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Southern Africa’s former liberators offer rich lessons in political populism

A mural depicting populist dictators painted onto remnants of the Berlin Wall in Berlin in 2014. Henning Melber

Political populism is anything but new. Nor are its various shapes peculiar to certain regions or cultures.

Take former liberation movements in southern Africa, for example. They reflect the diversity of populist regimes spanning over several decades. This is evident in Zimbabwe under the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU-PF) since 1980, Namibia under the South West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO) since 1990 and South Africa under the African National Congress (ANC) since 1994.

The heroic narratives of liberation gospels were born in historical processes expected to achieve emancipation. Post liberation, these processes elevated the anti-colonial movements into governments in firm social control.

The state came to be understood as the product of the new rulers. These shaped and dominated the national discourse. They considered their power not only legitimate but endless. For example, Sam Nujoma, long-time president of SWAPO and former Namibian head of state, encouraged the SWAPO Youth League in 2010 to “be on the full alert and remain vigilant against deceptive attempts by opportunists and unpatriotic elements that attempt to divide you.” Only, then, he asserted, would SWAPO “grow from strength to strength and continue to rule Namibia for the next ONE THOUSAND YEARS.”

South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma, recently asserted that, the governing ANC which he leads, would rule until the return of Jesus Christ. In Zimbabwe, 92-year old Robert Mugabe has accepted a nomination to stand for another term in 2018 and suggested he might serve until he is 100.

For Mugabe, Nujoma, Zuma and the like, authority is anchored in the struggle narrative. The “big men” syndrome is part of their populism.

And by paying tribute to their peers, they applaud themselves. Namibia’s new president Hage Geingob, for example, has praised Mugabe as his role model. Zambia’s late president Michael Sata sang Zimbabwean chimurenga (liberation) songs when Mugabe was criticised in closed heads of state meetings of the Southern Africa Development Community.

Conflation and excuses

During the struggle for liberation, the aspiration for self-determination was associated with a better future for the former colonised. But, subsequently, social transformation was mainly limited to political control under which the new elite gained access to resources through the state.

Such transition did not eliminate the colonial-era structural discrepancies. It privileged a few while the majority remained marginalised. A new compensatory ideology emerged, suggesting that the new injustice was purely the result of the colonial past.

Meanwhile, the nostalgic a luta continua (the struggle continues) slogan degenerated into “the looting continues”. State capture has emerged as a new phenomenon.

Members of the new elite like to sing combat songs from the “struggle days” to show solidarity with the masses. They claim that they have not only sacrificed as liberation fighters but now work for a better future for the masses.

Claiming direct succession of the struggle aristocracy by singing liberation songs locates the fight in the past. As the social movement activist Mphutlane wa Bofelo diagnosed:

They want us to believe that the struggle is over, that all we have is remnants of the old order against whom our anger should be vented.

Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth diagnosed “The Pitfalls of National Consciousness” where the new state, instead of conveying a sense of security, trust and stability foists itself on the people, using mistreatment, intimidation and harassment as domesticating tools. The party in power “controls the masses … to remind them constantly that the government expects from them obedience and discipline.”

Corporate family bonds equating the state with personal business include the Angolan “oiligarchy” by strongman Eduardo dos Santos and his clan. Family connections also played a role under Namibia’s three presidents – Sam Nujoma, Hifikepunye Pohamba and Hage Geingob – not to mention the Mugabe enterprise.

No longer alternatives to the establishment

Has populism in southern Africa reached an expiry date among the nationalist leaders? Maybe. What is certain is that the times are gone when leaders of the dominant parties could claim to be the alternative to the established system.

Jacob Zuma. Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko

They are the system, and the system is considered to be rotten. Their appeals to populist reminiscences of a bygone era of the “struggle days” sound increasingly hollow. Being driven in the latest makes of European luxury cars, escorted by motor cavalcades and flying in presidential jets to wine and dine with other leaders in the world are a mismatch with the liberation gospel.

At the funeral ceremony for Fidel Castro in Cuba, Hage Geingob praised the comandante for his conviction that “liberation of the oppressed should never be for economic gain, but only to gain in conscience.” People back home reacted with sarcasm: “What we see in Namibia”, stated an editorial of The Namibian, “is a total bankruptcy of ideology – talking left, walking right.”

In South Africa the former leader of the ANC Youth League, Julius Malema, now claims the populist space once occupied by Zuma. Malema fell out of favour with Zuma after supporting him on his way into office and has come back from the political cold with the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). Malema can be seen as the new populist on the ascendancy, challenging Zuma’s “corrupt establishment”.

The decay now is represented by Zuma and his cohorts. While they campaigned for a better future, their plunder of state controlled assets turned their populist rhetoric into a mockery of the people. But there are reasons to remain sceptical, that the new kids on the block are the true alternative they claim to be. Once in power, they might just turn out as old wine in new bottles, once again betraying those who trusted them to deliver.

The legitimacy and credibility of those in power has been eroded by bad governance, predatory networks and the obsession to claim an exclusive agency representing the people. Their way out is the conspiracy theory: those in opposition to their continued abuse of offices are accused of being agents of Western imperialism tasked to initiate regime change. Zuma even identifies witches as part of a “third force” conspiracy.

Tinyiko Maluleke, a professor at the University of Pretoria posed an interesting question:

Haven’t we had in Jacob Zuma our own Donald Trump in advance?

He continued: “I think Jacob Zuma could teach Donald Trump a thing or two. And if I were Trump, I would seek to learn as much as possible from the rise and especially the imminent fall of Zuma.”

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