Considering that it was held on the eve of a public holiday, the Thursday evening launch of Liberation Movements in Power by Prof Roger Southall was well attended by an enthusiastic crowd of supporters, academics and students.
Southall is Professor Emeritus in Sociology at Wits University and a research associate of the Society, Work and Development Institute. Guest speakers invited to give their impressions of the book were Professor Noor Nieftagodien, NRF Chair of Local Histories, Present Realities, and head of the History Workshop at Wits; and Dr Dale McKinley – analyst, writer, lecturer and political activist.
Southall described the work as a comparative evaluation of three liberation movements in Southern Africa who moved into government, namely the South West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO) in Namibia; the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa; and the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) in Zimbabwe. He outlined a few of the themes in the book.
Southall said that national liberation movements, once seen as the answer, are increasingly seen as the problem in Southern Arica. They are highly complex but also ambiguous at once emancipatory and repressive. Liberation Movement in Power examines the dominant ways in which liberation movements have been characterised through the notion of exclusive nationalism (We are The People) and the notion of them evolving into political machines. An analysis of liberation movements has to be rooted in the dynamics of settler colonialism, which was advanced but repressive, and politically rigid, Southall points out.
In all three of the movements featured in the book the political settlements resulted in liberal democracies with capitalist economies, a retreat from socialism and an emphasis on majority rule. Party states and party machines have been erected with a decline in ideology and rapid class formation.
The book concludes with the “slow death of the liberation movements”, as flawed organisations that threaten democracy. This does not refer to their defeat in elections, but their degeneration into the “party machine”.
In his discussion, McKinley described this as an important book. He maintained that the notion of majoritarianism is not the problem, but rather whether it is going to be inclusive and fair or exclusive and intolerant. He also addressed the corporate role in the national democratic revolution, saying that in fact we have a corporate state.
Nieftagodien chose to look at liberation movements with a historical eye and ask what lessons we can learn from them. He said that Southall’s employment of a comparative approach unsettles the notion of South African exceptionalism and allows us to look at the ambiguities the movements had to face. Southall’s approach demonstrates the complexities of each period and the external and internal factors that shaped the choices that were made. Nieftagodien admitted to being worried that the sub-title may have referred to a notion of the “failed state” and he was pleased that this is not the case as it would have limited the analysis.
Nieftagodien referred to an admission by Ronnie Kasrils that at the moment of transition South Africa looked to other revolutions and thought that the main aim was to seize state power and the rest would fall into place. A compromise was made with corporate power and the national democratic revolution has in fact become the tool of a small black elite, tied to political power.
However, Southall said that he avoided a radical approach in Liberation Movement in Power as it can lead to unrealistic expectations and ignores a basic point – we may not like multi-national corporations but we have to live with them.