Southern Africa moves past liberation heroes
Top leaders in Namibia launched a new party this week. The trend may spread.
WINDHOEK, Namibia; Johannesburg, South Africa
The news has been all over Namibia's papers for weeks now: grumbling within the ruling party, rumors that key political figures might turn their backs on the South West African People's Organization (SWAPO) – the dominant political party credited with liberating Namibia from apartheid South Africa.Skip to next paragraph
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Then, on Saturday, under the blistering desert sun in the capital city's Independence Arena, a group of former SWAPO politicians launched this young country's first major opposition party – a move that continues the region's tentative shift toward multiparty democracies, and one that could have strong reverberations in neighboring South Africa, considered the region's keystone country.
"This is a trend across southern Africa," says Phil ya Nangolo, executive director of the National Society for Human Rights in Namibia, a group that works on democracy and human rights issues. "It is a trend of people caring more about services. What these political figures did in the past is of little consequence. People want to see improvement in their living standards."
For years, the southern African politicians and political parties with "struggle credentials" – a history of fighting colonial or apartheid rulers – have been viewed as untouchable.
In South Africa, for instance, the African National Congress (ANC), the party of Nelson Mandela, still boasts huge majorities in the national government and runs most of the country's municipalities. In Mozambique, the Frelimo government, which overthrew Portuguese rule in 1975, continues to dominate. And since Namibia's independence in 1990, SWAPO, which led the armed struggle against South Africa's apartheid forces, has held more than the two-thirds majority needed to control the national assembly.
Moving beyond 'freedom fighters'?
But across the region, there is growing dissatisfaction with how these freedom fighters have run their countries in peacetime. Many criticize the ruling parties for creating wealth for a small number of connected "comrades" while ignoring the impoverished masses.
"The commonly held wisdom is that liberation movements have about 30 to 40 years before they start to face opposition, but it seems to be speeding up in this case," says Tom Wheeler, a former South African ambassador and now a research fellow at the South African Institute for International Affairs.
The biggest rift, both in Namibia and in South Africa, is between top leaders like South Africa's president Thabo Mbeki, who fought the struggle from exile, and those who stayed behind to fight within their own countries. Mr. Wheeler says that the ANC exile leaders are certain to see the parallels between the splitup of SWAPO, and the fractious succession battle that looms in next month's ANC national conference.
"I think it is exercising minds a bit," says Wheeler. "Those who were not in exile [during the apartheid years], their voices are going up, saying, 'It is time for those who were in exile to step down. As soon as the exiles move on, with their chips on their shoulders and their hang–ups, the sooner that things can get moving on, for the better for the country.' "