Thursday, May 27, 2010

Southern Africa: The liberation struggle continues

John S. Saul
2010-05-27, Issue 483

Fifty years on from the beginnings of liberation in Africa, John S. Saul finds there is still much work to be done, especially in southern Africa where the final triumph over colonial and racial domination occurred. In each of the five sites of the overt struggle against domination – Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa – there are clear signs of recolonisation, this time by capital.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.

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,’ 35 years after the year of Angola’s and Mozambique’s independence, more or less 30 years after the day of independence in Zimbabwe, and a full 20 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.

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, 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 socio-economic 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.’

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 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 SADC, the Southern African Development Community: It has become (albeit with a few honourable exceptions) primarily a club of presidents that reveals 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.

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 could 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 globalied 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 grass-roots 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 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 grass-roots 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 privatizations – do begin to so promise: Promise, that is, to ‘add up,’ even if, to this point, ‘not quite’ and certainly ‘not yet’!

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.

* This article first appeared in AfricaFiles At Issue ezine, Volume 12 (May–October 2010) The Liberation of Southern Africa, No. 1, May 2010.
* John S. Saul is a Canadian political economist and activist whose work has focused on the liberation struggles of southern Africa, from the 1960s to the present.
* Please send comments to or comment online at Pambazuka News.


[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).

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