The Rise of African Nationalism


     During the Long Depression (1873-1896) the major European powers met in Berlin to discuss how they would share in the exploitation of the African continent. For African this would come to mean genocide and the disruption of their culture. The colonial powers took pains to exploit the ethnic, cultural, and linguistic differences amongst the people of the continent wherever possible; as a way of control. Many of the conflicts in existence on the African continent today are a direct result of this colonial maneuver.

There were many things which influenced the independence movements after the Second World War, not the least of with was the cultural movement of Negritude and the successful movement for Indian independence from British colonial rule. After1957, independence would appear to be all but certain all over the African continent with many nations gaining their independence from 1957 through the 1960’s. In South Africa however, the struggle against apartheid would require a continuous armed struggle and ultimately a worldwide divestment movement.

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The Rise of African Nationalism

 “The wind of change is blowing through this [African] continent and whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact. We must all accept it as a fact, and our national policies must take account of it.”

Harold Macmillan’s Speech before South African Parliament February 3, 1960

     Prior to the depression of the 1930’s, the worst economic downturn to hit the European world in modern times was the Long Depression which lasted roughly from 1873 until 1896. This has often been seen as one of the motive forces behind the Scramble for Africa initiated at the Berlin Conference during the years 1894-1895 (Pakenham1992). Depression had weakened economies around the world, the Industrial Revolution was in its second phase, and the newly discovered rich natural resources of the African continent meant that a new era of direct colonial exploitation was all but certain. In South Africa, this had already taken place more than a century earlier.

     Christian missionaries had already poured into the African interior by the middle of the 19th Century and soon the European hunger for the vast natural resources of the Dark Continent would bring with it the brutal subjugation of the people and the violent uprooting of their spiritual values. Colonization brought with it genocide. The British carved out the largest swath of the continent claiming territory from Cairo to Cape Town; they ruled Nigeria and Uganda as well.

The Portuguese claimed Angola, Guinea Bissau, and Mozambique. The French ruled from east to west, among their territories was Madagascar, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Chad, and others. The Belgians had Burundi, Rwanda, and the Congo. The Italians had Libya, Eritrea, and Somalia, and the Germans claimed Cameron, Tanzania, and Namibia. By the end of World War I almost every inch of African soil was claimed by a foreign flag; only Ethiopia and Liberia remained independent. Colonization could only be successful by exploiting the cultural, linguistic, and ethnic difference among the people of each territory. Thus, the British exploited the Arabs in Northern Sudan, and the Africans in Southern Sudan until we see the hatred manifest in the genocide occurring in Darfur today. The same was true with the Belgians in Burundi and Rwanda where the Hutus were exploited as a working class and the Tutsis were promoted as an aristocracy. In the spring of 1994 the world was made painfully aware of just how well that eventually worked out. Most of the ethnic conflicts on the African continent today are due to this legacy of exploitation (Hochschild 1999).

     After the Second World War the spirit of decolonializaton began to gradually take hold throughout the continent. From the end of the war, until the end of the 1960’s more than two dozen nations had won their independence; in South Africa however, the Nationalist Party gained power in 1948 and immediately began to institutionalize a system of ‘Apartheid’ pronounced ‘apart-hate’ and that is exactly what it meant. By 1960 this system reached its second phase with territorial segregation and brutal police repression (Walshe 1992). Although Whites made up roughly 13 percent of the population, minority rule was to be perpetually maintained by a strict code of hierarchical segregation.

The entire South African society was classified as White, Colored, or Black in descending order and interaction between the three groups was perpetually monitored and scrutinized by strict system of control that managed every aspect of social interactions. The year 1948 marked the official start of apartheid as a legal institution, nonetheless segregation had been a way of life for decades. The anti-colonialist struggle in South Africa had been ongoing since the initial contact in 1652. However, this struggle would be handed a greater emphasis when the Afrikaner government under General Louis Botha put forth an Act of Union in 1910 consolidating White rule throughout the land. Two years later, on January 8, 1912 the African National Congress was born (Hochschild 1999).

     The struggle for African independence took many different forms and was waged in many different ways through numerous spears of human activity; not the least of which was the various creative and cultural movements that developed over time. One such movement was called Negritude. During the 1930’s there was an entire class of African intellectuals that were reared through missionary schools and eventually made their way to universities overseas. In 1935, Kwame Nkrumah the future leader of independent Ghana attended college at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.

Many other future African leaders received university education in Great Brittan and France. The great cultural movement in the United States during the 1920’s known as the Harlem Renaissance had an enormous impact overseas. Many of the famous artist and writers of that period either visited or ultimately made their home in France, where they found a welcome atmosphere free from the Jim Crow segregation of the U.S. Here they would also encounter other Blacks from the African continent and the Caribbean studying abroad; people like Aime Cesaire and Leopold Sedar Senghor.

Cesaire was a writer, playwright, and poet who was born in Martinique and went to study in France in the 1930’s. Senghor was a prominent poet who became a founding member of the Senegalese Democratic Bloc and then the President of Senegal from 1960 to 1981. Both of these men were prominent figures of the Black consciousness literary movement. The power that the Negritude Movement had in raising the nationalist consciousness of African people should not be underestimated. Many of these students studying in American and in European universities would eventually come to make up the political advant guard of the new political movements formed in the aftermath of the Second World War.

          The successful 1947 Indian movement for independence from British rule led by Mahatma Gandhi made an enormous impression upon many of these leaders, as did the 5th Pan African Congress held in Manchester England in 1945. Both Jomo Kenyatta, the future leader of Kenya, and Kwame Nkrumah, the future leader of Ghana were in attendance.

       There are a number of competing theories as to what actually precipitated the eventual surge towards decolonializaton. Some contend that it was purely due to the determination of the Africans themselves. Others are not so convinced and point to the economic situation after World War II in which the European powers were finding it increasingly difficult to administer their colonial possessions. Nonetheless, independence for most states was a bloodless affair. Libya gained its independence from Italy in 1951. Egypt gained its independence from Great Brittan in 1953 and the Sudan in 1956. Tunisia and Morocco were freed from French control in 1956. Ghana gained its independence from Great Brittan in 1957 and Guinea (French West Africa) gained its independence in 1958. After that, it appeared as if the flood gates had suddenly flew open as more than a dozen African states gained their independence in 1960 alone; Cameron, Togo, Mali, Senegal, Madagascar, The Belgian Congo, Somalia, Benin, Niger, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivorie, Chad, Gabon, Nigeria, and Mauritania all gained independence that year. During the decade of the 1960’s there was a steady stream of African independence which only served to give greater inspiration to the Black Liberation struggle in the United States; Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, Algeria, Uganda, Kenya, Malawi, Zambia, Botswana, Gambia, Lesotho, and Swaziland all gained their independence during the 1960’s Afterwards, there came a slow trickle through the 70’s, 80’s (Zimbabwe 1980) and 90’s (Namibia 1990).

     In South Africa there was a different story all together. By 1960 the African National Congress had formed a military wing called Umkhonto we Sizwe or ‘Spear of the Nation’ which dedicated itself to armed resistance of the repressive South African Police forces, and sabotage.  Their manifesto stated “Our men are armed and trained freedom fighters not terrorists,” (Walshe 1992). The Pan African Congress was formed in 1959 and dedicated itself to armed resistance as well. Nonetheless, it would take several more decades, a world wide dis-investment and anti-apartheid campaign and growing sense of rebellion against the apartheid system amongst Afrikaners themselves to finally force the hand of President F.W. de Klerk. In time, both the African National Congress and the Pan African Congress were allowed back into the political process and on February 2, 1990 Nelson Mandela was freed. The process towards democracy had begun.


  • Hochschild, Adam. (1999) King leopold’s ghost: A story of greed, terror, and heroism, in colonial africa. Mariner Books p.18
  • Pakenham, Thomas. (1992) The scramble for africa: White man’s conquest of the dark continent from 1876-1912. Avon Books p.7
  • Walshe, Peter. (1992) The rise of african nationalism in south africa. University of California Press. p.173, 17, 187


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