Monday, 29 March 2010

Will South Africa go the Zimbabwe?

Almost every developing country in the world has been colonised and has gone through a freedom struggle. . The only exceptions I can think of are Afghanistan, Thailand, Iran and Bhutan in Asia and none at all in Africa or South America. South Africa is a bit different though. In South Africa, the Boers who came to hold power and who instituted apartheid which put the black population at a substantial disadvantage had to struggle against the British for their rights. Also, the Boers, when in power, were so much removed from the Dutch and not controlled by any western country. For this reason, South Africa’s colonisation is unique.

Though it was the Portuguese who successfully navigated around the Cape, it was the Dutch East India Company which in 1652 set up a trading garrison at Table Cape. Soon an assortment of Northern Europeans (mainly Dutch, but also Huguenots from France, Germans and some Scandinavians) who came to be called Boers formed farming settlements around Cape Colony. In the early 19th century, the British took over control of the Cape from the Dutch. The Boers didn’t particularly like the British and Boer settlements slowly expanded northwards from the Cape (mainly to get away from the British). Chaka, the head of a small Zulu clan, was at this time unifying the Zulu nation. Soon the expanding Boer settlements collided with the Zulu kingdom After Great King Chaka’s death, the Boers and the Zulus clashed frequently. The Boers didn’t always win. The Boers did not get on well with the British and they established various Boer republics such as Transvaal and the Orange Free State.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the British started to set up large sugar plantations in the Natal region. The Zulus were unwilling to work as labourers and so the British started to import indentured labourers from India. The Zulus did not make it easy for the British to expand their territory and there were a number of clashes. In the Battle of Isandlwana over 1400 British soldiers were killed.

Diamonds were discovered between 1866 and 1871 at a place called Kimberely and all the Free Boer States laid claim to this area. Thousands of entrepreneur miners poured in. The clever British quickly took over the Free Boer States. This led to a lot of resentment against the British which led to the First Boer War in which the Boers defeated the British at the Battle of Majuba Hill in February 1881. The Boers set up the South African Republic, whilst the British controlled Zululand.

Later gold was discovered at a place called Witwatersrand and many more thousands of miners, of all colours, poured into the South African Republic. The newcomers did not have voting rights. When the British pressed for this right for the newly arrived Whites, the South African Republic refused and this led to the Second Boer War. This time the British were a lot more prepared and they won the war after a year. Disgruntled Boers continued to fight using guerrilla tactics for another two years. In retaliation, the British resorted to scorched earth tactics and interned thousands of Boers in concentration camps. Over 26,000 of them died in those camps.

In 1909, the British merged the Boer states and the British colonies into a Union of South Africa. Akrikaners were given Home Rule and placed on par with Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Soon the South African parliament passed a number of laws which laid the foundation for Apartheid.

When the First World War started, the Boer-led government of South Africa sided with the Allied powers, though some Boers objected, memories of the concentration camps still fresh in some minds. When the Second World War started, Barry Hertzog, a pro-Nazi, Anti-British politician was the South African Prime Minister at the head of a coalition government. Hertzog was deposed and the pro-British Jan Smuts took over. In 1960, South Africa held a referendum and decided to become a Republic, severing all ties to the British crown.

The African National Congress (ANC) spearheaded the freedom struggle against Apartheid until free elections were held on 27 April 1994. Four years earlier, Nelson Mandela had been released from prison. Nelson Mandela was a good President. Though he had been imprisoned for two and a half decades, he did his best for national reconciliation. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established which has done a good job in investigating human rights abuses and granting amnesty for politically motivated offences. The armed wing of the ANC and the Azanian People's Liberation Army were integrated into the South African National Defence Forces. On the flip side, the inevitable brain drain started, prompted as much by the high crime rate and better salaries overseas as much as the change in regime. Also, Nelson Mandela’s government didn’t give much importance to the fight against AIDS, though after stepping down as President, he has spoken in support of those trying to prevent its spread.

Then in June 1999 Nelson Mandela stepped down and Thabo Mbeki came to power. A Xhosa like Nelson Mandela, Mbeki was also a member of the ANC and a freedom fighter. During Mbeki’s tenure as President, one which lasted almost ten years, he did a good job with the economy. In fact one of the reasons he succeeded Mandela was because he managed to convince white business leaders that it would be business as usual if he were in power. However, Mbeki achieved notoriety for denying a link between HIV and AIDS and blocking the distribution of anti-retroviral drugs in public hospitals, an action which cost many thousands of lives. Mbeki also earned disrepute for not using South Africa’s influence over Zimbabwe at a time when human rights abuses by Mugabe were at their zenith. The brain drain increased in outflow.

Mbeki was not allowed to complete his second term. Convinced that Mbeki was behind a series of corruption charges levelled against the popular vice-president Jacob Zuma, the ANC leadership recalled him from the Presidency and Jacob Zuma came to power. South Africa got a President who had faced not just corruption charges in the past, but also that of rape. A polygamist with five wives and twenty children, Zuma like to flaunt his Zulu culture and more importantly use it to justify his actions. I have in the past written an article wondering why polygamy shouldn’t be legalised. If two consenting adults can do whatever they like, three or more should be able to do the same, I had reasoned. However, I don’t think it is a good idea for a President to resort to polygamy, especially when it is not the law of the land (yet).

Jacob Zuma is an ANC veteran, just like Mandela and Mbeki. Unlike Mbeki, he has spent many years in jail. Unlike Mandela and Mbeki, Zuma is advocating a return to Zulu values and practice of polygamy is just one of them. And when it comes to the fight against AIDS, he is no better than Mbeki. In 2005, when he was accused of raping a woman who was HIV positive, Zuma said that he had taken a shower to reduce the risk of infection. After Jacob Zuma came to power, attacks on White farmers have increased in frequency. Julius Malema, currently head of the ANC’s youth league and a possible heir to Zuma is said to be behind these attacks. As more and more White South Africans flee from a country where they are made to feel unwelcome, the infrastructure deteriorates further.

It is easy to understand why some freedom fighters, once they are in power, insist on rejecting all the values and principles of the colonising power they fought against. Unsurprisingly, the ones who do not resort to blind opposition to Westerners and Western values do much better than the ones who do. Singapore is the best example of a colonised country turning into a developed country by accepting and adopting practically western business practices with a good dose of Confucian ethics. Within Africa, the ones that are relatively prosperous like Kenya, did not chase away its business elites after gaining independence.

In an ideal world, a newly independent country will have easy access to the best technology on offer. The departing colonial power will arrange for an easy transition of power. Those with know-how will stay on to train the newly liberated and leave in an orderly fashion. Unfortunately, it is not an orderly world and unless newly independent states go out of their way to assure the leaders of its economy of safety and freedom to do business, they will leave very quickly.

The best (or rather worst) example of a fertile land going to the dogs after independence is Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe got its independence through military action by the Zimbabwe African National Union headed by Robert Mugabe and the Zimbabwe African People’s Union headed by Joshua Nkomo. After independence, elections were held and Mugabe’s ZANU came to power. However, Mugabe who was a respected freedom fighter till then, has been at the delivering end of human rights abuses ever since. His troops have massacred Matabeles (a tribe rival to Mugabe’s Shona tribe). Land has been forcibly confiscated from White landowners for distribution to ZANU supporters. Mugabe claims that Zimbabwe’s White population which forms 1% of the total population controls over 70% of the land. It can’t be denied that the Whites in Zimbabwe own a large chunk of the land. However, arbitrary confiscation of land is not the way to run a country. Just as in the case of South Africa, the White landowners of Zimbabwe are people who have lived in Zimbabwe for generations and it is not really fair to ask them to pack up and leave as if they have houses and families tucked away in the UK or in the Netherlands. If Mugabe only wanted a fair redistribution of wealth, he ought to have set transparent parameters for taking over excess land from all landowners and distributing such land to the landless. Instead, one sees ZANU storm troopers attacking White owned farms and intimidating farmers and occasionally murdering them.

When the Soviet Union came into being, landlords were disposed of their lands enmasse and capitalists lost all their wealth. As a result, the Soviet Union suffered massive losses in agricultural production and industrial output. However, through its massive collectivisation programmes, the communists managed to catch up to some extent. They also managed to distribute the nation’s wealth relatively evenly. China did the same, though one shouldn’t forget that both countries unleashed suffering on a massive scale. Millions of peasants died before the benefits could be seen. North Korea on the other hand tried to do the same, but failed. It now survives solely on the basis of handouts from China. Is Mugabe planning something on these lines?

In this day and age, Mugabe is bound to fail if he continues with his attempts to disenfranchise the Whites and force them to give up their land. For one, the departing landlords and industrialists will not bother to stay back and train the native blacks in running a farm or a factory before they leave. Secondly, Mugabe has shown a terrific incapacity to be fair even with black people. Even if land is forcibly acquired, it will be given only to supporters of Mugabe. Finally, as in the case of South Africa, the Whites in Zimbabwe have lived there for many generations and are practically as much native with as much rights over the land as the blacks. Mugabe has shown no signs of wanting to change.

Zuma has a choice. He can either stop being a freedom fighter (now that he is in power) and focus on running the country, rather than belittling all western values, or he can imitate Robert Mugabe and let his country go to the dogs. Currently South Africa is still the most powerful country in Africa with world class infrastructure. It remains to be seen how long it will last.

6 comments:

the wanderer said...

ethiopia and liberia are two countries which were never colonised in africa..likewise thailand in asia was also not colonised..

Winnowed said...

Wanderer, in a sense you are right that Ethiopia was never a colony, but it was occupied by Italian troops for 5 years 1936–1941. I agree that Liberia was never colonised. I have mentioned Thailand in my article.

Ayyappadas Puthenmarath said...

Truly educative....

But one question that comes into my mind is why in some countries there is a substantial population of erstwhile coloniser to create a rift as in the case of RSA or Zimbawe and in some others they have either assimilated(or syncretised) to the local culture or simply vanished as in the case of South Asian countries. Any thoughts?

Winnowed said...

Thanks Ayyappadas.


In countries like South Africa and Zimbabwe, many of the colonisers took to agriculture rather than industry. Farmers cannot just pack up and leave as quickly as businessmen. For this reason, they are much more tied to the land than in the case of colonisers who went to say, crowded India, where there was little empty land for new comers. Of course, the Brits did set up plantations all over India, growing everything from rubber to indigo to coffee. However, you don’t form the sort of attachment you would get if you were a farmer with a family of ten kids and a couple of hundred hard working slaves. Equally important is that, in SA, the Boers had to struggle against the British for their rights.

Anonymous said...

One part of Ethiopia was occupied, the part that is now Eritrea. For that matter a part of Thailand was occupied too, so was a part of China. That's not teh same thing as Thailand or Ethiopia or China being colonized.

Winnowed said...

From 1890 till 1941, Eritrea was an Italian colony. Ethiopia was occupied by Italian troops for 5 years - from 1936 to 1941.

China has been colonised and occupied by so many other nations. First (in the 12th century) the Mongols occupied and ruled China for a couple of centuries. Later the Manchurians ruled China. Finally, China was under the control of, but not ruled by, various Western powers. The Japanese occupied parts of China before and during the second World War.

I have mentioned Thailand in my article as a nation which has never been colonised.