Southern Africa moves past liberation heroes

Top leaders in Namibia launched a new party this week. The trend may spread.

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.

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.' "

"The problem with liberation movements is that they tend to see themselves, and present themselves, as not just another political organization; they see themselves as the nation, the people," says Steven Friedman of the Institute for Democracy in South Africa in Johannesburg. "Then, when they actually take up power, differences become clearer. It's not just a party of people united to get rid of the colonizers."

Some countries have already watched the dissolution of their "one-party democracies." Zambia, for instance, saw a peaceful end to the United National Independence Party's hold on power in the 1990s – UNIP is still a political party there. Zimbabwe has gone through a more violent evolution, with President Robert Mugabe – long one of southern Africa's most renowned independence heroes – violently repressing political opponents.

Namibia is the latest country to join this move away from independence party rule and is the closest – historically and culturally – to South Africa.

Namibia's new party

"Nambia has been in decline," former cabinet minister Hidipo Hamutenya said at this week's launch of the Rally for Democracy and Progress party (RDP). "Confusion has taken over – people have begun to doubt the direction of the nation. The politics of fear has taken over."

Mr. Hamutenya, often called by his nickname "H.H.," is considered the second most influential politician in Namibia after the country's founder and former president, Sam Nujoma.

Hamutenya has long battled with Mr. Nujoma, and resigned from SWAPO earlier this month to become the interim president of the RDP.

His broad criticisms of SWAPO touched a nerve with many of the Namibians who gathered in the arena despite lingering nervousness about intimidation.

"I've been a SWAPO member since 1977," says Ben Araeb, a pastor in Katatura township outside Windhoek, the capital city. "But after independence I didn't see any progress. It's only an elite that's had anything. I want fairness. I want leaders who are looking to the needs of the people."

Mr. Araeb says that nepotism and corruption have become problems in his country – a sentiment echoed many times at the gathering – onstage and off.

"We need a change in the republic of Namibia," says Palesha Abraham, a housewife in Windhoek. "Poor education, corruption, despotism, tribalism – all these things need to change."

Ms. Abraham says she heard about the new party about a month ago, when local newspapers started printing rumors that some SWAPO officials were considering splitting from the party. "It's very popular," she says. "Almost everybody I know supports this RDP party."

In neighboring South Africa, Mr. ya Nangolo says, the ANC must be taking note. "Absolutely the ANC is watching what's happening with SWAPO," he says. "They may go the same way."

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