On the tools of colonial conquest

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In his book, Guns, Germs, and Steel (GGS), Jared Diamond notes that conquest instruments are guns, germs, and steel. Guns were used in the Anglo-Zulu war in 1879, where King Cetshwayo faced the British army. Even though the Zulu Nation won the Isandlwana battle, it lost the war because of guns. Cetshwayo was deposed and exiled to Cape Town and London. In the Americas, the Europeans realised that the native Americans were not immune to diseases such as chickenpox and used this to kill much of the population and conquer the land. The lack of immunity of Native Americans was because of their nomadic lives. Consequently, they did not domesticate animals, and therefore, they did not develop immunity to diseases such as chickenpox, which originated from domestic animals. The same story applied in South Africa, where the Bantu migration diseases killed the Khoisan, who did not domesticate animals. Bantu people were farmers and had domesticated animals. Steel is an essential component in the manufacture of guns.

The use of guns for conquest has shaped the world as we know it. On guns, Mao Zedong had this to say: “Power flows from the barrel of the gun.” The founding father of the United States of America (USA) realised the centrality of guns that in the second amendment of the USA constitution it is written: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” The fall of the Eastern Roman Empire in 1453 to the Ottoman Empire was because the Ottomans had more resources than the Byzantines, including cannons (big guns). This resulted in Constantinople being renamed Istanbul.

The British conquered greater India (including Pakistan and Bangladesh) in 1858 using guns, even though Britain was a small country and India had arguably the world’s highest population. Using the gun, the British conquered much of the world, becoming the largest empire the world has ever seen and prompting the British to boast that “the sun never sets in the British Empire.”

Where do guns come from? Gunpowder originated in China and was extensively used to make all sorts of guns, including assault rifles. Today, guns are no longer tools of conquest, primarily because there are even bigger guns invented. In 1945, the world witnessed the biggest “gun” ever created, nuclear weapons, when used against Japan in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The genesis of nuclear weapons is Einstein’s theory of relativity, which states that one can have huge amounts of energy from small mass. If such energy is not controlled, then it becomes a bomb, and if it is controlled, it becomes a nuclear power generated electricity. The trick was how to release such immense energy from such mass, and the answer was is by splitting the atom. This is called nuclear fission. Alternatively, the same can be achieved by joining atoms together, and this is called nuclear fusion. This happens in the sun, where hydrogen atoms combine to form helium, thereby releasing immense energy that powers our planet. If this fusion in the sun dies, this would be the end of life on earth. Germans Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann, as well as the Austrian Lise Meitner, invented fission. Somehow due to the sloppiness or the good conscience of Werner Heisenberg, the Germans never translated this into a bomb. Nuclear weapons are strategic weapons and can’t be used for conquest because the place where they are used can remain uninhabitable for a long time.

Another factor why nuclear weapons have not been used is the concept called mutually assured destruction (MAD), which states that nuclear power cannot attack each other because the retaliation would be just as destructive. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has also limited the spreading of nuclear technology.

With the advent of Covid-19, it has become apparent that germs are still the most effective ways of conquest, especially economic domination. Germs are classified as biological weapons. Saddam Hussein used biological weapons in 1988 against the Kurds in what became known as the Halabja Attacks killing between 3,200 and 5,000 people and injuring between 7,000 to 10,000. In 1995, in the Tokyo Subway, ten people belonging to a cult led by Aum Shinrikyo used sarin gas, injuring over 6000 people. Unlike nuclear weapons that require high precision engineering that is not available to even scientifically sophisticated countries such as Iran, biological weapons are easier to make. Therefore, biological weapons remain a significant threat to our safety, and we have to do everything within our powers to stop the proliferation of biological weapons. During apartheid, the South African regime introduced Project Coast, which developed biological weapons based on cholera, anthrax, and other dangerous biological agents. It is pleasing to note that South Africa has stopped projects on biological weapons.

Another weapon that is increasingly becoming common is cyberwarfare. Due to our dependence on computer systems, it has become easy to use cyberwarfare to hack into critical systems, including systems that control weapons deployment. If a country is cyber weak, it can be physically attacked by foreign agents using its own weapons. Some countries have invested in cybersecurity but the skills needed to play in cybersecurity, especially against powerful nations, are rare, particularly in developing countries. Many developing countries buy off-the-shelf cyber-security devices that are vulnerable to attack, especially those that created them. Computers that are used today are based on digital technology. This means that they use ones and zeros to communicate. With the advent of quantum computing, cyber-security devices created in the digital world have become redundant in the quantum computing world. This has all sorts of implications for the future of the developing world. What will happen is that these countries will be cyber-colonised, and their resources will be pillaged through the internet medium. If they do not behave, their physical security will be compromised.

Nuclear Technology, Biological Warfare, and Cyberwarfare have replaced Guns, Germs, and Steel as tools of conquest. What do we do about these new colonisation tools, and what do we do about this to protect ourselves? It is important that we totally educate our people so that they master these new tools. We need to find ways of overcoming the mathematics and science under-performance in our school systems. These are the subjects most relevant to understanding these new tools of conquests and use this knowledge to prevent the proliferation of these new tools of conquest.

Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg. He is the author of the book: Leading in the 21st century. Follow him on Twitter at @txm1971.