On 22 June 2021, the Centre for Africa-China Studies (CACS) at the University of Johannesburg and the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies (SIIS) hosted a webinar to reflect on the Communist Party of China (CPC)’s 100th anniversary. Professor Ibbo Mandaza, a renowned Zimbabwean academic and politician was one of the presenters. In comparing the achievements of the CPC with those of Southern Africa’s liberation movements, Mandaza argued that the latter exhausted their usefulness the moment they succeeded to end settler colonial rule, and, thus, had no use after independence. I respectfully disagree with Mandaza’s categorical assertion for an obvious reason: according to that logic, the CPC, a liberation movement in its own right, would have had no usefulness beyond securing political independence for the Chinese people. This article submits that Southern African liberations movements need to adapt to their new circumstances if they wish to emulate the CCP’s longevity and successes.
The CPC’s impressive achievements, especially when told to a Southern African audience almost automatically brings into focus the quality of ruling parties in Southern Africa. However, the CPC itself has had a chequered history since its formation. I am of the view that the most important characteristic of the CPC is, by far, its ability to adapt. Arguably, others may allude to issues such as the forced political stability that does not brook political opposition, a merit-driven deployment of party cadres in strategic positions, and the work ethic of Chinese citizens. All these, however, could be traced to the willingness of CPC apparatchiks to timely respond to shifting domestic and international dynamics.
The CPC of the Mao era was doctrinaire, hell-bent on ideological purity, national sovereignty and pulling China out of the Soviet shadow. Thus, China under Mao played some part in sponsoring anti-colonial intrigue, it openly fought an ideological battle with the Soviet Union, purged those it considered apostates and embarked on costly disasters such as the Cultural Revolution. During the Cultural Revolution, middle-class Chinese intellectuals and artisans, accused of harbouring capitalist tendencies, were shunted to rural areas for socialist instruction. Thus, while China might have gained in ideological authenticity during the Mao era, the country remained desperately poor.
Mao Zedong died in 1976, opening China to possibilities of foreswearing the zealotry of the late Chairman. In 1978, under the auspices of Deng Xiaoping, a survivor of Mao’s purges, China started making breath-taking reforms and risks that are responsible for the greatest reduction of national poverty unmatched in the country, which remains unmatchced in human history. Even Barack Obama writes that due to China’s post-Mao policies, which entailed an “export-driven economy, a state-managed form of capitalism, no nation in history has developed faster or moved more people out of abject poverty.” Deng and his successors managed to achieve such stupendous feats because they adapted to a constantly changing international economic system. They well understood that insular politics and foreign policies deprived China of the benefits of integration with countries that could furnish China with technology, mineral and energy resources and markets for the country’s products. The country worked painstakingly to be included in the World Trade Organisation (which eventually happened in 2001), and for more than thirty years since 1978, China’s economy was growing at an unprecedented 9.5%. Today, from the $23 of 1949, China’s per capita GDP stands at $10,000, and its life expectancy is at 75 years. In addition to this, in November 2020, President Xi Jinping announced that China had completely eradicated extreme poverty.
The presenters at the 22 June event referred to this inauspicious history in order to highlight the stupendous development that China has attained under the leadership of the CPC. Inevitably, this drew the discussion to where African liberation movements go wrong. In this regard, the CPC’s example carries a few lessons for Southern Africa.
The need to adapt to changing circumstances
The problem with liberation movements in Africa is that they are not as adaptable as the CPC. A candid acknowledgement of mistakes committed led China to abandon Mao-era dogmatism. Southern African liberation movements would also have to forthrightly look at how policies such as affirmative action and land redistribution have not translated into upward mobility for the long suffering ordinary Southern Africans.
In a world that is increasingly globalised, Southern African leaderships could do well to encourage skills and student exchanges, a decision that served the CPC well at the time when it sought to implement what it called the Four Modernisations (agriculture, industry, defence, and science and technology). Considering that the biggest resource that Africa in general has is its people; with only 3% of Africans above the age of 65 years, and about 55% of the people between the age of 15 and 65, the continent is teeming with latent talent which could be put to use through aggressive investment in education; governing parties need to invest not only in traditional tertiary institutions, but in technical colleges that could provide the continent with hard skills.
All this does not require that liberation movements be removed from power. It requires that they become more responsive to their circumstances, that they nurture ideological clarity, and that they defer to talent and capability when appointing people in leadership positions rather than outdated references to one’s “struggle credentials.”
The imperative to advance national priorities
ZANU-PF in Zimbabwe and the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa are partly tethered to the witch-hunting mentality that made them successful liberation movements and exposers of enemy agents. However, there is a dearth of leaders within such movements with the foresight of leaders like Deng Xiaoping – the architect of China’s successful reforms. Consequently, lacking the necessary clarity of purpose, such liberation movements tend to perpetuate their bush-inherited stealth ways, with secret tussles for power that do not really have a national, people-oriented agenda as a priority.
Thus, the failure of entrenched political parties in Southern Africa is not because they have outlived their usefulness; it is rather because they have failed to adapt – to make the leap from anti-colonial agitation to effectively governing the countries they are in charge of, and, as a result, advance national priorities.
Clinging on to power cannot remain the main preoccupation
Multiparty political contestation is another preoccupation that usually taxes most of the energy of liberation movements. Desperate to maintain power, they tend to spend most of their energies and resources on discrediting and harassing their political rivals, as has been the case in Zimbabwe, to devastating effects. In South Africa, the ANC has clung on to power by a slew of stratagems that include the rolling out of the world’s biggest social welfare grant system, for which the poorest, comprising the biggest voting demographic are beneficiaries. In addition, the ANC plays up its central role in ending apartheid, thereby encouraging in prospective voters, the feeling that they owe post-apartheid South Africa to the governing party.
Like its Zimbabwean counterpart, the ANC also traffics in discrediting its rivals, such as accusing the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, of sectarian politics that cater only for white South Africans. This is an oblique allusion that the DA could take South Africa back to apartheid. Unfortunately, while such tactics (of slander, harassment and occasional violence) have kept some liberation movements in power, they have not improved Southern Africa’s circumstances. This calls for urgent action.
No more excuses
It is time for southern African liberation movements to adapt, act with the needed sense of urgency, and respond to changing circumstances in the way that the CPC did. According to Statistics South Africa, the country’s general unemployment rate in the first quarter of 2021 was 32,6%, while among the youth (aged between 15 and 34), it was 46,3% “implying that almost one in every two young people in the labour force did not have a job in the first quarter of 2021.” These cheerless statistics could tempt one to argue in tandem with Professor Mandaza. Yes, some of South Africa’s woes could be blamed on longstanding injustices wrought by colonialism and apartheid. The ANC, as well other southern African liberation movements, inherited a country where the majority of citizens were on the fringes of economic progress. But the CPC did not find a thriving China, either.