Nelson Mandela has died. A giant among men, he has left an indelible mark on human history. Madiba, as many call Mandela, is an inspiration to me. He was “prepared to die” for a “free society” and spent nearly 28 years in prison for his beliefs. Yet when he was unconditionally released from prison, he made peace with the very people that had taken away his liberty.
Those of us who were born in former European colonies have memories of our struggles for freedom seared into our souls. Just as Madiba heard the tales of “Dingane and Bambata, Hintsa and Makana, Squngthi and Dalasile, Moshoeshoe and Sekhukhuni,” fighting for their fatherland, I grew up with tales of the colonized who battled their masters and often lost their lives in the process. Madiba was spoken of in the same breath as Mahatma Gandhi.
Madiba continued the struggle that, as perhaps few know, Gandhi began in South Africa. Gandhi was thrown out of a train by a white ticket collector in Pietermaritzburg on June 7, 1893, for having the temerity to travel in a carriage meant only for whites. The Indian barrister spent the night shivering in the train station and proceeded to launch non-violent civil resistance movements against the South African government for the next 22 years. It was in South Africa that Gandhi began the work of dismantling the British Empire, and it was here that Madiba finished the work by destroying its last vestige – apartheid.
Colonization was inhuman. Those who were conquered lost their land, liberty and lives. Their dignity and identity were taken away from them. Madiba was Mandela’s Xhosa clan name, by which his countrymen know him. During colonization, natives frequently lost their language as well and, with time, their narratives. Christian missionaries worked hard to civilize natives, giving them names like Nelson. The so-called rule of law imposed by Europeans was, in reality, a system that institutionalized inequity and made people slaves in their own homes. Native institutions such as the Thembu court of village elders that Madiba referred to as “democracy in its purest form,” were ripped apart and replaced by rapacious bureaucracies characterized by oppression and corruption. Apartheid was the last surviving example of colonization.
The memories of colonization and the struggle for freedom ran strong in my family. Even as a child, I grew up listening to stories about Gandhi. The fact that he eschewed violence and office, dressed in a homespun loincloth and died a martyr at the hands of a fanatic, made Gandhi an iconic figure for my father’s generation. In fact, my father’s first memory as a child is the day Gandhi died. It was the first day he went hungry. His mother was too distraught to cook. He was two days short of his fourth birthday and even then, he realized that something momentous had happened.
I grew up watching Madiba, reading not only about his great achievements, but also his mistakes. Now that he is dead at 95, it seems the end of an era and I have struggled to pen down my thoughts.
The Era of Independence
After World War II, one colony after another gained independence. It began with Gandhi’s India in 1947 and intensified after the Anglo-French 1956 misadventure. The French tried to cling onto their colonies more tenaciously than the British. France failed to realize that just as it did not like living under German rule, Algeria and Vietnam might have similar aspirations for independence. Britain kept playing up close trade ties and the security provided by its control of the seas to keep the colonies loyal to the Queen.
Still, it proved less sentimental about cutting them loose and initiated a massive wave of decolonization. In February 1960, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan gave a historic speech in Cape Town, South Africa, where he spoke about “the wind of change blowing through this continent.” As the 1960s saw a massive wave of decolonization, South Africa slipped into the pernicious system of apartheid, a system of racial segregation enforced through legislation by its white minority.
By this time, the free market model was discredited in former colonies. In the past, this model included freedom to trade slaves and the subjugation of the non-white world. In truth, under colonial masters such as the British and the French, free markets were hardly free – or even markets at all. The colonies had experienced this policy and were now seeking alternative economic systems to address their deep problems of poverty and inequality. Even if they did not embrace communism, they were attracted by leftist ideas because they wanted to create more egalitarian societies after years of deep inequity.
The US did not quite understand these aspirations across Latin America, Africa and Asia. In 1953, it overthrew the first democratically elected government of Iran on the behest of the British. Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh had wanted 50 cents on every dollar that went to the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, the forerunner to BP. It was the same deal that Saudi Arabia had with the American company, Aramco, but the British wanted colonial-era exploitation to continue. By backing the British, the US established itself as the new imperial power that wanted freedom for white Europeans but enslavement for non-whites around the world.
In Africa, the US supported the interests of its imperial European allies. It backed the brutal British repression of the Mau Mau Revolt in Kenya. Over 1 million Kenyans were herded into detention camps known as Britain’s Gulag, and more than 100,000 of them died. The eight-year campaign of terror in the 1950s included beatings, torture and sexual abuse.
In the Congo, the US went further. In 1960, it actively connived with Belgium and the UK to engender the murder of Patrice Lumumba, the prime minister who had just led Congo to independence. Joseph Mobutu, the man who the US backed, went on to rule Congo for over three decades, murdering his opponents, looting the country and establishing a personality cult that rivaled that of North Korea.
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the US also went on to play a key role in the 1962 arrest of Madiba. Henceforth, many saw the US as a white supremacist power and the CIA as an organization specializing in murder, torture and coup d’états.
The free market model that the US was touting was now morally tainted. Washington was simply perceived as old European wine in a new American bottle, and the vast majority of former colonies were unwilling to drink it.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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