Ruined by liberation aristocrats

William Mervyn Gumede, author of the influential biography Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC, has written a new book, The Democracy Gap: Africa’s Wasted Years, due out in May. The book examines the failures in government of African independence and liberation movements and why the tiny republics of Mauritius and Botswana have fared better than the rest of the continent.

The Mail & Guardian questioned him this week about his new work.

Why have countries such as Angola, Mozambique, Namibia, Guinea Bissau and Zimbabwe, which fought liberation wars, struggled as democracies?
Zanu-PF, the ANC and MPLA (Angola’s ruling party) had military structures and this influenced their way of operating. They tended to centralise; there was not much internal democracy. When they came to power they couldn’t break away from this culture, which undermined internal democratic processes.

In a democracy you have to be inclusive and open.

How can South Africa avoid the same trap?
We shouldn’t praise individuals — let’s not create gods. Our leaders should be accountable. That’s what many countries got wrong. Politicians should know that you are only as good as what you did yesterday. What can you do now? What can you deliver now? We should defend the country’s democratic institutions because, once they are destroyed, it’s difficult to rebuild them. Those institutions should have a life outside of political parties. Individuals will die, will go away, but those institutions will remain.

The other thing is the need for internal democracy [in political parties]. We praise South Africa’s Constitution as the world’s most liberal. But it will be an empty document if it doesn’t inform the way our political parties act. If we’re going to give taxpayers’ money to political parties, we should demand that they follow the Constitution.

Isn’t it possible that South Africa might prove to be exceptional in Africa?
Every African country thought it was exceptional. Everyone thought their leaders were exceptional. If you look at the archives of Nigerian papers at the time they got independence (1960), everyone in Nigeria, in Africa and indeed the world over thought they were exceptional. No one wanted to criticise them — The moment we stop criticising, the moment we stop showing the weaknesses of the state, the country is certain to go down.

But most of these countries didn’t have South Africa’s strong institutions.
Yes, but these institutions came under the control of powerful politicians. When the politicians left, these institutions were razed to the ground and the institutions didn’t work. If we destroy the institutions it will be difficult to rebuild them. Take the public protector’s office — if you appoint your cronies or say we won’t give you money because you are criticising us, you destroy the office’s credibility.

The other problem is when you make exceptions. For instance, we say Jacob Zuma shouldn’t be tried, and yet other people are tried. This will create lawlessness and the rule of law will collapse. A leader should be beyond reproach. You can’t say I’ll defend myself in court — that’s not being beyond reproach.

Most post-colonial governments inherited lawlessness; there was no rule of law under colonialism because the law was applied selectively. There was no reason to obey the law because it didn’t benefit black people. You can’t have leaders who don’t live within the rule of law. If you do, the rest of society will say: ”My leaders are doing this. Why can’t I do this too?” Shabir Shaik has just been given medical parole; so should everybody else who does not feel well. The problem with liberation movements is they created liberation aristocrats who did what they wanted.

So the danger is not past?
This is our tipping-point. From here things will go downhill; no liberation movement has moved upwards from this point. The [ANC] coalition is holding because there’s an election to be won. Afterwards the left will have to come to terms with the business and the populist elements in the coalition; this is a postponed fight. The unions should have supported policies, not an individual.

Didn’t the unions identify Zuma as embodying their aspirations?
This is another failure of liberation movements — putting faith in individuals. If there are strong policies, individuals don’t matter. It’s more important to build institutions that outlast individuals.

What are the pointers for a flawed leader?
You can measure the potential for failure by the number of bodyguards a politician has. The bigger the convoy, the more likely he is to fail, to be a dictator.

William Gumede is an honorary associate professor at the Graduate School of Public and Development Management at Wits University and a senior associate and programme director at the Africa Asia Centre of the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London

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Percy Zvomuya
Percy Zvomuya is a writer and critic who has written for numerous publications, including Chimurenga, the Mail & Guardian, Moto in Zimbabwe, the Sunday Times and the London Review of Books blog. He is a co-founder of Johannesburg-based writing collective The Con and, in 2014, was one of the judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

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