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Why liberation movements fail when they come to power

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Decreased support for the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa’s elections on 29 May was expected. But a decline from 57% to 40% marked a turning point in the country’s democracy. It also confirmed the general decline in popularity of former liberation movements as governments in southern Africa.

I have focused since the late 1990s on the limits to liberation, pointing at the shortcomings of liberation movements as governments. Elections in Namibia at the end of November might also confirm for the governing South West African People’s Organisation (Swapo) a decline in popularity.

Anti-colonial movements struggled for self-determination. In armed conflicts with the minority regimes their members (and their countries’ populations) paid a high price. Once their mission was accomplished, hopes were high. Ordinary people expected a significant change for the better, also in material terms.

Instead, a new elite took control of government, mainly for its own benefits. The growing frustration of the “liberated” has since eroded their government’s initial support. The loss of trust has taken its toll. The consequences, which I have frequently described, include erstwhile liberation movements developing into kleptocracies, equating the party with the state and developing cultures of entitlement.

Foretold by some within the struggle

Frantz Fanon, a member of the Algerian liberation movement, observed decolonisation during the late 1950s in west Africa. With The Wretched of the Earth he created an enduring legacy.

In a chapter entitled The Pitfalls of National Consciousness, he observes that the sovereign state foists itself on the people. It mistreats, intimidates and harasses, “to remind them constantly that the government expects from them obedience and discipline” (p. 146).

Fanon’s analysis gained new relevance for those witnessing governance by former liberation movements in southern Africa. As observed by the South African academic director at the international School for International Training, Imraan Buccus:

A good number … degenerated into the sort of rapacious kleptocracies famously described by Fanon.

This went hand in hand with an authoritarian mentality crafted and internalised during the struggle days.

Based on his own experiences in the struggle for independence in Angola, Artur Carlos Mauricio Pestana dos Santos, who publishes under his nom de guerre Pepetela, described this in his novel Mayombe, which unmasks the emerging power structures. In a revealing dialogue, the commander of the guerrilla unit Sem Medo (“Fearless”) explains to the political commissar Mundo Novo (“New World”):

We don’t share the same ideals … You are the machine type, one of those who are going to set up the unique, all-powerful Party in Angola. I am the type who could never belong to the machine … what I want you to understand is that the revolution we are making is half the revolution I want. But it is the possible. I know my limits and the country’s limits. My role is to contribute to this half-revolution.

After the end of colonial rule, struggle mentalities unfolded as authoritarian mindsets. In the end, as a member of the International Studies Group at the University of Free State, Keaobaka Tsholo, concludes,

the transition of former liberation movements into political parties has not led to good governance.

As summed up in the editorial of a Namibian newspaper:

Even a cursory look at the former liberation movements that eventually ascended to political power in southern Africa reveals their evolution into parties that have vacuumed resources meant for the benefit of the poor and still disadvantaged.

Equating the party with government and state

The equation that the party is the government, and the government is the state, has contributed to “troubled democratic transitions”.

The younger generations raised after the end of white minority rule respond – as diagnosed by the scholar in African politics Sara Rich Dorman – with frustration to the “shattered illusion of the post-liberation state”.

South African professor of politics William Gumede presents a long list of failures. It includes: one-partyism, ethnic politics, leadership cults, party-state fusion, political intolerance, secrecy, violence, permanent entitlement and moral bankruptcy. As he concludes:

African independence and liberation movements turned governments have often become obstacles to building lasting democracies.

They have squandered the trust given them by the electorate.

For the ANC and Swapo, elections in 2024 mark a watershed. Factors contributing to their decline have been a culture of entitlement, culminating in state capture and corruption without delivery to the benefit of all. Like the ANC, Swapo had a significant loss of support in the last National Assembly and presidential elections of 2019. The result of the regional and local elections in 2020 was even worse.

In my own work I have argued that the rule of liberation movements is rooted in using force to overthrow undemocratic, repressive conditions. I suggest that a military mindset guided by a confrontational “we-they” divide isn’t favourable for strengthening human rights, civil liberties and democratic norms.

Unfinished business

What remains is unfinished business. Independence without a firm basis for democracy, human rights and wellbeing (also in terms of material security) is far from liberation.

But one also has to think about what the alternative might have been.

Fighting settler colonial regimes came with a high price in terms of human sacrifices, human rights and humanity. But continued settler colonial rule – from Algeria to Zimbabwe – would most likely not have been better. The right to self determination and civil rights for the ordinary people remain achievements.

The ruling elites originating from former liberation movements in southern Africa have demonstrated that they are less interested in democracy than they are in pursuing their self interest and retention of power. They are willing to sacrifice the constitutionalism they fought so hard for, as in Zimbabwe.

The willingness of the ANC in South Africa to recognise and respect the will of the electorate sets a new standard. The attempt to transform a former liberation movement into a democratic political party might be a step forward to deal with unfinished business.

is an Extraordinary Professor, Department of Political Sciences, University of Pretoria

Disclosure statement

Henning Melber is a member of SWAPO since 1974.