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The Long Lasting Effects of Colonialism in South Africa

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Colonisation is widely regarded as a practice reminiscent of a long-forgotten era, and one that has little attachment to the cutting-edge globalised world of today – but this could not be more untrue. Long-standing European practices of the colonial period continue to impact countries, both at home and abroad, as they try to move forward in the process of nation-building, understood as the process of transforming an underdeveloped, poor and divided society in to a community with peace, equal opportunities and economic viability, and forge something of a national identity free from the oppression of imperial power.

Before confronting the legacy of colonisation in the present day it is essential to understand what effects colonialism had in the first instance. Europeans began to assert dominance over the Global South to gain assets that directly supported their own economic interests at the expense of the colony. Imperial ideology did not concern the wellbeing of indigenous peoples as highly as the governing state and brought about slavery, brutality and death, as well as limiting manoeuvre for growth. Campbell et al. (2010) expand on the immediate impact of imperial rule by explaining that ‘the impacts of colonialism were similar, regardless of the specific coloniser: disease; destruction of indigenous social, political, and economic structures; repression; exploitation; land displacement; and land degradation’. In respect of this, undoing the atrocities of colonisation was never going to be easy – even after the colonisers receded.

Succeeding in the fight for emancipation, newly independent states then face the issue of nation-building, which is made ever-harder by ill-focused infrastructure, designed to serve the will of the conqueror. During the colonial occupation, the indigenous people often had limited influence on how their own country was governed, the result of which today is a critical knowledge vacuum marked by poor decision-making, infighting and political instability.

Colonialism further affects the country’s relationship with the international community. The subservient nature of colonialism left former colonies initially unequipped to communicate on an equal footing with much more prosperous and powerful countries, which has put them at risk of external influence, corruption and intimidation. This is at least in part the result of neo-colonialist practices which Campbell describes as ‘the involvement of more powerful states in the domestic affairs of less powerful ones’ (2010) in lieu of direct political control. Nkrumah (1965), the first leader of a liberated Ghana, argues that neo-colonialism is itself a form of colonisation. The effects are, after all, often mirroring those of colonialism, with the rights of the citizenry placed as second-rate to a company’s right to private investment and justified through international law.

To comprehend the impacts of colonisation on contemporary world politics, it is imperative to look at specific cases where colonisation profoundly influenced and still influences the development of states. The results of imperial rule can still be seen, for example, in the former British dominion of South Africa, a state which has tried relentlessly, and somewhat unsuccessfully, to overturn its turbulent past. The nation’s extremely diverse ethnic and social demographic makes South Africa a particularly severe example of the oppression and hostility that comes as an effect of empire.

Apartheid policy of the twentieth century created an extremely unequal racialist state in South Africa, which saw the separation of political communities – one predominantly white people and the other predominantly black or mixed-race (‘coloured’ in African parlance) – living together in one state. In this diverse land where almost every ethnic group were hostile to one another, it would have been impossible to bring a non-violent end to the racial hatred and start a new chapter of nationhood were it not for the reconciliatory actions of a peacemaker such as Nelson Mandela. Mandela (I:1994-99) presented a new liberal constitution that ‘guaranteed the rights of individuals rather than collectives such as cultural and ethnic groups’ – thus forming a culturally diverse ‘rainbow nation’ with equality on the grounds of citizenship.

Emphasis appeared to move away from ethnic unity during the administration of Mandela’s successor, Mbeki (I&II:1999-2008), who instead prioritised transformation and economics – the crux of which was the racially selective programme of Black Economic Empowerment (BEE). Mbeki’s affirmative initiatives such as BEE aimed to redress the inequalities of the past century by giving economic privileges such as employment preference and preferential procurement to black citizens. The policy meant, however, that businesses now had to consider the racial and social background of potential employees instead of making meritocratic decisions, which has resulted in a system where race, above all, continues to determine employment prospects. Critics of BEE including Moeletsi Mbeki (2009), the former President’s brother, cite that it ‘strikes a fatal blow against black entrepreneurship by creating a small class of unproductive but wealthy black crony capitalists made up of ANC politicians’ and the then minister of finance supported this view, saying that ‘BEE policies have not worked and have not made South Africa a fairer or more prosperous country’ – indeed, black household GDP was still one-sixth that of white households. In this sense, BEE is inherently reflective of the racialist colonialist ideology that existed beforehand and does little favour to Mandela’s earlier notion of equality.

Mbeki’s tenure further highlighted political instability in the country by showing how disparate views were within his own party, many feeling that transformation had not gone far enough, and gave way for an insurgence of disgruntled white people groups who had no interest in progressive, yet condemning, policies. Affirmative action only contributed to the polarisation of racial groups and the ‘brain drain’ effect highlighted previously by Campbell et al., with 2016 estimates suggesting at least 800,000 skilled white South Africans have fled the country since 1994 to more favourable markets such as the UK, US, Australia and Canada. Human capital flight is widely believed to have damaged the economy as well as the state infrastructure of South Africa, in particular, the public healthcare system to the tune of $1.4B, with the loss of medical professionals putting increasing strain on the challenge of tackling the country’s neglected HIV/AIDS endemic.

Language policy too continues to bring up unique challenges remnant from the colonial era. Although the Afrikaans language developed in South Africa, the black population continue to recognise it, alongside English, as the language of the white supremacist, and there remains no unifying language. English, however, still holds its prestige as a lingua franca, with a particular focus in education, politics and urban commerce – in contrast to Afrikaans mainly rural usage. Afrikaans is still conceived as the language of the labour bureaus, the brutal state police, the prisons, and ultimately of the apartheid regime, which reasons black Africans’ antipathy toward it. Throughout the regime, Bantu languages remained societally inferior and relatively insignificant, and thus the idea of ‘rainbowism’ conceived by Mandela and Tutu, undoubtedly had Africanisation in mind, reflecting the demographics of a nation composed of 88.6% black or ‘coloured’ citizens. Unable to come-up with a satisfactory monolinguistic solution, however, the government instead implemented a Language Bill (1996, 2011) which recognises 11 official languages – all with equal legal status. The rationale behind South Africa’s language policy was to raise the profile of minority languages to the same level as English or Afrikaans, and thus to rescind the cultural oppression of the past.

Looking forward to the administrations of Zuma (I&II:2009-18) and Ramaphosa (I:2018-), land redistribution appears to have taken a primary position in policy talks. The Government estimates that the 9% white minority owns 72% of the nation’s private farmland, which endures as contemporary evidence of the land dispossessions enforced by successive colonial powers. However, the issue of land reform is complex and has a longstanding history marked by ineffective and nebulous government programs. In 2009, Nkwinti, then Minister for Agriculture, announced the government’s aim to transfer 30% of white-owned farmland to black farmers by 2014, however, he later declared the target as unattainable due to underfunding, and the actual achieved figure is likely around 10%. Nkwiti repeatedly made contentious statements to the media, urging commercial farmers to co-operate with the regime or share a fate ‘worse than Zimbabwe’, and indeed after alluding to the idea the nation’s parliament passed a motion in 2018 to allow expropriation of land, in the public interest, without compensation – which was supported by the ANC on the basis that ‘the land was originally seized by whites without just compensation’. The land reform program has been criticised on both sides of the debate, by farmers’ groups including TAU-SA alleging anti-white racist treatment, as well as by landless black citizens who feel change is not happening fast enough.

To conclude, colonialism still has a lasting legacy on many emancipated nations, including South Africa, albeit few countries demonstrate this to quite the extreme as the case in this paper. The effects of empire should not be forgotten or dismissed as insignificant because it is still of vital importance in explaining how many countries handle their internal policies today. Moreover, the ever-present nature of colonialism means that it becomes part of our national narrative and should be closely studied as to not cause similar consequences in the future. 

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