ON July 18, we marked the Nelson Mandela International Day. The day was declared by the United Nations General Assembly in 2009 to honour the legacy of the former South Africa’s President in fighting for social justice.
It is celebrated annually on Mandela’s birthday, July 18, and this year it had fallen on Mandela’s 100th birthday. Mandela is remembered for spearheading the freedom struggle in South Africa, during which he was imprisoned for 27 years.
In the first multi-racial, majority rule and democratic elections in 1994, after his release from prison in 1990, he became the first President of free South Africa for five years until his retirement in 1999. He died on December 5. 2013, aged 95.
As we mark this day, we should remind ourselves about the anti-colonial and anti-apartheid struggle in southern Africa, how it was waged and who rendered support.
During the 1950s and early 1960s, the world witnessed heroic efforts by African nationalists to liberate the continent from colonialism and to crush minority and racist regimes in Zimbabwe and South Africa.
The colonial powers, Great Britain, France, German, Portugal and Belgium, had entrenched themselves in almost the whole of the continent. The Berlin conference of 1884-1885 organized and attended by these European powers, regulated the conquest and partitioning of Africa.
The continent had then become a prey, with everyone with a sharp knife taking a chop. Historians are reminding us that these colonialists did not invade Africa by accidents. It was an elaborate plan by these powers to get cheap raw materials for their industries, to obtain new markets and to expand their hegemony.
Before the colonialists came, teams of missionaries, the so-called explorers and researchers, trekked the continent and their reports back home formed the basis of decisions on how to go about colonizing Africa.
This is how the plunder of Africa began. We also know from history that our ancestors were very welcoming. They did not shun visitors, like traders, merchants and missionaries. The influx of traders and merchants from Persia and Arabia and the old settlements along the East African coast several millennia ago, is a testimony to this.
Other evidence is the establishment of Swahili culture in the Eastern African coast which came as a result of inter-marriages between indigenous Africans on one hand and Arabs and Persians on the other. But our elders were against those who wanted to forcefully take their land and plunder their resources.
That is why Africa has a history of resistance against these foreign invaders. The wars fought by our ancestors in Southern Africa, the Maji Maji and Mkwawa resistance against the Germans in the then Tanganyika and even the Mau Mau uprising against white settlers in Kenya signify the abhorrence towards the ruthless foreign invaders.
The wars fought by our ancestors inspired the African nationalists to continue the struggle to liberate their fatherland. The struggle was by peaceful means in some areas and violent in others. As a result, all the 54 African countries are now independent– free from colonialism and racist domination, the latest in that sequence being South Africa, in 1994.
We should ask ourselves today, how this struggle was waged and who supported these efforts. The Southern African liberation struggle was waged during the so-called Cold War-the rivalry between the western capitalist nations.
Led by the United States and the eastern socialist nations, led by the then Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR, now the Russian Federation which assumed the rights and obligations of the Soviet Union after the political changes of 1991).
The rivalry emerged in the aftermath of the Second World War of 1939 to 1945. The First World War was in 1914 to 1918. As the liberation struggle was actually a fight for social justice, it was thought that the western powers would support it with their abundant wealth.
But because of their fear that any military intervention would destroy their investments in Southern Africa being taken care of by the regimes there, these powers did not support the African nationalists’ efforts.
Instead the eastern camp, led by USSR, supported the struggle which then had taken a different dimension favouring armed struggle after all peaceful efforts were blocked. In this eastern camp was also China and the then East German.
The support was humanitarian, that is food, education and medical and logistical in the form of transport, military advise and equipment. But then, as a result of the cold war rivalry, the USSR was accused by the western powers of trying to implant communism in Africa and making inroads into the continent to ultimately exploit the abundant African natural resources.
But neither the communist bogey nor the exploitation of resources by the USSR occurred in Africa at the successful end of the liberation struggle. As a matter of fact, it is the other camp, the western powers, that are now enjoying abundant African natural resources through trade deals and concessions.
The imaginary threat of communism was well explained by Nelson Mandela in his statement of defence during the Rivonia trial in which he and other South African nationalists were being charged with sabotage and trying to violently bringing down the apartheid regime.
“At the outset,” Mandela said, “I want to say that the suggestion made by the State that the struggle in South Africa is under the influence of foreigners or communists is wholly incorrect.
“I have done whatever I did, both as an individual and as a leader of my people, because of my experience in South Africa and my own proudly felt African background, and not because of what any outsider might have said,” he said.
He added: “In my youth in the Transkei, I listened to the elders of my tribe telling stories of the old days. Amongst the tales they related to me were those of wars fought by our ancestors in defence of the fatherland…I hoped then that life might offer me the opportunity to serve my people and make my own humble contribution to their freedom struggle.
This is what has motivated me in all that I have done in relation to the charges made against me in this case “. Nkwabi Ng’wanakilala, former Director of Tanzania News Agency (SHIHATA) and former Director of Radio Tanzania, in his 1982 book in Kiswahili “Muhtasari wa Mapambano ya Ukombozi Kusini mwa Afrika” (Summary of the Liberation Struggle in Southern Africa), dismissed the so-called communist threat.
He said the issue of anti-communism is being brought up by western powers as a bulwark for their status and investments in the area. “There is no any country in Southern Africa you could call communist, and those seen to be in that camp are actually with governments pursuing what could be termed African socialism,” according to Ng’wanakilala.
On Russian involvement in the struggle, Vladimir Shubin, from the Institute of African Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, tried to put the record straight in his 2008 book The Hot ‘Cold War’: The USSR in Southern Africa.
Shubin complained at the tendency of “western academics and politicians” to look at the armed conflict in Southern Africa through the distorting prism of super powers’ rivalry during the cold war. “… The struggle was part of the world anti-imperialist struggle waged by the socialist community, the national liberation movements and working class of the capitalist countries…”.
It is true that the struggle was internationalist. That is why there were a lot of sentiments against colonial oppression and apartheid within the western countries themselves. Public rallies and demonstrations were organized in support of the liberation struggle and much-needed humanitarian aid was collected and sent to the liberation movements.