Liberation of Africa

By the end of World War I, most of Africa had been effectively colonized. The next two decades, the period historians call the inter-war years, were relatively quiet years in colonial Africa. This relative quiet, however, did not indicate that the colonized people of Africa were happy with colonial rule-that there was no opposition to colonialism.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, new mass-based political parties were formed in almost every African colony. Unlike earlier political organizations, these parties were not restricted to the educated elite. They wanted and needed mass support for their cause. The cause went beyond the demand for more opportunity and an end of discrimination. The central demand was for political freedom, for end of colonial rule! The rapid growth of African nationalism took European colonial powers by surprise. The Italians and the British followed by the French and then by the reluctant Belgians, eventually responded to the demands for independence.

Libya (1951) and Egypt (1952) were the first African nations to gain independence. Ghana (Gold Coast) in 1957 was the first country south of the Sahara to become independence. 1960 was the big year for African independence. Fourteen African countries gained their independence in 1960.


At the end of the 1960s, six African colonies remained. Of the six, five were a settler colony, that is colonies in which the interest power of the European settler community kept the majority African populations from gaining their political freedom. Of these six countries, five were in Southern Africa: Angola (Portugal/settler) Mozambique (Portugal/settler), Namibia (South Africa/settler), South Africa (settler) and Zimbabwe (British/settler). The small Portuguese colony of Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde in West Africa was the sixth colony.

Just as in other African colonies, African nationalist movements had formed in each of these countries in the 1940s and 1950s. These political parties sought peaceful, constitutional change. That is, the primary aim of the nationalist parties was to change the constitutions of the settler colonies to recognize the rights of the majority African population.

For many years, the white settlers in these colonies had the right to vote. They used this vote to elect representatives who passed laws that protected the power of the European settlers and discriminated against Africans.

The settler colonial governments responded to the non-violent constitutional demands of African nationalist parties with laws that banned all political protests and with violence. Repressive legislation allowed the settler mandelagovernments to arrest and imprison the leaders of the banned African political parties. The most famous of the imprisoned political leaders is Nelson Mandela, the leader of the African National Congress of South Africa, who spent twenty-seven years in jail before being released in 1989. In 1994, he became the first president of an independent South Africa. However, Mandela was just one of many African leaders who spent years in jail as a result of their demands for freedom, majority rule, and independence for their countries.

How did the African nationalist political parties respond to the imprisonment of their leaders and the banning of all political activities?  Just like the leaders of the American Revolution, African nationalists decided that the only way deal with repressive regimes that used force and violence was to resist with force. Beginning in the early 1960s, banned nationalist parties in each settler colony transformed themselves into liberation movements for armed struggle against the settler regimes.

This transition to the armed struggle was not an easy one. The armed forces of the settler regimes were well equipped and well trained. For their part, the newly formed liberation movements had little money to purchase weapons and to train their soldiers. Moreover, when the liberation movements sought help from the outside world, neither the United States nor the former colonial powers in Europe were willing to give support.

They received support from the Eastern Bloc, and from independent African nations. In 1963 at the meeting of African leaders that formed the Organization of African Unity, Kwame Nkrumah, the highly respected president of Ghana, declared that “no African will be free until all Africans are free.” While the O.A.U. and most African nations supported the liberation struggle in Southern Africa, the most direct support came from the Front Line States, the independent African countries bordering Southern Africa. These states provided some monetary assistance, but most importantly, they provided military bases for training and from which the liberation movements could stage attacks. Angola, Mozambique, and Zambia suffered attacks from settler regimes because of this assistance.

Although it took many years of struggle, sacrifice, and suffering, all of the settler colonies won their independence. South Africa in 1994 became the last African colony to achieve majority rule.


“Unit Two: Studying Africa through the Social Studies.” Exploring Africa. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Apr. 2013.



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