From liberation to liability – the record of National Liberation Movements in Southern Africa – By Keith Somerville

Review of Roger Southall, Liberation Movements in power: Party and State in Southern Africa, Woodbridge: James Curry and University of KazZulu-Natal press,  2013, pp.384,  ISBN 9781847010667 (hdbk). £45.00

There’s no arguing with Roger Southall’s opening thesis that “Whereas at one time liberation movements represented “˜the answer’ to southern Africa’s woes, they are now increasingly seen as “˜the problem.'” He looks at the experience of ZANU-PF in Zimbabwe, SWAPO in Namibia and the ANC in South Africa – from nationalist movements that developed military wings and guerrilla struggles to unseat white minority regimes, to incumbent governments which are increasingly distant from their original support base and show few signs of building plural politics or having any great tolerance for dissent.  Southall looks at the difficulties that have resulted from the victory of liberation struggles and the inability of the victorious movements to adapt to politics beyond the struggle – perhaps because in each case they did not “win” but had to negotiate, compromise and very rapidly transform from a previously “˜underground’ existence. Turning clandestine movements into mass political parties fighting elections – in essence, the transformation from making a state ungovernable to governing it – is a tough and often contradictory process.

This is a very worthwhile and fertile subject for in-depth analysis.  Zimbabwe is into its 34th year of independence, Namibia its 24th and South Africa its 20th.  They have different histories, social and political characteristics and their governments face differing problems, political cultures and demographics.  The similarity is geographical and relates to the label “˜national liberation movement’, but the differences between the movements and the states are diverse and major, despite the common factor of fighting white minority rule. This is one of the problems of the book – a wider look at liberation movements in southern Africa could have been useful (bringing in the MPLA and Frelimo) or a more carefully organized book that looked at each liberation movement in its regional and national context and then pulled together the common threads and identified the differences. But Southall opts to look at the three movements and countries through themes such as elections, the state, liberation and society, in separate chapters that try to analyse the three movements together over a range of issues.

This approach becomes very cluttered and clunky and there is overlap between the themes and the necessary jumps from one movement to another within sections – this clouds rather than assists analysis.  A division into clear country/movement chapters, where the relationship of each movement to the state, to society, to the economy etc could have been as detailed (underpinned by references to the literature) but less jumbled and would have enabled a clearer analysis of similarities and differences.

There is an awful lot of detail and interesting material but one has to mine through a mass of it to get to the core issues.  We also learn a lot about what Southall thinks about other peoples’ work but not enough of his own interpretation of the evidence. What is clear is that the three movements examined have failed to live up to the expectations of much of their base and disappointed their supporters in the international community.

The liberation movements have taken the militarized, disciplined and unity-centred necessities of fighting guerrilla wars, of running organizations in exile under the threat of infiltration, splits and assassinations, into government with them giving them an uncompromising approach to internal plurality and national opposition movements. They treat plurality as a threat to unity and the gains of “˜the struggle’, rather than as part of the nature of plural politics and a free society.  Southall does make the point that in their own approaches to their history, liberation movements have written out or covered up their own ruthlessness and brutality (the violent in-fighting in ZANU, the Nhari revolt, the deaths of key figures at key times; the ruthless treatment of SWAPO dissidents in Angola and Zambia; Camp Quatro for the ANC and the suppression of dissent in Angola and Tanzanian camps).

By depicting the struggle as a glorious one with the inevitable victory of liberation, failing to critically address the necessarily authoritarian nature of the liberation struggles and the suppression of dissidents, and then using this glorious history as the main reason they should stay in power, the movements have failed to understand or address their own history and understand the need for transformation when their continued struggle takes place in a different context.

The liberation movements have largely not made the jump from violent campaign to democratic political struggle and remain trapped in the inevitably paranoid mindset of the fight against apartheid or white rule. Everything was (and in many ways still is) justified by “˜the struggle’.  This is typified by Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma’s approaches to criticism – critics being accused of racism or of forgetting what happened under apartheid – or by Robert Mugabe’s reaction to domestic or international criticism.  For the liberation movements the struggle continues, by whatever means necessary to retain the supremacy of the movement.

The book is a mine of information for researchers and those wanting to pick over the wide literature on the topic, but is in need of editing and greater coherence of argument.  Much is said in this book but it takes a long time and lots of re-reading of sections to unravel.  I would have liked more analysis of the issues of delayed land reform, the disorganized and violent way it was carried out in Zimbabwe and how this was linked with the compromises made at Lancaster House to speed a political settlement. I would have also been interested in reading more on the relationship between SWAPO’s core grassroots support in Ovamboland and the government since independence and closer analysis of the Sampie Terreblanche-style approach to the concessions made over economic control in South Africa by the ANC to the white, mainly Anglo, business sector.

Terreblanche’s work on inequality in South Africa set out the way that economic policy formed a gaping hole in ANC strategy in the 1990s and opened the way both for continued white dominance, the surrender to neo-liberalism and the failure to transform the lives of the black majority. In place of this was the creation of a small, rich black middle class through Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) – where some leading ANC figures were empowered over and over again.

These elements are dealt with but not in sufficient detail or with interpretive analysis in what is a substantial book.  They are key to the way that, to adopt Fred Cooper’s approach, nationalist leaders and liberation movements have become the new gatekeepers in Africa.  They have neither engaged in structural economic and social transformation nor become effective managers of growth – they have just taken control of the gate and used this to extract rents and to entrench their own power.

Keith Somerville is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London; teaches in the School of Politics and International relations at the University of Kent, andf edits the Africa – News and Analysis ( website.

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One thought on “From liberation to liability – the record of National Liberation Movements in Southern Africa – By Keith Somerville

  1. Interesting review – made me remember this:
    A friend and author, Lars Persson (Sweden) infiltrated a colony of Nazis in South America in early 70’s. They had connections to RSA – he followed that up but “died” in a mysterious car accident in Cape 1981. He also in his book “Abantu” (1976) claimed that certain mass graves in Angola were not made by SA military but ANC (against western press). The “accident” was dubious – Lars P hated cars, had no licence and couldn’t even drive but had driven a sports car into a parked truck in the night. Who will find out the thruth?

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