live to see the 21st century. The pathos of older generations tends to be dwarfed by the ascent of apolitical and irreverent youngsters born after the anti-colonial struggle that gave birth to Africa's nation-states.

Today's disillusioned young ask many painful, but pertinent questions "Was national liberation really necessary? Are we actually better off today in the post-independence period?" Those of my generation are caught in the middle. We witnessed the great dramas that moulded the collective psyche of our parents generation, but we are also acutely conscious of how the hopes of our parents' generation were dashed. In the sixties there were thundering certainties. Today, there is only acrimonious scepticism and paralyzing political indecision. Two generations ago, Africans aspired to control their own destinies by ousting the colonial masters. Today, as the ruinous brain drain reveals, Africans aspire to move on to greener pastures overseas.

      Top of page
Front Page