Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version

Henning Melber looks at the possibilities for a people-centred opposition and ultimately a true liberation in Namibia and Zimbabwe, after years of misrule by the liberation movements-turned-ruling parties.

‘There is a need for a healing of the nation. The process of national healing and reconciliation is unlikely to proceed as long as society is still polarised. In addition, without also addressing past crimes, corruption, marginalisation and poverty, it is unlikely that reconciliation can be achieved.’

This insight was contained in the Kenya mission report of the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM). It was submitted by the APRM panel of eminent persons to the continent’s heads of state at the African Union summit in July 2006.[1] One and a half years later, Kenyan society was traumatised by the worst violence since independence and its people more divided than ever. The (allegedly orchestrated) civil war-like situation erupted over disputed election results. It showed that, beneath the surface of a seemingly peaceful society, deep-rooted antagonisms could be mobilised to unleash blind hatred and massive destruction of property and lives between people who had hitherto lived in relative peace with each other. In such circumstances an assumed socio-political stability proved to be treacherous, fragile, and prone to easy manipulation.

Many societies in Africa are confronted with similar challenges. Since the mid-1990s national reconciliation initiatives have emerged in a series of African countries. These were inspired by the widely praised Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa, which symbolised the country’s collective effort to come to terms with a past that still dominated its present and could have a lasting impact on its future. Despite all its limitations, the TRC has been widely perceived as an encouraging initiative, as a lesson in bringing skeletons out of the closet and dealing publicly with the lasting effects of violence and counter-violence. Far from solving structurally rooted historical legacies and their daily impact on the lives of ordinary citizens, or ending discrimination, or bringing to task many of the perpetrators, it brought to the fore the need to address history in the present.[2] Similar initiatives were taken in other war-torn societies marred by organised repression and mass violence, which had left festering wounds and scars among people now longing for healing and seeking a common future.

Two former settler societies neighbouring South Africa are among the countries whose governments did not follow this trend and refused to seek national reconciliation by means of public debate and transitional forms of justice and reconciliation. Zimbabwe and Namibia achieved their independence through long anti-colonial struggles led by liberation movements. In both cases the final defeat of colonialism was not achieved through the barrel of a gun (although the military dimension had an important role in forcing the colonial power to the negotiating table) but through agreements reached between the parties for change. These provided a transitional framework which limited the space for social transformation and the redistribution of wealth.

As a result of this negotiated decolonisation, the former liberation movements (Zanu PF in Zimbabwe and SWAPO in Namibia) were elected as legitimate governments in 1980 and 1990 respectively and have held absolute political power and control over the state bureaucracy since then (although, as we can currently see in Zimbabwe, not for eternity). In contrast to South Africa’s democratically elected government under the ANC, the Zimbabwean and Namibian political leadership never pursued anything similar to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Instead, they proclaimed national reconciliation as some kind of pragmatic agreement which became effective with independence. Their policy was to leave the past behind, with no public debate or dialogue over the injustices committed (although selective reference to colonial crimes was made when needed and commemorated as part of the liberation gospel).

In both societies the justification for casting this kind of official smokescreen over the colonial past was rooted to some extent in the argument that the repressive machinery of colonial occupation had been staffed and executed by many who at independence could no longer be held accountable. This was either because of an amnesty declared for those on all sides of the conflict, or because some of the worst abusers of human rights had retreated to their British or South African countries of origin. National reconciliation was defined in terms of closing the colonial chapter without seeking justice through institutionalised hearings or other forms of coming to terms with the past. The cleansing process, which to some extent was initiated and implemented in the South African TRC, was conspicuously absent. Not so, however, the collective blame placed on colonialism for all subsequent failures in post-independence nation-building and re-structuring of society, which (despite some relevant aspects) was often used as an excuse to evade responsibility for ‘good governance’.

This seemingly pragmatic (and rather self-righteous) approach denied the need and missed the opportunity to deal with failures in the ranks of the liberation movements themselves. This had never been the main issue in the TRC, but was unavoidably brought to the fore when the excesses of the apartheid regime were laid open. Even though the degree of self-critical examination of human rights violations within the ANC was rather limited (and hampered the final process of publicising the TRC report’s findings), it nevertheless became an issue for which President Nelson Mandela apologised to the victims and their families. Having been imprisoned for almost three decades since the early 1960s, Madiba was a charismatic leader and moral role model who could apologise for failures in the exiled ANC, for which he was obviously not personally responsible, nor perhaps even aware. This sign of remorse and indirect moral responsibility only added to his aura.

In contrast, both Robert Mugabe of Zanu PF and Sam Nujoma of SWAPO were active leaders in exile, deeply involved in internal power struggles. They were not only an integral part of the authoritarian hierarchy but its personification. In ultimate charge of the command structures dominating their liberation movements, they were to some degree personally accountable for the abuses and malpractice within their ranks. As heads of state they were not inclined to address such issues. Instead, past injustices on all sides would be put to rest. By doing so, however, the liberation movements sacrificed the moral high ground they had been able to occupy vis-à-vis the oppressive colonial regimes. Their own failures remained unfinished business and left festering wounds within the new post-colonial societies. The dominant mindsets emerging at independence represented more of an old order than a new one and showed the limits to liberation.[3]

In Zimbabwe, violence within and between the liberation movements escalated soon after independence in organised massacres in Matabeleland (the western part of Zimbabwe occupied mostly by Ndebele-speakers considered in large part to be supporters of the Joshua Nkomo-led ZAPU, which competed with Zanu PF for power). Between early 1983 and late 1986, an estimated 20,000 people were killed in horrific acts of barbarism carried out by the Fifth Brigade of the Zimbabwe National Army, trained by North Korean military advisors. Although known and reported at the time, the massacres went largely ignored, even by the former colonial power. Described by Robert Mugabe as Gukurahundi (‘the rain that washes away the chaff before the summer rains’), this organised mass violence was a defining moment for his regime. The Catholic church in Zimbabwe was a lonely voice in revealing the scale of the atrocities.[4] Since then, the openly violent character of Mugabe’s rule has drawn worldwide attention. However, it only became a concern for the international community (represented by Western countries) when the so-called fast-track land reform process dispossessed most of the commercial farmers and portrayed the conflict (misleadingly so) as one between a remaining white settler minority and the government. This suggests a moral selectivity in Western perceptions, which the populist rhetoric of the despotic regime managed to exploit.

As part of the Namibian independence process, several hundred members of SWAPO in exile, who were accused of being South African agents, were released and repatriated in mid-1989. Known as ‘ex-detainees’, they shared their plight with the Namibian public at home. Since the early 1980s several thousand were thought to have been imprisoned, tortured and raped in camps in southern Angola. Many did not survive the ordeal; others remain missing. Ever since their return, these ex-detainees have asked for rehabilitation and an apology from SWAPO for the human rights violations committed.[5] But the liberation movement in power has applied a policy of denial, on the grounds that this would open wounds and thereby put peace and stability at risk. Moreover, SWAPO argued, the atrocities by the South African regime and its local collaborators would also need to be scrutinised in return, which would undermine national reconciliation. Instead, and similar to the official narratives cultivated by Zanu PF in Zimbabwe, SWAPO started a ‘nation-building project’ guided by what has been termed ‘patriotic history’, which cultivates the gospel of an organisation and its leaders as the morally impeccable liberators of the people.[6]

In both Zimbabwe and Namibia the former liberation movements in political power were also granted the power of defining the national interest. But the political and ideological hegemony assumed at independence is now deteriorating, with governments failing to maintain control over the one-dimensional collective identity constructed and imposed earlier on. This has been evident since the turn of the century in Zimbabwe, with the emergence of the MDC as a meaningful political opposition, suggesting that the liberation gospel has an expiry date. The coerced legitimacy of the government has been eroded, provoking intimidation, an ever-growing culture of fear, and ultimately rule based on state terror. As we know from history, these kinds of dictatorial regimes sooner or later come to an end through the same popular movements that they intimidated and oppressed for so long.

In Namibia, an opposition emerged towards the end of 2007 from within the belly of the beast. Former high-ranking SWAPO officials formed the Rally for Democracy and Progress (RDP) to challenge the undisputed dominance of the former liberation movement. The next presidential and parliamentary elections, scheduled for the end of 2009, could result in SWAPO’s loss of its two-thirds majority in parliament, and hence absolute control over the country’s political and legal decision-making process. Nervousness is mounting. Leading office-bearers in the Namibian government warn of a Kenyan situation and blame the new opposition for fuelling ethnic rivalries. This is an argument which resorts to the culture of fear rather than seeks reconciliation and common ground; it names and shames others rather than identifies common denominators as Namibians. Such a knee-jerk response to political challenge also suggests an inability to deal with one’s own shortcomings and failures.

Leaders of the Namibian Lutheran churches have responded to the growing polarisation by means of a pastoral letter read out during sermons on 23 March 2008 and later published. In light of the violence that erupted between the two main rival parties, triggered by a local election campaign, the bishops of the three churches expressed their fear that the country is moving backwards rather than forwards in terms of freedom and democracy. The bishops wrote in their letter of ‘intolerance, verbal and physical attacks and counter attacks’. They warned that ‘failure to redress this situation now can lead to mass loss of lives country wide’. ‘What we say as leaders… is the seed which bears the consequential behaviour for violence and peace… Political opponents are not enemies, but participants in a democratic set-up.’[7] This is the first time since independence that the church has commented on the country’s politics in this way. Alarm bells are ringing, but Namibians still have the opportunity to learn from the sad lessons in Kenya and elsewhere – not least in neighbouring Zimbabwe, which in many respects is so close to home.

*Henning Melber is Executive Director of the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation in Uppsala, Sweden. A son of German immigrants to Namibia, he joined SWAPO in 1974. This text is a contribution to 'New Routes – A Journal of Peace Research and Action' vol. 13, no. 2, 2008, to be published by the Life & Peace Institute.

**Please send comments to or comment online at

For additional votes, please follow this link:

1. Manby, B. (2008) 'African Peer Review Mechanism: Lessons from Kenya', Pambazuka News, no. 362, 16 April 2008.

2. For a stock-taking exercise on the TRC see the essay by Villa-Vicencio, C. (2007) 'South Africa: dealing with the past, heading for the future'. New Routes, vol. 12, no. 3, pp. 9-12.

3. See the various contributions to Melber, H. (ed.) (2003) 'Limits to Liberation in Southern Africa. The Unfinished Business of Democratic Consolidation'. Cape Town, HSRC Press.

4. Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace and Legal Resources Foundation (1997) 'Breaking the Silence. Building True Peace. A Report on the Disturbances in Matabeleland and the Midlands 1980 to 1988'. Harare, Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace and Legal Resources Foundation.

5. Saul, J. and Leys, C. (2003) 'Truth, Reconciliation, Amnesia. The “ex-Detainees” Fight for Justice', in Melber, H. (ed.) 'Re-examining Liberation in Namibia. Political Culture since Independence'. Uppsala, The Nordic Africa Institute, pp. 69-86.

6. Saunders, C. (2007) 'History and the Armed Struggle. From Anti-colonial Propaganda to "Patriotic History"’? In, Melber, H. (ed.) 'Transitions in Namibia. Which Changes for Whom?' Uppsala, The Nordic Africa Institute, pp. 13-28.

7. Weidlich, B. (2008) 'Namibia: Churches Disturbed by Intolerance'. The Namibian, 2 April.