Thabo Mbeki: Did Somebody Say Liberation?

How Africa’s grand dreams of liberation from colonialism collapsed into post-colonial nightmares of economic un-freedom, poverty, and deep unhappiness must worry us

On 30 March 2023, former South African President, Thabo Mbeki, put the ANC and himself on trial in a telling letter addressed to the Vice-President, Paul Mashatile, and copied to a number of other leaders of Africa’s oldest liberation movement. In the letter, Mbeki expressed deep concern about a series of decisions in the National Assembly that the ANC has voted in favour of – decisions that clearly impede rather than enable democracy, constitutionalism, accountability, transparency and good governance in South Africa (which are the very ideals upon which the ANC was founded). Accordingly, the ANC has lost its founding values and itself in climbing down from a liberation movement to a partisan and self-interested political party and the promises of liberation have not been kept. It is a tragedy in the current world system.

The Trial of the African National Congress

The current direction of ANC votes, Mbeki observes, appears to be aimed at preserving the ANC leaders and the movement in power instead of deepening constitutionalism and the rule of law in the country. In other words, Mbeki accuses the ANC of going against its foundational ethos and identity as a liberation movement that is centred on the people. According to the letter, the ANC is now pursuing partisan politics that valorises its leaders and heroes, and itself at the expense of its moral responsibility to the South African people, a principle that has undergirded the position of the movement for many decades in the belief that, after all, “the people shall govern.”

Mbeki tersely decried how “the relationship between the ANC and the masses of our people, as well as the role of the ANC as the principal defender of the gains of the revolution, including the Constitution (1996)” has been intentionally and negligently endangered by the leaders of the movement. Attempts to sweep corruption allegations under the carpet and to protect individual leaders from being probed seem to have compelled ANC leaders to vote in very disturbing ways that mock the constitution of the country and fly in the face of the founding values of the liberation movement.

It vexes Mbeki that opposition political parties, some of them in their infancy and others inimical to the goals of liberation from the start, now seem to be the defenders of the constitution and the champions of the revolution in the National Assembly, while the leaders of the ANC have allowed themselves to be reduced into slippery tricksters that advance politics as a dirty game and not the vocation of liberation that it should be. Instead of the “will to live” which should drive liberation movements in extending the gains of liberation to the people, the ANC, as observed by Mbeki, has been overtaken by a consuming will to  power of a Nietzschean kind that leaves sacrifices, treacheries and tragedies in its wake.

In agony, Mbeki asks the movement: “Why are we taking actions which play straight into the hands of the counter revolutionary forces?”  Possessed by the “fetishism of power,” Africa’s oldest liberation movement seems to be seized by a kind of death drive to the benefit of the enemies of liberation. This “death drive” tendency of liberation movements in Africa would be nothing to worry about if in their death they do not go down the grave with national and continental destinies. In following liberation movements, from their birth, through the armed struggles, to their current decline, Africans invested their lives, hopes and faith in the promise of liberation that is yet to be witnessed in real terms. It may not be an exaggeration that, presently, some African countries urgently need to be liberated from vampiric political cults that used to be liberation movements. The troubles of the ANC that Mbeki decries are only the tip of the titanic iceberg in the shape of African liberation movements that have gone rogue  and turned around to victimise the same Africans that they were founded to liberate.

Significantly, Mbeki attempts to provoke an internal debate within the ANC in order to remind the leadership of the part about the founding liberatory goals of the movement that have been sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. Whether Mbeki’s call will be answered by the movement’s current leadership or not is yet to be seen. What can already be seen is that Mbeki’s letter must be read by MPLA in Angola, Chama Cha Mapinduzi in Tanzania, ZANU-PF in Zimbabwe, FRELIMO in Mozambique and all other liberation movements in power on the continent that presently have no strong answers to the strong questions that confront the continent. In his observation about the liberation movements, from the Indian National Congress of 1885 to the ANC of 1912, Immanuel Wallerstein noted how these movements have failed to be liberatory because they did not achieve power on their own terms. They achieved compromised and compromising political independence. What compromised the movements further is that they inherited colonial systems and modes of governance that were always going to alienate them from the masses of Africans. Faced with disillusioned and angry masses, they turn to blame external forces and opposition political parties for every failure of theirs. In Africa, instead of recovering the lost path to liberation, the liberation movements have formed formidable solidarities with each other to keep power by any means necessary and unnecessary, and to protect each other from the anger of the disillusioned masses. Mbeki’s desperate call is the Himalayan task of picking the scattered pieces of falling monuments.

Africa’s paradoxes and precarious position

Two stubborn paradoxes punctuate the African condition.  It is these paradoxes that define the precarious position of the continent within the current world system. Before examining the paradoxes, let’s first take a look at the monstrosity of the present world order that is presently dramatised in the return of the superpowers and their old demand for spheres of influence. A modern-day scramble for Africa is very much afoot, and African countries are being called upon to demonstrate their belonging to this or that camp. It is a world apart and camps are back. In their powerlessness, most African countries walk the tightrope of pretending to be politically neutral by encouraging a negotiated settlement to the war in Ukraine. Africa, many decades after the political independence of its countries, remains a powerless and terrified object within the world system. Africa is so terrified of taking an independent position the same way Africans were afraid of both the virus and vaccines in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic. The African is that fragile subject of the world system that fears diseases and cures alike because world history has, for the longest time, been wounding.

That the continent is the richest in natural resources while Africans are the poorest people under the sun is the first paradox. The other paradox is that the liberation struggles that African liberation movements waged against settler and exploitative colonial regimes did not result in the liberation of African countries but only gave birth to compromised and compromising political independence. Combined, these two simple yet unsimplistic stubborn paradoxes make the African continent a troubling subject.

How Africa’s grand dreams of liberation from colonialism collapsed into post-colonial nightmares of economic un-freedom, poverty and deep unhappiness must worry us because liberation is still an aspiration for us. Achille Mbembe has forcefully described the African condition as a “postcolony” where the corpses of colonialism insist on resurrecting every time they are buried, coming back to haunt the continent. Alongside the ghosts of colonialism, the African postcolonial political elite have reduced the polities and economies of the continent to the ‘domain of drunkards’ that perform corruption and tyranny as in the true Theatre of the Macabre. Post-independence Africa seems to have only moved out of the frying pan of Western colonialism and into the fire of native colonialism.

Other interlocutors, amongst them scholars and their cousins the journalists, have amplified the view that what people regard as African problems requiring African solutions are actually world problems that have been imposed on Africa through the violent history of colonisation and imperialism. What we can observe as the African continental question are the durable challenges of political independence that did not lead to liberation and the wealth of natural resources that has not led to the benefit and happiness of Africans. Hence, one starting point in seeking strong answers to these strong African questions is examining the role of these African liberation movements most of which, especially in Southern Africa, are still in power.

These movements came to power and failed to complete that power with the promised responsibility for addressing the yearnings of long-suffering Africans. Theirs became power without glory. The lack of responsibility to the masses of Africa, coupled with their powerlessness within the world system, makes these liberation movements and the governments they lead a troubling phenomenon. In the Africa of today, the liberation movements are not only in crisis but are also on trial for betraying the promises of liberation and degenerating into monstrous political cults from which Africans need to be urgently liberated. ZANU-PF in Zimbabwe, for instance, has become a native colonial regime that keeps power through force and fraud. Enterprising prophets are promoted to ambassadors at large; God and Gold are collapsed into a bizarre potpourri as the country literally gets eaten by the ruling elite, some of whom have become richer than the entire country.

The promise of African liberation, perhaps, was summarised in Kwame Nkrumah’s pithy exhortation to Africans: “Seek ye first the political kingdom, and all things shall be added unto you.” However, many decades after African countries, one after another, sought and found political independence, and achieved the political kingdom, Africans are still waiting for “all things” to be added.  In the place of “all things,” what has been added onto Africans are monstrosities in the shape of poverty, growing social inequalities, tyrannies, corruption, xenophobia, homophobia, gender-based violence and femicide, and other dramatisations of dystopia. More dystopic is the latest reduction of the African continent into a constested sphere of influence over which superpowers are jostling and scrambling for control. The liberation movements have not successfully united Africa into one solid economic and political force that can negotiate a powerful place within the world system.

The need for a Decolonial Pan-Africanism

Pan-Africanism, as a philosophy of African unity and liberation, has been emptied of its content and reduced to the unity of political leaders protecting themselves from their angry people. The philosophy of African unity has been collapsed into an ideology of power, a slogan in political party rallies and a buzzword in university corridors that has nothing to contribute to the daily experience of the African multitudes. Thus, the liberation movements and their leaders are in crisis and on trial as the world system in which Africa is entangled, if not captured, is stressed by an escalating war that threatens to explode into a nuclear World War III. This is when Africa needs liberatory leadership the most. This is the moment Africa needs a decolonial Pan-Africanism that can resist the reduction of the continent to a sphere of influence of either the West or the East. This decolonial Pan-Africanism should have the teeth to stop civil wars in Africa and also protect Africans from corrupt and genocidal tyrants that still use the name of liberating Africa to monopolise the economies and polities of their countries for personal gain. To have failed to deliver liberation is bad enough and to degenerate into a native colonialist regime as ZANU-PF and others have done is worse for Africa. The thought might even cross the mind of an African that perhaps African liberation movements may now be heroic again by committing political suicide to allow the birth of alternative movements that might squeeze African liberation from the modern colonial world system, at long last.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Support The Pan African Review.

Your financial support ensures that the Pan-African Review initiative achieves sustainability and that its mission is shielded from manipulation. Most importantly, it allows us to bring high-quality content free of charge to those who may not be in a position to afford it.

You Might Also Like