By Saul Gwakuba-Ndlovu 

LAST month, African nations celebrated the 56th anniversary of the African Union (AU), formerly known as the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). 

It is appropriate to review briefly the continental body’s achievements since it was officially launched on May 25 1963 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. 

At that time, of all the world’s continents, Africa had the largest number of colonies. 

Some had been liberated while others were irrevocably moving towards nationhood and sovereignty.

The African continent’s area is about 18 400 000 sq km (11 500 000 sq miles). 

At the height of colonialism, African colonies belonged to Britain (6 130 076 sq km), France (6 841, 068 sq km), Belgium (1 443 332 sq km), Italy (1 406 579 sq km), Portugal (1 271 934 sq km) and Spain (213 546 sq km). 

The total area of the African colonies was a staggering 17 306 535 sq km, which left only 1 093 465 sq km in the hands of the African people.

The total area of the African colonies was a staggering 17 306 535 sq km; which left only 1 093 465 sq km in the hands of the African people. 

That was how bad to the black people, the colonial situation had made their continent by the end of the Second World War, that is by August 1945. 

The indigenous African people could claim ownership to only 5,094 percent of their land by creation! 

The Italians had militarily seized Ethiopia and called it Abyssinia but were later kicked out before the end of that war that left Ethiopia and Liberia the only two African countries that were not under colonial oppression as recently as 1945. 

The French colonies that became free before 1963 and one prominent former British colony, Ghana, teamed up with Ethiopia and Liberia to form the OAU. 

Leaders to whose lives African unity was a passion were Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, Mali’s Modibo Keita and Guinea’s (Conakry) Sekou Toure. 

Patrice Lumumba of the then Congo (formerly Belgium Congo) was another, but he was assassinated two years earlier. 

The most urgent matter on the OAU agenda in 1963 was the decolonisation of Africa. 

The particular countries that were to pause a protracted challenge to the OAU were Southern Rhodesia, South Africa and South West Africa (Namibia). 

The Portuguese colonies of Mozambique, Angola, Guinea-Bissau as well as Sao Tome and Principe were obviously headed for a very protracted armed struggle as Lisbon called them its ‘overseas provinces’, which was an attempt to treat them as constitutionally integral and inseparable from Portugal. 

South Africa had had its first white settlers as early as 1652. Since then the settlers had vastly increased, ruthlessly displaced the indigenous black people and turning them into their drawers of waters and hewers of wood. 

In 1910, the white settlers, with the active support of the British Government, amalgamated the four South African white settler-ruled territories of Natal, the Cape Colony, the Orange Free State and the Transvaal together under what they named ‘the Union of South Africa’. 

That Union was, under their law, an independent dominion in the same category as Canada, Australia and New Zealand, a heritage of British people in effect. 

It would not be easy at all to change that but democratising the whole system was the OAU’s objective. 

In 1963, not a single black South African had a vote, and the country’s black people were, by law, entitled to live on only 13 percent of the land. 

The remaining 87 percent was for the white settler-minority. 

The OAU and the then oppressed, displaced and exploited black people of South Africa had already launched their armed struggle, which the OAU meant to support materially and financially. 

The mandated South West African (Namibian) question originally sounded an easy proposition until the South African ‘Mandate’ Authorities said they were not quitting the territory; a decision that stunned the world and caused Liberia and Ethiopia to take the issue to the World Court at the Hague in the Netherlands a couple of years later. 

The presiding judges were from Western European countries whose governments sympathised with the South African white settler-regime. 

Liberia and Ethiopia lost the case. 

The OAU had foreseen the outcome and had supported Namibia’s armed struggle. 

It increased its material aid and diplomatic support for the liberation struggle at the UN and elsewhere. 

Southern Rhodesia had recently changed its white settler-administration at the time of the OAU launch; the Rhodesia Front had replaced the United Federal Party (UFP), a political party whose policy was based on what it termed partnership between the disadvantaged black people and the privileged white minority settlers. 

The Rhodesian Front (RF) was led by mostly white farmers. 

They had no time for the political advancement of black people, and to make sure that their policies would be advanced, the RF leadership wanted Southern Rhodesia to be granted independence forthwith. 

Meanwhile, UFP had failed to keep the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland together. 

Settlers in Africa had vastly increased in South Africa since the 1950s and displaced the indigenous black people, turning them into labourers.

The Federation had been formed in September 1953 by bringing together Southern Rhodesia  (now Zimbabwe) with Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) and Nyasaland (Malawi). 

The RF argued that it had been ill advised in the first place for Southern Rhodesia to have joined Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland in a federation because the last two northern territories  were protectorates of Britain and were ruled by, and from, the Colonial Office in London, whereas  Southern Rhodesia had been self-governing since 1923. 

Demanding that the country should become independent with the least delay after the Federation was dissolved on December 31 1963, the RF leaders said that development would have wound Southern Rhodesia’s political clock back to September 1923 when its white minority settlers voted for internal self-government instead of joining South Africa as that country’s fifth province. 

The Southern Rhodesia’s 1923 vote for internal self-government was actually in accordance with the wishes of Cecil John Rhodes. 

On March 30 1891, when he was addressing the Afrikander Bond in Capetown, Rhodes said, among other things: “Let us accept jointly the idea that the most complete internal self-government is what we are both aiming at; if you desire the cordial and intense co–operation of the English section of this country, let us unite and be of one mind on this question of self- government.” 

It was the RF’s belief (or opinion) that from self-government, a country’s next step was independence. 

Ian Smith’s November 11 1965 Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) should be understood in this context. 

The RF lived so much in the past that, to it, the black people’s political rights did not exist, and that was why the OAU had to assist them to achieve ‘one-person, one-vote’, an elementary inalienable right of every adult human being in the modern world. 

The RF’s irresponsible and clumsy handling of the Rhodesia issue, plus Britain’s reluctance to shoulder her responsibility over Rhodesia cost the country heavily in life, limb and property. 

The French were realistic in their decolonisation policy and programme with the exception of the Algeria case, and hence less human life and property were lost in Francophone Africa. After the formation of  the OAU, there was no need to wage liberation wars in French speaking colonies as France had a well-known decolonisation programme. 

Africa’s Portuguese colonies were the most difficult to liberate because the Lisbon regime, under Dr Salazaar, was utterly committed to their maintenance as the metropolitan country’s overseas provinces. 

Some of the indigenous people regarded themselves as Portuguese first and foremost and whatever else later, a psychological condition brought about by the Portuguese’s notorious ‘Assimilado’ socio-cultural policy by which many indigenous people were elevated into the country’s socio-cultural institutions and system, exempting them from all of the Portuguese’s then racially discriminatory ordinances and practices. 

The Lusophonic legal tradition included corporal punishment by the frequent use of the much-feared palmatoria sjambok, a five-fingered palm-shaped leather or rubber lash originally used on the Congolese people in the mid-1400s when that DRC was still under King Ngola from which Angola was later named. 

Most black Portuguese colonial subjects’ minds were heavily influenced by two factors: aspiration to become an assimiladoes, and fear of the palmatoria

Religion contributed rather negatively to the political revolutionary consciousness of Portugal’s colonial subjects. 

Political factionalism was common in Mozambique and Angola, and the OAU had to take stern measures that led to the formation of revolutionary parties such as Mozambique’s FRELIMO under Dr Mondlane, Angola’s MPLA under Dr Augustinho Neto, an organisation that  had already launched an armed revolution, and in Guinea-Bissau the PAIGC was already on the move under the brilliant Amilcar Cabral’s guidance. 

Its strongest mentor in the region was Guinea-Conakry’s President Sekou Toure. 

Those revolutionary organisations had more than enough personnel. 

What they lacked were material, logistical facilities and diplomatic support on various global fora. 

The OAU met those shortcomings, and the liberation of the African continent got into top gear. 

Spain had two African possessions; Spanish Equatorial Africa and Spanish Sahara (now called Sahrawi). 

The former became free but the latter is a bone of contention right up to 2019. 

It seems the AU has now run out of anti-colonial steam, resulting in Spain and its African colonial agent, Morocco, defying the whole African continent on the liberation of Sahrawi. 

It is a source of much pride that Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangangwa last year strongly called on the AU to reactivate or invigorate the liberation of that natural resource-rich African country. 

Saul Gwakuba-Ndlovu is a retired, Bulawayo-based journalist. He can be contacted on cell 0734 328 136 or through email,


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