As many African countries celebrate 50 Years of Independence William Gumede looks at why so post-colonial governments fail

At the heart of the governance failures of many African independence and liberation movements is their inability to effectively transform from resistance movements into effective governing parties.

Many African liberation movements, just like the African National Congress, because of their history of opposing colonial governments or white minority regimes come to power with an extraordinary amount of legitimacy. This comes from their leading roles in the independence or liberation struggle and gives them a much stronger political, economic and moral mandate than in other developing countries. An exception perhaps is the countries of East Asia who often also emerge from colonial domination. These movements can mobilize for long period societies behind their programs.

However, this means that they can also get away for a long period with service delivery failure, autocratic behavior and wrongdoing, in the name of advancing the liberation or independence project. Many argue they have the right to rule forever, based on their struggle legitimacy.

Most African countries at independence are basically crisis states. To overcome these huge challenges demands special leadership, sharing the benefits and pains evenly, acting in the broadest national interest, rather than the elite, whether political, economic or class, using scarce resources in ways most beneficial to them.

Immoral behaviour of the party elite
Most dominant African independence and liberation movements did not use the legitimacy bequeathed by the liberation struggle optimally to create equitable economies, quality democracies and ethnically inclusive societies. Amilcar Cabral, one of the great thinkers of African liberation ideology, said the success of liberation movements turned governments will depend on the personal moral behavior, decency and honesty of their leading leaders and members. Cabral argued that decency, honesty and moral behavior, of the party elite, were more important when in government than adherence to ideology, mechanical dedication to the rules and policies of the party. One of the reasons why most African liberation movements have failed in government is because they claimed justification for governing solely on the basis of their liberation legacy, rather than on the basis of accountable, moral and decent behavior, when in power.

Most movements turned governments in power are unable to turn the liberation ideology into a deliverable development plan. Some just run out of ideas or cling to outdated ideological positions. If they are not trying to be more Marxist than the Soviet Union, they are more Moaist than China, or more free-market than the US, or just simply populist: party leaders talk lyrically about serving the people, while in reality stealing from the people. In power, members, supporters and voters are extraordinarily lenient to these movements. These movements have extraordinary power to bestow legitimacy on individuals, institutions and behavior. Such is their hold because of their struggle credentials, they can at the same time, also delegitimize individuals, institutions or behavior they disapprove of. In power, they also have an additional legitimizing tool: the new state and its apparatus. Combined, if used for the widest possible national, public good and democratic interest, this legitimacy should arguable be a powerful tool to transform their societies for the better. Yet, most of these movements have in power wasted this overwhelmingly legitimacy that has among their societies that came from a widely shared liberation struggle.

A top-down structure
During the independence or liberation struggle most independence and liberation movements were run by a very small group of leaders and in some cases even families. In power, these leaders and families become the new ruling aristocracy, replacing the old colonial or white-minority political establishment. Rather than governing in the widest interest, as has been the case in the successful East Asian economies, these movements more often than not spurn a patronage system linked only to the liberation or independence leadership aristocracy.

Because liberation movements have such hegemony, in power, the political culture that is manifestated within these movements, also become replicated within the new state. The difficulties for many African countries is how to reverse the negative impact on the state, if the political cultures of the dominant movement turns undemocratic, autocratic or authoritarian. Given the nature of the struggle, many of these movements are organized in a top-down, secretive and military-like fashion, with power in the hands of a small leadership group. When the leadership decides, the members are expected to obey, according to the principle of democratic centralism.

In their attempts to transform their societies, leaders of these movements fuse their parties with the new state, to form a kind of ‘party-state’, with the movement and the party became one and the same.  There is no firewall between the party itself, and the executive, legislatures, and public institutions. In fact, independent democratic institutions are seen as an extension of the party, and not only are the heads of such institutions ‘deployed’ there by the party leadership, they are expected to defer to the party leadership. The problem is, if the party is rotten to the core, the state and society will also be so.

Us and them
Most independence and liberation movements see themselves as the embodiment of the ‘people’, which speak for the whole nation, with the leader the tribune of the ‘people’. The forces in the liberation struggle were divided as those on the side of the liberation movement, and those aligned with the colonial or minority government or their allies. In power, many independence and liberation movements still divide the world between those on their side, and those belonging to the old order. During the anti-colonial struggle some indigenous movements allied with the colonial governments or with white minority regimes. In fact, in many cases opposition parties that were allowed in the post-independence era were either former white colonial ruling parties or if black, many supported the former colonial government or in some cases even opposed the end of colonialism. This means that many of them at independence lacked the struggle legitimacy of the dominant independent or liberation movement.

More often than not, colonial governments handed over power in a compromise settlement, with some power still in the hands of groups associated with the colonial government. It is easy for independence and liberation movements to blame such groups, or political movements associated with colonialism and white-minority rule (now often opposition parties in the post-colonial era), and the former colonial government for when things go wrong. Opposition or criticism, whether from within or from outside the independence or liberation movement is often wrongly seen as ‘opposing’ the ‘people’. The only way for the ANC to prevent the moral decay of other African independence or liberation movements, is for it to transform itself into a wholly internally democratic organization. Its members, supporters and activists must play more active roles in keeping the ANC democratic and holding its leadership accountable.

The ANC’s watchdogs
In South Africa we are fortunate that a range of other progressive groups also have ‘struggle’ legitimacy. Some of these movements are outside the ANC family: the Pan Africanist Congress and Black Consciousness Movements. These have of course now lost most of their struggle legitimacy because they’ve not only become irrelevant in terms of leadership and policies, but have also self-destruct, in the face of a dominant ANC. But importantly, ANC allies such as the South African Communist Party (SACP) have struggle legitimacy in their own right. The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and other unions also have this legitimacy because both the progressive trade union movement and the SACP opposed apartheid rule on their own, even when they were at times in alliance with the ANC. Because of the United Democratic Front civic organisations, some struggle NGOs and progressive church movements, have their struggle legitimacy, independent from the ANC. One way to stop the ANC from backsliding into undemocratic behavior is for all these movements to all also be a watchdog, as well as an ally, of the ANC. Pro-democracy activists of the ANC, together with progressive civil society groups, unions and SACP members could for example form a pro-democracy lobby within the ANC that can push for the total internal democratization of the party at all levels, branches, provinces to the national executive committee, whether it is participation in decision and policy-making or leadership election, especially the election of the president.

But African and South African societies must also be less tolerance of non-delivery, mismanagement and autocratic behavior by leaders. Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi summed it up when he said: “the election of a progressive leadership (does not) mean the end of the struggle and that now we must step back and hand over everything to these progressive, trusted leaders as though they are messiahs and will deliver everything on a silver platter while we are in our beds sleeping.”

In the post-independence and liberation period not many individuals, institutions and groups with struggle credentials are critical enough when their governments start to misrule. In fact many are prepared to overlook the first signs of misrule by arguing either that the new government needs time, or needed to be protected because it is besieged by pro-colonial enemies within and without. Others again argue it is only a few leaders that are responsible and the movements will miraculously return to the straight and narrow once these few rotten apples leaders are rid of.  However, in most cases, by the time critics with struggle credentials finally wakes up, the rot in these parties are so deep it cannot be reversed anymore.

If a critical mass of individuals, institutions and communities from within the ANC family, who also have struggle credentials continually dissent when the ANC goes wrong, the ANC leadership are likely to be forced to become more accountable and responsive to criticisms, and dismissal of such criticism as being opposed to the liberation project will lack credibility. Yet, unless they do so now with urgency, by the time they do so, the ANC would have ossified to such dramatic levels it cannot be made democratic anymore. Botswana and Cape Verde can be seen as the most successful post-independence societies. In Mauritius the independence movement, represented by the Labour Party split in half a decade after independence, with the Left breaking away. The split went right through the middle, with the Labour Party itself, trade unions and civil society groups, aligned to the movement also splitting. Both the old and the breakaway movement had ‘struggle’ credentials. This meant that the electorate could now choose between two ‘legitimate’ progressive movements. The problem with the Congress of the People, which broke away from the ANC, is that, although its members have struggle legitimacy, it has been unable to shake the perception that it is the representatives of the leadership elite of the ANC that backslid. Now of course, it is engulfed in similar leadership struggles that imploded the PAC and Black Consciousness movements.

The mistake that the opposition Democratic Alliance made in the past is that it had not positioned itself also as a liberation movement, albeit from a ‘liberal’ strand. Its policy and leadership positioning in the past reinforced the perception among the black majority that it defended the interests of a white minority or the apartheid order. Finally, if Africa does not want to repeat the wasted 50 years of independence, its citizens must move urgently to democratize their independence and liberation movements, including jettisoning old style leaders in power only because of their struggle credentials, rather than their record in power.  If these movements and their leaders are too rotten, African civil society, its trade unions, civil movements and churches, must form new parties out of the ashes of independence and liberation movements.

Gumede is author of the forthcoming 50 Wasted Years: Why most African independence and liberation movements fail in government and what to do about it

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