A look back at
U.S. and world imperialism in Africa
Published Feb 28, 2008 9:50 PM
The following talk was given by Debbie Johnson, a leader and founding
member of the Detroit Action Network for Reproductive Rights (DANFORR),
at a Feb. 23 Detroit Conference on the Growing Threat of United States
Intervention in Africa.
First I would like to thank MECAWI—Michigan Emergency Coalition Against
War and Injustice—for the opportunity to speak at this very important
political forum on the situation and events now taking place on the great
continent of Africa. I would like to share with you some of the brief history
of the European invasion, brutal occupation and colonization of Africa which
laid the foundation for the struggles being carried out there today.
In Zimbabwe, Namibia, South Africa, Mozambique, Nigeria, the Sudan,
Ethiopia—from north to south, Atlantic Ocean to Pacific Ocean—the
entire continent is suffering from the onslaught of Western imperialism today
being led by none other than the United States, the alpha dog of imperialist
war, racism, exploitation and domination.
But before I discuss the history of colonialism in Africa, let me first offer
you food for thought as I share just a little of the brutal history of the
slave trade and colonization of Africa.
First and foremost, we live in a world dictated by the haves, the capitalists,
i.e., the bankers, the bosses, the owners of the means of production, and the
war machine, which can and is turned on the peoples of the world at will, the
will of the Pentagon, Wall Street, and the bosses—the ruling
class—against the have-nots, the majority of the people of this country
and of the world—the workers, the poor, the producers of the goods,
products and natural resources from which the great wealth of the U.S.,
England, France and Germany is generated and who comprise the working
When Karl Marx wrote, “The history of all hitherto existing society is
the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord
and serf, guildmaster and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood
in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden,
now open fight”—class struggle—he spoke a truth that has
remained constant more than a century and a half later. We are 24/7 engaged in
class struggle, and we need only look at the history of this country, and more
particularly at the history of the great continent of Africa, to see that truth
It is undisputed that Africa is one of the richest—in natural and mineral
resources—continents on the globe. Despite the untold billions of dollars
in resources, both human and natural, today it is considered the most
economically underdeveloped continent in the world. How is it that Africa, so
abundant in so many resources including oil, diamonds, magnesium, uranium and
other bounty, is so poor economically that millions of its children, women and
men die every year of hunger, illness and disease?
It is reasonable to assume that after centuries of the rape and plunder of the
human and natural resources of Africa, the severe economic straits the majority
of African nations find themselves mired in today is the legacy of colonialism,
courtesy of European and U.S. capitalism and imperialism.
“Colonialism” as described in the Merriam-Webster dictionary is
“control by one power over a dependent area or people.” I would say
that that is a “kinder, gentler” description of the brutal
colonialization of Africa that does not even began to shed ample light on well
over four centuries of exploitation of the African peoples by white European
and U.S. interests, the superpowers of today.
The answer lies in the horrendous effects of colonialism that begin in the 15th
century, intensified during the late 19th century and continuing today.
Colonialism, or the enslavement of African peoples within the borders of their
homeland, was an outgrowth of the slave trade and invasion of Africa by
The African continent was virtually sliced up like a pie as European capitalist
countries—England, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, the Netherlands and
later the United States, built their capitalist economies by stealing and
exploiting the lands and resources, human and natural, of Africa.
The African peoples heroically tried to beat back the onslaught of invasion by
the racist colonialists who sought to control the resources and dominate and
control the peoples of Africa, but their weapons were no match for the
technologically advanced European invaders.
An estimated (and this is only that) 40 million African people were kidnapped
and sold into slavery from the early 1400s to the mid 1800s—that is, if
they survived the horrific Middle Passage to the “New World” and
elsewhere. And it was the United States, first as itself a colony of England
and later as an independent nation, that sought and obtained the majority of
the African peoples stolen from their lands and communities.
The untold millions brought in slave ships to the vast continents of the
Western Hemisphere started in the mid-15th century when Spain and Portugal
began importing significant numbers of Black slaves to their plantations on the
Canary and Madeira islands. Most of the very same leading imperialist powers
that are today concerned with maintaining their domination over the African
continent—even in the face of the heroic opposition to neocolonial
imperialist interests—participated in, promoted and fought ferociously to
maintain the slave trade and continue their brutal colonialization of
Modern transnational monopolies may differ fundamentally in their economic
content from the colonialists’ interests of earlier centuries, but they
still show the same greed and avarice, the utterly unprecedented cruelty and
barbarous treatment which characterized the slave trade. In fact the rape and
plunder of Africa was what lay behind the flourishing of world commerce then
and today, and is the foundation for what Karl Marx called the primitive
accumulation of capital.
The word primitive, as used here, however, was not a characterization of
African social-cultures; the term speaks to and was the source of and applied
to, the fiendish methods by which the early capitalists accumulated the
primary, original capital that was so indispensable for the development of
their systems of oppression and exploitation—the seed money if you
will—that filled the coffers of the European aristocracy and later those
of the slave holders primarily of the South in the Americas. In truth, there
would have been no primitive capitalist development and later industrialization
had it not been for the brutal colonialization, enslavement and exploitation of
It was the enslavement of the peoples of Africa which gave the European
colonies their value, and it was the European and American colonies that
created world trade, and it is world trade that is the precondition of
The world as we see it today, with all of its unbelievable wealth and natural
resources, was born out of Africa, the birthplace of human life on the planet.
Without the more than four hundred years of trading in humans, then further
exploitation of the millions of African people, the African continent and its
natural resources, capitalism, as we know it today, would not be in full
expansion, particularly U.S. capitalism, ready, willing and able to wage war to
obtain, secure and keep its control over capital and natural resources across
The history of colonialism in Africa has been the subject of many great and
valuable writings by, to name just a few, such Africans as Walter Rodney and
Amilcar Cabral, and African-American writers like W.E.B. DuBois, whose
chronicles of colonialism and today’s neocolonialism both educate and
inform us of the rich history of resistance to enslavement, as well as the
history of the peoples for whom Africa is home.
Just a brief discussion of that early history is necessary here to perhaps
offer some understanding of why this great continent was so easily dominated by
Most African societies before 1500 were in a transitional stage between the
practice of agriculture (plus fishing and herding) in family communities and
the practice of the same activities within states and societies comparable to
All history is a transition from one stage to another, but some historical
situations along these lines have clearly more distinguishable characteristics
than others. Under communalism—the social order of the majority of
African cultures—there were no classes. There was equal access to land
and equality in distribution, although there was only a low level of technology
and production within these cultures. On the other hand, European feudalism,
evolving in the same epoch as African cultures—was involved in great
inequality in distribution of land and social products (class struggle). The
landlord class and its bureaucracy controlled the state and used it as an
instrument for oppressing peasants, serfs, slaves, even craftsmen and
merchants. History is rife with the brutal life and death stories and events of
that class Europeans comprised of serfs, slaves and craftsmen who suffered
under the brutal, unjust and inhumane conditions of European feudalism.
African communal societies, however, had differences such as age-grades and
differences between ordinary members and religious leaders such as rainmakers.
However, those were not exploitative or antagonistic relations. The concept of
class as a motive force in social developments had not yet come about in these
early African cultures.
It would be folly to suggest that there was no development and understanding
within the African cultures of the need for, and instruments of defense and
protection. Political-military development in some parts of Africa from 1500 to
the late 1800 meant that some African social collectives had become more
capable of, and recognized the need for, defending the interests of their
members, as opposed to the interest of people outside the given community.
It also meant that the individual in a politically mature and militarily strong
state-culture could be free from external threats of physical
removal—enslavement—and many social-cultures were indeed strong
enough to resist raids which threatened their communities.
However, unlike what is often portrayed, the majority of African society
cultures DID NOT engage in slavery or capturing other peoples for that purpose.
More often than not, the coastal areas of Africa, which were more prone to
attacks by slavers and European invaders, were the areas from which most
African peoples were rounded up and forced onto the slave ships.
Because of the common social-familial cultural arrangements of African
cultures, which often resulted in small and vulnerable societies that were
easily overtaken and vulnerable to attacks both from outside Africa and from
within, they were victimized most often by European invaders.
Slaving within Africa was limited, and was not the choice of the majority of
African peoples. In the end, it was the vulnerability of small, social cultures
that would fill the slave ships of the Middle Passage. The African people
fought no less to repel these threats; however, the majority of the time they
were unable, given their numbers, to resist raids which ripped families apart
and resulted in the kidnapping and enslavement of millions of African peoples
taken thousands of miles from their families and homelands.
The history of life for the African peoples subjected to exploitation by
European invaders is long, brutal, violent and ugly. Thousands of events are
contained in the history books of Africa and the U.S., depicting the heroic
resistance to the European invaders, to slavery and to the brutality of the
One of the bloodier, genocidal chapters during the depths of the colonial
period occurred almost one century ago, in the country then called South-West
Africa, today known as Namibia. Namibia, which borders South Africa, Angola and
Botswana, is still considered to be one of the most mineral-rich countries in
During the 1880s, Namibia was brutally ruled by Germany. White farmers
systemically took over the most arable lands from the Indigenous Herero and
Nama peoples. A similar process took place in Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia,
during the same period, with England being the colonizer there.
The Hereros organized a heroic guerrilla struggle against the invading German
troops led by the fascist general van Trotha.
On October 2, 1904, van Trotha issued a proclamation for the sole purpose of
stealing the lands of the Hereros and Nama people, and ordered that the Herero
people were to be exterminated either by machine gun fire or by poisoning their
drinking water if they refused to leave their lands. An estimated 65,000 out of
80,000 Hereros, including children, were massacred in Okakarara, along with
Hereros who were captured were either hung in massive numbers or driven into
the desert to die. To this day, Germany, the home of the murderous Nazi scourge
a mere three decades later, refuses to pay reparations to the Namibian people.
Reparations to former African people brought to North America and the entirety
of the African continent are only one of the many obligations owed by the
purveyors of capitalism and imperialism to people of African descent here in
the belly of the beast and around the world. But that is another demand,
another story, and one which we must never abandon.
This was but one of tens of thousands of bloody events perpetrated upon the
African peoples by European colonizers. The conditions we witness today, in the
21st century, carried out by Western imperialism, particularly U.S.
imperialism, are shades of the same brutal, bloody capitalist monster of 15th
century colonial times.
In this the epoch of neocolonialism and imperialism, the rest of us, the
workers—the producers of all things necessary to life and
living—can ill afford to sit back and fail to challenge the imperialist
beast at home—where, no matter who may occupy the White House after this
year’s election, can continue to allow the brutality that is being
carried out unchallenged in Africa, whether in the Sudan, Mozambique, South
Africa or Zimbabwe.
It is our duty—it is our responsibility—to educate our class on
what is really going on in Africa, and to take on the U.S. ruling class, in any
disguise it may wear—AFRICOM comes to mind—and stand in solidarity
with the brothers and sisters of Zimbabwe, South Africa, Nigeria, the Sudan, or
wherever, to stamp out and turn back the hands of U.S. imperialism that has
targeted Africa as its next necessary conquest in world domination.
This snapshot of colonial Africa, as it struggled against the invading slavers
and colonizers, is only just that, a brief look back. However, brothers and
sisters, we must look back to where we were, what we have had to fight against,
and what challenges we face today, to understand what is to be done.
By any means necessary, we owe to our heroic brothers and sisters in Africa no
less a duty than we owe to ourselves—the duty to challenge and hold back
the brutal and bloody hands of U.S. capitalism and imperialism, in Africa and
at home, or anywhere on the globe that it sets its sights—to struggle
against racism, war and injustice, and not allow the wars of exploitation and
domination abroad to be done in our name, or on behalf of our class, the U.S.
working class, for the sole purpose of continuing to fill the coffers, bank
vaults and pockets of the haves—the ruling class.
NO to the invasion and occupation of any African country! Liberation and
freedom is a right our class must continue to struggle for! Workers and peoples
of the world unite!
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