Freedom News

70 years ago: Imperial greed on Africa’s west coast

Amid the horrors of the Mau Mau uprising Britain’s malignant role in 1950s West and Southern Africa is less well covered, but it wasn’t entirely ignored by progressives, as today’s featured article from Freedom‘s January 5th issue of 1952 shows.

A number of countries on Africa’s coast were at the time partly administered by the United Nations Trusteeship Council (written in the below article as the Committee), successor to the old League of Nations Mandates which had been formed to reassign control of ceded German colonies in the wake of World War One. A dozen regions were still being occupied as of the early 1950s, primarily by Britain, France and South Africa.

Two countries in particular were on the political agenda of the Council’s 1952 meetings. Togoland in the Gulf of Guinea had been split into two sections, British Togoland and French Togoland. With the broad decline of British power in the region, an attempt (eventually successful) was being made to integrate the former into Britain’s Gold Coast holdings. A number of indigenous groups opposed this, correctly surmising that the new borders would split traditional tribal areas, severely damaging cultural connections and regional cohesion. South-West Africa (now Namibia) meanwhile was controlled by South Africa, and was experiencing exactly the sort of oppression to be expected by that white supremacist Apartheid regime.

Notable in this writeup of the manoeuvrings that were going on at the council at the time is the solidarity of oppression that was standard in the proceedings. Britain and France were intent on denying independence and the useful tool of a divided region was used to hold down campaigns for as long as possible. Britain was eyeing financial opportunities of the future both there and in South Africa, where it happily used legal blocks to shore up Apartheid priorities.

Imperialism and Trust Territories

AT the meeting of the United Nations Trusteeship Committee in Paris last month, representatives of the Ewe tribe in British and French Togoland (which are trust territories of the United Nations) accused the British and French Governments of preventing their unification by “force and oppression”.

The Ewe tribe number 300,000 in the Gold Coast, 140,000 in British Togoland, and 300,000 in French Togoland. The representatives of the Ali-Ewe Conference, the Joint Togoland Congress, and the Comite de L’Unite Togolaise, declared that by dividing the country into two, the British and French had broken natural economic ties, and that their own efforts at economic development were “constantly suppressed to serve the interests of colonial British and French firms.”

Dr. Martin Aku said that the Ewe problem had been falsely isolated and that concealed beneath the demand for unification lay the desire of “all Togoland” for self-government and a desire to be rid of those who “brought this European plague upon us,” The British representative told the Committee that the British and French Governments proposed to set up a Joint Popular Council for Togoland, “to advise the Administration on matters of common concern to the people of the two territories.” The Ewe spokesman said that they had had no previous knowledge of this proposal and .consequently could not comment on it.

2022 note: Now comprised of Togo and part of Ghana, the borders enforced between the two nations have, as in so many other cases of European land division, led to considerable tensions since Togolese independence was won in 1960. The Ewe people remain split between the two countries.

The Herero Tribe

2022 note: The Herero are a people of what is now central Namibia, whose massacre by colonial Germany in response to an uprising against imperial brutality has been termed the first genocide of the 20th century. Namibia was seized by South Africa during the Second World War and controlled under a League of Nations mandate / United Nations Trust Territory until 1990.

Chained Herero men guarded by a German soldier during the occupation of colonial ‘German South-West Africa’ (modern-day Namibia)

AS was expected (see Freedom, 1/12/51) the Herero chiefs from South-West Africa were prevented by the South African Government from stating their case to the Trusteeship Committee. The Rev. Michael Scott, telling the Committee that the Union had made it “physically impossible” for the chiefs to leave the area. Mr. Scott declined to speak instead of the tribesman but pointed out that there were 15,000 Herero refugees from South-West Africa in the British Protectorate of Bechuanaland who might be invited instead to send representatives to plead the tribal case. He reminded the Committee that these people “have lived in appalling conditions ever since the massacres at the time of the German conquest. Their traditional lands were never restored to them, and the Hereros, for example, are still artificially and arbitrarily divided into eight different reserves which they are not allowed to leave without passes.

There is shocking lack of even the most rudimentary social services. There are no hospitals in the reserves, and the tribes suffer from all sorts of discriminatory legislation. As long as the South African Government continues to rule supreme, the tribes have no hope of redress or reform. On the contrary, as in the Union itself, the bad conditions of the African people go from bad to worse. But South-West Africa is not part of the Union. The Union Government administers the territory under a mandate from the former League of Nations. Since the League’s demise South Africa has treated the territory as its own private concern for which it is no longer accountable to any international authority.

Appeasing Malan in South Africa

WHEN the question was put to the vote in the Trusteeship Committee on December 10th, Britain took what the Manchester Guardian calls the “inglorious” course of abstaining, the British delegate, Lord Tweedsmuir, declaring that the resolution “impeded agreement”.

He was also “surprised that the committee wished to hear the Herero chiefs, as their testimony would certainly further harm any chances of agreement with South Africa. It would be even less relevant to fetch exiled chiefs out of Bechuanaland.” The Guardian’s correspondent in Winkhoek, S.W. Africa wrote that:

“Britain’s support for South Africa in her protest against the invitation of the South-West African chiefs to the United Nations is beyond the understanding of the Africans of the territory. An African, wisely anonymous, in a letter to the Windhoek Advertiser, says: ‘One can hardly understand why Britain is insisting on legal points rather than on moral points. If Britain alleges that the action of the Trusteeship Committee in inviting African chiefs is illegal and contrary to the findings of the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice, how much more is South Africa’s decision not to submit reports on the administration of the territory, if not a violation of international law, contrary to the findings of the Court … If the British Government tries to keep the world from knowing about the condition, and considers us to be a remote black, race then she is busy ruining our confidence in the British people which has existed for a long time, and Britain will be held responsible for the consequences’.”

The New Statesman (22/11/51) quotes reactions in the South African press to the settlement of the Tshekhedi Khama affair (see Freedom, 15/12/51) as follows:

“The British Government’s decision to allow Tshekhedi to return to the Bamangwato Reserve,” comments The Rand Daily Mail, “while maintaining the five year ban on Seretse (an influential child of Bamangwato royalty attacked for marrying a white woman, who in 1965 became the first president of Botswana ~ed), represents a great victory not only for Tshekhedi but also for the South African — that is, of course, the White South African — point of view.”

Anyone who thinks that this dispute is now satisfactorily regulated might do well to ponder on these enlightened comments by one of South Africa’s biggest newspapers — and a paper, incidentally, which is generally identified with goldmining interests. “Most people,” the paper continues, “are well enough aware that Seretse was ejected because he offended against the segregation policy of White South Africa, and the British Government’s decision really means that Britain now aligns herself with White South Africa on the question of segregation.”

Such an alignment, no doubt, cuts clean across the expressed wishes of the Bamangwato people. “But who are the Bamangwato,” concludes The Rand Daily Mail ironically, “to have wishes? Let them know their place.”

This article is taken from the Freedom Newspaper Archive, which includes more than 1,500 digitised copies of Freedom spanning from 1886 to present.

Main pic: English expeditionary force in Togoland, 1914

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