Mzansi Afrika

From Johannesburg South Africa, a window on the world

Saturday, April 10, 2004

Liberation Politics

“Limits to Liberation in Southern Africa” is a new book released by the HSRC that examines what happens when liberation movements become governing political parties. The book looks at why countries like Botswana and Lesotho who came to independence via negotiation bear all the features of multi-party democracies, whereas countries like Namibia and Zimbabwe who had liberation movements which spearheaded mass popular struggles for liberation, developed authoritarian and more corrupt ruling regimes. South Africa seems to fall somewhere between the two. The book basically questions why the South West African Peoples Organisation (SWAPO) and Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) deviated from their democratic aims and abandoned their goals of socio-economic transformation and redistribution of wealth. Another interesting aspect is the role of myth, memory and the selective rewriting of history in post-liberation politics. From the book’s introduction:


“In examining these issues, the contributors probed beyond the myths and
legends which have long surrounded southern Africa’s liberation movements
to take on board the fact that while these organisations were waging war on
systems of institutionalised injustice, they did not themselves always display a
sensitivity to human rights issues and democratic values. Nor did it prevent
them from falling prey to authoritarian patterns of rule and undemocratic (as
well as sometimes violent) practices towards real or imagined dissidents within
their ranks. What this means is that a new political elite has ascended the
commanding heights and, employing selective narratives and memories relating to
their liberation wars, has constructed or invented a new set of traditions to establish
an exclusive post-colonial legitimacy under the sole authority of one particular
agency of social forces. Mystification of the liberators has played an essential role
in this fabrication."

It also looks at how ruling elites have developed militant notions of inclusion or exclusion to shape their post-colonial national identities, and the blurring of the distinction between ruling party and government.


“Early post-independence notions of national reconciliation and slogans like “unity
in diversity” have given way to a politically-correct identity form defined by those
in power along narrow “we-they” or “with-us-against-us” lines. Simultaneously,
the boundaries between party and government have been blurred and replaced
by a growing equation of party and government. Opposition or dissent has
come increasingly to be considered as hostile and the dissenter sometimes
branded an “enemy of the people”. Coinciding with this tendency towards autocratic
rule and the subordination of the state to the party, a reward system of social and
material favours in return for loyalty has emerged. Self-enrichment by way of a system
of rent-or sinecure-capitalism has become the order of the day. The term “national
interest” has been appropriated and now means solely what the post-colonial
ruling elite decides it means. It is used “to justify all kinds of authoritarian
practice” while the term “anti-national” or “unpatriotic” is applied to any
group that resists the power of the ruling elite of the day.”

However we are seeing the emergence of critical voices calling for an end to the cultivation of so called “heroic narratives.”


“The much-celebrated attainment of formal independence is no longer unreservedly
equated with liberation, and neither with the creation of lasting democracy. Now,
closer scrutiny is paid to both the inherited and self-developed structural legacies
which have imposed limits to the realising of real social and economic alternatives
in the post-colonial era. One of these involves a growing recognition that armed
liberation struggles operating along military lines in conditions of clandestinity were
not suitable breeding grounds for establishing democratic systems of governance
post-independence and that the forms of resistance employed in the struggle
were themselves organised on hierarchical and authoritarian lines.”


The book’s introductory chapter asks about South Africa in particular “Are the seeds of democratic decay set to germinate or is the democratic tradition of South Africa’s civil society sufficiently resilient to overcome the authoritarian tendencies in the liberation paradigm of commandism favoured by some in the leadership of the ANC?”

My response to this question is that on the one hand Sangoco (the umbrella body supposed to be a united voice for the various NGO’s and civil society organizations) has so far proven to be pretty much ineffectual, and has been riddled by allegations of corruption and mismanagement. On the other hand TAC (Treatment Action Campaign) has been a strong and effective movement that was able to get the government to start providing anti-retrovirals. Other groups like the Landless People’s Movement and the Anti Privatisation Forum would probably be more effective if they took a lesson from TAC on how to fight an intelligent battle instead of coming on with belligerent over the top leftist rhetoric.

Also important I think, and a point made in the final chapter of the book concerning South Africa, is that “despite its radical ideological posturing and its rhetoric of popular democracy and people-driven transformation, the actions of the ANC leadership and the forms of representation and participation within in the party make it little different from elitist, liberal political parties elsewhere.”