The limits of a liberation legacy

The social capital of liberation movements is finite and should therefore be spent wisely, writes WILLIAM GUMEDE.

The inability to transform from resistance movements into effective governing parties lies at the heart of the government failures of many African independence and liberation movements. Such movements, of which the African National Congress is a case in point, come to power with an extraordinary amount of legitimacy, given their history of opposing colonial governments or white minority regimes. This ‘struggle legitimacy’ gives them a much stronger political, economic and moral mandate than most governments in most other developing countries (except maybe some countries in East Asia that have also emerged from colonial domination). Their social capital gives them the ability to mobilise societies behind their programmes for long periods, without serious challenges to their legitimacy. However, if such power goes unchecked, it also means that they can get away with service delivery failure, autocratic behaviour and wrongdoing in the name of advancing the liberation or independence project.

Members, supporters and voters are extraordinarily lenient to these movements and they, in turn, have extraordinary power to bestow legitimacy on individuals, institutions and behaviour. Conversely, their struggle credentials also allow them to delegitimise individuals, institutions or behaviour which they disapprove of. In power, they have an additional legitimising tool: the new state and its apparatus. Combined, if used for the widest possible national, public good and democratic interest, this legitimacy should arguable be a powerful tool for African independence and liberation movements turned governments to transform their societies for the better. Yet, most such movements
have, once in power, squandered this opportunity.

Because they have such hegemony, the political culture that is manifested within these movements is also replicated within the new state. In their attempts to transform their societies, leaders of these movements fuse their parties with the new state to form a kind of ‘party-state’, with the movement and the party becoming almost indistinguishable. There is no firewall between the party itself and the executive, legislatures and public institutions. In fact, independent democratic institutions are seen as an extension of the party, and not only are the heads of such institutions ‘deployed’ by the party leadership, they are also expected to defer to it. The difficulty for many African countries is how to reverse the negative impact on the state if the political culture of the dominant movement turns undemocratic, autocratic or authoritarian. Given the nature of the independence and liberation struggles, these movements are organised in a top-down, secretive and military-like fashion, with power in the hands of a small leadership group. When the leadership decides, the members are expected to obey according to the principle of democratic centralism.

Most independence and liberation movements which are still in power see their movements as the embodiment of the ‘people’ that can speak for the whole nation, with the leader as the tribune of the ‘people’. Typically during their liberation struggles nations were divided between those on the side of the liberation movement and those that were aligned with the colonial or minority government or their allies. In power, many independence and liberation movements still divide the world between those on their side and those belonging to the old order. Opposition or criticism, whether from within or from outside the movement, is therefore often wrongly construed as ‘opposition’ to the demands of the ‘people’. The result of such reasoning has been that independence and liberation movements rarely feel obliged to own up to their failures or examine themselves.

The ANC seems to have fallen into this trap as well, as the recent acquisition of luxury German cars by two ministers illustrates. While citizens are being requested to tighten their belts in the midst of a recession, such opulence suggests that politicians are either out of touch with ordinary South Africans, or that their conduct is being governed by a different set of ethics. Former ANC secretary general, and now deputy president, Kgalema Mothlanthe’s famous report on the state of the movement’s internal organisation and values has spoken volumes about such behaviour. To realign itself with its original mission, the challenge for the ANC would be to face up to Mothlanthe’s call to transform itself from the inside out. Its members, supporters and activists should play a more active role in keeping the ANC democratic and holding its leadership accountable. In South Africa, we are fortunate that a range of other progressive groups also have ‘struggle’ legitimacy. Some of these movements are outside the ANC family: the Pan Africanist Congress and Black Consciousness Movement. These movements have of course now lost most of their struggle legitimacy as leadership squabbles and weak policies, combined with the ANC’s dominance, have contributed to their demise. But importantly, ANC allies, such as the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), have struggle legitimacy in their own right even though they are in alliance with the ANC. Moreover, progressive civil society organisations, of which many participated or had their genesis in the United Democratic Front (UDF), can also claim legitimacy from the same source. It is their responsibility to stop the ANC from backsliding into undemocratic behaviour by being assertive civic watchdogs. This role should not be seen as inimical to their alliance with the ANC. Pro-democracy activists of the ANC, together with progressive civil society groups, unions and SACP members could, for example, form a pro-democracy lobby within the ANC that can push for the total internal democratisation of the party at all organisational levels.

But society must also be less tolerant of non-delivery, mismanagement and leaders’ autocratic behaviour. The current wave of protest against public representatives should be viewed positively, provided that it stays within the  restrictions of the law. It is a form of public criticism which helps to hold the ANC leadership accountable when democratic institutions do not. Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi summed it up when he said: ‘The election of a progressive leadership [does not] mean the end of the struggle and that we must now step back and hand over everything to these progressive, trusted leaders as though they are messiahs and will deliver everything on a silver platter, while we are in our beds sleeping.’

Individual leaders of the ANC deployed by the party leadership to head independent oversight institutions, such as the Chapter 9 institutions, must become more independent, and serve the public interest and not the interests of the ANC leadership, which do not always coincide. In summary, if a critical mass of individuals, institutions and communities with struggle credentials from within the ANC family are assertive in their dissent when the ANC goes wrong, the organisation’s leadership is likely to become more accountable and responsive to criticism. At the same time, consistent dismissal of such criticism on the grounds that it is counter-revolutionary will become increasingly difficult to sustain.

In Mauritius, together with Botswana (the most successful post-independence African society), the independence movement split in half a decade after independence. The split went right through the middle, not only within the party, but also within the trade unions and civil society groups that were aligned to the movement. Both the old and the breakaway movement had ‘struggle’ credentials, which meant that the electorate could now choose between two ‘legitimate’ progressive movements. The problem with the Congress of the People (COPE), which broke away from the ANC, is that, although its members have struggle legitimacy, it has been unable to shake the perception that it represents the rejected leadership elite of the ANC. Now off course, COPE is engulfed in similar leadership struggles that caused the PAC and BCM to implode.

The mistake that the Democratic Alliance (DA) made in the past is that it did not position itself as a liberation movement, albeit a ‘liberal’ one. Its policy and leadership positioning in the past reinforced the perception among the black majority that it defended the interests of a white minority or the apartheid order. Now in power in the Western Cape, the DA has the opportunity to show that it can be an alternative but relevant party which can not only govern better but also more inclusively. It must be able to show that service delivery to the black communities in the Western Cape will in five years be better at all levels than in provinces run by the ANC.

COPE can build on its struggle legitimacy if it repositions itself as a party for the black poor rather than the middle class, and if it uses the next five years to build a real presence in poor, working-class black communities.

The mandate President Jacob Zuma received is not iron-clad: South African society is restless, and the credibility of the ANC may be wearing thin in the face of increasing delivery deficits, dashed expectations, and an inability to communicate the reasons behind this state of affairs. These factors, combined with increasing economic hardships relating to the effects of the global financial crisis, could yet threaten the ANC’s struggle legitimacy, the main reason for its electoral success.

William Gumede is author of the forthcoming The Democracy Gap – Africa’s Wasted Years (Zed Books).

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