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Challenges facing the African continent: Address to The African Schools Debating Championships

30 April 2008, Johannesburg

Blade Nzimande, SACP General Secretary


I wish to thank the organisers of the African Schools Debating Championships for extending this invitation to participate in this prestigious event. I would especially like to thank Irene Pampallis in particular for successfully negotiating around my tight schedule to ensure that I am able to come. She is not only a good debater herself but clearly a very good negotiator.

Let me also extend a very warm word of welcome to those participants coming from outside South Africa, and hope that you will thoroughly enjoy your stay in our country.

Today I would like to talk about the challenges facing the African continent and the role that education and skills development can play in tackling many of these challenges.

Africa and imperialism: A simultaneously very rich and poor continent

It may sound strange for one to argue that Africa is both very rich and poor at the same time. What do I mean by this? Africa is one of the richest continents in the world particularly in terms of its mineral wealth and other resources: gold, platinum, oil, bio-diversity, diamonds, uranium, coffee, etc. For instance South Africa has the largest platinum reserves in the world. Given this alone, Africa should be amongst the richest of continents.

However, African peoples are the poorest in the world, with minimal access to education, jobs, sustainable livelihoods, health and food. It is also a continent beset with diseases, some of which can be easily treated.

What are the key reasons for this contrast of a rich continent but with the highest poverty levels in the whole world?

Some have been won’t to say that Africa is a basket case, with others even suggesting that Africans are by their very nature unable to use their resources, and are victims of generally repressive and corrupt regimes.

Yet many of those who argue this way conveniently forget that the single most important reason for the state of the African continent is what we call imperialism; a system of brutal colonisation, subjugation and exploitation of the African peoples and their resources especially since the late 19th Century.

What were some of the factors behind the colonisation of Africa? With the advent of capitalism in Europe from about the 16th century, there was an insatiable demand for raw materials which were to be found in the far flung regions of the world. The demand for raw materials to feed into the capitalist machines in Europe, led to expansion of colonialism into the African continent especially from about the middle of the 19th Century. All the powerful capitalist countries were scrambling for resources in the continent, thus necessitating the brutal, armed colonisation of the African peoples in order to access its mineral resources.

One of the most important platforms used by the major European powers was the Berlin Conference, convened in Berlin on 15 November 1884, at the request of Portugal and Germany, to decide on how to divide the African continent amongst these powers. This was as a result of the identification of the wealth in the continent that the major powers and their capitalist institutions wanted for themselves. Present at this Conference were about fourteen countries, including Great Britain, Germany, France Spain and the United States of America, to mention just but a few.

It is important to note that at the time of the convening of this conference 80% of Africa remained under local control by Africans themselves. Some of the historians on Africa, de Blij, H.J. and Peter O. Muller in 1997, reflecting on the implications of the decisions of the Berlin Conference, concluded that:

“The Berlin Conference was Africa`s undoing in more ways than one. The colonial powers superimposed their domains on the African continent. By the time independence returned to Africa in 1950, the realm had acquired a legacy of political fragmentation that could neither be eliminated nor made to operate satisfactorily.” (http//geography.about.com/about.com/cs/politicalgeog/berlinconferenc.htm).

According to Matt Rosenberg, by 1914 the Berlin Conference participants had fully divided Africa into fifty countries, and designated, amongst themselves particular countries, including along the following lines

“Great Britain desired a Cape-to-Cairo collection of colonies and almost succeeded through their control of Egypt, Sudan (Anglo-Egyptian Sudan), Uganda, Kenya (British East Africa), South Africa, and Zambia, Zimbabwe (Rhodesia), and Botswana. The British also controlled Nigeria and Ghana (Gold Coast).

France took much of western Africa, from Mauritania to Chad (French West Africa) and Gabon and the Republic of Congo (French Equatorial Africa).

Belgium and King Leopold II controlled the Democratic Republic of Congo (Belgian Congo).

Portugal took Mozambique in the east and Angola in the west.

Italy`s holdings were Somalia (Italian Somaliland) and a portion of Ethiopia.

Germany took Namibia (German Southwest Africa) and Tanzania (German East Africa).

Spain claimed the smallest territory - Equatorial Guinea (Rio Muni)”.

It was out of this reality that, for instance, different parts of our continent came to be described as ‘Anglophone’ or ‘Luso’ or ‘Francophone’ Africa, designating the different spheres of control by some of the major colonial powers over our continent.

I don’t intend giving a history lesson, but the point I want to emphasize is that this led to a particular form of economic development for our continent. The raw materials and resources plundered from Africa were virtually all processed in European factories and production lines, with these powers deliberately not investing in any local capacity for African countries to process their own raw materials. For the colonial powers there was no need to develop such capacities as these raw materials were meant to be processed in the European factories, creating jobs and comfortable lives for Europeans, thus growing and sustaining European economies. For example, virtually all of the diamonds mined in South Africa today are still exported raw, to be processed into jewellery in Europe and sold all over the world, including being sold back to us, and being now not only very, very expensive, but without recognizing that they were our own products.

All the above meant that the deliberate underdevelopment of Africa was a pre-condition for the development of Europe. Put differently, one of the main conditions for the development of Europe was the deliberate underdevelopment of the African continent.

By the time African countries started winning independence from the 1950’s onwards, hardly fought for by the many liberation movements that sprung up on the continent, Africa was hugely underdeveloped, and largely dependent on exporting its raw materials to developed countries. It is a situation that has been very hard to reverse, because even today, developed countries have no interest in developing the continent.

It is also for this reason that socialist ideas became very prominent in many of the liberation movements on the continent, because they saw the true liberation of African people as inseparable from the capitalist exploitation brought about by European colonialism. Our own Party, the South African Communist Party, was the first such party on the African continent, formed in 1921, to fight not only against colonialism and oppression of black people, but for a socialist South Africa, whereby equality of opportunity and access to resources was to be fought for, alongside the struggle against what later became apartheid.

Many of the wars experienced by the African continent are mostly attributable to the history of the colonization of the African continent.

But is the blame for the state of the African continent only external?

Indeed some may argue that it is wrong the blame all the woes of the African continent only on imperialism, as Africans themselves might have made mistakes and thus responsible for the underdevelopment of the continent.

Indeed it is true that some of these problems can be attributable to some of the African leaders themselves, but these cannot be understood outside of imperialism and colonialism. For instance, European powers, even as colonialism was being defeated, tried to ensure that new regimes that take over after independence would continue to serve the interests of the powerful countries. Some of the African leaders indeed collaborated with former colonial powers, and in the process also enriching themselves and oppressing the very people they had led into freedom and liberation.

It is the above reality that the term ‘neo-colonialism’ emerged, whose meaning is that much as many African countries are now independent, but the old economic relations between the former colonizer and the colony remain unchanged. The current reality is that these African countries still remain heavily dependent on, and subjugated to, the major economic powers of the world.

The African Union and African development

After the liberation of South Africa in 1994, there have been renewed efforts by African leaders to promote democratic governments on the continent and foster economic development, in a process led by themselves. The African Union (AU) was founded here in South Africa, on 9 July 2002, and its membership is made up of 53 African countries. It was formed after the dissolution of its predecessor the Organization of African Unity (OAU), whose main purpose was to ensure that the whole of Africa is liberated from colonialism.

The AU has also adopted its own socio-economic programme, the New Partnership for Africa’s

Development (NEPAD), already adopted in July 2001 by the OAU. According to its own founding document,

“NEPAD is designed to address the current challenges facing the African continent. Issues such as the escalating poverty levels, underdevelopment and the continued marginalisation of Africa needed a new radical intervention, spearheaded by African leaders, to develop a new Vision that would guarantee Africa’s Renewal”(www.nepad.org).

However for any socio-economic programme to succeed in Africa economic and financial investment is needed. Especially important is the need to change Africa from being a continent that relies heavily on exporting its raw materials, to that of being a processor of its own raw materials domestically, so that it can also become an exporter of finished goods. This is a very complex challenge which you, as students, must place at the centre of your debates, especially given the scale of inequality between Africa and the developed world.

The kind of socio-economic development we need for the continent is where economic growth is shared by all rather than benefit only small elites. Even in those African countries where there is positive economic growth, the fruits of this growth continue to be shared by a few, including the big corporations from the West, whilst the conditions of the majority of the people remain the same. This is a challenge that you, as young Africans, must debate.

Of particular importance is the need for Africans themselves to take a lead in coming up with concrete ideas and solutions to the problems facing our continent. I have no doubt that as a continent we have what it takes to change the conditions of the majority of the peoples of the continent for the better. This is the task that you, as young Africans, have a particular responsibility to undertake, as the future of the African continent is your future.

Education and skills development

Apart from the economic challenges I have outlined above education and skills development is one of the major priorities for our continent. Because of the fact that colonialism turned our continent into exporters of raw materials, there was no training of the local population in skills that are vital for sustainable economic development.

It is therefore important that we continue to struggle for what most liberation movements had placed as a priority for our continent, that of free, compulsory and quality education for all the children of our continent. This should obviously be accompanied by increased investment in education resources, both physical and human.

Drastically increased access to higher education is also an important component in the provision of education and skills. Millions of high school graduates on our continent are still unable to access higher education.

Maths, science and technology are obviously priorities for a decent education system and to provide the basis for the much needed skills for our African economies. But at the same time we must strike a balance such that ideally all students should be exposed to social sciences in order to produce students who have a total understanding of the challenges facing our continent.

The genesis of Mathematics and Science is historically attributed to the ancient Egyptians, and thus, not only constitute the wealth of knowledge in the continent but also the extent in which the continent was plundered. All of these are now being tought in African Schools through English as a medium of communications, and makes their transmission impossible, whilst they are vital for Africa to develop its capacity towards processing mineral resources and ensuring that it achieves the most out of its wealth.

Part of intensifying Education and Skills means that we need academics throughout the continent to begin to translate Maths and Science Textbooks in Swahili, isiZulu, Shona, sePedi and other African languages. Because of the complexity of these subjects, we cannot let this situation go on. Maths and Science, as subjects of African origin, should be taught in African languages.

Let me once more congratulate all of you for such a vitally important initiative. I hope that my input will form part of your discussions, and that some of these ideas will be debated in future championships.

I thank you