Monday, 8 August 2011

African liberation movements and the ‘end of history’

by Henning Melber, Pambazuka, 2008

When liberation movements take power, their governments are often marked by military mindsets, categorising people as winners and losers and operating along the lines of command and obedience. Such trends are evident in southern Africa. Democratic discourse in search of the common good would look quite different.

A knee-jerk reaction of ‘Tiers-Mondisme’ is to show solidarity with the struggle for freedom among the ‘wretched of the earth’. Sometimes struggles are glorified as was the case back in the 1960s. Frantz Fanon’s book ‘Les damnés de la terre’ (The Wretched of the Earth) was paradigmatic. His manifesto became a call to battle for the Algerian resistance movement against France, the colonial power.

Jean-Paul Sartre wrote the introduction. He was quite selective in his argumentation, tending in some spots to glorify violence as an act of emancipation. Indeed, he seemed to see violence as a purifying force that would turn the colonised into full citizens. Fanon himself however spoke out against excessive post-colonial authoritarianism. In penetrating analyses and withering criticism, he described what he had seen, mainly in West Africa, up to his death in 1961.

Fanon critisised the authoritarian attitudes of the African elite, which usurped young states in the course of decolonisation, and their abuses of power when securing privileges for themselves and turning entire states into instruments of control. His early warnings went largely unheeded, however. Not until the 1990s, when the shortcomings of revolutionary movements could no longer be ignored, did Fanon’s analyses come back into the foreground.


When liberation movements in the so-called third world took up arms, they enjoyed support from the socialist countries as well as solidarity movements in the West. Organisations such as the PAIGC, MPLA, and FRELIMO challenged Portugal’s colonial power. Their resilience in Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde, Angola, and Mozambique even had repercussions in the Lisbon metropole. They triggered the Carnation Revolution, bringing an end to Portuguese colonialism in Africa in the mid-1970s.

In Rhodesia – today’s Zimbabwe – the ZANU and ZAPU liberation movements fought the white minority regime under Ian Smith, which had declared unilateral Independence (UDI) from the British Empire. Colonial rule came to an end in 1980 when the Lancaster House Agreement was signed and ZANU subsequently won the elections.

In Namibia, the United Nations negotiated a transition period for independence, which was ultimately implemented in 1989–90. South Africa had occupied the country in violation of international law. SWAPO fought against this illegal occupation for a quarter of a century.

Four years later, the Namibian model of controlled change helped South Africans hold their first free elections, which were won by the ANC. The former liberation movement thus assumed political responsibility, and it did so in a legitimate fashion.

One must bear in mind that armed resistance was part of the solution both in South Africa and Namibia. It led to negotiations for transitional arrangements towards majority rule. The compromises required from all sides contributed to the transitional periods working out. At the same time, a decidedly patriotic form of writing history turned the independence struggle soon thereafter into a myth.


It bears repetition that the unscrupulously violent character of Zimbabwe’s ZANU regime already revealed itself in the early to mid-1980s, when a special unit killed an estimated 20,000 people, mainly in Matabeleland, where the opposition ZAPU had most of its supporters.

The soldiers of the fifth brigade trained by North Korea, took no prisoners. They killed, tortured, raped and humiliated anyone who seemed suspicious (and it was enough to be Ndebele); men, women, and even children. The only organisation to protest was the local catholic church, which raised its voice to protect the victims. The rest of the world, including those who had originally shown solidarity, had little to say; after all, it simply couldn’t be true.

The violence did not stop until ZAPU agreed to sign a pact with the ruling party. ZANU basically took them over. None of this hurt the Mugabe government’s bilateral and multilateral standing. To the contrary: up to the late 1990s, Zimbabwe was considered a success story, an example of successful transition. Indeed, in 1994 Queen Elizabeth II personally bestowed knighthood upon President Mugabe, who had assumed comprehensive executive powers in the meantime. Not until June of this year was his knighthood revoked.


When a new opposition party, the MDC, took to the political stage in Zimbabwe and turned out to be a serious competitor at the end of the 1990s, the ‘Chimurenga’ (struggle) became a permanent institution. Violence became the customary response to political protest. As political power shifted away from Mugabe after he lost a referendum in 2000, his regime became only more violent.

In 2005, Mugabe and his people launched Operation ‘Murambatsvina’ (Drive Out Trash) in raids on pockets of opposition in Harare and other major towns: more than 2 million people are estimated to have lost their already meagre livelihoods in the process. There is no need to delve into the recent escalation of violence, since the election troubles were reported in detail worldwide.

An estimated third of Zimbabwe’s people has fled the country for political and economic reasons; from exile, they try to support family members who have stayed home. All of this is sad proof that life under a liberation movement is not automatically better than it was under colonialism. The human-rights violations of SWAPO have also been downplayed. In the 1980s, the organisation imprisoned thousands of its own members in dungeons in southern Angola, accusing them of spying on behalf of South Africa. These people lost their liberty in spite of never having been proven guilty; indeed, they were not even brought to trial. Many of them did not survive the torture. Those released are scorned even today.

It could have been different in South Africa. The ANC government’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission talked about human rights violations committed by its own members. But the final report containing these findings was never published in its original form. So far, ANC omissions have not been discussed openly.


There is nothing new about military movements that are supposedly justified in ethical and moral terms quickly losing their legitimacy. Since the French Revolution, liberators have often turned into oppressors, victims into perpetrators. It is not unusual for a new regime to quickly resemble an old one. That has happened time and again around the world.

The Indian psychologist and sociologist Ashis Nandy, one of the founders of critical post-colonial studies, has dealt with this issue in depth. The Intimate Enemy, his book of 1983, discusses how liberators tend to reproduce the past rather than offering genuine alternatives. In this light, the “anti-imperialist” Robert Mugabe turns out to be merely the final executor of the policies of the racist colonists Cecil Rhodes and Ian Smith. Armed combat merely created new repressive institutions of the state for the dominant group within anti-colonial resistance. Former PLO activist Yezid Sayigh argued 1997 in Armed Struggle and the Search for State that this was also happening in the Palestinian liberation movement.

Such power structures often revolve around individual commanders who act to the benefit of their crony supporters. Resistance movements normally adopt rough survival strategies and techniques while fighting an oppressive regime. That culture, unfortunately, takes root and is permanently nurtured. In sum, it becomes questionable whether there is a true difference between the political systems they manage to throw out and what they establish in their place.

In May 1990 Albie Sachs had already spoken of this trend in respect to South Africa. In a lecture at the University of the Western Cape, this South African lawyer, who was crippled by a parcel bomb in Mozambique during his 24-year exile, expressed his doubts about ANC activists being ready for freedom. He worried about the habits they had cultivated. As Sachs put it, the culture and discipline of resistance may have served a survival strategy in the underground, but these skills were certainly not those of free citizens.

Maybe this is why Nelson Mandela became a global icon in his lifetime; the many years he spent in prison kept him away from the daily intrigues and power plays prevalent in an organised liberation movement. Mandela preserved a spirit of human compassion and tolerance that a life of struggle and exile might not have afforded him.

This may sound cynical but might be close to reality. Jacob Zuma, a product of the struggle, cultivates a ‘Zulu warrior culture’. He emerged as a populist alternative to the more intellectual, somewhat aloof Thabo Mbeki, and will probably soon be South Africa’s next president. Zuma has an international reputation for various allegations of corruption, charges of sexual abuse and martial rhetoric (his favourite song is ‘Bring me my machine gun’).

Disappointed by the limits of the liberation they have experienced, many people are looking for substitute saviours. Fortunately, the number of those for whom fundamental values of democracy, liberty and human rights matter more than submissive loyalty to an organisation is growing.

Raymond Suttner is an example. He used to operate underground in South Africa as a member of the ANC, and spent years in solitary confinement as a political prisoner. As a member of parliament and later as ambassador, he represented the ANC government before returning to the academic world from which he originated. In November 2005, he pointed out that ANC ideology and rhetoric do not distinguish between the liberation movement and the people. He thus argues that the liberation movement is a prototype of a state within the state, one that sees itself as the only legitimate source of power.


As we now know, post-colonial life looks a lot like the colonial era did in respect to day-to-day life, the reason being that socialisation factors and attitudes from armed struggle have largely shaped the new political leaders’ understanding of politics, and their idea of how to wield power.

In governmental office, liberation movements tend to mark an ‘end of history’. Any political alternative that does not emerge from within them will not be acceptable. This attitude explains the strong sense of camaraderie between the Mugabe regime and the governments of Angola, Mozambique, Namibia and South Africa over many years. Typcially, any political alternative cropping up in these countries as a result of disillusionment with post-colonial life will be discredited as part of an imperialist conspiracy designed to sabotage national independence.

These governments never seem to even consider the possibility that their own shortcomings may be the reason why opposition forces are becoming stronger. Instead, they only think along the militaristic dichotomy of friend/foe, leaving no legitimate alternative to their own hegemony.

At the same time, the sad truth is that the opposition forces that do stand up against such governments tend to only add to the problem, rather than to provide a solution. All too often, they only want to share the spoils of the state apparatus and its bureaucracy among their cronies once they are strong enough to constitute a true power option. Again, the relevant categories of thought are only winners and losers.

Democracy however is about something completely different: compromise, and even the search for consensus, in pursuit of the public good. To achieve that, one does not need military mindsets, but rather a broad political debate.