The news of the death of the former president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, came as I was preparing to write an article on Central Africa. This month marks the 50th anniversary of the dissolution of the Central African Federation, a short-lived experiment in multiculturalism that brought incredible development to the center of the continent in a short period of time. The federation was more formally known as the “Federation of the Rhodesias and Nyasaland.” Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) and Nyasaland (Malawi) were the three constituent parts.
When you visit any of these countries today, you will find the main roads were built at this time, as was Kariba Dam. The federation was largely financed by the white settlers in Southern Rhodesia, who had made their country an African success story.
The Encyclopedia Britannica has this to say on the origins of the federation. “After World War II, the growth of secondary industries and greatly increased white immigration in Southern Rhodesia, compounded by the copper boom in Northern Rhodesia, led white political leaders and industrialists to urge even more strongly the advantages of an amalgamated territory that would provide larger markets and be able to draw more freely on black labor, especially in Nyasaland.”
Apart from the economic arguments, there were also political reasons for federation. In 1948, the Nationalist Party came to power in South Africa, then a British dominion like Canada and Australia. The new government introduced separate development (apartheid), the strict separation of the races. Britain was concerned about losing influence in the region as the Nationalists were generally anti-British – some had been pro-Nazi during World War II. The British also wanted to show there was an alternative to separate development.
The federation brought together two British colonies, Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland, together with the self-governing colony of Southern Rhodesia, a territory that had never been ruled directly from London. Britain’s hope was to show that a multiracial state based on cooperation between the races was far better than the neighboring South African model. The first Prime Minister of the Federation was Sir Godfrey Huggins, earlier the Prime Minister of Southern Rhodesia. When he stepped down in 1956, he was the longest serving prime minister in the history of the British Commonwealth.
However, the federation made the whites in Southern Rhodesia richer and more influential. Black African nationalists stirred up sentiment against it. The Colonial Office in London, always sympathetic to African nationalist demands, decided to disband the union, giving both Malawi and Zambia independence in 1964. The whites in Southern Rhodesia voted to disassociate themselves from Britain (UDI), but 15 years later were forced to hand over power.
Economically, there is no doubt that the federation was a good thing and achieved a great deal. This was the decade of the greatest economic expansion in Central Africa.
In stark contrast, independence led to dictatorship, socialism and economic decline.
All three countries had the same president for three decades. Malawi’s Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda led his country from independence until 1994; Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda from independence until 1991; Zimbabwe, under Robert Mugabe, from independence in 1980 right up until the present. The Westminster style parliamentary systems that the British had in place in the three territories during the colonial era did not survive independence, each country sliding into dictatorship. Zambia and Zimbabwe also embraced socialism. Zambia has since seen the light, but Zimbabwe remains in darkness.
The multicultural ideal was dead in Central Africa and the three component parts have suffered because of it.
It was not to be realized again until the end of apartheid and the first black African government in South Africa, led by Nelson Mandela. Mr. Mandela only served one term, previously unheard of in Africa. As a leader, he was a light on the Dark Continent, standing out over all other post-colonial rulers. “What is the future of South Africa?” asked former US Secretary of State James Baker on CBS this morning. He added: “I think a lot of the groundwork has been laid by Nelson Mandela.”
It is misleading to say, as was said on CBS this morning, that “Mandela spent 27 years in prison because he fought against apartheid.” Many people opposed apartheid but did not go to prison. Helen Suzman, a prominent member of parliament, comes first to mind. Mr. Mandela was, in fact, imprisoned for acts of sabotage. Today he would be called a terrorist. Violently opposed to apartheid, many whites now see him as the one who saved them and the country from a bloodbath when the white minority handed over power. He was the only one who could pull the transition off successfully. For this, South Africans of all races are mostly grateful.
For a long time, many whites have expressed fears for their future in the post-Mandela era.
The whites have the skills the country needs for further prosperity. They also pay most of the taxes, without which social programs to help the poorest members of society would not be possible. The countries of the Central African Federation learned the hard way the negative consequences of driving the whites out. Hopefully, South Africa will not make the same mistake and Mandela’s “rainbow nation,” a multicultural country made up of various races, will succeed.
Thinking has changed, even in the West. Socialists in England in the 1950’s were advocates of decolonization. One point repeatedly made was that, in Northern Rhodesia, whites were paid on average seven times what black Africans were paid; today, after five decades of independence, the ratio is 28 to 1. Whites no longer want to settle in central Africa. They would rather go out on contracts and want big money to take what they consider are big risks, hence the greater pay differential. If South Africa can keep the white settlers, the country will continue to prosper.
Interestingly, Zambia is now encouraging white farmers to settle, granting them 99 -year leases on land. Food production doubled with the first hundred farmers, bringing down food prices and strengthening the currency. Zambia benefitted from Zimbabwe’s expropriation of white farmland.
The handover to majority rule in South Africa took place in 1994. By that time, the country had had the opportunity to see the disaster that had befallen many nations to the north. Whereas Zimbabwe’s post-independence leader, Robert Mugabe, reverted to his radical revolutionary agenda after gaining power, Mandela gave an assurance right at the beginning that South Africa would be a democracy and would have a free enterprise system. So far, it’s worked.
We will soon know whether it will continue to work in the post-Mandela era.