Formal decolonisation in Africa was by and large completed with the dramatic changes in the southern region during the last quarter of the 20th century. In the mid-1970s the MPLA in Angola and FRELIMO in Mozambique seized state power after the coup in Portugal. In 1980, ZANU/PF took control over Zimbabwe after the first general elections. In 1990, SWAPO gained political power in Namibia as the result of internationally supervised elections. Finally, during 1994, a democratic political system in South Africa under an ANC-led government was established as the last step towards controlled change in the Southern African region.
Similar though different
Each of these decolonisation processes can claim a degree of uniqueness, based on historically genuine features of the particular society and its social forces. One should therefore abstain from premature generalisations. Angola’s continuous post-colonial internal war makes its case most different. The emphasis on free elections and an agreed constitutional framework for a controlled transition in Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa suggest most similarities in terms of shaping the post-colonial environment. Notwithstanding such distinctions, all the cases are examples of liberation movements turning into parties to occupy political power in a formally independent, sovereign post-colonial state. They have managed to consolidate their dominant position and have maintained control over the state apparatus by various means. They exercise the power of definition within the political environment and discourse of their societies and operate with rather strict concepts of inclusion/exclusion in terms of the nation building process. In all cases the legitimacy is based on being the—more or less democratically elected—represen-tative of the majority of the people. At the same time, however, the democratic notion is also a contested territory. Post-colonial policies in these countries display at times a lack of profound commitment to democratic principles and/or practices. Instead, the “national interest” serves as an instrumental concept, which is subject to highly biased and selective interpretations by those in control
A prominent scholar has recently questioned the changes in the course of post-colonial social transformation in the Southern African societies as “Liberation without Democracy”. This illustrates the conclusion that the track records of the liberation movements with regard to their internal practices during the wars of liberation as well as their lack of democratic virtues and respect towards the protection of human rights once in power are far from positive examples. Victims were as liberators often also perpetrators. While these movements—supported by an international solidarity arguing along moral and ethical lines—were fighting against systems of institutionalised violation of basic human rights, they were at the same time not always sensitive to human rights issues within their own ranks. Fighting against unjust systems of oppression, rooted in the totalitarian colonial rule of a minority, did not protect them from falling prey to undemocratic practices applied by themselves against dissenting internal and external forces. The desire for self-determination and national independence did not prevent activists for liberation from abusing the power obtained. Often, their popular support in the struggle was based more on coercion and internal contradictions among the colonised than on genuine resistance against the colonial state. Along similar lines, loyalty to the political rulers in independent states is often based on a culture of fear, preventing the articulation of dissenting views.
Scopes and limits of emancipation
In the light of such evidence, the relationship between liberation from foreign rule and the consolidation of democracy ought to be empirically investigated and analytically reflected in more detail. This should offer more insights into the scope and limitations of social emancipation in Southern Africa under the given constraints of liberation movements seizing power by ways that include the application of underground practices, conspiracy activities and military means. Such forms of resistance were possibly a necessity to achieve liberation from colonialism. But they implied a tribute, since the anti-colonial war was hardly a suitable environment in which to instil and cultivate the internalisation and implementation of democratic values and norms. The organisation of a serious liberation struggle had much in common with the authoritarianism and hierarchical organisation reflecting the totalitarian structures inherent to the colonial system opposed. To this extent, features of the colonial character are reproduced in the fight for their abolishment and the emerging concepts of power applied in the post-colonial reconstruction phase. The specific constellation of the liberation struggle in Southern Africa might have resulted in a particular obstacle on the way towards genuinely democratic structures, institutions and foremost individuals. To explore and investigate the limits and possibilities under the given constraints by means of case studies in a comparative perspective is the main goal of the project.
The project was initiated and is co-ordinated by the research director of the Institute. He is responsible for the Namibian case study and is currently dealing with subject related issues within comparative research projects organised by the United Nations University in Tokyo and the Centre for Conflict Resolution at the University of Cape Town. Another project component is financed by the Africa Department of Sida through NAI and executed by Raymond Suttner. Previously South Africa’s ambassador to Sweden, he is now Visiting Research Fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies in Johannesburg with a project on “Liberation, Democratisation and Transformation in South Africa”. Further contacts and links have been established with institutions and scholars in Southern Africa and the Nordic countries. A first Consultative Workshop was organised jointly with the Centre for Conflict Resolution, University of Cape Town in December 2001. A major conference is prepared for July 2002 in Windhoek, Namibia with the support of local institutions.