I think it is generally accepted that the term “neo-colonialism” first surfaced in 1963. It featured in the preamble of the Organisation of African States Charter. think, too, that Kwame Nkrumah is generally credited for its coinage. He used it as part of the title of his book in 1965: Neo-Colonialism, the Last Stage of Imperialism.
That means the term has been part of Africa’s repertoire of political terminology for some 52 years. That appears to me to be a long enough time for us to learn the lessons embedded in the coinage of the term as such and those conveyed by Nkrumah’s book on the subject two years later. Have we?
To try to answer the question must involve an elucidation of the lessons we should have learnt. Nkrumah started his thesis on the premise that Africa had fought for independence from colonial powers.
He examined such independence as the countries got it and came to the conclusion that no sooner had the colonial power withdrawn formally, it was hard at work to pre-empt any real independence from being realised. This it did in one of two ways.
Either the colonial power manipulated the economy of the newly independent state, so that the new state would remain dependent on its former colonial masters or, in some cases, through a blatant military garrison. In either case the objective was to control the government and the affairs of the new state.
What lessons were we supposed to learn from these? The first and obvious lesson is that we need to be vigilant. If we are not vigilant, we might find that we sign away our freedom even as we receive it. This happened with French African colonies which are, decades after political independence, still tied to France in rather puzzling ways.
They still pay taxes to France and for what? You guessed it: France expects them to pay for the “civilising” benefits they derived from its colonial rule of those territories!
Which is more, France has the first option to purchase the goods of its former territories even if these countries might get a better price for them elsewhere.
Francophone Africa, and I get a knot in my stomach using the term, is an extreme example of African independence gone wrong.
But I don’t think we in South Africa are, when all the frills are removed, much better. Our case is certainly a lot more subtle, but I think the effect is essentially the same.
During his term as president, Nelson Mandela complained that the West had advised him what to do and what not to do, and promised that foreign investment and development aid would follow in droves. He complained that he had done everything he was advised to do and avoided everything he was advised to avoid, but asked: where is the foreign investment and the development aid?
Mandela’s question leads to the other lesson we should have learnt: work towards self-reliance in the shortest possible time. This seems quite obvious, since our dependence must inevitably make us vulnerable to manipulation.
To work towards self-reliance and to become self-reliant does not mean we would be an island.
The integration of the economies of the world does not allow for that.
Self-reliance means, rather, that we shall engage with other countries as equals rather than as helpless recipients of aid. Self-reliance does not mean we should free the “developed” world from its obligations towards us for enslaving and colonising us for centuries.
It means we shall recognise whatever assistance they give us as owed. It means we cannot reward them, as France expects, for enslaving and colonising us for centuries.
But why is it necessary to raise these issues at this moment exactly? It is necessary for a number of reasons, but the immediate trigger is all the debate about Chinese designs on Africa.
The issues being raised by a number of African countries are that China has sought to tap the region’s rich resources to fuel its own economic growth over the past two decades, that its hunger for resources has led to one-sided policies and damaging projects, and that the projects bring little benefit to local people, with materials and even labour being imported from China.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi assures us his country “absolutely will not take the old path of Western colonists, and we absolutely will not sacrifice Africa’s ecological environment and long-term interests”. Nkrumah would remind us that the old path is blatant colonial occupation and that the new path is the more subtle neo-colonial approach.
The assurance we need from China is that it will follow neither of the two paths in dealing with us and Wang Yi’s declaration does not say so. He promises only that his country will not follow the old path.
Is the omission to say anything about the new path innocent? It could be, but it is also possible to argue that it is not.
It is possible to argue that the undertaking not to follow the new path is already answered in the complaint that the Sino-African projects currently running are one-sided, with benefits flowing in the direction of China more decidedly than in the direction of Africa.
Africa must challenge China to prove its commitment to mutually beneficial projects through arrangements which bear that out. We cannot be the permanent supplier of raw materials to all the countries which claim to have a partnership with us.
If China is any different from the West, the acid test is whether it is willing to work with us so through the partnership we too can process the raw materials we supply it, so we too can sell manufactured goods rather than only raw materials to it. Is that possible, Mr Wang Yi?