What Are the Effects of Colonialism on Africa Today

The majority of people on this planet are poor, they live in third world countries mainly consisting of Asia, Africa, and Latin America known as the Global South. The typical standard of living is far below that of the industrialised countries. Many lack adequate nutrition, shelter, and clothing and are exposed to disease and early mortality, and these people live in the Global South. The theme of this piece of paper will try to follow and track what are the effects of colonialism on Africa today as well as other impacts of European colonial footprints left across the Global South in countries now commonly referred to as Third World. These countries as we know are commonly underdeveloped and possess high levels of unemployment and poverty most likely coupled with low levels of education.

Faced with the obvious European exploitation of the global south in the past, what is vital in answering the question is addressing whether there is truth in the debate that European colonialism on some level benefited their host countries. Often this debate takes the shape of weighing up the benefits and detriments left by colonialists, and more times than not, it is usually concluded by bourgeois writers 'that the good outweighed the bad'. The European occupiers travelled the world in search of wealth, and they indeed found it. Therefore, it seems only fitting that this work will focus mainly on the economic impacts left by colonisers in the Global South whilst briefly touching on other areas that link. The main example will follow the economic effects of colonialism in Africa, trying to address whether they have since benefited from European intervention. However of course, when relevant to Africa, I will not hesitate to explain wider global changes and experiences.

Throughout this essay, it will become evident that there is a debate as to whether the changes brought about due to colonialism were beneficial and progressive or rather damaging. To be able to analyse and even discuss any changes it is paramount it is outlined why these changes came about. Without much deliberation, a quick analysis of the age of European colonialism dismisses the belief that third world countries are traditional or untouched. After five centuries of imperialism and foreign intervention, these states have been irreversibly impacted and are utterly different from their former cultures. Many things have stayed the same, for example, these countries are still poor and of course, their culture endures at least a lot more than the richest Western countries. However, without a doubt, language, demographics, political structure and economic structures have changed. These huge effects are a result of an unreasonable and oppressive relationship shared with the European empires, and 'that it brought with it incredible cultural destruction, economic impoverishment, death, and even genocide'..

In recent years, there has been a significant surge in global interest in Africa. Not only interest, but these global actors have also poured huge quantities of resources into the continent. It has become more than common for the most powerful governments to talk about African troubles on a regular basis and an extensive variety of charities are concerned in a wide array of sports in African countries. Huge numbers of people have come to be concerned in famine and poverty campaigns and far more have paid attention and attended watershed moments like Nelson Mandela's concerts. The best way to explain the interest can be found with Tony Blair's well-known observation at a Labour Party conference that Africa is a 'scar at the judgment of right and wrong of mankind'.

The Effects of Colonialism on Africa Today

This leads us to address what occurred and why statements like Blairs exist today. Within the economic sphere, the legacy of Imperialism is central. However, what is vital to understand is that economic impacts were not directly as a result of Imperialism but rather the systems in place by said colonisers. Best put in, Promises Not Kept 2014, Isbister succinctly explains how Imperialism was a cause of technological advancements in Europe compared to Africa. Whereas the 'fact that the late-nineteenth-century European economies had a particular capitalist structure is much less important than Hobson, Lenin, and their followers claimed'. However, when viewing the specific effects of Imperialism, in this case on the economies of the Global South, the fact that the imperialists were capitalist is hugely important. The central thought of capitalism is alienation, the three factors of production are treated in a capitalist system as commodities to be bought or sold. These commodities become of value themselves and are then traded. What is then noteworthy in the case of imperialism is when you apply the same economic principles, which are usually only domestic, abroad. As put by Walter in How Europe Underdeveloped Africa 2018 'Exploitation of land and labour is essential for human social advance, but only on the assumption that the product is made available within the area where the exploitation takes place'. In the case of Imperialism, these commodities were found abroad and so came the exploitation hand in hand. From the eyes of the African population, this meant a constant expatriation of their local resources, which was produced of course by an African labour force. In short, the development of Europe and the underdevelopment of Africa went hand in hand.

Of course, there were certain areas of Africa in which European investment was more noteworthy, especially in cases where perhaps super profits had been predicted. One of the biggest examples is the building of the Suez Canal in Egypt, which was huge for trade with the like of India and the mines of South Africa. Primarily, the biggest benefit to colonising Africa was its raw materials which had been practically untouched. Once again, the need for such a quantity of resources was a result of their capitalist economic growth which meant newer and larger machines and an ever-increasing labour force that would need to be paid back home.

South Africa presents perhaps a perfect example of competitive exploitation used by Europe. This is where the alienation of native land went to extreme lengths. Imperialists developed several institutions to secure white domination that became highly influential across all European settlements in Africa. This territorial segregation was as a result of the Natives' Land Act of 1913, 'which created a racial monopoly of the best land, by outlawing African squatters and sharecroppers from white-owned land'. This eventually sought to drive black men into poorly paid colonialist dependent labour, since independent black farmers were finally eliminated from market agriculture, which was wholly European at this point. Brilliantly described from the eyes of a South African, the day the Natives Land Act was enacted in South Africa, Solomon Plaatje. He remarked awakening on Friday morning, June 20, 1913, 'the South African native found himself, not actually a slave, but a pariah in the land of his birth'.

To drill deeper into specific changes that impacted South African economy it is helpful to view section 7 of the Act. This declared sharecropping or sowing on shares as illegal. As a result, the sharecropping between the white landlords and the black African people that would occur previously came to an end. This arrangement had given South Africans the opportunity to provide for their own homes and maintain their own livelihood. Bringing sharecropping to end had negative impacts on the socio-economic livelihood of many black South Africans and irreversibly changed their economic footing with the colonialists. Moreover, 'this termination also pointed to the Natives Land Act of 1913 as an engineer of poverty among black South Africans'. Having lost their source of income due to the changes brought about by colonialists, black South Africans were now forced to consider other means of accumulating money. As such, labouring for the white farmers became people's most viable option and so this leads us to further impacts of the Natives Land Act of 1913. Moreover, African tenants were evicted from the white owned land. This means that black people not only lost their source of income, which was mainly from the renting of land, the were also made poor.

European Profits and African Degradation

The debates and views of key scholars about the Natives Land Act of 1913 prove to be more than enlightening, revealing that without a doubt such an Act historically contributed to the poverty rate among natives in South Africa. In Reversing the legacy of the 1913 Natives Land Act, Archary seeks to engage the theme of socio-economic injustice and land. She postulates that the Natives Land Act of 1913 resulted in the land dispossession and socio-economic degradation of Africans. Previously, these natives to the land were self-employed and economically independent in that they could feed themselves and sell the surplus on taking home their profits. What is most damaging and key to grasping how Europe impacted South Africa is that the Natives Land Act of 1913 changed this single efficiency. The Act forced them to leave their homes and land to work on farms as well as diamond and gold mines, practically making them slaves in their own country. In a short summary to the South African example, it is evident from Archary's work the economic changes brought by Europe effectively meant ostracizing whilst simultaneously exploiting Natives.

There is of course the debate surrounding the benefits left by colonialism and how they compare to the negative impacts. Mostly, the examples used in the context will focus on the infrastructure left behind by Europeans. Railways clearly advantaged some Africans providing them with the possibility of cultivating crops. For example, in Uganda, where ships would arrive at the coast and travel into the nation, before it had cost £100 to £300 per ton. With railway however, freight rates were 48 shillings (£2.40) per ton, which made cotton and coffee cultivation possible and opened the economy massively. Similarly, at Kano, Nigeria the construction of railways had provided the necessary stimulus to set off groundnut production.

However, even then railways were seen as almost an inappropriate level of technology from the perspective of African societies. Nearly all the materials and equipment needed to construct and maintain them had to be imported, in turn not fully being integrated into the local economy, meaning only a select few benefited, those few being the Europeans still.


Merrie Africa is a commonly referred to myth in the discussion on pre-colonial Africa, one which views the continent before the time of the Europeans through rose tinted windows. The free availability of productive resources and the relatively wealthy societies have supported the notion that pre-colonial Africa was a continent without poverty or in other words without capitalism. It is often claimed that it was only with colonial rule, market economies, and urbanization that things began to unravel. Without going into much detail, the myth is hard to refute. However, colonialism did alter the balance between fundamental causes of poverty. Intervention in Africa, specifically capitalist intervention, had permanently affected the combination of circumstances that may or may not result in poverty. Whereas in pre-colonial Africa the greatest causes of poverty were natural circumstances such as droughts and physical disabilities which meant one couldn't work. Colonialism had successfully developed structural poverty in Africa, and this is by far the greatest economic impact brought on by their colonisation. A system of negative externalities built on European profits that otherwise would not have existed in pre-colonial Africa.

03 July 2023
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