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Africa at 50, Zimbabwe at 30 & SA at 16

By Dr. Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni

Dr Sabelo-Ndlovu

The year 2010 is very special for Africa. This year, seventeen ‘early decolonisers,’ that is, those African states that gained political independence in the 1960s, will be celebrating fifty years of existence as self-governing nation-states. Some have already done so. Zimbabwe as a unique ‘mid-decoloniser’ that gained independence in 1980 will be celebrating thirty years of existence as a self-governing nation-state.

South Africa as the ‘last decoloniser’ in Sub-Saharan Africa that freed itself from the yoke of apartheid colonialism in 1994 will be celebrating sixteen years of ‘democracy.’ South Africa gained ‘political independence’ in 1910 albeit a problematic one that excluded black Africans. 

As Africans and the world brace themselves for these celebrations of that foundational event in African history we call decolonisation, it is important to take stock of the triumphs, trials, tribulations and crises of the African national project. The fundamental question that continues to haunt the African national project is whether decolonisation delivered freedom to Africans.

Why is it that South Africans who fought the longest struggle for freedom (1912-1994) gained ‘democracy and human rights’ instead of ‘freedom’? Why it is that thirty years after gaining political independence, Zimbabweans are still fighting for a ‘New Zimbabwe, A New Beginning’? What happened to the ‘New Zimbabwe’ and ‘New Beginning’ that unfolded on the 18th of April 1980?  Why is Julius Malema still insisting in singing that revolutionary song ‘shoot the Boer’ sixteen years after apartheid in South Africa?

What has happened to the rainbow nation? Why have some ‘early decolonisers’ like Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Rwanda and others abandoned the earlier slogan of ‘diverse people unite’ and degenerated into narrow nationalism that has bred nativism, xenophobia and even genocide? These are some of the important questions that need deep reflection as Africa celebrates fifty years of independence. 

Perhaps the best response to these questions is via a brief look at the key tasks of the African national project. What did it stand for? What were its limits? By the African national project, I mean that broad nationalist strategy that constituted the soul and engine of the decolonisation project. At its centre were five challenges: 

  • How to forge national consciousness out of a multiplicity of racial, ethnic and religious groups enclosed within the colonial state boundaries?
  • How to fashion a suitable model of governance relevant to societies and peoples emerging from colonialism and apartheid?
  • What models of economic development were relevant for promotion of rapid economic growth to extricate postcolonial societies from underdevelopment?
  • What role was the independent African postcolonial state to play in the economy and society?
  • How might the new African political leaders promote popular democracy that was denied by colonialism and apartheid? 

How the founding fathers of the postcolonial states responded to these challenges revealed lack of common African strategy from the beginning. What emerged were a bizarre mixture of leaders with divergent political strategies and ideologies. Africa was soon dominated by pan-Africanists, conservatives, radicals, socialists, capitalists, ‘middle-roaders,’ ‘confusionists,’ militarists, traditionalists, nativists and other types of leaders.

Within this bizarre mixture one can think of visionaries like Dr Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, confusionists like Idi Dada Amin in Uganda and outright looters like Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire to mention a few.  These typologies of leadership partly reflected the diversity of challenges and partly open ideological confusion. The celebrated pan-Africanist camp quickly fragmented into the Monrovia and Casablanca camps.

One camp favoured an immediate realisation of pan-African-continental unity with one government, one currency, one central bank, and one military command. The champion of this route of African freedom Dr Kwame Nkrumah. The other camp favoured a slow and gradualist realisation of continental unity.

This bifurcation in African leadership has not yet escaped us as revealed in the debates that took place in Accra in 2007 where the Libyan leader Colonel Murmur Gaddafi favoured immediate declaration of the United States of Africa and other leaders still stuck to the gradualist approach predicated on strengthening regional economic blocks like ECOWAS, COMESA, SADC, IGAD and others.

It was due to these divergences that at its formation in 1963 the Organisation of the African Unity (OAU) set itself the minimalist task of realisation of complete decolonisation of Africa as the first step towards realisation of the dream of a United States of Africa. 

While the African national project did not advance in a linear format from 1960 to the present, it is still possible to map out its key moments. The first moment is what I call the ‘golden age’ of possibilities running from 1960 to 1973.

Besides this moment witnessing a majority of African states gaining independence, it also saw the emergence of some of the confident and visionary leadership such that of Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba, Jomo Kenyatta, Colonel Abdul Nasser, Kenneth Kaunda, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Julius Nyerere, Ben Bella, Sekou Toure, and Leopold Sedar Senghor and a few others.

As noted by Paul Nugent the dominant slogan was ‘diverse people unite’ and at every door of these founding fathers were invisible signs: ‘Silence, Nation-Building In Progress’ and ‘Silence, Economic Development In Progress.’ But I must hasten to say, the founding fathers’ belief in that citizens had to be ‘silent’ for the nation to survive and for economic development to take place, culminated in the mushrooming of one-party state dictatorships that deprive people of freedom of expression and other rights.

This was a fundamental flaw based on the erroneous view that each sovereign state was to consist of a people who shared common language and common culture. This notion stood roughshod against the actual realities of multi-culturalism, multi-lingualism, multiple-ethnicities, multiple-races and multi-religious differences in most African states.

From the beginning, the African national project became saddled by inter-and intra-group inequalities informed by ethnicity, race, gender, class and religion. The celebrated policies of Africanisation, indigenisation and affirmative action did not succeed in resolving these problems. 

No wonder then that by the early 1970s, the African national project fell into trouble. Economic crisis quickly crept in taking the form of the oil shocks of 1973. At the political level, the Congo crisis had robbed Africa of Patrice Lumumba and Moise Tshombe was spearheading Katanga secession; a military coup of 1966 had toppled Kwame Nkrumah, and Nigeria had suffered the Biafra crisis of 1967.

The newly independent states of Angola and Mozambique plunged headlong into the Cold War proxy wars and had to fight long civil wars until the 1990s. Some of the once celebrated founding fathers like Kamuzu Banda of Malawi had squandered all the political legitimacy they previously enjoyed and had degenerated into civilian autocracies. The African national project had indeed entered the ‘age of crisis’ with such confusionists as Idi Amin coming to power via military coup and West and East Africa suffering a series of military coups. 

By mid-1970s, the African national project was in deep crisis at the political and economic fronts. These forced African leaders to turn out-ward for solutions to economic crisis. The Berg Report produced by the Bretton Wood institutions (IMF and World Bank) marked African acceptance of economic lectures and prescriptions from the North. It also marked the loss of policy-making space as an important aspect of African sovereignty. One by one, African leaders accepted to implement Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs).

Key conditionalities of SAPs included withdrawal of subsidies on basic commodities that had cushioned workers and peasants, trade liberalisation, retrenchment of workers and increasing accountability of African leaders to donors rather than to their citizens. Confrontation between citizens and the state were therefore inevitable. 

By 1980, some African leaders had realised that SAPs were not a solution to African problems. This realisation culminated in the adoption of the Lagos Plan of Action for Economic Development in Africa (1980-2000) as part of African efforts to regain policy-making space. But this effort did not materialise as the plan lacked financial backing and as other African leaders continued to succumb to SAPs. 

Zimbabwe came being during this time of fading socialist world and emerging neo-liberal world. In ideological terms, Zimbabwe became torn apart between the imperatives of the fading socialist world and the emerging neo-liberal world. But having gained independence as a ‘middle decoloniser’ twenty years after the ‘early decolonisers’ a lot of people expected Zimbabwe to draw useful lessons from  the experiences of other African states and avoid some of the pitfalls. The historical record indicates that Zimbabwe learnt nothing. Its nation-state project fell into the path travelled by early decolonisers and the examples include: 

  • Just like ‘early decolonisers’ the economic successes of Zimbabwe did not last beyond a decade (1980-1990).
  • Barely two years into independence, the government of national unity had succumbed to ethnicity and Zimbabwe found itself deploying military forces into Matabeleland and the Midlands regions (1982-1987)
  • From the birth of Zimbabwe, ZANU-PF became obsessed with establishment of a one-party state following the footsteps of early decolonisers like Malawi, Tanzania, Zambia and many others
  • The post-Unity Accord period witnessed Zimbabwe doing away with the titular-Westminster type of government in favour of executive presidency with President Robert Mugabe assuming both ceremonial and executive powers as head of state and government
  • By 1990, Zimbabwe had succumbed to the SAPs as it adopted Economic Adjustment Programme (ESAP) amidst protests from students, workers and academics who alerted the government of the failure of SAPs in other parts of Africa
  • The 1990s witnessed ZANU-PF government trying to suppress opposition and civil society and closing democratic spaces including press of freedom
  • By 2000, Zimbabwe fell into unprecedented crisis and responded through revival of nationalism, militarisation of state institutions, violence, executive lawlessness and secluding itself from the international community. 

In short, the Zimbabwean national project just like that of most ‘early decolonisers’ did not culminate in greater freedom for Zimbabweans but into national tragedy predicted by Frantz Fanon. The tragedy took two related forms of what Fanon termed ‘repetition without difference’ and the mutation of decolonisation from ultra-nationalism to chauvinism, to racism and to xenophobia.

Is South Africa, as a ‘late decoloniser’ destined to travel this root? It is not yet clear, but the recent speeches by the ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema indicates that there is no South African exceptionalism. As a post-settler and post-apartheid state, South Africa suffers from common Africa problems that can be summarised as: 

  • Unresolved modes of economic accumulation that bred racialised economic inequalities
  • Incomplete decolonisation and de-racialisation that makes the ANC fail to deliver on some of its promises
  • Unresolved definition of the ‘national subject’ beyond the notion of ‘South Africa Belongs to All Who Live In It.’
  • Unresolved issues of belonging and citizenship as the policy of reconciliation together with the TRC seem to be failing to facilitate a stable re-birth of former settlers and former natives into a single and common citizenship.
  • Contested meaning of freedom and being free—Does it mean total embrace of liberal notions of democracy and human rights that seem to say less about economic and redistributive justice? 

It is these issues that continue to haunt discourses on the African national project at this moment when Africa is bracing itself to celebrate fifty years independence. African societies are still in search of a proper language and proper strategy to articulate and resolve the glaring pathologies of inequalities some of which have their roots in settler colonialism and others in postcolonial primitive accumulation and corrupt practices. A number of challenges emerge that need careful thought: 

  • What methodology or methodologies can be used to resolve settler-native questions particularly in those countries like Zimbabwe and South Africa that have recently emerged from settler colonialism and apartheid?
  • How can African leaders resolve the intractable questions of state, nation and citizenship, without falling into reverse racism, tribalism, regionalism, and xenophobia?
  • How can the resolution of the ‘national question’ together with issues of wealth and property ownership be done without being hijacked by the black national bourgeois thirsty for fast embourgeoisement?
  • How can Africans ‘cross over’ the event of colonialism and race as a foundation of postcolonial politics and human relations?
  • How can the politics of apportioning blame and victimhood be transformed into agency for new African thought and initiatives on freedom?
  • How can Africans be fully transformed from being colonial subjects into a new form of being ripe for taking Africa forward?
  • Is violence the only royal paths to African re-birth?
  • What language(s) can be mobilised to capture and articulate African yearnings for freedom?
  • What does freedom mean in Africa? 

Two strategies have been tried. The first is what I will call the ‘Mandela therapy’ predicated on Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and the notions of a ‘rainbow nation’ that accommodates diversity. The second strategy I will call ‘Mugabeism’ founded on ‘conquest of conquest’ via a Third Chimurenga.

The ‘Mandela therapy’ is showing signs of failure in South Africa as it has no clear room for the resolution of economic and social justice issues beyond the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) that has been hijacked by political elites for self-enrichment. The current debates on nationalisation of mines are an attempt to speak directly to issues of economic inequalities beyond the policy of reconciliation.

The other issue of lifestyle audits is an offshoot of frustration with the results of BEE that seem to produced ‘black diamonds’ while peasants and workers continue to suffer in South Africa. Across the Limpopo into Zimbabwe, ‘Mugabeism’ directly confronted the problem of inequalities in land ownership through fast-track land reform process and is currently toying with indigenisation law.

The results are also not encouraging. Zimbabwe found itself besieged by various humanitarian, economic, political and social crises, partly due to international isolation, partly due to failure of internal governance and partly because the land reform was hijacked by black national bourgeois and political elites to enrich themselves ahead of peasants and workers. Violence has become the bane of politics in Zimbabwe. 

What then can be done? The starting point is to take cognisance that in Africa we are dealing with the youngest nation-states in the world, most of which were born after 1960. These nations require time to sort out issues of nation-building, state-consolidation and a host of other challenges outlined above.

This argument is in no way insinuating that Africans must therefore tolerate dictatorships and corruption as well as entertaining ideas of African exceptionalism that is preferred by some African tyrants to justify non-accountable forms of leadership. These nation-states need to be bold in confronting their history internally without necessarily allowing all things to fall apart including taking cognisance of the sensitive and delicate linkages been what is aspired for and the realities on the ground.

This means that African leaders must be in constant dialogue with citizens, thinking with them rather than for them, listening rather speaking for the citizens without consultation. Public policies must be predicated on national consensus however difficult this might be. In other words, I call for the renewal of the African national project, beginning with re-establishment of the social contract between the governors and the governed. African leaders must abandon ‘rulership’ that produces ‘timid subjects’ and adopt ‘governance’ that produces ‘active citizens.’

There is need for African leaders to learn from both African and European history and select those lessons that pertain to their realities. One clear reality is that postponement of national issues like what Zimbabwe did with the land question in 1980 creates more problems in future.

African citizens must break the cycle of a feared leader, feared police force and feared army that has constrained African agency and plunged the African project into crisis. Only through robust engagement between leaders and citizens can the African project be renewed and the space is still there for Africa to claim the 21st Century as the African Century. 

Dr. Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni is a Zimbabwean academic writing from Johannesburg in South Africa: [email protected]

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