Africa BC/AC (Before and After Colonialism)


By ilana mercer
From their plush apartments, over groaning dinner tables, pseudo-intellectuals have the luxury of depicting squalor and sickness as idyllic, primordially peaceful and harmonious. After all, when the affluent relinquish their earthly possessions to return to the simple life, it is always with aid of sophisticated technology and the option to be air-lifted to a hospital if the need arises.

Is there any wonder, then, that “the stereotype of colonial history” has been perpetuated by the relatively well-to-do intellectual elite? Theories of exploitation, Marxism for one, originated with Western intellectuals, not with African peasants. It is this clique alone that could afford to pile myth upon myth about a system that had benefited ordinary people.

What is meant by “benefited”? Naturally, the premise here is that development, so long as it’s not coerced, is desirable and material progress good. British colonists in Africa reduced the state of squalor, disease and death associated with lack of development. To the extent that this is condemned, the Rousseauist myth of the noble, happy savage is condoned. Granted, Africa’s poor did not elect to have these conditions, good and bad, foisted on them. However, once introduced to potable water, sanitation, transportation, and primary healthcare, few Africans wish to do without them. Fewer Africans still would wish to return to Native Customary Law once introduced to the idea that their lives were no longer the property of the Supreme Chief to do with as he pleased.

It “is an absurdity to assert that cannibalism, slavery, magical therapy, and killing the aged should be accorded the same ‘dignity’ or ‘validity’ as old-age security, scientific medicine, and metal artifacts,” noted anthropologist George Peter. While old habits die hard, most “people prefer Western technology and would rather be able to feed their children and elderly than kill them,” he notes in Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress. And the West largely eliminated “many of the worst endemic and epidemic diseases in West Africa.” Ask Moeletsi Mbeki, the brother of South Africa’s former president Thabo Mbeki. He has admitted that “the average African is poorer [today] than during the age of colonialism.”

Even so—and whether they stay or go—the blame for all the ills of this backward and benighted region falls on Westerners. One dreadfully off-course notion has it that the colonial powers plundered Africa and failed to plow back profits into the place. This manifest absurdity is belied by the major agricultural, mineral, commercial and industrial installations throughout the continent. The infrastructure in Africa was built by the colonial powers. Far from draining wealth from less developed countries,” as P. T. Bauer richly documented, in Equality, the Third World, and Economic Delusion, “British industry helped to create it there.”

Another widely canvassed, equally implausible, accusation is that the West, which was streaks ahead of sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia well before colonization, got rich on the backs of poor nations. How then do we explain the fact that the Scandinavian countries, Switzerland and Australia, have achieved some of the world’s highest living standards? After all, none of these nations had any colonies (except Australia, which after World War I acquired sovereignty over the former German territory consisting of what is now Papua New Guinea). They were rich without any meaningful ties to the undeveloped world. The wealthiest and most advanced countries were themselves colonies once: North America and Australia. As Bauer conclusively proved, the West’s human resources, and not any exploitation of the backward world, account for its innovation and achievements.

Much less is it legitimate to claim that contact with entrepreneurial Europeans and Asians has enervated Africa. Regions that have had the greatest commercial contact with the West are far and away more developed than regions that had little such contact. Compare the people of West Africa, parts of East and Southern Africa, and the inhabitants of Africa’s ports, with desert and rainforest dwellers like the Bushmen and pigmies. Or, with never-colonized Liberia, Afghanistan, Tibet and Nepal.

We can’t lay the blame for Africa’s tragedy on the much-deplored exploitation of natural resources either. Most natural resources are useless lumps of nothing. Without the ingenuity of men—iron, aluminum, coal and oil would lie purposeless and pristine in the wildernesses, and the matter and energy abundant on earth would come to naught. Such a state of affairs describes pre-colonial Africa, to which the colonial powers introduced the wheel and wheeled transport.”

Much of British colonial Africa was transformed during the colonial period,” writes Bauer, also in Equality, the Third World, and Economic Delusion:

In the Gold coast there were about 3000 children at school in the early 1900s, whereas in the mid-1950s there were over half a million. In the early 1890s there were in the Gold Coast no railways or roads, but only a few jungle paths. Transport of goods was by human porterage or canoe.

Before colonialism, sub-Saharan Africa was a subsistence economy; because of colonialism it became a monetized economy. Before colonialism, there were only bush back roads through which men trekked with goods on their backs. During colonialism roads were built. In pre-colonial times the absence of public security made investment in Africa too risky. Post-colonialism, investment flowed. With the colonial administrations came scientific agriculture, introduced by the colonists and by “foreign private organizations and persons under the comparative security of colonial rule, and usually in the face of formidable obstacles.”

“In British West Africa public security and health improved out of all recognition … peaceful travel became possible; slavery and slave trading and famine were practically eliminated, and the incidence of the worst diseases reduced. Mortality fell, population increased, communications and ‘peaceful contact within Africa and with the outside world’ increased in British colonies.” As uneven and problematic as progress often was, “everywhere in Black Africa modern economic life began with the colonial period.” “Economic modernity could not have been effected without a mediated imperial structure,” maintains economist Niall Ferguson. In Africa, colonial governments encountered “conditions unfavorable to material progress,” to wit, civil and tribal war and slavery. By establishing the rule of law, protecting private property and enforcing contractual relations, building infrastructure, and organizing “basic health services,” and introducing modern financial and legal institutions—the colonial powers enhanced, rather than hindered, progress. Although—or perhaps because—all these advancements interfered with traditional customs, they also advanced the continent materially.

Clearly, political independence doesn’t go hand-in-glove with material progress. But grievance-based explanations have a way of evolving. Before independence, Africa’s backwardness was attributed to colonialism. After independence, neocolonialism replaced colonialism as the excuse du jour for the failure of African leaders to ameliorate their people’s plight. Neocolonialism encompasses any unhappy condition that can no longer be attributed to colonialism. Pizza Hut opening an outlet in Lima can easily be framed as the modern equivalent of Pizarro descending on the Incas, to paraphrase journalist Henri Astier.

On rare occasions the interests of an African politician and his people will converge. On one such occasion, and in desperation, the former president of Sierra Leone, the late Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, where life expectancy is just forty-nine years, “asked a visiting British politician, in the presence of journalists, if it might be possible for his country to become part of the British Empire again.”

When all is said and done, the West is what it is due to human capital—people of superior ideas and abilities, capable of innovation, exploration, science, philosophy.

Human action is the ultimate adjudicator of a human being’s worth; the aggregate action of many human beings acting in concert makes or breaks a society. Overall, American society is superior to assorted African and Arab societies because America is still inhabited by the kind of individuals who make possible a thriving civil society.

Adapted from Into the Cannibal’s Pot: Lessons for America From Post-Apartheid South Africa (2011) by ILANA Mercer. Ilana’s latest book is The Trump Revolution: The Donald’s Creative Destruction Deconstructed (June, 2016).

 

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2 comments

  • Another excellent essay. Reading it calls to mind the Monty Python sketch “What have the Romans ever done for us?”

  • Concerned Briton

    I am not new in making this point, but if living under the ‘white man’ was so terrible and they made everything so bad, why are hundreds of thousands of ‘non-whites’ flocking to live under and within white societies again?

    I heard it cost Britain more to end slavery than what the British had ever gained from it. I would also like to know how much money the ‘white man’ has poured into Africa in their efforts to improve the lives and conditions found within that continent, for people they supposedly ‘hate’.

    I would also be curious to what amount of money the following kinds of things are worth – the concept of the rule of law, the concept of ’emergency services’, farming theories and equipment, etc, as well as inventions made by ‘white men’, such as the combustion engine, plastics, rubber, electricity, radios, watches, compasses, drills, concrete, tarmac, steel, aluminium, the list is pretty much endless when it comes to the gifts that ‘we’ have given.

    When it comes to ‘stolen wealth’, such as with oil, diamonds, etc…… I’m sorry, but if the white man had not been there and not had been so inventive and industrious, those natural resources would still be sat under the ground in Africa doing nothing, the people there would have no clue what to do with it, or how to extract and refine it. It would have been worthless to them.

    I really do feel that we have given more to them, and to this world, than they have given us, or are even capable of giving us.

    That is one reason, amongst many, why I am sick and tired of the bellyaching about white people, colonialism, slavery and whatever else is wheeled out as being the driving factor of black failure – and indeed the reason as to why we ought to turn our own countries black and into shambolic third world countries for, for some kind of atonement for “sins” that were not even ours

    Africa is perpetually in a problem because the people there are collectively unable, by genetics, to build and hold up a first world civilisation. Everywhere Black people go and settle in large numbers, turns into an utter toilet of chaos and dysfunction. In terms of group dynamics, the ‘white man’ generally builds things up, whilst the ‘black man’ generally destroys and reverts back to primitive living.

    It doesn’t matter whether it is France, Britain, Germany, Australia, America – it is always the same, despite 50 years of liberal and conservative excuses, programmes, funding, rules, legislation.

    But some liberals and general Joe Public seem to like chaos, primitive ways. I see it countless time on TV where they are crowing about the “vibrancy” and “energy” of some primitive craphole somewhere that is a cacophony of noise, dysfunction, chaos, problems.

    This is one reason why I fear what’s coming when people want such “vibrancy” here! Sorry, but I prefer orderliness, cleanliness, for things to work smoothly, in a calm and peaceful fashion!

    The problems of Africa can never be solved. This is down to IQ levels, innate traits such as lack of thought for the future consequences of actions, impulsivity, corruption, warmongering, and an insane population growth for which they are simply unable to ever cope with sustaining.

    When the continent is going to rise from 1.1 Billion to 4.7 Billion by the end of the century, all aims at “reparations” and “good deeds” are going to be utterly and completely a waste of time, and in fact many of those “good deeds” will only serve to make things worse.

    Colonialism is perhaps the best thing to have ever happened to Africa – and the reverse colonisation we are witnessing in the West today is going to prove to be the worst thing that has ever happened to us, including the onset and aftermath of the Black Death. That could be recovered from, like Hiroshima and the atom bomb could be recovered from. What is going to happen to us, and the world, cannot be recovered from.

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