Changes in the south of Africa

2018-06-17 00:01


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The last decade of the 20th century was full of promise and hope for southern Africa. The greatest event of the 1990s in the subregion was, without doubt, the final defeat of apartheid in South Africa in 1994 after a struggle that had gone on for decades and that had eventually involved almost the whole world.

As the largest economy in southern Africa, the opening up of South Africa to the rest of the world could only be of benefit for its neighbours.

South Africa’s first election in April 1994 confirmed a trend of democratisation in the region, one that started in Zambia when the newly formed Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) defeated Kenneth Kaunda’s long-serving United National Independence Party in an election in 1991.

Another long-standing single-party dictatorship, Kamuzu Banda’s Malawi Congress Party, was defeated in an election in 1994 by the newly formed United Democratic Front.

In Zimbabwe, the end of the 1990s saw the emergence of another political party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which was established to challenge Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF, the ruler of Zimbabwe since independence in 1980. Zanu-PF, like the other long-serving parties in the region, mismanaged Zimbabwe’s economy to the extent that the country had to turn to the International Monetary Fund for assistance.

An important feature of the new parties in southern Africa was the role trade unions and other civil society organisations played in their emergence.

Zambia’s MMD was led by the Zambia Congress of Trade Unions. Similarly, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions led the MDC. Trade unions were important ANC allies during apartheid and remained its allies when it was in government.

Another important source of optimism for southern Africa in the 1990s was the promise of the end of long-running civil wars in the former Portuguese colonies of Mozambique and Angola. These civil wars had, in part, been stoked by the apartheid regime. In October 1992, the Frelimo-led government of Mozambique signed a peace agreement with rebel organisation Renamo. This eventually led to an election in 1994, when Renamo emerged as the second-largest party in Mozambique.

The long-running civil war between the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola and Unita, which ended in the defeat of the latter in 2002, initially saw the promise of peace with the withdrawal of Cuban forces from Angola and the independence of Namibia in March 1990.

At the northern end of southern Africa's subregion, the longest-standing dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was overthrown in 1997. The country, however, continued to be the theatre of a subregional war that involved several countries in southern and east Africa.

Fading democratic promise

The promise of peace, democracy and prosperity in southern Africa has proved to be elusive, or short-lived at best. The MDC in Zimbabwe managed to win only one election – the constitutional referendum in February 2000. The Zanu-PF-led government rigged the elections that followed. They were accompanied by acts of violence against members and leaders of the MDC. Eventually, this led to the destruction of the once-promising Zimbabwe economy. It has been estimated that a quarter of Zimbabwe’s population fled the country. Today, Zimbabwe is ruled by a military regime that took power in a coup d’état on November 14. Meanwhile, the once-popular MDC has fragmented into several mini political parties.

In Zambia, the MMD has broken into factions. The current dominant faction, which controls the government, the Patriotic Front, is persecuting and jailing leaders of opposition parties;the president of the DRC, Joseph Kabila, refuses to vacate office long after his constitutional term has expired;the new president of Tanzania, John Magufuli, has embarked on an eccentric rule that involves killing and arresting opposition leaders; andRenamo’s leader, Afonso Dhlakama, died recently. It remains unclear if his party has abandoned its revived armed opposition.

Only a handful of southern African countries can today be considered democracies: Mauritius, Botswana, Namibia, Lesotho and South Africa. These have a combined population of 63 million people, out of the 277 million people in the region. In other words, only 23% of the subregional population lives in democratic states, but most of that 23% lives in South Africa.

However, by a strict definition of consolidated democracy, only Mauritius and Lesotho can be considered established democracies because they have had at least one change of government through an election. Botswana, Namibia and South Africa have not yet had a peaceful change of a governing party through free and fair elections, which is what is considered to constitute a consolidated democracy.

Why is it so difficult for democracy to establish itself in southern Africa? There are many reasons. What often gets overlooked is that modern democracy, as it developed in western Europe, emerged over many centuries and was a product of a multiplicity of factors. These included the struggle between the aristocracy and cities; struggles between the monarchy and the aristocracy; wars between states; religious wars; the rising power of industry and banking; struggles between landed gentry and industrialists; and struggles between the bourgeoisie and the industrial working class. None of these phenomenons, for obvious reasons, happened under colonialism in Africa.

Ruling elites

The colonial regime created two social classes in Africa. The petite bourgeoisie was at the service of the colonial regime as court translators, religious intermediaries, teachers, nurses, lawyers, doctors, shopkeepers and the like. This was a one-dimensional class restricted to serving the interest of colonialism. It had absolutely no links with the colonial society’s production processes, as these were dominated by the peasantry and foreign multinational companies.

It was to this class that colonial powers handed control of the state when they departed at independence. This neocolonial petite bourgeoisie used its newly acquired control of the colonial state to consume.

The second class the colonial regime created was a small working class organised to build physical infrastructure required to move and house goods and people, and to dig for minerals. These two classes were, however, a drop the ocean of socially undifferentiated peasants.

The economies of southern African have not changed significantly since independence in the 1960s. They continue to produce cash crops for export, primarily through peasant farming, and minerals mined by foreign mining companies. The ruling elites in most of southern Africa finance themselves and the state they inherited by taxing cash crops. They tax mining companies through royalty extraction.

But these countries need to change into modern, growing and equitable economies as well as real, instead of nominal, democracies.

- Mbeki is deputy chairperson of the SA Institute of International Affairs. This is part one of two from an extract of a speech he delivered at the Nordic Africa Institute in Sweden


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