Southern Africa: The liberation struggle continues

[The following is the editorial in the latest edition of AfricaFile's At Issue Ezine, vol. 12 (May-October 2010), which examines the development of the southern African liberation movement-led countries. It has been posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission.]

By John S. Saul

May 2010 – At Issue Ezine – Many of us came to southern Africa from the starting point of support for the peoples there who were struggling, in the '60s, '70s and '80s, against the white minority/colonial regimes that dominated them and shaped so negatively their life chances. However, some in the worldwide liberation support/anti-apartheid movement also came to understand that defining liberation only in terms of national liberation from white colonial dominance told, at best, half the story. For, important as it was to overcome apartheid and similar racist structures in southern Africa, seeing people liberate themselves from class and corporate oppression, from structures of male domination and from authoritarian political practices could readily be seen to be at least as important to any true liberation as was national self-assertion. Now, several decades or more after the fall of the most visible forms of colonial and racial domination, it is ever more apparent just how accurate that critical insight was.

For what we have seen, various commentators have argued, is the virtual recolonisation of southern Africa by capital. This is something new, for it is at present much less easy to disaggregate this "capital" than previously into national capitals and see it as being primarily the instrument of various nationally based imperialisms and their several colonialisms. No, coming from the global North and West (as it has done historically) but also now from the East (Japan, China and India), it is an "Empire of Capital" that is currently recolonising Africa.

Of course, this has been complicated by the still independent role that national states per se (of both the North and the East), with their diverse raisons d’etat, also play in the imperial equation. Moreover, it is the case that such a "recolonisation" has been accomplished with the overt connivance of indigenous leaders/elites – those who have inherited power with the demise of "white rule" but who, in doing so, have manifested much greater commitment to the interests of their own privileged class-in-creation than to those of the mass of their own people. In short, it is not a happy world for the vast mass of ordinary southern African citizens – despite the freedom that they had seemed once to have won.

 What we have seen is the virtual recolonization of southern Africa by capital... It is not a happy world for the vast mass of ordinary southern African citizens.  

So what do we now celebrate in 2010, precisely fifty years after the launching, in 1960, of the "thirty years war (1960-1990) for southern African liberation", thirty-five years after the year of Angola’s and Mozambique’s independence, more or less thirty years after the day of independence in Zimbabwe, and a full twenty years after both Namibia’s inaugural day and the release from prison of Nelson Mandela that marked so clearly the first of the very last days of apartheid (days of transition that would culminate in Mandela’s election as president in 1994)? For it is a sad fact that one feels forced to ask the question, as I have recently done, as to just who actually won the struggle for southern African liberation.

As I continued:

We know who lost, of course: the white minorities in positions of formal political power (whether colonially in the Portuguese colonies or quasi-independently in South Africa and perhaps in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe). And thank fortune, and hard and brave work, for that. But who, in contrast, has won, at least for the time being: global capitalism, the West and the IFIs, and local elites of state and private sectors, both white and black? But how about the mass of southern African populations, both urban and rural and largely black? Not so obviously the winners, I would suggest, and certainly not in any very expansive sense. Has it not been a kind of defeat for them too?[1]

How much of a defeat? Some facts for South Africa may provide an indication of such a reality, one that has also scarred each of the five countries of the region that once became key sites of overt liberation struggle: Mozambique, Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa. Indeed, the several country case studies that comprise the body of this edition of AfricaFiles' Ezine will, cumulatively, give a very clear sense of this reality. Merely note here that in South Africa, for example, the economic gap between black and white has indeed narrowed statistically – framed by the fact that some blacks have indeed got very much richer (from their own upward mobility as junior partners to recolonisation and from the fresh spoils of victory that this has offered them). Yet the gap between rich and poor is actually wider than ever it was – and it is growing.

 The gap between rich and poor is actually wider than it ever wasand it is growing... "People do not eat human rights; they want food on the table."  

Much valuable research (by the likes of Terreblanche, McDonald and Nattrass and Seekings, as cited in the selected bibliography) documents this harsh fact – and other similarly sobering facts – and its stark implications. But note also the intervention several months ago by a leading South African prelate, Rev. Fuleni Mzukisi, who charged that poverty in South Africa is now worse than apartheid and, in fact, "a terrible disease". As he said, "Apartheid was a deep crime against humanity. It left people with deep scars, but I can assure you that poverty is worse than that... People do not eat human rights; they want food on the table."[2]

This outcome is the result, most generally, of the grim overall inequalities between the global North and the global South that, as in many other regions, mark southern Africa. But, more specifically, it also reflects the choice of economic strategies in this latter region that can now imagine only elite enrichment and the presumed "trickle down benefits" of unchecked capitalism as being the way in which the lot of the poorest of the poor might be improved there.

How far a cry this is from the populist, even socialist, hopes for more effective and egalitarian outcomes that originally seemed to define the development dreams of all the liberation movements. Indeed, what is especially disconcerting about the present recolonisation of the region under the flag of capitalism is that it has been driven by precisely the same movements (at least in name) that led their countries to independence in the long years of overt regional struggle. But just why this should have occurred, how inevitable it was, is something we must consider in the essays that follow.

To be sure, the record varies somewhat from country to country. Thus, Mozambique under Frelimo [Frente de Libertação de Moçambique, Liberation Front of Mozambique], once the most forthrightly socialist of all the region’s countries, has had to abandon that claim. True, it has also abandoned its initial brand of developmental dictatorship in favour of a formal democratisation that has stabilised the country – albeit without markedly empowering the mass of its people or improving their socioeconomic lot.

Indeed, a recent text book by Bauer and Taylor on southern Africa (a book of sympathetic though not notably radical predisposition) notes that the election to the presidency of Armando Guebuza who is the "holder of an expansive business empire and one of the richest men in Mozambique hardly signals that Frelimo will attempt to run anything but a globalist, neo-liberal agenda – regardless of the abject poverty suffered by most of the electorate."

 What is especially disconcerting about the present recolonization of the region ... is that it has been driven by precisely the same movements that led their countries to independence.  

As for Angola it has, until quite recently, experienced a much greater and more dramatic degree of divisive fragmentation than Mozambique – although its antidote to that, since the death of Savimbi, has had as little to do with popular empowerment and broad-based development as have the present policies of its fellow ex-Portuguese colony, Mozambique. In fact, it has been argued that it is only a handful of progressive international initiatives (Human Rights Watch, Global Witness and the like) that have had some success in holding the feet of exploitative corporations and of Angola’s own government to the fire of critical scrutiny.

For unfortunately, as David Sogge will argue in his article on Angola in the present collection, the country’s own population, battle scarred and battle weary, has been rather slower to find effective means to exert their own claims. Yet, as the same Bauer and Taylor volume quoted above feels forced conclude of Angola, oil money and corruption have merely "exacerbated the already glaring discrepancies between rich and poor" and have "quite simply, threatened the country’s recovery and future development".

Meanwhile Zimbabwe, in the brutal thrall of Mugabe and the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), has witnessed an even greater deterioration of national circumstances than either of these two countries. There, say Bauer and Taylor, "the ZANU-PF’s stewardship of the economy [has] been an unmitigated disaster" while its politics, through years of overt and enormously costly dictatorial practices, have produced a situation, as Richard Saunders will detail in his own essay here, that is proving enormously difficult both to displace and to move beyond.

The results in both Namibia and South Africa, even if not quite so bloody as those produced by Renamo’s war, the prolonged sparring of Savimbi with the MPLA [Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola] and Mugabe’s depredations, are not much more inspiring in terms of effective mass enfranchisement and broad-gauged human betterment – as we will see in the articles by Henning Melber and William Gumede included in this issue of the Ezine.

Thus, a long-time and firmly loyal ANC cadre (Ben Turok) has himself, in a recent book entitled The Evolution of ANC Economic Policy, acknowledged both the contribution of ANC policies to growing inequality in his country while reaching "the irresistible conclusion that the ANC government has lost a great deal of its earlier focus on the fundamental transformation of the inherited social system"!

In sum, South Africa, like the other "liberated" locales of the region, has become, in the sober phrase with which Neville Alexander has titled a book of his own on South Africa’s "transition from apartheid to democracy", merely "an ordinary country" – despite the rather finer future that many, both in southern Africa and beyond, had hoped would prove to be the outcome of the long years of liberation struggle themselves. But Alexander’s characterisation could be said to apply to all of the countries in the region: what we now have, instead of a liberated southern Africa that is vibrant, humane and just, is a region of a very different sort indeed.

Moreover, not only is there deepening inequality within countries but, in the region taken as a whole, there is also – to take one glaring example – a situation in which South Africa’s capitalist economic power now merely complements global capitalist power in holding the impoverished people of southern Africa in quasi-colonial thrall (as the six-part series of Africafiles' Ezine on South Africa in the southern Africa region recently documented[3]) – while doing disturbingly little to better the lot of such people, the vast majority both in South Africa and elsewhere.

Or take the Southern African Development Community: it has become (albeit with a few honourable exceptions) primarily a Club of Presidents that reveal itself to be – as the sad case of its kid-gloves treatment of Zimbabwe and its backing of an otherwise deservedly embattled Mugabe amply demonstrates – to be more a source of tacit support for the status quo than a force for facilitating any kind of just transition to effective democracy in Zimbabwe.

 What we now have, instead of a liberated southern Africa that is vibrant, humane and just, is a region of a very different sort indeed... The current global situation offers no real alternatives, no real hope.  

In truth, it is now often said by people of left persuasion that the current global situation offers no real alternatives, no real hope, for Africa (including southern Africa). It cannot, they say, count on any plausible socialist alternative (see Gabriel Kolko’s deeply unsettling After Socialism). Moreover, a seasoned observer like Giovanni Arrighi can only urge Africa to look to a relatively benign China (a doubtful haven of hope, one fears) and/or to the kinder and gentler practices of its own elites in order to realise even a marginal adjustment to its desperate plight. Others fall back on the equally unlikely prospect of a revolutionary transformation of the exploitative West to then lift many of the key barriers towards a brighter future.

Thus, as one friend has recently written to me: "I don’t see how the South can ever liberate itself in the absence of a new socialist project becoming powerful in the North." Yet he feels forced to add that "I don’t see that happening until people are hurting and see no prospect of meeting their personal needs under globalized neoliberalism, and until a new left movement with a serious attitude to organization and democracy." But this is a faint hope too, my correspondent – who confesses to feeling "very pessimistic" – obviously fears.

Failing a revolution in the global capitalist centres, however, what are the actual prospects for some dramatic change occurring within the region itself, one, necessarily, driven from below? The present author has called elsewhere for "a next liberation struggle" in southern Africa for precisely this reason, a struggle, like the one that is currently afoot in several places in Latin America for example, that seeks to at least neutralise the intervention of imperialist forces from the North while also facilitating the empowerment of its own people in political and economic terms.

And there are – as will be surveyed on a country by country basis in the articles that follow – localised and grassroots resistances in the region in a wide variety of settings and on a broad range of policy fronts that seek to make headway and even to begin to add up to potential hegemonic alternatives to the failed liberation movements that we still see in power.

Moreover, some attempts to so resist – the initial rise of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in opposition to Mugabe for example, and the removal of the brazen Thabo Mbeki from South Africa’s presidency before the end of his term; the dramatic grassroots resistance, especially in South Africa, to the AIDS pandemic that stalks the entire region; and the signs of a resurgent economic nationalism that threatens to renegotiate contracts with the private sector and even to reverse certain privatisations – do begin to so promise: promise, that is, to "add up", even if to this point, "not quite" and certainly "not yet"!

 There are ... grassroots resistances in the region ... that seek to make headway and even to begin to add up to potential hegemonic alternatives to the failed liberation movements that we still see in power.  

So the question remains: how might one hope, even expect, that the diverse instances of resistance that are visible could come to pose hegemonic alternatives in southern Africa to the recolonisation that has been the fate of that part of the continent in the wake of its seeming "liberation"? What might Africans on the ground in the region have to do next, and how can they best be supported from outside in doing so? Equally importantly, how might residents of the global North organise themselves in order – with respect to any "next liberation support struggle" – to best assist them: staying the hand of our own governments and corporations on the one hand and speaking out clearly and effectively on behalf of such movements for genuine liberation on the ground on the other? One thing is clear: the liberation struggle continues. We cannot live in the (recent) past. We must act to shape the future.

[A witness to the unfolding events of the liberation movements in southern Africa, John S. Saul, professor emeritus, social and political science, York University, Canada, taught at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, the University of Eduardo Mondlane in Maputo, Mozambique, and at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.]


1. John S. Saul, "Liberation Support and Anti-Apartheid Work as Seeds of Global Consciousness: The Birth of Solidarity with Southern African Struggles," in Karen Dubinsky, et. al (eds.), New World Coming: The Sixties and the Shaping of Global Consciousness (Toronto: Between the Lines, 2009), 139-40; see also John S. Saul, Revolutionary Traveller: Freeze-Frames from a Life (Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring, 2009).

2. Fuleni Mzukisi, as cited in Fredrick Nzwili, "South Africa: Pastor says poverty is worse than apartheid," from Ecumenical News International and circulated by AfricaFiles (September 10, 2008).

3. See AfricaFiles' At Issue Ezine, "Vol 8: South Africa in Africa" (2008).

Selected Bibliography

Alexander, Neville. An Ordinary Country: Issues in the Transition from Apartheid to Democracy in South Africa. Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press, 2002.

Arrighi, Giovanni. "The African Crisis," in New Left Review 15 (May–June 2002).

Bauer, Gretchen, and Scott D. Taylor, eds. Politics in Southern Africa: State and Society in Transition. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2005.

Gumede, William. Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC. London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008.

Hanlon, Joseph, and Teresa Smart. Do Bicycles Equal Development in Mozambique? London: Boydell and Brewer, 2008.

McDonald, Michael. Why Race Matters in South Africa. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2006.

Melber, Henning. Re-examining Liberation in Namibia: Political Culture Since Independence. Uppsala: Nordiska Afrikainstitutet, 2003.

Nattrass, Nicoli, and Jeremy Seekings. Race, Class and Inequality in South Africa. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005.

Raftopoulos, Brian, and Alois Mlambo. Becoming Zimbabwe: A History from the Pre-colonial Period to 2008. Harare: Weaver Press, 2009.

Saul, John S. The Next Liberation Struggle: Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy in Southern Africa. Toronto, Durban, New York and London: Between the Lines, University of Kwazulu-Natal Press, Monthly Review Press, The Merlin Press, 2005.

Saul, John S. "The Strange Death of Liberated Southern Africa," in Decolonization and Empire. Delhi, London and Johannesburg: Three Essays Collective, Merlin Press, and University of Witwatersrand Press, 2007.

Saul, John S. "Arrighi and Africa," in Review of African Political Economy (December 2009).

Saul, John S. Liberation Lite: The Roots of Recolonization in Southern Africa. Delhi: Three Essays Collective, 2010.

Terreblanche, Sampie. A History of Inequality in South Africa, 1652-2002. Scottsville: University of Natal Press, 2002.

Turok, Ben. The Evolution of ANC Economic Policy: From the Freedom Charter to Polokwane. Cape Town: New Agenda, 2008.

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Fri, 08/27/2010 - 14:41


By Ndamu Sandu

August 22, 2010

Windhoek — In the past Zimbabwe's suppression of dissenting voices was an isolated case in the region but the trend is spreading like a veld-fire as other countries join the "Bad Boy Club", according to deliberations at a recently held people's summit.

The sixth Southern African Development Community (Sadc) people's summit, which ended in Namibia on Monday, heard that governments in the region were silencing dissenting voices to sustain unpopular regimes. The summit was held under the auspices of the Southern Africa Peoples' Solidarity Network (SAPSN), an umbrella body of civil society organisations in the region.

The delegation from Swaziland said repression had escalated and the state of emergency "has turned the country into an open-air prison". It called for the removal of a ban on political parties imposed by King Mswati III. The Swazis also called for the imposition of Sadc targeted sanctions on the elite to force the monarch to relax repressive laws.

The delegation from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) said the central African nation has to stop the harassment and killing of human rights defenders. In an open letter sent to DRC president Joseph Kabila, civil society organisations called for an independent inquiry into the killing of activist, Floribert Chebeya Bahizire who was murdered in June.

"The official investigation has achieved almost nothing and bears all the hallmarks of a cover-up rather than any real attempt to uncover the truth," said Hubert Tshiswaka, the DRC advocacy manager at the Open Society Initiative of Southern Africa. "Only an independent inquiry has any chance of bringing those responsible for these appalling crimes to court--something President Kabila has promised to do."

Tshiswaka said the murder of Bahizire and the disappearance of his driver, Fidele Bazana Edadi, were not isolated incidents "but part of escalating campaign of violence and intimidation by the authorities in the DRC ahead of next year's election". Namibia, the host of this year's summit, was also on the radar after banning public protests by opposition parties and non-governmental organisations during the course of the Sadc heads of state and government summit.

Civil societies from Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Lesotho, Madagascar and DRC had planned street marches to highlight the crisis in their countries.

The Namibian government had initially granted the groups permission to march but made an about- turn saying the police were "ill equipped to provide security to people or individuals who may want to exercise their constitutional rights in the form of demonstrations or gatherings".

Despite the ban, Zimbabwe's gory past was on display when Zimbabwe Human Rights Association (ZimRights) held a photo exhibition of the country's dark past in the period 2007-2009.

The 74 pictures captured the trials and tribulations Zimbabweans went through. Okay Machisa, the ZimRights director said: "Zimbabwean issues especially human rights-related cases remain a thorny area in the region. "This platform becomes critically relevant since it gives unconditional participation from the civil society from within Sadc."

"ZimRights' path of preaching the truth and advocacy around national healing using the pictures in our country was thwarted by state security agents. "This left us with no other option than using such platforms like SAPSN gathering here in Windhoek." This is the second time that the pictures had been exhibited on an African gathering.

The 74 pictures were showcased before the recent World Cup in South Africa. ZimRights showed delegates a film, Article IV, which touches on national healing as prescribed by the global political agreement. Analysts say the re-emergence of repression in the region emanates from the fact that Sadc is "an "Old Days Club" and ruling parties in the region believe that their legitimacy is derived from the barrel of the gun and not democracy", according to Johannesburg-based political analyst, Dewa Mavhinga.

"As such to retain political power there is a growing tendency in the region to rely on repression. "This has happened in Zimbabwe, Angola, Swaziland, Namibia and now the South Africa government seeks to muzzle the press," said Mavhinga who is also a regional coordinator for Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition. "Sadc leaders are paying lip service to democracy while relying on military might for political authority."