Impact of World War II: how the nature of political quest for independence in Africa changed after 1945

The fight against colonialism and imperialism in Africa

To understand what effects WW2 had on the nature of the fight against colonialism and imperialism in Africa we need to look at the climate just before WW2.

Rebellions Against Colonial Rule Before the Second World War

After 1900, Europe began to introduce changes to colonial rule in an effort to increase revenues from the colonies. These changes included taking land from African people and giving it to the growing number of Europeans in the colonies. The other changes were the introduction of taxes like the hut tax and poll tax that forced Africans to work for European settlers. Africans were forced to work for Europeans in order to pay these taxes. This was because the new taxes had to be paid in cash and not as cattle or crops as was the practice before. Exploitation of African labourers by European employers added to the growing resentment among the local people.

Resistance movements began to rise in Africa. In colonies with a growing number of settlers, the demand for more land and labour increased tensions between colonial authorities and the white communities that had settled in the colonies. More land was taken from African people and given to Europeans for settlement. In response to these developments, some chiefs organised rebellions against colonial authorities.

Revolt: To rise against the government with the aim of removing it and replacing it with another government that is more acceptable.

One of the chiefs who organised an armed rebellion against British colonial authority was Zulu Chief Bambatha. He was not happy with the loss of land his people suffered and the poll tax of one pound that they were forced to pay. His demand was that his people's land be returned and the poll tax lifted. The armed rebellion was finally crushed after lasting out a year. Chief Bambatha together with his 3000 followers was killed. There were similar revolts in Eastern Africa, South West Africa, and Zimbabwe. Like the Bambatha rebellions they were all crushed. In East Africa there was the Maji Maji revolt organised by Kinjigitile Ngwale in 1905. The revolt was against forced labour and tax policies forced upon the people by the German government, which was implementing a cotton scheme to increase her exports. To implement their scheme the Germans forced Africans to plant cotton instead of their traditional staple crops. And the Maji Maji revolted.

These Maji Maji revolts shared similar traits. In all of them there was a strong belief in African spirit mediums and a strong influence of Ethiopianism. This philosophy originated in Ethiopia. The aim of Ethiopianism was to restore African traditions and political structures. It rested on African faith in spirits to protect them. People believed that the spirits were capable of turning European bullets into water and that they would be immune to bullets by undertaking a cleansing ritual before battle. The initial success of the Maji Maji rebellions strengthened the people's belief in their spirit mediums. The African emphasis also managed to unite different ethnic groups to fight for the same purpose. However, pitted against European machine guns, the Africans were doomed to fail and they lost their faith in the protection of Maji Maji. About 26 000 people were killed by German forces. To avoid future rebellions the colonial government reduced its use of force and began to rely strongly on missionary education for implementing colonial policies.

An Uprising in Nyasaland (Malawi)

Not all uprisings in this period were influenced by African spirit mediums. In Nyasaland, now Malawi, the Christian church and the Seventh Day Adventist Church under the leadership of Priest John Chilembwe, played an important role organizing and carrying out an early uprising against colonial authority. John Chilembwe was the leader of this uprising to protest against the hut tax, which was increased by 8 shillings in 1909, and unfair labour practices on white owned estates. The First World War made matters even worse. John Chilembwe noticed that a large number of people who died while fighting against the Germans in September 1914 in Karonga were black people. He then wrote a letter to the Nyasaland Times newspaper challenging the idea that participation in the war would improve things for black people in Nyasaland.

John Chilembwe organised an armed rebellion against the colonial government. On the 23 January 1915, an armed group of men attacked the Livingstone Estate while another group attacked the Bruce Estate. A third group was sent to attack the Blantyre armoury in a bid to obtain weapons for an armed revolt on the capital, Zomba, to overthrow the colonial government. Although the first two attacks were successful, the attack on the Blantyre African Lakes Corporation Armoury was not and the final revolt failed. John Chilembwe was shot and killed while attempting to escape from Nyasaland. By the 4 February 1915, the uprising was over.

Though unsuccessful, the uprising prompted the government to reconsider the land and labour practices in Nyasaland. These were major causes of the uprising. They had been introduced mainly to exploit the colonies by extracting more labour from them and squeezing more productivity from the workers to lower the cost to the colony. At the same time taxation on black people was increased. The uprising had the effect of raising the awareness of black people to colonial rule and encouraged them to stand up for their rights and demand an end to colonial rule.

Herero Uprising

The rinderpest epidemic of 1896 to 1897 had destroyed the cattle of the Herero and Nama people of South West Africa, now Namibia. The Germans took advantage of the Herero's loss and occupied most of their good grazing land. At the same time, the German government adopted a policy of encouraging Germans to settle in the colonies. Because of this, more land was taken from the Herero people and given to German settlers.

In 1904 the Herero broke out in revolt and succeeded in regaining some of their land for a while. Hundreds of Germans were surrounded and killed by Herero fighters. The Herero tried to get the support of Nama people but failed to do so. The German government brought in reinforcements from Germany and was thus able to drive back the rebellions Herero.

Commander of the German forces, Lothar Von Trotha gave orders to shoot the Herero because, according to him, they no longer deserved German protection. Many Herero were killed and others fled to Botswana to hide. Because this was an attempt to wipe out all Hereros, it can be called genocide. The German victory resulted in more hardships for the Herero. All their remaining cattle were confiscated and their chiefs stripped of their authority.

The Formation of Political Parties

Another response to colonial transformation was the formation of political parties. These were formed by the small educated group of Africans mainly residing in developing colonial towns. These Africans were educated at missionary schools. At first, these parties did not seek to create a mass following, but to lobby their respective colonial governments to recognise the civil rights of Africans and protect and recognize the land rights of Africans in rural areas. The formation of political parties in this period reflected changes in African nationalism. It was now increasingly being influenced by western education and Christianity. This created a new educated social group in Africa, which was excluded from participating in colonial rule because they were Africans. Their aspirations were equality between Europeans and Africans and later they began to demand self-rule. From the beginning they worked closely with chiefs because they shared the same demands. But because colonial rule adopted chiefs into the administration of African people, the growing number of chiefs who were co-operating with colonial government strained the relationship between the new elite leaders and the chiefs. Furthermore, western educated leaders feared that because chiefs represent different ethnic groups, they would undermine the unity of African nationalism by causing ethnic rivalries in the colonies. Therefore they began to undermine chiefs in an attempt to overcome ethnic differences in the colonies.

In South Africa, the South African National Natives Congress (SANNC) was founded in 1912, becoming one of the earliest political parties. Following the 1913 Land Act that placed most of the land in white hands, the Congress sent a delegation to London to lobby the government to abolish the act. The delegation was not successful. Their approach to the government was in contrast to that of Chief Bambatha's. They did not call an all-outright British rebellion against colonial rule. Because of their western education the leaders of the SANNC were better placed to understand the politics of colonial rule. Unlike Chief Bambatha, their response appealed to all ethnic groups in South Africa. This made the SANNC response a national one against colonial injustices.

These new parties, like the SANNC were largely modelled on the American civil rights movement with the political independence cause playing a secondary role. Civil rights movements are mainly concerned with improving the human rights of followers. The aim was not to replace the form of government. The major political demand prior to the Second World War was for reforms and a more inclusive colonial government. These parties were Pan African in character. They did not recognise colonial borders. For example, in West Africa there was the National Congress of British West Africa (NCBWA) uniting political leaders in West African British Colonies.

The formation of political parties in South Africa was influenced by other developments in the country making it somewhat unique in the experience of colonialism in the continent. The development of the mining industry after the discovery of diamonds and gold rapidly transformed the South African economy.

The mining economy attracted labourers from both inside and outside South Africa. People came from as far as Nyasaland, Mozambique, and Zambia to South Africa as migrant labourers. Migration spread news and ideas about political, religious and other developments in the colonies. Out of this background, the Industrial and Commercial Union (ICU) representing Cape black dock-workers was formed. Its first President was Clements Kadalie from Nyasaland, now Malawi. The Industrial and Commercial Union expanded to represent black farmers and sharecroppers who had been forced off their farms.

Following the Second World War, colonial governments began to introduce significant reforms to prepare Africans for self-government. At the same time this war also marked increasing control of Africans by colonial governments. The steps for self-government were often just a pretext for more centralized colonial authority. These 'preparations' meant that the government would increase control over chiefs and centralise power in the hands of colonial governors who would introduce sweeping changes, especially in the field of agriculture without consideration of the wishes of African people. This approach led to the black people and African political parties becoming increasingly radical. After the war, most of these demanded independence from colonial rule.

Activity 1:

1. What caused revolts for independence from colonialism in the early 20th century in Africa?

2. Many of these revolts had similar underlining beliefs. Discuss these beliefs.

3. Explain the role of Christianity in the Nyasaland uprising

4. Why did these revolts fail?

5. In not more than one page explain the formation of early African political parties. What were their political demands?

Responses to Colonial Rule after the Second World War

After the Second World War, revolts and struggles against colonial rule no longer demanded reform but full political independence. This was influenced by African participation in the Second World War. Africans played an important role in the liberation of Ethiopia. Independence for Ethiopia showed that freedom from colonial occupation was possible and inspired other struggles for liberation.

Political parties that were formed in this period became more radical in their demands and received growing support. To a large extent this support came from the increasing number of Africans living in urban areas following the Second World War. The colonial government's expansion of education had also played a role in this. The spread of education and urbanisation of Africans led to the growth of ideas about independence. The people began to question colonial rule and challenged their exclusion from the governmental process. It was because of these developments that the process of decolonisation in Africa began.

Betterment Schemes: Policies of agricultural developments introduced by colonial governments in Africa in the post-WW2 period.

The Second World War began in 1939 and ended in 1945 destroying European economies for the second time. Once again they looked to their colonies to help. Before the war, there was a scientific rational approach to agricultural production. Soil erosion had been identified as a major cause of poor productivity. Betterment schemes were introduced in most colonies to prevent soil erosion and the general degradation of the soil. Colonial authorities were opposed to the use of African indigenous methods of farming because they believed these methods were inferior, ineffective and unscientific. As a result, African farmers became the main target of these betterment schemes. During the war betterment schemes were discontinued. Once the War was over, there was increased interest in soil preservation and conservation and betterment schemes were reintroduced in most parts of Africa.

In South Africa the implementation of betterment schemes forced black people off their farms and onto reserves. The government had created these reserves when they set aside 13 percent of the country's land for black people in terms of the Land Act of 1913.

Betterment schemes required that the number of cattle owned by black people be reduced to avoid over grazing and soil erosion. Once they were forced off their farms, available grazing land was hard to find and this had damaging effect on black livelihood threatening economic survival. Black people were not compensated for their loss of land and cattle. Compensation given to black cattle owners appeared more of a token gesture when compared to compensation given to white farmers. To implement betterment schemes, the government gave certain powers to traditional authorities to drive the schemes. This again took away from the autonomy of African societies.

In 1951 the South African government introduced a new law called the Bantu Authorities Act enabling it to control chiefs in rural areas. Chiefs were no longer accountable to their own people but to the government. The people began to see their chiefs as collaborators with the government who were no longer listening to their problems. In Pondoland and Tembuland people attacked chiefs who collaborated with the apartheid government and created their own traditional local assemblies to reject the Bantu Authorities Act.

Because African societies were largely agrarian, betterment schemes had an extremely negative impact on them. There were a series of revolts against betterment schemes in most parts of South Africa. These highlighted that an uprising to end colonial rule was possible. Reforms were no longer enough to satisfy black aspirations.

The Sekhukhuneland Revolt

The Sekhukhuneland revolt was organised by Pedi migrant workers in 1958. They formed an organisation called the Sebatakgomo. Migrant workers were not as concerned about urban politics as about the pressures being brought to bear on rural areas. These developments affected their control of land and the economic benefits they were getting from owning land in rural areas. The revolt was organised to challenge the introduction of betterment schemes and the Bantu Authorities Act.

Migrant men understood that the Bantu Authorities Act placed chiefs under the control of government instead of the people they were supposed to serve. They realised that the government would use chiefs to implement unpopular schemes like the betterment schemes and segregation of Africans. At the heart of this revolt was also the increasing control of migrant workers by the government through their chiefs.

Unlike the Nyasaland uprising, the Sekhukhuneland revolt did not attempt to overthrow the colonial government. The aim of the revolt was to protect the land of the Pedi from being taking away by the government and thus safeguard the integrity of the Pedi kingdom. Migrant workers attacked people suspected of collaborating with the government. These were chiefs who had accepted the Bantu Authorities Act and the betterment schemes. They were expelled from the villages and replaced by popular chiefs. The revolt was unsuccessful in the end. Effective rural revolt was only realised later through the efforts of South African political parties.

Activity 2:

In your own words write a paragraph explaining the differences in revolts against colonial rule before and after the Second World War. Answer the question in essay form. Your essay should be about 2 pages long. Remember that when you compare something, you have to look at both the differences as well as the similarities.

These points should be dealt with in your essay...

1. Why were these revolts unsuccessful or successful i.e. led to reforms or even independence?

2. Why did political parties after the Second World War become more radical?

3. Explain differences in political demands before the Second World War and after the Second World War.

4. Why did betterment schemes have a negative impact on African societies and why was resistance against betterment schemes mainly a rural resistance?

5. Consider the aim of the uprisers.