More than three decades after southern Africa put the travails of white minority rule behind it the liberation movements in the region continue to dominate the region’s politics, having transformed themselves into structured political parties and captured what they considered to be the ultimate reward for their military and political struggles ‒ the state.
For the most part the majority of the people of ‘liberated’ countries in southern Africa have ensured the political dominance of the former liberation movements, keeping faith with them against the backdrop of searching and increasingly persistent questions raised as to whether that faith has been reciprocated by comparable deliverables.
Liberation parties like South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC) Zimbabwe’s ZANU PF, Namibia’s South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO), Mozambique’s Frelimo and Angola’s Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) continue to dominate the political landscape in their countries. In each of what might be described as the more recent instances, beginning with Frelimo’s accession to office in Mozambique in 1975, those resistance movements turned political parties have been returned to power, repetitively, through general elections. Such opposition political movements as had arisen in those countries to challenge the right of the liberation movements to capture the state as the ultimate prize lacked the prominence of the mass base to do so. They were outdone, in each instance, by the sheer weight of the political authority wielded by the movements that were regarded as the countries’ authentic liberators.
In sum, post-liberation politics in those countries have become formalities with general elections, for the most part being exercises designed to further entrench the former liberation movements in power. The momentum from the respective liberation struggles has been sustained by a political folklore that has mostly long lost its currency; still, it continues to galvanize the vast majority of the people of those countries behind the popular movements that are now the bona fide rulers.
One outcome of this circumstance is that post-liberation general elections in most of those southern African states have more or less come and gone without too much controversy. It has been, by and large, a matter of whomsoever is elected to lead the respective political parties becoming, as a matter of automaticity, President of the country whenever the electoral cycle comes around. This is not to say however, that there have not been serious concerns raised about the propriety of the polls in post-liberation countries in the region. Zimbabwe’s ZANU PF has officially won every election held since independence from Britain in 1980 notwithstanding persistent allegations of electoral fraud by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and the scepticism expressed particularly by European countries regarding the results of the polls.
If there appears to be no end in sight to the stranglehold on their countries’ politics by the post-liberation political parties, there are signs of change in the popular political culture, much of which would appear to be driven by the notion that the political parties entrusted with control of the state up until now have not come close to delivering on the promises to the vast majority of the victims of the pre-liberation oppression.
Contextually, the significance of the departure from the political stage of two of the most dominant post-liberation Presidents, namely, Jose Eduardo Dos Santos of Angola and Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, can hardly be overlooked. Both were widely believed to have presided over corrupt regimes where family ties and political connections allowed for the wanton plunder of the state, and both men were ushered into retirement after their longevity had not only become awkward for their own respective political parties but had also given rise to a measure of popular disenchantment.
It is, these days, much the same with South Africa’s ANC, saddled as it is with a state President who has had to live through much of his presidential tenure defending himself against plundering the state for personal gain as well as an alleged propensity for promiscuity that has become sufficiently public as to bring the office of the presidency into disrepute. Evidence of Zuma’s mounting public loss of face and eroded popularity amongst influential ANC leaders (a similar circumstance afflicted Mugabe before he was forced out of office) is reflected in what, in recent years, had become his seemingly unending battle against being prematurely removed from office. The widespread welcoming of veteran trade unionist and liberation struggle icon Cyril Ramaphosa to the leadership of the ANC signalled, as much as anything else, the party’s anxiety to put the Zuma era behind it.
To varying degrees the most notable amongst the post-liberation political parties in southern Africa have all become shadows of their former selves. Their failure to deliver on critical material promises to the masses has been accompanied by the plunder of the state by the families of the rulers, and has transformed many now ageing freedom fighters and their descendants into fabulously wealthy people. South Africa, Zimbabwe and Angola are cases in point, with the excesses of the Zumas in South Africa, the Mugabes in Zimbabwe and the Dos Santos’s in Angola, and others well-connected to the respective ruling parties now an entrenched script in southern Africa’s political theatre.
Southern Africa is still to outgrow the popular triumphalism of its liberation struggles which transformed its freedom fighters into popular leaders and won them automatic political constituencies. Freedom, four decades or so ago, may have brought unbridled euphoria, but that inevitably becomes unsustainable in circumstances where deliverables fail to match undertakings, giving rise to feelings amongst those who wait and hope that the more things change the more they stay the same.