Stop blaming colonialism writes William Gumede

Stop blaming colonialism

Voices360 by William Gumede

Nov 5, 2018

Since the end of colonialism, apartheid and white-minority governments, a debilitating culture of victimhood has undermined development in African countries.

Linked to victimhood is the expectation that “others”, whether former colonial powers, and new emerging powers, such as China or foreign investors will come to the rescue of Africa, either because of their past exploitation of Africa, or in the case of China, because they are “our” friends. There is often also an expectation that foreign investors will solve Africa’s development problems out of benevolence.

The hard truth is outsiders will not save Africa. Former colonial powers will not suddenly have a mea culpa and pour the equivalent of a US Marshall Fund, the money the US channelled into Europe after the Second World for reconstruction, into Africa to atone for colonialism and slavery. New emerging powers such as China or Saudi Arabia is not going to benevolently sink money into the continent – they want a return on their investment in Africa.

Colonialism, apartheid and Western imperialists are often blamed in Africa for self-inflicted problems, to cover up governing leaders and elites’ self-enrichment, incompetence and corruption.

Relatedly, in South Africa, blaming “white monopoly capital”, the short-hand for foreign companies, local white-owned companies and industrial country dominated global markets, have become fashionable. Off course, colonialism, apartheid and imperialism by industrial countries have set back development, and continue to do so, in many African and developing countries.

Last year, celebrating 60 years since independence, Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo rightly said the country had run out of excuses for failing to end poverty and corruption so long after independence from colonialism. Akufo-Addo then said that it is just being silly to still want to blame colonialism for all of Ghana’s high levels of poverty, underdevelopment and homelessness six decades after the end of colonialism.

Former President Jacob Zuma built an R280m mansion while his supporters live in squalor. Zuma blamed it on “white monopoly capital”, and Western “imperialists”, meaning former colonial powers countries, who wanted to destabilize his presidency.

Former Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe plundered the state to enrich himself, his family and political allies; pursued poorly thought-out populist policies to shore up his support; and terrorized domestic opponents causing the collapse of the economy. After being in power since 1980, Mugabe blamed it on white farmers, former colonial power Britain and domestic black “puppets” of “imperialists”.

However, is it rationally possible to blame each and every current poorly thought out decision, lack of public service delivery and mismanagement on colonialism, apartheid and white-minority rule or “white monopoly capital”?

It is true that the enduring consequences of slavery, colonialism and apartheid have stunted the development of many African countries. Furthermore, the current global political, trade and institutional architecture and rules are loaded in favour of industrial countries and against African and developing countries.

For another, industrial country global companies dominate African markets. In countries with large settler communities, such as South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe, white-owned companies do dominate local markets. In these countries it is imperative that markets are deracialized, blacks business can compete fairly and that governments govern efficiently.

However, African governments and leaders are increasingly using colonialism and apartheid to cover their own incompetence, mismanagement and corruption.

Many African leaders and governments since the end of independence from colonialism, apartheid and white-minority governments have cynically promoted the idea of African countries being powerless victims against the machinations of former colonial powers, to enrich themselves, remain in power and oppress their peoples.

Many African civil society organisations, academics and activists also continue to blame colonialism and apartheid for self-inflicted development problems on the continent. But sadly, since independence from colonialism, successive new, younger African generations, also continue to blame colonialism, white-minority-rule and apartheid for current problems, every generation seemingly continuing a new loop of victimhood.

The easy blaming of all of Africa’s problems on colonialism and apartheid numbs creative thinking, new ideas and solutions to deal with the continent’s seemingly intractable development problems. It means that African leaders and governments can shirk their responsibilities to deliver on their problems to voters.

It has also made it difficult to hold African leaders and governments accountable for their wrongdoing, lack of delivery and corruption. It also means that Africans outsource the solutions to their problems to outsiders. Victimhood paralyses Africans from taking control of their own individual, country and continental destinies.

African leaders enriching themselves, their families and ethnic groups; appointing incompetent cronies to public services; handing over public service contracts to fake companies of associates; and failing to come up with credible policies are a big part of the reasons for Africa’s development failures.

It is instructive that Africa’s peer countries in East Asia, the so-called East Asian “tigers”, such as South Korea and Singapore were also former colonies, plundered by either Japan or industrial countries. However, these countries have taken their destinies into their own hands and have focused on not only catching up with their former colonial powers in terms of development, but surpassing them.

African leaders, governments and citizens must collectively and individually come to grips with the fact that there will be no outside saviours, that former colonial powers are not interested in giving Africans reparations for past wrongdoing, and that Africans are truly on their own.  Outsiders are too busy finding answers to their own problems.

There is no dignity, prosperity and confidence in victimhood. Africa’s dignity will be restored the day ordinary Africans hold their leaders and governments accountable for their wrongdoing, and stop supporting leaders who build their profiles solely on the basis of blaming outsiders.

William Gumede is Chairperson, Democracy Works Foundation ( and author of South Africa in BRICS(Tafelberg).