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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 class.

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 borne out.

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 Europeans.

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 Africa.

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 African people.

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 large-scale industry.

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 globe.

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 white Europeans.

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 European feudalism.

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 oppressors.

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 Africa.

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 10,000 Namas.

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!