Liberation is over

2012-08-11 11:10

Struggle movements must create new triumphs and not only rest on old victories

The inability to transform from resistance movements into effective governing parties lies at the heart of the governmental failures of many African independence and liberation movements.

Such movements, of which the ANC 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 that of governments in most other developing countries – their social capital gives them the ability to mobilise societies behind their programmes for long periods without serious challenges to their legitimacy.

But, 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 of which they disapprove.

In power, they have an additional legitimising tool: the new state and its apparatus.

Combined, if used for the widest possible national and public good, and democratic interest, this legitimacy should arguably be a powerful tool for African independence and liberation movements-turned-government 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.

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 group.

What 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” and therefore see themselves as able to 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 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 failures or examine themselves.

The ANC seems to have fallen into this trap as well.

Former ANC secretary-general and now Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe’s famous report on the state of the movement’s internal organisation and values spoke volumes about such behaviour.

To realign itself with its original mission, the challenge for the ANC would be to face up to Motlanthe’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.

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.

The mandate President Jacob Zuma received is not ironclad: 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.

»This piece comprises selected extracts from The Limits of a Liberation Legacy, one of the essays in Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times

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