Africa: How we killed our dreams of freedom

Across the continent, liberation movements that fought against colonial rule proved unable to sustai

Zimbabwe's Zanu-PF has become the symbol of the descent of African liberation movements into brutal dictatorship.

The great Tunisian writer Albert Memmi noted this phenomenon back in 1957. In The Coloniser and the Colonised, he wrote of the tendency of liberation movements, once in power, to mimic the brutality and callousness of former rulers. Backsliding liberation movements in Algeria, Angola, Ghana, Kenya, Namibia and other countries have left in their wake the lost hopes and shattered dreams of millions.

In the inner sanctum of South Africa's ruling African National Congress they have coined a word for it: "Zanufication". As Zimbabweans flee across the border to avoid police brutality or the hardships of an economy in free fall (inflation at more than 1,700 per cent and shortages of basic foodstuffs), they whisper it in hushed tones, a warning.

A senior national executive member of the ANC, Blade Nzim ande, warned recently: "We must study closely what is happening in Zimbabwe, because if we don't, we may find features in our situation pointing to a similar development."

Unions, sections within civil society and church groups daily inveigh against the South African government's head-in-the-sand policy towards Zimbabwe and President Thabo Mbeki's "quiet" diplomacy. The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) has complained to the South African Broadcasting Corporation, the public broadcaster, over its failure to cover the Zimbabwean meltdown. Although the ANC in South Africa and Zanu-PF are light years apart, the spectre of "Zanufication" haunts South Africa, raising the question: "Is there something inherent in the political culture of liberation movements that makes it difficult for them to sustain democratic platforms?"

The irony is that it is the leaders of former heroic liberation movements who have become stumbling blocks to building a political culture on the African continent based on good governance. The former South African president Nelson Mandela and President Thabo Mbeki enthusiastically proclaimed in 1994 that the end of official apartheid was the dawn of a new era. Yet many liberation movement leaders - Mugabe is a good example - still blame colonialism for the mismanagement and corruption on their watch.

Obviously, the legacy of slavery and colonialism, and now unequal globalisation, are barriers to development. However, to blame the west for Zimbabwe's recent problems is not reasonable. Yet the diplomacy of South Africa, from which most African countries take their cue, is based on this assumption. Initially ANC leaders also bought in to this, but thankfully, on Zimbabwe, Mbeki is increasingly isolated. True to his contrarian and stubborn nature, he still argues that because Zimbabwe was given a raw deal by the British, Mugabe's regime should not be criticised publicly. In terms of land, for example, black Zimbabweans did indeed receive a raw deal, yet that is not the whole story. The Zim babwean government was idle for at least a decade; when it finally implemented a land reform programme, this consisted of giving fertile land to cronies who subsequently left the land fallow.

The story is similar elsewhere on the continent. As African liberation movements came to power, their supporters were keen to overlook shortcomings. The feeling was that a new, popularly elected democratic government needed to be given an extended chance. Liberation movements were seen as the embodiment of the nation as a whole.

In South Africa, criticism of the ANC by supporters has always been muted. "You cannot criticise yourself," an ANC veteran once admonished me. There has also been a fear that criticising the government gives ammunition to powerful opponents. When a top ANC leader, Chris Nissen, broke rank and publicly criticised a party official's errant behaviour, he was warned: "Do not wash the family's dirty linen in public."

As a journalist - active in the liberation struggle - I, too, gave in to this principle in the heady days after South Africa's first non-racial democratic elections in 1994: "Let's not criticise too much; let's give the new government a fighting chance." But that was a grave mistake. All governments must be kept on their toes. The problem for most liberation movements is how to establish a democratic culture.

During a liberation struggle, decision-making is necessarily left in the hands of a few. Dissent and criticisms are not allowed lest they expose divisions within the movement, which could be exploited by the colonial enemy. But if non-criticism continues during the first crucial years of power, it becomes entrenched, part of a political culture. In the early liberation years, governments often operate as if under siege. Critics are marginalised, making later criticism almost impossible.

Take, for example, the South African government's initial inaction on the Aids pandemic. Mbeki embarked on a fatal policy of denial. Many ANC supporters knew he was wrong but kept quiet, in case they were seen as supporting western governments or big pharmaceutical companies bent on perpetuating Africa's underdevelopment. Many activists preferred to reserve their misgivings about government policy, rather than be placed in the camp of the "neo-colonialists".

In Zimbabwe, Mugabe brutally quashed rebellions in the 1980s, killing thousands in the Matabeleland region. No regional liberation movement said anything about it. The silence of Zanu-PF critics laid the foundations for his reign of terror.

In many African countries - with South Africa the exception - the state is virtually the only employer after liberation. Patronage can be used to reward or sideline critics.

The cold war, during which many African governments started their life, reinforced the siege mentality of "them against us" among African liberation movements. Mugabe continues to blame imperialism. So, when the UK or Australia attacks Zimbabwe, African neighbours will fall silent: they don't want to be seen supporting their former masters.

Similarly, Mbeki's silence on Zimbabwe is partly because he does not want to be associated with the "colonial" powers. South Africa's first strong political statement on Zimbabwe during the current crisis, by the deputy foreign affairs minister Aziz Pahad, one of Mbeki's closest personal friends, was to attack the South African media for giving too much attention to the western perspective on Zimbabwe. This was after Tony Blair had called for sanctions against Zimbabwe and Austra lian leaders had bemoaned South Africa's silence.

Blair's criticism had the effect of silencing Zanu-PF's opponents in the country. About to launch a final assault against Mugabe, they felt they had to soft-pedal so that the president could not paint them as stooges of the west. One of the main problems of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) has been to fight off propaganda coming from Mugabe and the media that they are fronts for the west.

That is why it is so important for Mbeki to stand up and publicly condemn Zanu-PF. It would make it far harder to see the conflict in Zimbabwe through the distorting "Africa v the west" prism. Mbeki should follow the lead of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and state clearly that Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe represents the worst backsliding of African liberation movements.

There is also a problem with the cult of the leader. Members of liberation movements defer too readily to leaders and many African countries famously retained colonial-era "insult laws" by which criticism of the president (which, in Zimbabwe, includes poking fun at him) can attract a lengthy jail sentence. Thus leaders can remain in power for decades and die in office if they are not violently pushed out of power. That is why Mandela felt it important to leave after only one term. That is also why the grass-roots democracy movements mushrooming on the African continent invariably demand that presidents limit their terms in office.

The anti-colonial struggle was often violent, and few liberation movements have attempted to restore a culture of non-violence. Thus it is no surprise that Mugabe finds it easy to use violence against his people: the colonial state apparatus was attuned to that purpose. Once violence is used, it is used again. Even the idea of an opposition - internal or external - is a difficult concept for many. Mugabe's Zanu coerced the Patriotic Front (PF), the other major liberation movement in Zimbabwe, to merge with it in the 1980s, hence the name Zanu-PF. This eliminated a possible opposition force.

The resurgence of an opposition is due partly to a generational change in the country's politics. Many of the MDC's supporters are young and have experienced Zanu-PF mainly as a party in government that exploits its people. They are not impressed by past liberation credentials.

The articulate MDC spokesman Nelson Chamisa is not yet 30 years old. In South Africa, it is young activists in the Treatment Action Campaign and their leader Zackie Achmat who have been responsible for forcing the government to adopt more responsible Aids policies. Zwelinzima Vavi, leader of Cosatu, says: "We are not prepared to be merely 'yes-leader' workers' desks."

The sad truth, however, is that waiting for another generation before there can be real change is costly, even deadly, for ordinary Africans, not least Zimbabweans.

William Gumede is a former deputy editor of the Sowetan newspaper. His book, "Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC" will be republished by Zed later this year

Zimbabwe: The nation by numbers
Research by Sarah O'Connor

100,000 people reputedly gathered to watch Bob Marley perform the day after independence day, 19 April 1980

20% real growth of economy in first year of independence

20,000 numbers killed during Mugabe's crackdown on Matabeleland in the 1980s

70% of farmland still owned by white farmers in 2000, 20 years after independence

1 million dead people on the Zimbabwean electoral role in 2002

18% proportion of population made homeless by "Operation Murambatsvina" slum clearances, starting 2005

56% of population earn less than $1 a day

52 years since average income was as low as today