‘Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past’ – George Orwell
As George Orwell has stated above, the past and the present are two mutually influential forces; although the current world we live in may appear ambitious and progressive, it is shaped by its own history regardless of how forward-reaching its leaders are. African injustice is as much the consequence of our own imperialistic blunders as it is of the political turmoil and corruption embedded within its national governments. History has tormented the African continent, mercilessly oppressing its people through imperial conquest culminating with the eventual abandonment of this economic heartland, leaving rife ethnic tension and socio-economic depravity. African injustice is the by-product of history; Africa was Europe’s playpen to test its social Darwinian outlook and to experiment with the successes of divide, rule and conquer.
Europeans in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries were curious expansionists that, during the ‘scramble for Africa’, wanted to maximise their share of raw materials and manpower, and boost their laissez-faire economies. The Belgian Congo had a vast supply of rubber which was violently extracted. Rwanda and Kenya had small plantations which grew coffee to export for revenue. The British-owned Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), was the source of a mineral key to the expansion of the British industrial might: copper.
Injustice, however, was the fertilising seed which helped this process of extraction run smoothly. Throughout this period, the local populations were brutally subdued and forced to meet unrealistic quotas that involved physically abhorrent consequences if the individual fell short of the target. There were no elections, no free health care or freedom of speech; the African people were engulfed in a system of injustice. The Belgians were infamous for amputating the hands of the Congolese as a cost-effective strategy which avoided wasting bullets, to punish individuals. The Germans, who followed the Belgians were equally unjust in their dealings with the Rwandan people, artificially creating ethnic features which distinguished the Tutsi from the Hutu. Identification cards and internal passports helped sow the seed of sectarian suspicion, with the Europeans favouring the Tutsi minority as the more intelligent ethnic group. This scientifically flawed biological racism imposed by the colonial powers, had an ironic and unjust outcome – the Hutu majority enacted a systematic campaign of murder which left approximately 800,000 Rwandans dead, who were all predominantly of the Tutsi ‘class’.
The inhumane actions of the European powers who used race and physical torture to maintain their capitalist dominion over the raw materials in these regions, is a trend evident in contemporary African regimes. Both the Rhodesian and South African system of Apartheid, and the current Zimbabwean government of Robert Mugabe are all guilty of humanitarian crimes that are not so dissimilar from their colonial predecessors.
Frantz Fanon, a revolutionary writer and supporter of the Algerian National Liberation Front, suggested that violence was the necessary tool used in the quest for independence as it was violence that had been used to suppress the colonial subjects for generations. Violence, therefore, was the natural tendency of the masses when consolidating their newly-independent countries; terrorism was the correct definition for the FLN, whilst the Afrikaans National Party concentrated their violence through a process of state terror.
Democracy embodies principles such as equal rights, justice and fairness, however, the democratisation of a society is often a long and turbulent process. Democracy is a favoured social state since it allows the people to criticise and correct government flaws. Socialist movements, labour unions and local government have throughout European history sought to mend society and make it egalitarian. Africa has not enjoyed this right.
The African continent has not had centuries of experimenting with democracy because Europe has not allowed it to. The French Revolution, arguably is the most significant event in European history celebrating liberty. This revolution, however, did not enact democracy straight away nor did it immediately introduce complete equality into French society. This event was a catalyst for the birth of libertarian, socialist and democratic movements, yet trade unions were still oppressed in nineteenth century Britain and French women did not receive the vote until 1945.
Injustice is a paramount feature of society on the African continent. Administrative and bureaucratic corruption has limited the equality in many African nations and has meant that humanitarian aid is often received and distributed through illicit channels. Political activism is much more difficult in countries divided by sectarian lines or civil war, with very little representation present from normal African people in governmental institutions. The illegality of homosexuality and the realities of racism are still evident on the continent, with an ironic twist particularly in South Africa, where the white population is now considered to be the underclass.
In 1978 Zaire (Democratic Republic of Congo), the IMF representative Irwin Blumenthal argued that the country was so corrupt there was, ‘no prospect for Zaire’s creditors to get their money back’. In Ethiopia, 90 per cent of the country’s budget is made up of humanitarian aid whilst only 2 per cent of the population own a mobile phone – a commodity Europeans view as essential. Similarly, in South Africa 27 per cent of schools say they never receive their budget on time, whilst a survey of seven sub-Saharan African states quotes that 44 per cent of parents paid illegal school fees for their children despite their education being legally free and accessible.
The collapse of colonialism in Africa historically speaking was very recent. Democracy is yet to make its stand on the continent as a political force, and humanitarian injustice is omnipresent in many African societies. The current injustice is partly a spiralling response to the European maltreatment of the African people, but it is also the responsibility of an exploitative and greedy government class.
Democratisation is a generational process that requires a change in attitudes. It took Europe centuries to overcome corruption and injustice from our own dictatorial past, and the African people are still taking their first steps towards establishing a continent based on universal rights.