Mobilising against southern Africa’s ruling-party rot

Breaking the grip of southern Africa’s predatory ruling parties, which exist only to serve their own selfish needs, will require a collective vision backed by popular solidarities.

The parties that now hold state power across southern Africa once carried the hopes of millions of people. When they were popular movements or military organisations, people of great principle and courage committed themselves to them and were willing to go to prison – and to war – in their name. They carried collective and redemptive visions.

In 1906, Pixley ka Isaka Seme, a central figure in the founding of the ANC, gave a prize-winning oration at Columbia University in New York in which he anticipated shining cities, humming with science and commerce, and that Africa “walking with that morning gleam” will “shine as thy sister lands with equal beam”.

By the late 1980s, millions of people were mobilised in the name of the ANC. But today, throughout southern Africa, most of the former liberation movements have become repressive and predatory excrescences on society. In Angola, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, the ruling parties are a direct hindrance to any prospect of the development of societies that are viable for the majority, let alone the prospect of an emancipatory politics.

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Politicians and their families accumulate vast wealth while the majority faces deeping impoverishment and what Martin Luther King called “life as a long and desolate corridor with no exit sign”. Elites inhabit a fully privatised life in terms of residence, security, education and health, while the institutions accessed by the majority are crumbling. Autonomous organisation is met with serious repression: arrest, torture, murder. There have been massacres in Angola, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

Elites in South Africa, just like the racist Right in Europe and the United States, actively incite xenophobia to scapegoat African and Asian migrants for the steady decline of society under their management. There are regular pogroms.

The hucksters unmasked 

None of this is new. In 1961, Frantz Fanon, dying and writing with the last of his energies in a flat in Tunis, warned against the collapse into xenophobia and excoriated the ruling parties and the national bourgeoisies in the newly independent states. The party, he wrote, ought to be a “living” movement enabling the “free exchange of ideas which have been elaborated according to the real needs of the mass of the people”. Instead it had become the “modern form of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, unmasked, unpainted, unscrupulous and cynical”. Fanon spoke with withering contempt of a “little greedy caste, avid and voracious, with the mind of a huckster”.

The novels that emerged out of the early experience of postcolonial disappointment are often just as uncompromising in their critique. Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, published in 1968, is saturated with a sense of rot and decay, of stench and filth, which is both material and moral. This is counterposed to frequent references to the gleam of wealth and the clean life it seems to enable. But the novel’s chief protagonist, a railway clerk, observes: “Some of that cleanness has more rottenness in it than the slime at the bottom of a garbage dump.”

In Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, which exploded on the global stage in 1981, there is a similar sense of rot and decay. It is not just Bombay that is in a state of decay – decay has set in to human flesh. In Chinua Achebe’s 1987 novel, Anthills of the Savannah, set in a fictional country where old friends must be kept at a safe distance, “the rich man … holds the yam and the knife” and the light of morning has been beaten back “into the seclusion of a widow’s penance in soot and ashes”.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o first attacked the Kenyan kleptocracy in his 1987 novel, Devil on the Cross, written in prison. Wizard of the Crow, published in 2006, has been described as “absurdist, scatological satire”. It is a ruthless and very funny novel with a strong sense of the grotesque that is often rank with a sense of the putrid. Against this, Nyawira, an activist in the underground resistance, declares that the “life of even the least among us should be sacred” and the “wealth of science, technology and arts should enrich peoples’ lives, not enable their slaughter”.

Stark contrasts 

In view of this accumulation of postcolonial melancholy, the situation in southern Africa, although it arrived later than parts of Asia, Latin America and elsewhere in Africa, should not be entirely surprising. Isabel dos Santos left Angola with personal wealth estimated at $2.2 billion (R38 billion), accumulated via the rot in the MPLA. Namibia is described as a rich country with poor people. 

In Zimbabwe, the elite lunch on fresh fish flown in from Maputo that morning while people are beaten, mercilessly, in the crumbling streets. In Mozambique, young people denied a future by Frelimo rally to armed Islamism in a desperate attempt to move against the monopolisation of the wealth from which they are excluded. And in South Africa impoverishment deepens, looting flourishes and the state continues to govern its most vulnerable people with routine forms of violence, traumatising a new generation.

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It is striking that since each of the countries in the region has attained independence or electoral democracy, there has been firm solidarity between elites. The ANC, and a number of other elite actors, have a shameful record of appeasing Zanu-PF. When the party stole the 2008 election amid sustained state and party violence against ordinary people, it was the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) that issued strong statements of solidarity with Zimbabwean workers, and the Zimbabwean people in general, in the face of the onslaught from a deeply corrupt and repressive ruling party.

As repression has escalated in Zimbabwe in recent weeks, it has again been the trade unions, including Cosatu and the National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa), along with Abahlali baseMjondolo, the largest social movement in the country, that have taken firm positions against Zanu-PF in solidarity with the people of Zimbabwe.

Viable popular alternatives 

The solidarity with the people of Zimbabwe from organised workers and impoverished urban residents is certainly encouraging. But across the region the gleam of personal accumulation, often at the direct expense of society as a whole, continues to displace the gleam of a collective vision.

Restoring the gleam of that collective vision, and, in Fanon’s words, “a prospect is human because conscious and sovereign persons dwell within”, is an urgent priority. But if an emancipatory vision is to become a material force in society, it needs political forces capable of realising it.

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We have no chance of averting the precipitous decline of the countries across the region if we are not able to muster the strength to confront the bitter reality of just how deep the rot runs in the ANC, Zanu-PF, the MPLA and Frelimo. But while this is essential work, it is equally essential to see, with similar clarity, the dangers in the liberal alternatives backed by local capital, donors, many non-governmental organisations, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The failure of the Movement for Democratic Change to chart an independent course, one rooted in the aspirations of its supporters for land, freedom, viable public services and decent work, is a key component of the seemingly endless crisis in Zimbabwe.

The former liberation movements are irredeemably rotten. The alternatives backed by imperialism are a road to a different kind of disaster. If there is a way forward, it lies in popular solidarities, popular organising and new thinking – undertaken from within popular organisations and struggle – about real alternatives.

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