By John S. Saul
How real has been the much celebrated “liberation of southern Africa” that culminated in South Africa’s embarking on its post-apartheid future almost exactly twenty years ago to the day? My new book for Pluto, A Flawed Freedom: Rethinking Southern African Liberation, raises this question quite precisely and suggests that it cannot be answered simply or straightforwardly. For the outcome of the “thirty years war for southern African liberation” was as much failure as success, the major winners of that “war” being global capitalism on the one hand and the newly ascendant local black elite, riding on the back of the ANC’s “success” to power and privilege of their own. In effect, southern Africa has merely been recolonised by capital with the lot of the vast mass of these territories’ populations still poor and politically marginalized!
Of course, as I point out in my conclusion to the Pluto book, related issues had already been raised forcefully with reference to the first wave of African “liberation” that, in the 1950s and 1960s, saw so many territories in the northern part of the continent realize their freedom from colonialism (principally as it had been imposed on Africa by the British and French): the assessment that, most often, the struggle for such national liberation had brought merely a “false decolonization.” Frantz Fanon was the clearest of voices articulating such a position, most notably in his celebrated text The Wretched of the Earth. Thus, for Fanon, the new African elites that inherited power then did little to actually liberate their countrymen from the yoke of global oppression by capitalism – these elites merely comfortably stepping into the privileged positions of intermediaries:
‘The national middle class discovers its historic mission: that of intermediary. Seen through its eyes, its mission has nothing to do with transforming the nation; it consists, prosaically, of being the transmission lines between the nation and a capitalism, rampant though camouflaged, which today puts on the masque of neo-colonalism. The national bourgeoisie will be quite content with the role of the Western bourgeoisie’s business agent, and it will play its part without any com- plexes in a most dignified manner. But the same lucrative role, this cheap-jack’s function, this meanness of outlook and this absence of all ambition symbolize the incapability of the national middle class to fulfil its historic role as a bourgeoisie.’[i]
Moreover, Fanon suggested that once the demand for freedom has begun to gather momentum in their empires the British and the French had begun to craft decolonizations of a kind that would serve primarily to safeguard their own continuing interests and those of global capitalism more generally. They had to move quickly: as Fanon continues,
‘That is why a veritable panic takes hold of the colonialist governments in turn. Their purpose is to capture the vanguard, to turn the movement of liberation to the right and disarm the people, quick, quick, let’s decolonize. Decolonize the Congo before it turns into another Algeria. Vote the constitutional framework for all Africa, create the French Communauté, renovate that same Communauté, but for God’s sake let’s decolonize quick.’[ii]
Precisely the same point is made by a second great theorist of Africa’s push for liberation, Amilcar Cabral – himself a principal architect in his native Guinea-Bissau of the second wave anti-colonial liberation (sited principally in southern Africa, although the Portuguese colony of Guinea-Bissau was in West Africa). Thus Cabral wondered, in the same period as produced Fanon’s writings, as to “the true nature of the national liberation struggle.” In fact he even went so far as to speculate as to whether the “national liberation struggle is not [in fact] an imperialist initiative” [emphasis added]! As he continued,
‘…there is something wrong with the simple interpretation of the national liberation movement as a revolutionary trend. The objective of the imperialist countries was to prevent the enlargement of the socialist countries, to liberate the reactionary forces in our country which were being stifled by colonialism, and to enable these forces to ally themselves with the international bourgeoisie.[iii]
In the colonial countries where a real struggle for freedom has taken place, where the blood of the people has flowed and where the length of the period of armed struggle has favoured the backward surge of intellectuals towards bases grounded in the people, we can observe a genuine eradication of the superstructure built by these intellectuals from the bourgeois colonialist environment…Now it so happens that during the struggle for liberation, at the moment that the native intellectual comes into touch again with his people, this artificial sentinel of presumed Western cultural superiority is turned into dust.’[iv]
For his part, Cabral also speculated that the circumstances which demanded an armed liberation struggle – as in his Guinea-Bissau but also throughout southern Africa – might impose a different kind of internal logic upon such a struggle, prompting the African petty-bourgeoisie, elevated, almost inevitably, to positions of leadership by their social formation and their education, might actually be moved to “commit suicide” as a potentially privileged class.
It was the latter kind of thinking that had prompted many, both within the southern African region and beyond, to consider the possibility that in that region, where both popular mobilization and armed struggle seemed necessary in order to confront the more unbudging of colonialisms (that of Portugal in the cases of Angola and Mozambique), multinational corporations and recalcitrant white settler populations (in Rhodesia, South-West Africa and South Africa itself), a more genuinely radical (socialist in orientation and firmly based in self-conscious popular action) would almost inevitably emerge. And yet, despite this possibility, as my book suggests, the subsequent struggle against oppression further south in Africa has had an all too similar outcome to that which occurred elsewhere on the continent
For the evidence is clear that the subsequent struggle against oppression – further south in Africa – was very far from being fully successful. Even in terms of race the outcome left many changes to be desired, although it is true that at that level the struggle did at least produce the overthrow of the pre-existing regimes of overt and virulent racist/white rule. Yet the centres of global power, most notably the United States, were busily defining “liberation” in as narrow terms as possible, as being purely and simply “national liberation,” full-stop. As it happened, the apparent victors – the local indigenous leadership of the “successful” movements for national liberation – were, in their own interests, more than willing to go along with this. But whether this was in the interest of a positive transformation of the lives of vast mass of the populations in whose name they claimed to speak is quite another question.
Here we return to the very limited challenge presented by most so-called “liberation movements” to the overbearing economic structures of economic power and class privilege that had framed and underpinned colonial hegemony. Moreover, the liberatory impulse in southern Africa was narrowed in its definition in other ways as well. In class terms certainly, but also in terms of the redress of gender inequality and in establishing a genuinely effectively liberating framework of democratic rule and sustained popular empowerment. Elsewhere I have written of this experience as having produced, primarily, a kind of “liberation lite,” and, in my new book, as evidencing an extremely “flawed freedom” indeed.[v] It is to the exploration of this paradoxical outcome to the southern African liberation struggle, examined both in general terms and through the careful analysis of specific country case-studies, that my new book seeks to speak.
John S. Saul is a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011 by the Canadian Association of African Studies for his writing and lecturing on South Africa.
[i]. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (Penguin Books: Harmondsworth, 1967), p. 122.
[ii]. Fanon, op. cit., p. 55; as Fanon continues. “…they decolonize at such a rate that they [even] impose independence on Houphouet-Boigny”!
[iii]. This and other particularly interesting related material is to be found in Amilcar Cabral, Revolution in Guinea: An African People’s Struggle (London: Stage 1, 1967), pp. 57-9.
[iv]. Frantz Fanon, op. cit., p. 36.
[v]. See my new book for Pluto, A Flawed Freedom: Rethinking Southern African Liberation; a useful companion volume is my Liberation Lite: The Roots of Recolonization in Southern Africa (Trenton, N.J. and Delhi: Africa World Press and Three Essays Collective, 2011) and especially the latter’s chapter 1 entitled “Race, Class, Gender and Voice: Four Terrains of Liberation.”