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Zimbabwe: betrayal of a people’s revolution

By Henning Melber

RE-CAST as political parties, liberation movements in southern Africa have since taking over power in their respective domains sought to gain predominant positions in the political arena, a

s well as within most, if not all, state and parastatal structures. In these two areas they have largely prevailed while also securing a power of definition in the political arena through the shaping or manipulation of public political discourse to suit their ends.


Why has the Zanu PF government abandoned democratic principles and/or practices? Why has it failed in achieving its once-sacrosanct goal of socio-economic transformation aimed at reducing inherited imbalances in the distribution of wealth? Why is it violating human rights when it once fought against oppression?


In examining such issues, contributors to a just published volume probed beyond the myths and legends which have long surrounded southern Africa’s liberation movements to take on board the fact that while these organisations were waging war on systems of institutionalised injustice, they did not always display a sensitivity to human rights issues and democratic values. Nor did it prevent them from falling prey to authoritarian patterns of rule and undemocratic practices towards real or imagined dissidents within their ranks.


An argument is that the political change which has occurred in those southern African societies shaped by settler colonialism can be characterised as a transition from controlled change to changed control. A ruling new political elite has ascended the commanding heights and employed selective narratives and memories relating to their liberation wars.

They have constructed a new set of traditions to establish an exclusive post-colonial legitimacy under the sole authority of one particular agency of social forces. Mystification of the liberators has played an essential role in this fabrication. They have also developed militant notions of inclusion or exclusion as key factors in shaping their post-colonial national identities.

Early post-independence notions of national reconciliation and slogans like “unity in diversity” have given way to a politically-correct identity form defined by those in power along narrow “we-they” or “with-us-against-us” lines. Simultaneously, the boundaries between party and government have been blurred and replaced by a growing equation of party and government.


Opposition or dissent has come increasingly to be considered as hostile and the dissenter sometimes branded as an “enemy of the people”.


In a University of Amsterdam doctoral thesis of 2001, KP Yap argued on Zimbabwe that power relations had changed, but “perceptions of power had not changed. The layers of understanding regarding power relations, framed by socialisation and memory, continued to operate …the way in which the new actors executed power in relation to opposition had not (changed), as their mental framework remained in the colonial setting.”


Coinciding with this tendency towards autocratic rule and the subordination of the state to the party, a reward system of social and material favours in return for loyalty has emerged.


The term “national interest” has been appropriated and now means solely what the post-colonial ruling elite decides it means. It is used to justify all kinds of authoritarian practices while the term “anti-national” or “unpatriotic” is applied to any group that resists the power of the ruling elite of the day.


Simultaneous to the above, outside of the inner sanctum of the political arena and within civil society critical voices have emerged, including even those of some who played roles as active supporters of the liberation struggle, and others who followed it with great sympathy. A new and sharper debate has emerged, one which deals increasingly with the post-colonial content of liberation, questions the validity of the concept of solidarity based on a shared past, and calls for the end of the cultivation of “heroic narratives”. The much-celebrated attainment of formal independence is no longer unreservedly equated with liberation, neither with the creation of lasting democracy. Now, closer scrutiny is paid to both the inherited and self-developed structural legacies which have imposed limits to the realising of real social and economic alternatives in the post-colonial era.


One of these involves a growing recognition that armed liberation struggles operating along military lines in conditions of clandestinity were not suitable breeding grounds for establishing democratic systems of governance after independence. Thus it should come as no surprise that aspects of the colonial system have reproduced themselves in the struggle for its abolition and subsequently, in the concepts of governance applied in post-colonial conditions.


There is a parallel here to Alexis de Toqueville’s celebrated retrospective on the shortcomings of the French Revolution. It reflected the frustration provoked by the restoration of old power structures under Louis Napoleon after his coup d’état in 1851 and provides relevant insights to our southern African cases. De Toqueville argued that the French revolutionaries in the process of implementing the structures of the new system retained the mentalities, habits, even the ideas, of the old state while seeking to destroy it. And they built on the rubble of the old state to establish the foundation of the new society.


To understand the revolution and its achievement, he concluded, one has to forget about the current society and instead interrogate the buried one.

His conclusion was that the early freedom of the revolution had been replaced by another form of repression. Revolutionaries in the process of securing, establishing and consolidating their power bases, had sacrificed the declared ideals and substantive issues they were fighting for in the name of revolution.


Dr Henning Melber is research director of the Nordic Africa Institute in Uppsala, Sweden.

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