When UK Prime Minister Harold Macmillan addressed the whites-only South African parliament in February 1960, he could not have known that his speech would still be studied by historians years later. But that was the year 17 African countries achieved their independence, with many others soon to follow. His words were prophetic: "The wind of change is blowing through this continent, and whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact. We must all accept it as a fact, and our national policies must take account of it." Those remarks would come to be seen as the epitaph of European colonialism in Africa and the harbinger of an African nationalism sweeping irresistibly from the north.
In fact, much of the speech was devoted to assuring South Africa's white minority rulers that they remained part of the Western democratic world despite their formal embrace of the apartheid system of legalized racism a decade earlier. And the massacre of 69 peaceful black protesters by the South African police in Sharpeville a few weeks after Mr. Macmillan's remarks was a brutal reminder that the arrival of majority rule in territories with European settler populations would be neither quick nor amicable.
The dramatic events of 1960 would have a far-reaching effect on Africa for decades to come — unifying the newly independent states around a common commitment to self-determination, and giving moral purpose and political direction to African foreign and regional policy.
By the end of the long campaign against apartheid and colonialism in 1994, Africa's struggle had gone global. The region had successfully engaged the sympathies of millions of people around the world, isolated and discredited white minority rule, and mobilized significant political and diplomatic support through the United Nations and other international bodies.
Ghana, the first 'liberated zone'
For the early African nationalists, support for full decolonization was both a moral imperative and a practical necessity. In 1945 the Fifth Pan-African Congress in Manchester, England, whose delegates included the future presidents of Ghana, Kenya and Malawi and intellectuals and activists from throughout the African diaspora, demanded the immediate end of colonialism.
It was Ghana's independence in 1957 under the leadership of Kwame Nkrumah that is most widely seen as the beginning of the African decolonization campaign. Mr. Nkrumah, a noted pan-African activist, committed the new nation to assisting other anti-colonial movements in his Independence Day speech. He declared, "Our independence is meaningless unless it is linked up with the total liberation of the African continent."
Julius Nyerere, the Tanzanian anti-colonial theoretician who would lead his own country to independence in 1961, described that historic day in Accra as "the beginning of the end of colonialism for the whole of Africa," in a speech at Ghana's 40th independence anniversary in 1997. "Ghana was the beginning, our first liberated zone," he said. "But Ghana was more than just the beginning. Ghana inspired and deliberately spearheaded the independence struggle of the rest of Africa."
In 1958 Ghana hosted a meeting of independent African states, including Ethiopia, Morocco, Egypt and Sudan, followed by a conference of anti-colonial movements from across the continent. Those events would help lay the groundwork for the launch five years later of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and its liberation committee.
Africa at war
By the time the OAU was established on 25 May 1963, the number of independent African countries stood at 32, and the principle of self-determination and majority rule was entrenched in the organization's charter, which pledged its members "to eradicate all forms of colonialism from Africa."
For most of the remaining colonies independence would come via negotiations with the departing European powers. That would not be the case, however, in the Portuguese colonies — Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, São Tomé and Príncipe, Angola and Mozambique — or in the self-governing white-ruled territories, the breakaway UK colony of Rhodesia, South Africa and the UN trust territory of Namibia, which was then under South African control. In most of those countries the independence movements would be forced to take up arms.
African support for armed resistance commenced well before the founding of the OAU. Amilcar Cabral, the head of the liberation movement in Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau, for example, issued his declaration of war against Portugal from Conakry, the capital of independent Guinea, in 1961. OAU support would prove critical for the insurgents as the fighting escalated, and as competition for influence and allies in Africa intensified among the superpowers. Here again the armed movements would get vital support from independent Africa, now channelled through the OAU's Coordinating Committee for the Liberation of Africa.
Headquartered in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, the liberation committee, as it was known, became the primary conduit for aid to the anti-colonial movements, including arms and training from socialist countries and rear bases and support from African states. Those were dangerous times. Tanzania and Zambia opened training and base camps for the Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo) guerrillas in 1964, drawing retaliatory attacks from Portuguese forces into their territories. Guerrillas from Nelson Mandela's African National Congress would be granted military facilities in those countries the following year, making them targets for South African attacks as well. Frelimo leader Eduardo Mondlane was killed by a Portuguese parcel bomb in Dar es Salaam in 1969.
On the front line
In a memoir of the time, Tanzanian journalist Godfrey Mwakikagile described Dar es Salaam during the 1960s and 1970s as "the epicentre of seismic activity on the African political landscape and beyond" and "a haven and an incubator for activists and revolutionaries from around the world," because of the presence of the liberation movements and their supporters.
The military coup that overthrew the Portuguese government in 1974 brought an unexpectedly quick end to Portuguese colonialism in Africa, and changed the strategic balance in the region. With Zimbabwean guerrillas now operating across the long border with independent Mozambique, and its principal ally South Africa under mounting international economic and political pressure over its apartheid policies, the Rhodesian authorities had little choice but to negotiate the terms of independence. Those talks, held at Lancaster House in the UK, were greatly aided by a regional grouping of African countries: Angola, Botswana, Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia, known as the Front Line States.
Formed in 1976, the Front Line States maintained military and diplomatic pressure on the white minority regimes to accept the principle of majority rule. At the same time the front line presidents successfully demanded that Zimbabwe's divided anti-colonial movement negotiate as a united front and accept some unpalatable compromises in order to reach a settlement. As a result, Zimbabwe became Africa's 51st independent country on 18 April 1980 and the sixth front line state.
South Africa responded to the loss of its Portuguese and Rhodesian allies with stepped-up repression at home and a "total strategy" of military and economic destabilization against its independent neighbours. With a deadly mix of cross border attacks, support for armed proxy groups and economic coercion, the strategy inflicted tens of billions of dollars in damage on the region's fragile infrastructure. As many as 100,000 lives are estimated to have been lost in Mozambique alone as a result of destabilization, both directly and indirectly.
From destabilization to democracy
The Front Line States responded to South Africa's new strategy with the Southern African Development Coordination Conference, a regional economic federation intended to lessen economic dependence on South Africa. The body would lay the groundwork for the post-apartheid Southern African Development Community (SADC) 12 years later.
Militarily, OAU political support allowed the Angolan government to call in Cuban forces to help repel a major South African invasion of the country — a defeat that permanently shifted the military balance against the regime in Pretoria. With powerful Angolan and international forces near the Namibian border, South Africa agreed to implement the long-stalled UN decolonization plan for the territory. Namibia became independent on 21 March 1990 under the leadership of Sam Nujoma, a founder of the country's anti-colonial movement SWAPO.
The failure of South Africa's regional strategy and the steady escalation of mass protests at home led to the removal of the hard-line South African president, Pieter W. Botha, in 1989. His replacement, F.W. de Klerk, released Nelson Mandela from prison the following year and unbanned the exiled anti-apartheid groups. Their negotiations eventually led to the end of apartheid on 10 May 1994 when Mr. Mandela became South Africa's first democratically elected president.
It was, as Mr. Mandela then noted, "a common victory for justice, for peace, for human dignity" and an historic vindication of the principles and priorities of Africa's original anti-colonial leaders.
At the launch of the African Union in 2002, the assembled heads of state noted that nowhere had the OAU "proved more decisive than in the African struggle for decolonization." Through the liberation committee, they declared, "the continent worked and spoke as one with undivided determination in forging an international consensus in support of the liberation struggle."
Fifty years on, the "wind of change" blows across a transformed continent. A new generation, born independent, confronts the continuing challenges of forging unity, building democracy and enabling development. The struggle continues.