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Why voters fall in love with liberation movements


Africa’s oldest liberation movement is in trouble and may be headed in the same direction as similar groups across the continent.

The African National Congress (ANC), founded in South Africa more than a century ago, has lost its majority in parliament for the first time in thirty years, although it is still by far the country’s most popular party.

It appears that large numbers of voters were no longer reflexively willing to support Nelson Mandela’s party because it had led the fight against the racist apartheid system.

This reflects the decline of other parties that fought colonial rule and came to power, which have subsequently fallen prey to corruption, cronyism and a disaffected population hungry for change.

Some of the liberation movements still in power in southern Africa are accused of doing so only by stealing elections.

“It is inevitable that people will want change,” says researcher David Soler Crespo, who has written about the “slow death of liberation movements.”

“It is impossible for the same party to be democratically elected for 100 years.”

However, they have managed to exert a strong grip not only on the power apparatus but also on the psyche of the nation.

As the successful movements went from the bush to office, they touted themselves as the only ones who could lead.

They anchored the movement in the country’s DNA, making it difficult to separate the party from the state.

In Namibia, the phrase ‘Swapo is the nation, and the nation is Swapo’, used during the struggle against South Africa’s apartheid government, remains powerful.

Zambia’s founding father Kenneth Kaunda hosted Nelson Mandela in 1990, just weeks after the ANC leader was released, before losing elections the following year (AFP)

Looking across the region, officials and government appointees, especially in the security forces and state-controlled media, were often former guerrillas, who may have valued loyalty to the party over the nation.

“There is no boundary between state and party. It is more than a party, it is a system,” said Crespo.

And the legacy of liberation is deeply ingrained in the region’s culture, with stories of struggle shared around family tables and in national media, with citizens constantly reminded of their hard-won freedom.

Liberation songs and battle cries are sung in secondary schools, even at sports matches.

If citizens turn away from the liberation party, it is a major psychological shock. But over time it does happen.

“People are no longer influenced by history when they vote,” Namibian social scientist Ndumba Kamwanyah told the BBC, reflecting on declining support for Swapo, who has been in power since 1990.

Many of the parties embraced socialist ideologies, but these have often been pushed aside over time and people have questioned whether citizens are benefiting equally.

One of the first independence movements in southern Africa to feel this disregard for history was Zambia’s United National Independence Party (Unip), which came to power in 1964 when British rule ended.

For most of the 1970s and 1980s, it ruled the country as the only legal party, with founding father Kenneth Kaunda at the helm. But discontent grew and in 1990 there were deadly protests in the capital Lusaka and an attempted coup.

The following year, President Kaunda lost to Frederick Chiluba in the first multi-party elections in more than twenty years. Unip, once all-powerful, is now virtually gone.

The liberation movements in Angola, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe remain in power, but have all suffered declines in support and vote share in general elections.

The history of the liberation struggle in Namibia and elsewhere has a powerful hold on the population (AFP)

In Namibia, 2019 marked a turning point for Swapo as the country lost its two-thirds majority in parliament.

In the presidential election, Hage Geingob also suffered a sobering decline in popularity, as his share of the vote dropped from 87% in 2014 to 56%.

The following year, Swapo suffered historic losses in regional and local elections.

Prof. Kamwanyah, who campaigned for the party more than three decades ago, says he has deep respect for what the liberation government has achieved in the past but is disappointed with the current reality.

“What the party is doing does not reflect the original core values ​​of why people died for this country,” the Namibian academic said.

Namibia is set to hold general elections in November and there is speculation that it could suffer the same fate as the ANC.

“I think Swapo will win, but they will not get a majority,” said Prof. Kamwanyah.

Ndiilokelwa Nthengwe, a 26-year-old Namibian activist, says there has been a generational change.

“The values ​​of our generation do not match those of the government,” she told the BBC.

Ms Nthengwe has been at the forefront of many social movements in the country.

Young people value sexual and gender equality, she says, along with jobs and better health care.

“All the youth want is change, change and more change.”

The popularity of the parties once led by Robert Mugabe (L) in Zimbabwe, Nelson Mandela (C) in South Africa and Sam Nujoma (R) in Namibia have all declined (AFP)

But while Namibia, along with South Africa, are seen as relatively open democracies, ruling parties in Zimbabwe, Angola and Mozambique have been accused of suppressing dissent to maintain their grip on power.

Electoral fraud, suppression of opposition parties and voter intimidation were among their alleged tactics.

Adriano Nuvunga, chairman of the Southern Defenders Observer Mission, has witnessed elections in Mozambique over the past two decades.

“Every election I have observed since 1999 has been fraudulent,” Nuvunga said.

He says he’s also seen voter intimidation and ballot tampering.

In Zimbabwe in 2008 Amnesty International documented unlawful killings, torture and other ill-treatment of opposition supporters between the first and second rounds of the presidential elections. In fact, most elections in Zimbabwe have been marred by allegations of tampering or intimidation of the opposition, although this is always denied by the ruling Zanu-PF party.

After the 2022 elections in Angola, thousands of people took to the streets to protest alleged election fraud.

The longer the liberation movements have remained in power, the more they have been accused of corruption and cronyism and of not governing in the interests of the people.

Chris Hani, the late South African anti-apartheid hero, foresaw this when he said: ‘What I fear is that the liberators will emerge as elitists who drive around in Mercedes Benzes and use the resources of this country to live in palaces and to accumulate wealth. ”

But a former Zimbabwean liberation fighter, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told the BBC that many of the movements had not had enough time to take hold of the world order.

He pointed out that Europe has endured centuries of authoritarian monarchies and that they have had time to learn and adapt.

“Liberation governments are still playing catch-up in a world not designed for them,” he said.

Overthrowing colonial rule and white minority rule has been difficult, but governing has brought other challenges.

Leading a revolutionary movement requires determination and strict loyalty, while governing a country requires greater flexibility, cooperation and the ability to balance the interests of different segments of the population.

Some movements fall short of this. And maybe they don’t have much time left.

But Mr Crespo argues that if these parties reclaim the ideals that brought them into government, listen to the youth and rediscover themselves, they might be able to survive a little longer.


(Getty Images/BBC)

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