Wed, Dec 11, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Mandela: How he saw Africa transformed

Since Mandela’s birth in 1918, the continent has moved from the grip of colonialism to independence and from dictatorship to democracy

By Chris McGreal  /  The Observer

Armed independence movements launched rebellions in the early 1960s in Portugal’s remaining territories — Angola, Mozambique and Guinea — and were met with increasing brutality. The economic and political toll of the conflict helped prompt a coup in 1974 that overthrew the right-wing regime in Lisbon. Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau gained independence the following year.


The early hope of the newly independent African nations was rapidly undermined by the cold war struggle as Soviet backing for African liberation movements was countered by US support for military coups and authoritarian leadership.

Under protection of Western aid based largely on anti-communist credentials with little concern about the quality of governance, military dictatorships and one-party states run by presidents-for-life emerged from Nigeria to Malawi, Kenya to Zambia, Zaire to Ivory Coast, while the Soviets sponsored governments such as Ethiopia and Mozambique.

The cold war confrontation was at its bloodiest in Angola where the Soviet-backed government and Cuban troops fought a long war against Jonas Savimbi’s US-sponsored rebels and South Africa’s army. The conflict destroyed towns and villages across the oil-rich country and cost hundreds of thousands of lives.

For many years during the 1970s and 1980s, Africa was defined to much of the rest of the world by its more brutal and extreme leaders, such as Uganda’s Idi Amin, who was regarded as part-clown and part-monster, and Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko, who stole billions of dollars while his country collapsed around him.


Neither South Africa’s white regime nor Mandela’s African National Congress predicted the Soweto uprising, which kicked off the escalating popular resistance that played a central role in bringing down apartheid. On June 16, 1976, thousands of students took to the streets against the government for forcing black schools to teach many lessons in Afrikaans, not only regarded as the language of the oppressor, but also as a further means of keeping black people down.

The South African police responded to the protest with violence, killing 23 people on the first day, including 13-year-old Hector Pieterson, who became a symbol of the uprising. Hundreds more died in the following months. The protests put the ANC at the forefront of the liberation struggle inside the country.

The white regime responded with increasing repression that only fed the popular resistance and gave rise to a broad coalition of opponents of apartheid, including trade unions, churches and civic groups, under the umbrella of the United Democratic Front.

The white government’s increasingly heavy-handed response, including declaring a state of emergency, fueled international outrage and led to the tightening of sanctions.


Mandela’s release from prison on Feb. 11, 1990, prompted a wave of expectation among people across Africa weary of maladministration and political leaders clinging to power. Old leaders were forced out across the continent, including in Zambia, Malawi and Kenya. A much-heralded “new breed” of leader had already emerged led by Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, although he, too, came to be accused of authoritarian tendencies after ruling his country for longer than any of his predecessors.

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