Decolonisation Reconsidered

Decolonisation has been a recurring theme in narratives on Africa’s social, economic, political and cultural development. In South Africa, the debate on decolonisation reached fever pitch in 2016 with the Fees Must Fall Movement on university campuses. Of the many issues that surfaced in the course of the debate, however, few seemed to have spawned consensus on what is to be decolonised and how. That shouldn’t surprise anyone given the class and racial divides in the country. In a speech to students and Faculty at the University of the Western Cape, Prof Turok considers some of the issues raised on decolonisation and highlights those that he feels need our urgent attention.   

I want to commend UWC for making a fuss about Africa Day. South Africa is far too distant from the rest of Africa. I was privileged to live in Tanzania, in Kenya, in Zambia. I have been on long visits to Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, Ethiopia. I feel rather sorry for those of you who have been stuck in this little corner of Africa and don’t know the continent. This is not about economic opportunities for those who study economics, or trade arrangements. This is about the knowledge of the rest of Africa. If you haven’t been to Nigeria you have missed something. They are the most vital, lively people on the continent and I think South Africa suffers for its isolation. I hope today makes up for some of this. I want to start with a little story. In 1966, I escaped from house arrest in South Africa and after some months landed up in Nairobi, where the government did not want any South African exiles. So I applied to Tanzania and was offered a job. My wife and three sons joined me in Nairobi and we drove down towards Dar es Salaam. When we got to the Tanzanian border post there was a barrier and a policeman who said I must fill in an immigration form. I was happy to do that. I had a letter from Tanzania’s ministry of home affairs, and I started filling in the form. All went well until I got to the bottom of the form and it asked for my ‘race’. The choice was ‘European, African, Other’. So I said to the policeman, “I am a South African refugee. What do you want me to do?” He said to me, “you are European. Look at your children. All white.” I said to him, “Yes, they are white but they are not European. We have never been to Europe. We are from South Africa. So I can’t fill in ‘European’.” He said, “well, then I am not letting you in.”

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We had a long argument, and my children were all rather excited by this debate. It went on and on and he said, “I will not let you in until you fill in this form”. Finally I said, “let’s compromise” and under ‘Other’ I wrote ‘white African’. He said okay! When my children went to school in Dar es Salaam they registered as white Africans, at a time, of course, that in South Africa they would have registered as ‘Europeans’.

I felt I wanted to be decolonised. It may sound strange to you, but I did not want to say I was European. Something stuck in my throat. I have been in the ANC for donkey’s years, in prison, and so on. How could I write down that I was European? So I stuck with that label, whether you like it or not. My children are white Africans.

Now, let me turn to the theme of today. I want to talk about three things. Firstly, we need to talk about colonisation. What are we ‘decolonising ’ when we talk about colonisation? Secondly, I want to talk about decolonisation across Africa. It seems to me very appropriate that on Africa Day, of all days, we should not only think about ourselves as South Africans wanting to be decolonised – and there is ample good reason for that – but we need to talk about decolonisation, or what we called anti-colonialism, in Africa. Finally, I want to talk about decolonisation in South Africa, a major problem.

What is colonisation? It seems to me that in the current debates in our universities something has gone a little bit lop-sided. What are we ‘decolonising’? We are decolonising colonisation. But first we have to know what is colonisation? I think there are five criteria for colonisation:

  • The first one is political control imposed by a colonial power. That is what they did, across Africa, and indeed Latin America and Asia. Political control – that’s colonisation. Those who are students of psychology, don’t forget that political control was an essential ingredient of colonisation.
  • Two, that political control was backed by instruments of coercion. The police and the army were extremely important parts of colonisation.
  • Three, the objective of colonisation was the extraction of material resources. In India, the textile industry was ruined by the way the raw materials were extracted. Of course in Africa it was about minerals, and still is about mineral extraction.
  • Four, the justification for all that was racial criteria. We as Europeans, as whites, are superior and so colonialism was justified by racial criteria. That’s a very important dimension.
  • Then five, ideological distortions. Consider Helen Zille’s comments on colonialism – “we have modernised Africa, we brought development to Africa.” Yes, colonisation did bring certain advantages, but to say that the essence of colonialism was modernisation and development and the bringing of ‘civilisation’ to Africa is a very serious distortion of the whole history.

So that is colonisation: multi-dimensional, political, militarist, coercive, ideological, [with] racial characteristics and false ideologies by the dozen. That is what colonialism is, and when we talk about decolonisation we have to address all those factors, and not just any single one.

So what happened in Africa? I have been very fortunate to have been in Africa during the very period of decolonisation or the anti-colonial struggles. I have known some of the leaders of the African continent personally and I am very conscious of the independence movements. I know some of us who study politics and history tend to pour cold water on liberation movements. We say Mandela was a sell-out, Nkrumah lost his way. It is very easy to attack Nyerere, Kaunda and Nkrumah, not to forget Mugabe, with all his sins, and to say that they failed.

But in the historical context of building liberation movements, of fighting against colonialism, and then striving to decolonise those same countries, those were important figures in our history, and when we talk about decolonising Africa, all of them wanted to decolonise Africa, even as they were part and parcel of negotiations and transfers of power. Let us pay tribute to independence movements. Let us also remember that when colonial rule transferred power in India and in Africa it took a long time. I think it took six years for Nkrumah to come to power. What the British were doing was building a public service in the image of the British public service. I have met military officers in Tanzania who were trained at Sandhurst [Military Academy] in the UK, and who saw themselves as British military officers, although they were Tanzanians speaking Swahili.

The object of the transfer of power was not decolonisation. The object of the transfer of power was to create an internal force which would continue the same systems that ruled under colonialism, namely a local elite, a compliant military grouping, a police force, all steeled and trained in the principles of the British government rather than the African governments. Therefore, there were delays in the transfer of power, and delays in the decolonisation that all these leaders wanted.

They installed the Westminster parliamentary system. I have been a victim of the Westminster parliamentary system for 20 years in South Africa. When I came into Parliament all those years ago and I sat down in my bench, I picked up a piece of paper. It said Order Paper. When I said, “what is the agenda for today? I am looking for an agenda,” they said, in parliament you don’t have agendas. You have an Order Paper and you use the language of the House of Commons. Even today, if you go into our parliament, the language is the language of the House of Commons and not the language of South Africa. We have not decolonised our parliament. We see black faces, and they are the majority, but the culture and the style, even the heckling that goes on in parliament today, is merely copying the House of Commons. They are saying “let’s be like the British”. That is not decolonisation.

I sometimes feel, and I know some of you are going to be critical when I say it, that South Africa is the least decolonised country on the continent. I have lived in Tanzania. I have lived in Zambia, Nigeria and so on, and I feel very free in those countries. Even if I don’t have a brown skin like most of you, it’s not white either, and it’s not European. But in South Africa I am labelled white in the census. What the hell is that?

I repeat, as a long-standing member of the liberation movement, I sometimes feel that we are the least decolonised [country] on the whole continent. I am sure students here who are from the rest of Africa know what I am talking about.

After independence, the governments certainly tried to decolonise. In the realm of academia, Nigeria built 21 universities after independence. Tanzania had no university, and the first thing Nyerere did was to build a university. That’s decolonisation ‑ to break with European cultures as much as possible. In Tanzania, Nyerere insisted on Swahili as the medium of instruction in schools. My kids went to school in Dar es Salaam and even though had come from Joburg they had to learn Swahili very fast, and they were proficient in no time. That was the culture of Tanzania. That’s decolonisation. But in South Africa, what are we talking? One of the languages is English, which is an indigenous language of course. Some say French is an African language. Okay, but that’s not decolonisation.

The Lagos Plan of Action of 1980, written by powerful economic professor Adebayo Adedeji, was adopted by the OAU. It is a policy of self-reliance. It was really directed against structural adjustment (the IMF and World Bank), and was designed to encourage Africa to develop its own policies, to become self-reliant, not only ideologically and politically, but also economically. The African Union today still has the Lagos Plan of Action as one of its main documents.

Unfortunately, it was never implemented. It was discussed. It was taught at universities, but never implemented by government. The reason for that is quite simple: As soon as the Lagos Plan was published, the World Bank released the Berg report, a counter-attack. It was written by Professor Elliot Berg, an American, and that report took the opposite view. Instead of self-reliance it advocated international trade.

It was structural adjustment in terms of fiscal discipline, smaller governments, reduced public services, and cost recovery for public services. In Zimbabwe, Mugabe started off with free education and free healthcare. People in the rural areas flocked to the schools and the clinics and Zimbabwe built the foundations of a really good socialist system. But then came World Bank policies and Mugabe introduced cost recovery. People had to start paying for services of one kind or another. The dropout rate, the fall-off, was enormous and the consequences were terrible.

The same thing happened across Africa. People had to pay for public services, for schooling, for health, and so on, all imposed in terms of ‘fiscal discipline,’ today referred to as fiscal consolidation. It’s the same story … cut back, cut government. The Lagos Plan of Action was understood and accepted as a very serious and sensible policy. If you read Nyerere, you can see how concerned he was about self-reliance, about dignity, about being self-reliant and not an exploiter. That was the message that Nyerere was always putting forward – don’t be an exploiter and be self-reliant.

He wanted the people, especially those in the rural areas, to become self-reliant, establish cooperatives, communities, and so on. Don’t give me fish, give me a fishing rod. We all know that slogan. It comes from Nyerere. He said don’t give us charity. Give us the means to serve ourselves, to be self-reliant. That was decolonisation. And that was what Nyerere stood for.

That was followed by the period of aid ‑ [Overseas Development Assistance] ODA and foreign aid. When I was in parliament I somehow got sucked up into the whole business of foreign aid and I was invited to many meetings in Europe and many other places to meet so-called relevant partners. The IMF, World Bank, OECD, you name it. I remember one meeting in Ghana. It was quite a big conference, and Africans would say, “we are partners, partners in ODA, development aid”. Then someone from Europe or America would stand up and say, “yes, we are partners”. But being partners means equality between two people. Can you say you are partners when one person is giving the other money? At one meeting I got up and said, “can’t we distinguish between donors and recipients?” The response was a firm “No. We are partners.”

This lie of being partners was extended across Africa, in the name of development aid, pretending that Europe was a partner in the development of Africa. It was just a pretence. Who sets the tone? Who sets the tune? Who sets the agenda? The donor does, and Africa is [at the] behest [of] that kind of foreign intervention. Frankly, Africa will not be totally decolonised until we stop this kind of dependency on foreign support.

South Africa is in danger of talking as though foreign aid, or even foreign investment, is going to be our saviour. That’s not true. South Africans are your own saviours, and if you don’t know that you really don’t know anything.

When it came to Mbeki and the African Renaissance, I was part of the constructors of Nepad, and was Chairperson of a group of African members of parliament representing the whole continent. We discussed Nepad, which was also based essentially on self-reliance and building our own resources.

Unfortunately that is all gone. Our government, and even the ANC, for whatever reasons, have abandoned Nepad and have abandoned African Renaissance, and that is why I am so pleased to be here today, with you who respect Africa more than other people do.

Turning to South Africa, our colonial power is internal. The formulation of internal colonialism or colonialism of a special type is very appropriate. But what bothers me is that after 24 years the legacy of that internal colonialism is still very strong. We are divided as a society in a way that very few societies in Africa are divided. We don’t find white colonies in Nigeria or Ghana. Even in Nairobi, where there was a settler community, you don’t find the kind of structures you have in Cape Town. White suburbs. I live in a white group area, I confess. What the hell is that, 24 years after our independence?

Let us recognise, and be bold about it, that the legacy of internal colonialism is still very strong and affects our society every day. The question in my mind, as one who believes in non-racialism, as one who believes in the Freedom Charter, as one who believes in the Constitution of South Africa, and that South Africa belongs to all of us, I hope that that formulation does not cover up the fact that the colonial legacy is still very strong. We can’t deny that. Even though we are for non-racialism, even though we are against racism, we can’t deny the continuation of colonial relationships in our society. We have universities which are essentially white and universities which are essentially black. I am not naming names. I think our universities should be open about it, and study what is the legacy of internal colonialism in South Africa. Let’s be frank about it, and fight against it and bring it down. That’s decolonisation.

I told you that I am a white African. I have no identity crisis at all. I know what I am. I know what I have done. I know what I stand for. I apologise for nothing at all. I know my identity (applause), and I am not going to get into debates about my identity. I know who I am. I understand if some people want to raise questions about their role in society, but let us not say that that is more important than understanding the legacy of internal colonialism as a system.

There is a system here. It’s not just race discrimination. It’s not just prejudice. It’s not just ‘I don’t feel comfortable in this community’ or ideas like that. There is a system in place, which is reinforced every day, through business, through governance, through institutions, through the law, through the justice system. That system has to be challenged, and it seems to me that universities should be the place where that system is properly challenged. All colonial relationships, across the board, have to be challenged in every sense.

Some of you are anti-capitalist. I am anti-capitalist, but South Africa is not only capitalist, it is colonial. If you look at ownership patterns, if you look at the structure of the economy, if you look at management systems, there is no doubt that this is capitalism. Furthermore, the fact that capital is not reinvesting in South Africa but investing abroad [means] they are treating this [country] as an island, as a colonial enclave where you extract wealth. Once you have extracted it, you send your wealth overseas. That is colonialism. Why is it that Anglo American went to register overseas? Why have so many of our companies registered in London? Why do they do that? That’s colonial. They went home to mother, to put their money in a safe place in mother’s bank. That’s colonialism.

We have a hell of a lot to do. We have a big anti-colonialism agenda left, and decolonisation should not be mystified into some obscure psychological distortion. It is the reality of a system that is in place and which is doing a lot of damage, every day and all day.

By Ben Turok

Prof Turok is Director of the Institute For African Alternatives (IFAA) and a former ANC Member of Parliament. He is also editor of New Agenda. This article appeared in New Agenda Issue 71. Subscribe to New Agenda here!


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