Populism as politics in Southern Africa

Robert Mugabe shares a joke with his vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa at Great Zimbabwe in Masvingo, February 27, 2016. Image credit Philimon via Reuters.

Sam Nujoma (born in 1929) was the first president of Namibia’s liberation movement, the South West African People’s Organization, in 1960. He was also the country’s first head of state in 1990. In 2005, after three terms as the country’s president, he retired. Namibian MP’s awarded him the official title “Father of the Namibian Nation.” He kept his post at SWAPO till 2007. Far from retiring since then (a liberation fighter never retires) he presented the opening address to the party’s Youth League in 2010 and ended his speech with the appeal “that the SWAPO Party will grow from strength to strength and continues to rule Namibia for the next ONE THOUSAND YEARS.” (capitalized in the original).

Nujoma’s political career and his utterances, is a common feature of the kind of populism we witness in Southern African politics. Here populism is a means to legitimize the continued governance of former liberation movements by appealing to the continued struggle against foreign domination and thereby marketing oneself as the only true alternative and promise of a better future. It is a kind of retrospectively applied populism vis-á-vis a colonial dominance officially left behind, but accused of seeking to regain power. It reclaims ownership over history and society not by seeking but by remaining in power.

Elsewhere in the world, especially in Europe and North America, of course, populism mainly manifests itself as an attack on established systems. In these democracies populists mobilize against “an establishment” and appeal to sentiments suspicious of career politicians. Take Donald Trump in the United States or Le Pen in France or the Brexit campaign in the UK. Populism in Southern Africa, with its history of liberation movements like SWAPO, the ANC, FRELIMO and ZANU-PF, shares some general characteristics with populism elsewhere: It operates with a specific kind of rhetoric, addressing “the people” in a simple and direct way. It creates the impression that it is them that matter, that they count more than access to political power by those acting in a populist mode. Populist forms of mobilization take advantage of the understanding and practice of liberal democracy while being in their core utterly illiberal. There is a broad disparity between the propagated and claimed ideal and the reality, or between promises and deliveries. At a closer look, populists care even more than most other politicians about their own interests, not those of the people and wider society.

In Southern Africa, where liberation came from the mid-1970s through the early 1990s, the heroic-patriotic narratives designed for the newly created nations fell on fertile soil among the formerly colonized majority. The official discourses introduced here were accompanied by the belief that the seizure of political power translates into a kind of “the end of history”: as from now on, there cannot exist any legitimate alternative to the liberation movements as governments, and changes in political control over the respective countries can only happen legitimately within those movements turned parties.

The negotiated transition, far from being deep transformation, did not abandon the structurally anchored discrepancies of a society based on institutionalized inequality. Instead, a new elite secured through its access to the commanding heights of the state a similar status to those who under the old system were the privileged few, while large parts of the former colonized remained marginalized. Such systems showed the narrow limits to liberation.

In contrast to such elite pacts, a compensatory narrative claimed that any form of injustice is rooted in the colonial past, while the new regime tries all possible to improve the living conditions of the people, — but at a closer look, the old slogan of “a luta continua” had simply changed into “the looting continues.” Once the people observe this betrayal, reminiscences of the old forms of oppression and domination by a minority regime are reactivated to declare the remnants of this past to be the sole culprits for the experienced shortcomings.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe (he may not be president anymore when this is posted—Ed.) and his party, ZANU-PF, could maintain power and regain dominance because of massive repression and the support of the other liberation movements in governments within the SADC region. Yet image and claim of being the eternal liberator continued to impregnate the interpretations and perceptions of the history and presence there. Those promoting such imaginations can rely on stereotypes that – while bordering on mystifications and mythologies – can still be activated among parts of the population.

When Mugabe, despite his well-known track record and its devastating consequences for the health system of Zimbabwe, was appointed as a “Goodwill Ambassador” by the Director of the World Health Organization (WHO), it provoked worldwide protest. The WHO had to withdraw that appointment within a day. But it documented the strategy of tenacious survival through the cultivation of the status as heroes employed by the old men of the liberation struggle days. (The man making the appointment was the former foreign minister of Ethiopia; a country where the liberation movement is still in power since it overthrew the dictatorship in the early 1990s. That ruling party routinely wins 100% in parliamentary elections—Ed.) At the same time, such an extraordinary example underlines that populism is not always targeting power structures in existence but can also appeal to a recognized authority styled into a charismatic leader.

93-year old Robert Mugabe, in power since 1980, could without any embarrassment declare that he would never make room for a president from any opposition party. Mugabe stated categorically that the main opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), who twice beat him and ZANU-PF in elections, would never be allowed to govern the country – never ever – and that only God, who has appointed him could remove him from office. For a long time the generals in Zimbabwe’s army followed suit, saying they’d refuse to salute Morgan Tsvangirai, MDC leader, if he were
elected President since “he didn’t fight in the liberation war.” (These are the
same generals who are leading the coup now.) As president by God’s will Mugabe did not feel to be accountable to the people – and parts of these people remained at ease with such omnipotent fantasies. This is how his wife Grace could on several occasions suggest in all seriousness that her husband could also continue to reign from his grave – maybe through her?

This was a misjudgment that even populists of the “lider maximo” type cannot afford, because they overplay their cards by not accepting that they are part of a wider system. When trying to finally pave the way for his wife into presidency by dismissing Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, Mugabe alerted the military that the reign of the old guard might come to an end sooner than they had expected. The response within a week made it clear, that it is not yet the time for aging populists to single-handedly decide over their replacement (Jacob Zuma should take note of this too). Mugabe’s time in office will probably end before his biological expiry date (word was he would today, but then — with millions watching his live address on state TV — he refused, stating he’ll stay on till ZANU’s party congress in December 2018 — Ed.), while a like-minded companion for many years will take over the political power. Dubbed the “crocodile,” Manangagwa promises not much more than more of the same, and he will most likely apply similar populist rhetoric during his term in office.

Such transition within African gerontocracies, documenting the gatekeeping nature of liberation movements as governments, underline that a certain brand of populism is appealing to a wider audience to an extent that it remains effective. Beyond its outreach to “ordinary people”, it is based on a group of compliant beneficiaries within the inner circle of state power. The really interesting phenomenon is not a man, who stubbornly and ruthlessly accesses power, but the political culture, which produces such autocratic leaders. At the AU Summit in August 2015 the new Namibian President, Hage Geingob, praised Mugabe as his admired role model. It was also reported that the late Zambian President Michael Sata used to intonate chimurenga (liberation struggle) songs at SADC meetings when any criticism of Mugabe was articulated. The “big men” syndrome is an integral element of a populism made in Southern Africa. Its impact continues to be inextricably linked with the history of the anti-colonial resistance, whose mystification remains until the present a central political element.

This is among the reasons why Grace Mugabe and her allies in the G40 (40 referring to the age, though most of them are older – but still too young) were not an acceptable replacement. The greedy, power hungry ruthless first lady, 40 years younger than her husband and not a born Zimbabwean, is not of the make of which a local populist has to be. Anything but popular among the ordinary people, nobody (except the Jonathan Moyos and similar power hungry opportunists in the G40 who made strategic miscalculations) will mourn her departure from Zimbabwean politics, while Comrade Bob has nothing to fear for the rest of his already very long life. It seems most likely that Robert Mugabe’s populism will be substituted by another locally branded form of populism created in the same mold, while the military will return to the barracks to remain in control over a civilian-political government and the party from the background – as before.

As this latest example documents, politics have still to a large extent remained the domain of old men from the first struggle generation. In Namibia three of them competed at the SWAPO Party Congress in November 2017 for presidency. They were aged 76 years (Hage Geingob), 74 years (Nahas Angula) and 70 years (Jerry Ekandjo). The one elected is almost certainly the party candidate for the country’s next presidential elections in late 2019 and will become the Namibian Head of State for 2020 to 2025. If the official retirement age of 60 years for Namibia’s public service would with immediate effect be applied to the party’s Political Bureau and its Central Committee, these organs would have hardly any members.

Those gradually losing support and trust through “bad governance” are often resorting to conspiracy theories in their desperate efforts to not surrender. They dismiss and ridicule almost every form of meaningful opposition even within their own ranks, as the current power struggles inside the ANC document. Accusations often suggest that opponents are remote controlled agents of imperialism seeking regime change as instruments of foreign agendas. When increasingly under pressure, Jacob Zuma even blamed “witches” inside the ANC being responsible for efforts to remove him from office. In the footsteps of Robert Mugabe and Sam Nujoma, he also declared categorically that the ANC rules forever and repeatedly stated, that the ANC governs until the return of Jesus.

When Zuma in August 2017 survived the ninth motion of non-confidence in his political career he reacted by singing songs from the liberation struggle. This ritual is a popular means to appeal to support among the people and to maintain the impression that the liberators are holding out in office. Such symbolism seeks to document solidarity with the masses and to confirm the belief that the political leadership sacrificed not only during the struggle days, but relentlessly and selflessly continues to engage for a better future of the people. Zuma cultivated this image also when competing with Thabo Mbeki, who came across as an aloof and detached intellectual estranged from the ordinary people. He also appeals to primordial identities of a “Zulu warrior culture”: at official rallies he frequently intonated the struggle song “Bring me my machine gun” – at a time, when he was in court accused of rape.

Through mobilization by means of songs from the liberation struggle the new elite creates the impression of a patriotic commitment, which seeks to cover its failures.

At the same time it creates a timeline in which the protagonists feature as members of a struggle aristocracy. This wants to distract from the injustices and inequalities under those governing now, acting in complicity: “the kleptomaniac proclivities of the new political and economic elite, the advent of black colonialists, attacks on the freedom of media, the massive acts of de-politicisation” were, for the social movement activist Mphutlane wa Bofelo, systematic efforts to distract from the struggle for true emancipation.

The Zuma faction in government poses as the vanguard against what they
term “White Monopoly Capital (WMC).” Instead, they turned South
African economy and state system into a predatory system through
large-scale corruption, embezzlement, nepotism, and criminal networks.
A system which even monopoly capitalism would not find opportune. Rather, such state capture is based on a systematic looting of the state assets and coffers. Of lately, research disclosed a degree of organized crime inside the state beyond imagination.

Efforts seeking distraction from the acute socio-economic crisis draw a distinction between the “real people” and its enemies – a foreign or fifth column, against which they claim a need to stand together. By doing so, they try to make use of an internalized, shared historic experience.

Signs suggest that the resentments among the population against such forms of the cloaking of the abuse of power are growing. Especially the continued recourse to the merits obtained during the liberation struggle are increasingly critically commented upon if not outright dismissed among the generation of the born frees. Together with the struggle old-timers, the heroic narrative approaches an expiry date and is dismissed as a self-serving invention:

No leader – and no party – deserves a ‘get out of jail free’ card because of an intellectually shaky myth. To question that ‘the ANC liberated us’ is not only a matter of historical accuracy, it’s also a necessary, subversive political act, in a present crying out for historiographical honesty.

This, however, does not signal an end to populism, which is also personified in Julius Malema of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). Part of his success might be that as a younger edition of Jacob Zuma he does not stand in his former master’s tradition and therefore represents the future – even if such future does not necessarily abide well. But torchbearers of hope are not any longer the aging veterans of the struggle days and their mind-set: Zuma contributed to Malema’s popularity by dismissing him from his own insider circle, thereby turning him into an alternative competing in terms of radical populism, while Zuma is increasingly seen as an obstacle to progress. As much as he tries, he cannot any longer reinvent himself as a man of the people:

It is too late for a comeback, particularly on the back of a populist wave. Zuma now has to make way while bigger and more powerful populists rise, and they might prove to be even more dangerous than he is.

Let’s hope that institutions established for democratic checks and balances, such as an independent judiciary and other agencies of state supposed to act in the public interest and not that of political parties or populist demagogues. The watchdog function of media and the role of civil society agencies, social movements and indeed also scholars will never be overshadowed and coerced or silenced by the undemocratic forms of populism.

Henning Melber

Henning Melber is the current Van Zyl Slabbert Visiting Professor at the University of Cape Town.

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