Decolonisation as a process: ruptures and continuities

It is now 40 years since Mozambique and Angola acquired formal independence, 35 since Zimbabwe’s internationally recognised transition, and 25/20 years since Namibia and South Africa’s unlikely – and remarkably peaceful – transition to black majority rule. The temptation is to group these countries together under the title of transitions from white minority rule, to black liberation, and to typify these processes of transition. There are indeed important similarities – not least in the fractious political and military relationships which had sustained the white led governments in power; valued comparisons which can be drawn in ideology, charismatic leadership and armed struggle in radical liberation movements; in the pervasive influences of the Cold War geo-political environment which both conditioned and limited political events and developments. But in each case there are unique factors which influenced the course of decolonisation, and which left lasting post-colonial legacies. Mozambique and Angola were not the product of negotiated transitions, as were Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa. Decolonisation/independence is never simply a date; changes in political cultures take time to work through – if indeed they do – ambitious economic policies run foul of enduring systems, and modes and patterns of behaviour.  Popular expectation of a rupture, and sharp departure from power relations which prevailed before, and the growing realisation, disillusion, and dangerous alienation that then can develop from the post-colonial state. How wars/struggles end is the vital conditioning element of the future path of supposed peace. Therefore while drawing these similarities, I also want to highlight difference; and in stressing change, I wish to identify continuity. Is the past such a different country?

About the Author

Sue Onslow is a leading oral history practitioner, and has published extensively on Southern Africa in the Cold War era. Between 1994 – 2010 she lectured and taught at the London School of Economics, and also at King’s College, London.  In 2008-2010 she was Principal Investigator and lead interviewer on the Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project, ‘Why Did You Fight? Narratives of the Rhodesian War c.1970-1980’, based at the University of the West of England.  She is currently Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, London, and has just completed a major AHRC three-year oral history project on the History of the modern Commonwealth since 1965.


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