WITH communism - and perhaps socialism - tumbling down since the cold war ended in Eastern Europe, African countries have also arrived at a similar crossroad. Nearly three decades ago, the majority of African countries gained independence from European colonialism. At that time of tremendous euphoria, the fashionable ideology for African countries was various shades of ``African socialism.'' Capitalism, which to Africans was synonymous with European colonial oppression and exploitation, was seen as being evil and decadent.
After three decades of African socialism, what does the report card look like?
Through socialism, many of the black independent countries in Southern African were able to open the door to previously unimagined educational and other opportunities for many of their citizens. One of the most familiar statistics in Zambia, for example, is that at independence in 1964, after 70 years of British colonial rule, there were only 100 black Zambian high school graduates and only a handful of college graduates. This in a country of 3 million people who were suddenly expected to run their own mining and manufacturing industries, the army, hospitals, and government bureaucracy.
Except in highly technical fields like medicine and engineering, Zambia now has thousands of graduates. Indeed, whether it is in health, transportation, communication, or, yes, even in government and politics, African countries have generally made tremendous advances.
But in the 1980s, many African countries began reeling under serious economic crises. What has gone wrong? Has African socialism run out of gas?
African socialism worked as long as the raw materials that were being exported to the developed West continued to fetch high prices, oil prices remained low, and loans were available from Western financial institutions. But world prices for raw materials like cocoa and copper, for example, plummeted in the 1980s. As a result, major copper-exporting southern African countries like Zambia, and West African major cocoa exporters like Ghana, were in trouble. As international loans stopped, African socialism simply could not work.
The only ``resource'' that was being shared equally among the vast majority of the population in the late 1980s was poverty. It is as if at independence African governments chose socialism, but forgot to establish permanent and enduring economic structures and systems that would generate income for the countries continuously, even in the face of obstacles.
With rapid population growth and exploding demand for Western consumer products like cars, VCRs, TVs, luxury goods, and increasing urban food demands, African socialism as practiced during the last two decades can no longer meet these pressing sophisticated demands. African socialism for the most part therefore has died a natural death.
As African countries have tried all kinds of band-aid solutions, including harsh austerity measures imposed by the International Monetary Fund, they have come to the realization that it will take an entirely different course, and not mere rhetoric about ideology, to return to economic soundness. Whether the solution is foreign investment, mixed economies, good old Western capitalism, one thing is clear: Most African countries now realize that they need an economic solution that will foster production to satisfy increased national consumer demands.
Western critics and observers have taken the role of social and economic kibitzers, always emphasizing that Africans were mismanaging their economies and that the solution was adopting Western free-enterprise capitalism. These critics will now probably say: ``We told them.''
But they should not forget that the test of true freedom for individuals or a country often is the risk of making choices that might later prove wrong.