Our ‘Big Brother’ (or ‘Big Sister’, maybe, if we want to go with the times) south of the Orange/Gariep River continues to be a rich source of political fascination across the Afrikan continent as well as around the world, which is still figuring out how to view the continent’s white-black politics in a post-liberation era. The land of Nelson Mandela, which shaped a great deal of black political thought − to paraphrase President Barack Obama when he spoke at the icon’s funeral service on 5 December 2013 − will continue to influence us here in the Land of the Brave, where everybody, it seems, is running scared of our political leaders.
South Africa does not only feed us and provide for virtually all our economic needs; it is also inextricably connected to our history in both positive and negative ways. Throughout our history as a country we have been both connected to, and directly affected by, events that have taken place in our neighbouring country. If we can claim to have a national identity today, it is one more inextricably connected to South Africa than it is to Angola − despite the latter being either our birthplace or the passage through which many of us came, at one point or another, to be here today. Our ancestors could have trekked further southward, but the inhospitable desert, the Kavango and Kunene rivers, the savannahs and the almost barren rocky sands of the south Gariep presented more appeal for us to make this land our permanent home.
Our ‘colonisedness’ − the crucial exploitation of our bodies as cheap labour − came about through the interests of people migrating up from the south. Our earliest formal education system also arrived from the south. The historic anger that precipitated tribal and later national resistance was generated by our experience with and in the south. Our very revolutionary struggle was largely influenced and impacted by the heroic struggles of the black inhabitants of the Union of South Africa, who resisted the response of their white masters to the ‘Native Question’, a response strengthened by the support of international partners and financiers in the diamond, gold and farming industries. To be more precise, the black Namibian’s struggles, firstly against the exploitative black migrant contract labour system, secondly against the white supremacist practices that treated Afrikans as non-persons, and thirdly for freedom and national independence, were all influenced by the story of the African National Congress (ANC) of South Africa. The ANC is not only the oldest liberation movement on the Afrikan continent, but it is also the foundation of the most well-known black struggle narrative to emerge from the continent (and arguably the world). Therefore, the South African story, achieving its ultimate victory through the moral leadership of Nelson Mandela, has driven many struggles for self-determination on the continent and beyond.
Now South Africa is going through convulsive changes and is experiencing challenges from both within the body politic as well as externally. The ANC of today − depending on who is talking and in what context − is characterised as being unfit to govern, in disarray, falling apart, imploding, a sell-out, and, in the words of former President Kgalema Motlanthe, it has ‘lost the plot’. Much as our nation can claim to be unique and therefore different from our southern neighbour, there are some lessons we can, and indeed must, learn from the saga that has been playing itself out in that country over the last sixteen years − and specifically since the introduction of Black Economic Empowerment and as a result of the distorted ways that Affirmative Action policies have come to be implemented.
What went wrong in that great country in terms of its moral leadership? Here are some of the lessons we are learning:
Firstly, like most liberation movements on the continent, the ANC did not succeed in transforming itself from a liberation movement into a successful governing political party. The imperatives of the struggle are not the same as those required by governance. This situation was then compounded by the new world order, wherein the ANC assumed the role of governing the most capitalist economy in Afrika, despite the fact that the great majority of its cadres were steeped in the Marxist-Leninist ideology that they sloganeered during the struggle. The former ‘terrorists’ thus exchanged their communist quasi-revolution garb for grey suits and formal dresses as the new chairpersons and members of boards of directors of an intensely capitalist private sector.
Motlanthe’s quip would seem to affirm Frantz Fanon’s dictum that the Afrikan political elites that take over after liberation are ill-prepared to govern. Once in power, the ANC leadership never fully adapted to its new role and thus had a tendency to be seduced by the trappings of political power. Functionaries became their own praise-singers, instead of reinventing themselves as representatives of the people under totally new circumstances. Motlanthe was onto something when he quoted President Lincoln, who once warned: “Nearly all men can stand adversity. But if you want to know the true character of a man, give him power.” The new South African political elite became steeped in the rhetoric of self-congratulation and used their struggle credentials (genuine or specious) to access power and wealth. Those who were connected to Luthuli House were sought-after ‘top economic star players’ that all white business wanted on their boards of directors. In the process, representation became accessible only to the wealthiest, those men and women who began to appear on the annual lists of the ‘World’s Richest’ people and who could count on an invitation to all the most important social events in the South African calendar. Before the country had woken up to what was happening, the big guns of the ANC leadership had already established themselves as newly-minted captains of industry, leaving the masses behind. It was then but a short and bloody path to the Marikana massacre of October 2012!
Thirdly, the ethos of free debate that used to characterise the liberation struggle, whereby issues were thrashed out and consensus was reached in the end, was replaced with the strong arm of executive power. The egalitarianism that was there throughout the struggle years gave way to the opportunistic loyalty wielded by those aspiring to executive positions. More and more people with political ambitions, even those who were not yet born when the struggle was waged, became barking and biting dogs in the power struggles. In the end the one who barked the loudest or bit the deepest became a ‘better’ ANC leader than those who continued to be driven by the principles of the struggles. This explains the phenomenon of the rise of Julius Malema, who is a ‘factory fault’ of the ANC and was later used as Jacob Zuma’s attack dog to bring down Thabo Mbeki. Hence also the endless character assassinations and even killings within the ANC as people jockey for positions that will allow them access to excessive wealth. In the lead-up to this week’s local government elections in South Africa, more than 20 local government candidates were assassinated within the space of three months, mostly in the province KwaZulu-Natal. Between 1994 and 2015, more than 50 local government leaders from within the ANC ranks were murdered as a result of the politics of patronage.
The nation has also forgotten that corruption does not stop at the ruling party leadership, but cascades down through the rank and file membership; in a climate where ANC membership is a ticket to a good job and conspicuous wealth, graft becomes the default setting. Ordinary people then become blasé and continue with their lives as if nothing was amiss.
The ANC remains unable to adapt to changing times and remains steadfast in its support of old ideas that do not reflect the realities of the world today. It is this mind-set that made President Zuma claim that the ANC will rule until Jesus comes, hubris causing him to forget that Jesus warned that He will come back unannounced (and probably sooner rather than later, given the signs of conflict and rumours of war that we hear all the time, perhaps signalling the end of times!).
Besides which, the ANC leadership has become disdainful of intellectuals and those who speak the truth in preference to ‘yes men’ and sycophants who tell them only what they want to hear. Consequently, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, who has always stood with the people, found himself vilified for not being ‘a true ANC citizen’.
What is more, the ANC and its struggle narratives have established an enormous ‘brand’ that it will be difficult to usurp, regardless of the mistakes the party has made since 1994. Many voters have become disenchanted with the governance of South Africa by the ANC but continue to find it difficult to think in terms of an alternative. This is why commentators have said that the legacy of the liberation struggle is so powerful that even a cow dressed in the jersey of the ruling party would win an election, a situation exacerbated by the unfortunate fact that Afrikans like to be ruled until their ruler dies, and do not like regime change. In reality this will mean that a change to the South African status quo will be a long time coming, even though the voters know that governance has collapsed under the weight of corruption, maladministration, malfeasance and misfeasance, all the way to the top. The voters know governance by the predatory black political elites who are in the habit of asking everybody to tighten their belts whist they loosen theirs.
What can we say we have learned, or are learning, as Namibians?
Many astute scholars, such as Henning Melber writing in The Namibian, warn of the curse of liberation movements that never learn to govern. The argument (in the main) is that former ‘liberators’ become the predatory elites that internalise the falsehood that citizens owe their freedoms to them personally. The leadership that was a blessing has turned into a new curse and continues to weigh heavily on the necks of ordinary people. Unlike more developed and mature democracies, where political leaders are responsive to the demands of the electorate, the Afrikan political leaders of today conflate their political responsibilities with their financial aspirations, believing that that it is they themselves, their partners, children and extended families who hold the remit to conduct the business of their nations. The most informed citizens of South Africa, namely, the residents of the major metropoles, have put the Mother of Liberation Struggles, the ANC on notice. If the ANC loses Cape Town, Pretoria, parts of Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth, East London and other major metropoles, the game would have changed and the ramifications of this loss would mean something beyond South Africa. The new game by our political leaders across the continent is to enrich themselves, their wives, children and extended families in and through bogus partnerships with Chinese businessmen whose names they cannot pronounce. Will Namibia escape this curse?