However as the British prime minister, Harold Macmillan, reminded the South African parliament in his “wind of change” speech in Cape Town in 1960, the apartheid government was on the wrong side of history. South Africa left the British Commonwealth the following year.
The rapid decolonization of most of Africa helped drive the white regime’s increasingly repressive response to resistance to apartheid legislation, including the arrest and trial of Mandela and other ANC leaders.
The tumble of decolonization across sub-Saharan Africa began with the Gold Coast, reborn as Ghana in 1957.
Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, espoused a pan-African philosophy that inspired other subjugated nations and alarmed complacent imperialists who initially imagined they could drag out the independence process in other parts of Africa, especially in countries where there were large numbers of white settlers.
Yet Britain had learned the hard way with the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya that if it was not prepared to negotiate an end to its rule then Africans would fight for it. Within a few years, most of Britain’s colonies in Africa had gained independence or were on the brink of it.
France gave up in 1956 control of two of its North African Arab colonies, Tunisia and Morocco, in the hope of clinging to a third — Algeria, then home to close to 1 million white settlers, which Paris regarded as a department of France.
The ensuing struggle brought down the French Fourth Republic and stripped Paris of its colonial delusions. Paris’s brutal “pacification” of the independence struggle pushed Algeria to civil war. The French claimed military victory, but the political shock at home was so great that Algerian independence could no longer be resisted.
The Algerian war helped dispel any lingering hopes of France holding on to its sub-Saharan colonies and most were freed in a burst of independence celebrations in 1960. Belgium pulled out of the Democratic Republic of the Congo the same year, and Rwanda and Burundi two years later.
However, Paris made sure to hold its former colonies close through economic, political and military ties, including underpinning regional currencies.
As the imperial powers withdrew, the determination of the remaining settler administrations to hold on to power hardened. Ian Smith’s white government of Rhodesia made a unilateral declaration of independence on Nov. 11, 1965, in resistance to the UK’s plans to make the colony independent. Britain declared the move an “act of treason.”
Rhodesia found backing from apartheid South Africa, including crucial economic assistance, and Portugal, which gave access to ports in Mozambique. Yet Rhodesia was besieged by sanctions and then an escalating insurgency in the 1970s, which strengthened after Mozambique gained independence and provided a base for Robert Mugabe’s ZANU guerrillas.
Eventually, the white minority regime was overwhelmed by the military and economic pressures, although Smith later blamed South Africa for Rhodesia’s collapse, saying it had been “stabbed in the back” by Pretoria. Mugabe became the first — and only prime minister — of an independent Zimbabwe in 1980.