As we commemorated our 50th Anniversary of Heroes Day, on which we launched the armed liberation struggle on the 26 of August 1966, in her masterful new study of the League of Nations, Susan Pedersen shows how the organization helped prolong the era of colonialism.
In a review of The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire by Susan Pedersen, Matti Koskenniemi says faced with the intractable problems of South Africa, the United Nations Security Council requested an advisory opinion in 1970 from the International Court of Justice, the UN’s principal judicial authority.
This time, however, the issue was not South Africa’s policy of apartheid. Instead, it concerned whether the country had rights in the territory of South-West Africa, and, if so, whether they originated in its position as a “mandatory power” for the former German colony under policies established by the League of Nations after World War I.
Indeed, the UN came to have jurisdiction after the collapse of the League in 1939. During the 1950s and ’60s, South Africa extended its racist laws and practices to South-West Africa. South Africa’s duties toward the territory were the object of decisions by the court in 1950, 1955, 1956, 1962, and 1966. In the last of these, the court declined to pronounce on the substance of a complaint raised by Liberia and Ethiopia. By the president’s deciding vote (heavily influenced by the British judge Sir Gerald Fitzmaurice), the court decided that the two countries did not have a “legal interest” in the case.
The decision caused a massive outcry in the developing world, with many states threatening to leave the court. The 1970 initiative, then, offered the court a chance (many thought the last chance) to remove this stain on its image. The court’s opinion embraced the UN’s official decolonising ethos. It noted that South Africa’s mandatory rights had been terminated, and that all states were under an obligation not to recognise its presence in what is now known as Namibia.
The League of Nations Covenant had used the phrase “sacred trust of civilization” to characterise the mandatory relationship. It was intended to describe the position of the former German and Turkish colonies that the Peace Conference of 1919 transferred to the victorious allies, to be administered by them as “mandate territories.” The court held that such “an international instrument has to be interpreted and applied within the framework of the entire legal system prevailing at the time of its interpretation.” With this statement—among the most famous in its history—the International Court of Justice drew a bright line between the colonial past and the postcolonial present.
The time of paternalism, of development in the interests of the “natives” under the purportedly benevolent eye of the “civilized” world, was over, at least in theory. Only one path would be open to the former South African mandate: independence. But it still took a war for that goal to be realized, with UN assistance, almost 20 years later, in 1990.
Historians have debated the reasons that the Allies did not simply annex the territories. As Susan Pedersen shows in The Guardians, her brilliant study of the rise and fall of the mandate system, their motives were mixed. It was difficult to back down from Woodrow Wilson’s widely publicised wartime and post-war objective of self-determination for all peoples. Then too, Europeans had become tired of paying the costs of imperialism, widely seen as one of the causes of World War I. But what should be done with the colonies of the vanquished? Some of the territories were strategically important; others had valuable natural resources. The problem was that they also had populations, even very large ones—though sometimes, as Pedersen shows in her account of Australia’s government of New Guinea, they had hundreds of thousands of people whose presence was unknown to the mandatory power.
What was to be done with them? It had been a costly war, so it was inconceivable that the territories would just be given away. And to whom could they be given? From the perspective of the European ideology of “civilization,” they were not ready for independence, many not even fit for self-government. The solution was to “internationalise” them—but to do so in a way that allowed the victors to ensure their control. The old Roman-law idea of mandatum seemed a suitable basis for imagining the territories as separate subjects whose “immaturity” called for the appointment of “guardians” to oversee their development.
Mandate territories were divided into three groups, in accordance with their supposed political and cultural development. “A” mandates consisted of Middle Eastern Arab territories, understood to be close to formal independence. There was no talk of statehood with respect to “B” mandates, composed mainly of the former German colonies in Africa: The administrator (“mandatory power”) was to see to the protection and welfare of their populations. “C” mandates—South- West Africa and former German Pacific islands—were regarded to be at such a low level of civilisation that they could be ruled practically as parts of the mandatory power itself.
In hindsight, it seems obvious that the system could not work. Even internationalized colonialism was colonialism, with indigenous and colonising interests fundamentally opposed. Like the League of Nations, the mandate system collapsed in 1939. Its underlying complexities, however, remain alive in efforts at “development” and international governance of “transitions” and “fragile states.” Idealism continues to meet with cynicism, local actors with international bureaucrats, under the watchful eye of lobbyists and the international media. Many of today’s intractable international problems are the legacy of colonialism, as mediated through the efforts to prolong the life of an old political system of rule with the help of an international system of oversight: Think not only of South-West Africa but of Palestine.
Two early cases compelled the international bureaucrats define their mission. In the Bondelswart Affair of 1922, they opposed South Africa’s allocation of land in South-West Africa to white settlers and the use of locals from the Bondelswart tribe as forced labour on lands that had once been theirs. When the Bondelswarts protested, South Africa bombed their villages, drawing international attention and beginning its own descent into the status of a pariah state. In the end, an antagonism that would last for many decades was kindled.
Pedersen does not for a moment forget that the consequences of imperial history play a lively role in today’s geopolitics. The mandate system was based on contradictory principles that could not hold once the political compromises that underlay the League of Nations collapsed. In the 1930s, the first signs of organised anticolonialism emerged, and powerful non-European intellectuals such as Bunche and W.E.B. Du Bois challenged the very foundations of the paternalism underlying the mandate system. I therefore salute the foresight of our revolutionary leaders such as the Founding President Dr Sam Nujoma who carried the first weapons with which we started our armed liberation struggle. Similarly, I pay homage to Peter Ndilimani Nanyemba who prophesied that we would have to cross many rivers of blood to achieve our independence and other gallant sons of the soil such as the first commander of PLAN, the late Comrade Tobias Hainyeko.
In this regard, following the views of Ramón Grosfoguel, internationally recognized for his work on decolonisation of knowledge and power, I am aware that the Cartesian “ego-cogito” (“I think, therefore I am”) by Rene Descartes, the founder of modern western philosophy, is the foundation of modern western sciences. Historically, this has allowed western man to represent his knowledge as the only one capable of achieving a universal consciousness, and to dismiss non-Western knowledge as particularistic and, thus, unable to achieve universality. This epistemic strategy has been crucial for western global designs.
On his part, Enrique Dussel has reminded us, the Cartesian “ego cogito” was preceded by 150 years (since the beginnings of the European colonial expansion in 1492) by the European “ego conquistus” (“I conquer, therefore I am”).
We cannot think of decolonization in terms of conquering power over the juridical-political boundaries of a state, that is, by achieving control over a single nation- state because global coloniality is not reducible to the presence or absence of a colonial administration. The heterogeneous and multiple global structures put in place over a period of 450 years did not evaporate with the juridical-political decolonization of the periphery over the past 50 years. We continue to live under the same “colonial power matrix”.
When I read on the monuments dedicated to our heroes and heroines, there is a phrase that says, ‘The Aim Was Independence’. I agree with this phrase as long as it implicitly imply that it is not only political independence but also economic independence. Developmentalist projects that focus on policy changes at the level of the nation- state are obsolete in today’s world-economy and leads to developmentalist illusions. A system of domination and exploitation that operates on a world-scales such as the capitalist world-system cannot have a “national solution”. A global problem cannot be solved at the nation-state level. It requires global decolonial solutions. In sum, the solution to global inequalities requires the need to imagine global decolonial utopian alternatives beyond Eurocentric fundamentalist and Third World fundamentalist binary ways of thinking.
Paul T. Shipale is a Windhoek- based civil servant. The opinion expressed here is solely his personal views as a citizen.