Perestroika as Africans See It

Against the Current, No. 28, September/October 1990

John Pape

AT THE EASTERN European revolution is an epochal event, there cannot be the slightest doubt. That it has already sparked off a very intense Ideologically-inspired intellectual and political debate, there can also be no dispute. The debate has already undermined the weak case for a one-party structure… This is a positive development.

“Already we can say socialism will never be the same again. The desire to build ‘socialism with a human face’ was one of the slogans and hopes of the Prague Spring of 1968. We will hear more of it in the 1990s and no less so in Southern Africa.”(1)

For many years one-party states have been the norm in Africa. Many of them claimed to be building socialism. Leaders like Julius Nyrere of Tanzania appealed to African tradition in constructing a model of “African socialism.”

Nyrere’s view held that in precolonial society the idea of class or caste was non-existent’ He then concluded that one-party states in Africa helped build national unity by forming a continuum with an African history disrupted by decades of colonialism. He also asserted that single-party rule laid a firm groundwork for democracy:

“Where there is one party and that party is identified with the nation as a whole, the foundations of democracy are firmer than they can ever be where you have two or more parties, each representing only a section of the community.”(2)

Aside from the African Socialism approach, many more orthodox Marxist-Leninist governments such as those of Mozambique, Angola and Benin have established one-party rule in the name of advancing the interests of the workers and peasants.

In the wake of perestroika and the domino-like toppling of the states of Eastern Europe, African political models are being questioned. Events in Benin have perhaps the most direct parallel with the Eastern bloc After months of nationwide teacher and student strikes and demonstrations, President Mathieu Kerekou announced in early December 1989 that Marxism-Leninism would no longer be the “Beninese state’s official ideology” and that a new Constitution based on free elections would be drawn up in 1990.

As a sidelight Kerekou added that “using the term comrade is no longer compulsory in our country’s administrative rules and practices.“(3)

Less dramatic than the changes in Benin was the quiet dropping of Marxism-Leninism as the official ideology by the Mozambique Liberation Front’s (FRELIMO) fifth party congress in Mozambique.

FRELIMO’s decision was not the re-suit of popular pressure, as had been the case in Benin, but rather a product of the lengthy war with the South African-backed Mozambique National Resistance (MNR), which has brought the economy to a virtual halt. Nonetheless, the jettisoning of Marxism-Leninism by FRELIMO has prompted widespread discussion within the country of the single-party approach.

Zimbabwe, South Africa Are Key

While the events in the above-mentioned countries bear watching, the most crucial observation points for perestroika watchers in Africa are Zimbabwe and South Africa. For the last several years, Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, the leader of the ruling party Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), has repeatedly expressed his desire to move his country down the well-worn mad to the one-party state.

In December 1987 the last major obstacle to that destination appeared to be overcome when the Unity Accord with the opposition Zimbabwe African Peoples Union (ZAPIJ) was signed. However, the actual machinations of unifying the parties took longer than expected. The final touches on the merger were not, completed until December 1989.

During the intervening period, the country was rocked by a series of demonstrations and corruption scandals. Among other things, these events led to the formation of a new political party in May 1989 — the Zimbabwe Unity Movement (ZUM) headed by former ZANIJ General Secretary Edgar Tekere.*

This March, ZUM contested its first general election. Though they won only two out of 120 parliamentary seats, these figures are deceiving.

First, the ZUM campaign was subject to intense harassment by both ZANU and government officials. Permits for rallies were repeatedly denied, press coverage for ZUM was minimal and always severely biased. In addition, there was frequent intimidation of ZUM supporters, the most flagrant being the shooting of ZUM candidate Patrick Kombayi in Gweru. Kombayi survived the shooting but lost the election when officials redrew the boundaries of his constituency just a few days before the vote.

While gerrymandering may have prevented ZUM from winning more than two seats, Tekere’s party received over 15% of the vote nationwide and captured30% in the capital of Harare. Even more important were the stayaways: In 1985 ZANIJ and ZAPU polled more than 90% of registered voters in a 99% turnout, while this year only slightly more than half of those registered cast their ballot. This means that more than half of those registered did not vote for ZANU.

Not surprisingly, one of ZUM’s main campaign issues was opposition to the one-party state. This has led to widespread debate on the subject Outside ZANU; condemnation of single party rule has been nearly unanimous. Even ZANU central committee members Eddison Zvobgo and Dumiso Dabengwa have expressed quiet uncertainty about the wisdom of a ZANU-only system. For his part, Tekere has described the one-party slate as “tyrannical.”

Other prominent critics include university political science Iecturer Jonathan Moyo. Moyo has directly related his analysis of Zimbabwe to perestroika:

“History has shown that sooner or later the masses discover democracy, and then they revolt with the type of violence and human tragedy seen in what was an overdue overthrow of Nicolae Ceausescu’s one party state socialist dictatorship in Romania on 22 December 1989; the same day ZANU ended its congress with a pledge to seek to establish a similar one party state in Zimbabwe.(4)

In this context, it is particularly haunting that Nicolae Ceausescu was given the “freedom of the city of Harare” in 1983. Up to that time the only person to have been given that accolade was Robert Mugabe.

While Moyo could be characterized as anti-socialist, the editors of the Southern African Political and Economic Monthly, led by Ibbo Mandaza, are generally considered a barometer of local left-wing views. They stand squarely with Moyo on the one-party issue:

“So far the overall negative aspects of the one-Party State in Africa are more than sufficient evidence that this is a political system which is out of step with the realities of our continent.”(5)

In Zimbabwe, the debate over one-party rule has tended to merge with the debate over socialism and Marxism-Leninism. Since there has been little mass education since independence, few people are able to explain even the basic tenets of Marxism-Leninism.(6)

This has led many Zimbabweans to equate socialism with the type of government that has ruled Zimbabwe since 1980. So when many Zimbabweans saw the unfolding events in Eastern Europe coincide so precisely with the united ZANU’s Congress, they inevitably asked, “Why are we going where they are coming from?”

However, the reality of Zimbabwe is that there has never been any serious attempt to establish control over the economy. About 70% of industry remains in foreign hands. 1982 government plans called for resettling 162,000 families during the 1982-85 period; by the end of 1989 only slightly over 50,000 had been resettled.

Cooperatives and state farms are few and generally end up as financial failures. If anything, land ownership has become even more concentrated in private hands since independence. Nearly a decade after the overthrow of Ian Smith, a mere 0000 people – from a total population nearing 10 million—own 45% of the country’s total land mass. Almost all of these are white farmers.

Ironically, the government seems determined to hold onto political power so that it can move the country even further in a free market direction. The soon-to-be implemented Investment Code amounts to a de facto International Monetary Fund Structural Adjustment Program, including liberalized corporate profit remittances, loosened minimum wage laws and the removal of price controls.

While the economic program of ZUM is even more market-oriented than ZANU’s, many Zimbabweans feel that liberalization is the answer since ten years of ZANU “socialism” has led to 30% unemployment, widespread corruption at the highest level, =increasing inflation. The liberalizers have gained further political ground in the absence of an organized force articulating any form of democratic socialism.

For his part, Mugabe seems undeterred by the obvious shift away from his party. He is still pressing on with plans to bring in one-party rule and pursue what he calls Marxism-Leninism. Shortly after the elections he reiterated his long-held views:

“A multi-party system in our circumstances is nothing but a disastrous way to the doom of our nation, for it is, indeed, a sure way to national destruction.”(7)

Mugabe can only continue to pursue his present course through an extremely heavy handed repression. Having garnered less than half the registered vote, his interpretation of the elections as a “mandate” for one-party rule is absurd.

While the conservative but ideologically hazy ZUM may never present a direct threat to ZANU at the polls, the advent of Tekere’s party has put open political discussion and party formation on the agenda. It is unlikely that anything short of large-scale intimidation and imprisonment will reverse this process.

Moreover, if Mugabe’s move to step up repression is not extremely swift, the creditable performance of ZUM at the polls is likely to inspire the formation of a more progressive party in the not-too distant future. Non-ZANU Marxist-Leninists such as university lecturer Kempton Makamure and trade union leader Morgan Tsvangirai, both of whom have been detained in the past year, have joined the chorus demanding what Makamure calls “full glasnost.”

Number one on Makamure’s list of his “agenda for democracy in Zimbabwe” is “the right to form capitalist and Marxist opposition political parties.”(8)

What About the ANC?

While the debate in Zimbabwe may have confounded the issues of the one-party state and socialism, the ramifications of perestroika and its side effects for South Africa appear even more complex. At the heart of the question is the relationship between the Soviet Union and the leading liberation movement, the African National Congress (ANC).

For decades the ANC has relied on the Eastern bloc as its supplier of arms and political support Even such basic tasks as the printing of the movement’s monthly magazine, Sechaba, had been carried out by the East Germans. Now all of this appears up for discussion.

The most immediate issue for the ANC is the armed struggle. In the last year, the Soviet Union has spoken out of both sides of its mouth, on the one hand proclaiming continued support for the ANC but at the same time emphasizing the need for peaceful resolution of regional conflicts.

The ambiguity of the Soviet position has not been lost on Joe Slovo, former commander of the ANC’s armed wing Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation). He has publicly criticized Soviet ambivalence concerning the civil war.

But Slovo’s position is not the only one inside the movement Other leaders who are more receptive toward a negotiated settlement with the DeKierk regime are quite comfortable with an apparent Soviet re-alignment.

In fact, Soviet moderation has weakened the more pro-armed struggle faction within the ANC, of which Slovo and Chris Hard are the most prominent members. At present, the momentum seems to be with the more moderate grouping headed by Thabo Mbeki. The release of Nelson Mandela also has enhanced the momentum of the negotiated settlement approach.

But the ideological questions go far beyond the armed struggle: Slovo and Ham are also well-known members of the South African Communist Party (SACP). The SACP has always been one of Moscow’s most loyal followers perhaps only the Communist Party-United States of America (CP-USA) could be considered more obsequious.

The fall of Eastern European regimes and Moscow’s vacillating support for the liberation war have prompted “new thinking’ within the SACP. The first major product of this reassessment is “Has Socialism Failed?”— a pamphlet written by Slow, the party’s General Secretary, which heavily criticizes the party’s past errors and is in no doubt as to the roots of its inspiration:

“We do not pretend that our party’s changing postures in the direction of democratic socialism are the results only of our own independent evolution. Our shift undoubtedly owes a – debt to the process of perestroika and glasnost, which was so courageously unleashed under Gorbachev’s inspiration. Closer to home the democratic spirit which dominated in the re-emerged trade union movement from the early 1970s onward also made its impact.”

This shift in the SACP could have many implications. Most importantly, if the SACP adheres to its expressed ideas on democracy, the door could be open for a wide range of political debate in a post-apartheid South Africa.

In the past, ANC and SACP leaders have shown little tolerance for competing viewpoints, especially those of its old-time rivals, the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) and the Unity Movement More recently, members of the ANC-oriented United Democratic Front (UDF) have had intermittent violent encounters with supporters of Azanian Tendency groups such as the Azanian Peoples Organization (AZAPO) and the newly formed Pan-Africanist Movement (PAM).

Despite differences with the ANC and the SACP over many issues, Azanian Tendency groups seem to have openly embraced new political thinking. Neville Alexander, one of the tendency’s most prominent spokespersons, summarized this view:

“I believe that nothing better could have happened to the world and to the movement for a postcapitalist society, fora world society, than what is going on in the Soviet Union at the moment. The admission of failure, the admission that people have been hiding from themselves and from their followers the real defeats in recent years and even in the distant past I think these admissions are vital for progress. A new debate has opened up. People in Eastern Europe particularly but even in other parts of Europe, and more and more in South Africa Itself are beginning to feel the same kind of excitement which people felt in the immediate aftermath of the Russian revolution.”9

If a post-apartheid South Africa is to embody the excitement noted by Alexander, the new government will have to do more than tolerate opposing opinion More crucially, the ANC and the SACP must confront the issues of direct democracy and working-class interests.

The Mass Democratic Movement (MDM), a follower of ANC non-racial polities, is the most powerful grassroots political force inside South Africa. The MDM includes a wide array of organizations that have only recently come into direct contact with the exiled liberation movement Perhaps the biggest contrast in the initial meetings between activists inside the country and their external counterparts has been the democratic style of MDMers as compared to the top-down structures of the ANC.

If a future ANC government, which looks nearly inevitable at this point, does not learn the lessons of democracy, it is likely to see its popular base quickly eroded. One wonders if ANC National Executive Committee members and their close allies, the SAG’ Central Committee, have been able to internalize the democratic process after decades of a totally different style of opposition.

Aside from having to restructure its methods of operation, the ANC must also come to terms with the MDM’s largest component, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). In the past, the ANC has shown a tendency to want to advance its own worker wing, the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) as the official voice of the working class.

While SACTU did lead many worker struggles in the 1950s, since the banning of the ANC it has been mainly a paper organization in exile, having had little to do with the post-1973 labor resurgence. Any attempt to impose SACTU or its leadership on the working class, if it means subordinating class interests, could lead to serious conflicts. [This article was written several months before SACTU’s announcement that it plans to dissolve into COSATU –ed.]

Skepticism concerning sudden shifts toward democracy from once highly centralized organizations is not unwarranted. But such skepticism must be balanced with an emphasis on the extent to which a genuine glasnost and perestroika within the ANC and the SACP would be a most welcome event fora future South Africa.

While the two organizations are not exactly the same, they do interlock and overlap. Most critically, they are likely to set the political agenda for a post-apartheid South Africa. There will be tremendous international and local pressure for them to adopt a “pragmatic” approach that means abandoning direct democracy, subordinating working-class interests, and maintaining private ownership of the means of production.

Given the present climate in Southern Africa, the ANC could not charge into power with a program for radical redistribution even if it had the political will to do so. But as the examples of Eastern Europe have forcefully reiterated, nationalization does not equal socialism.

Fora socialist order in South Africa to eventually come to fruition, the institutionalization of direct democracy is a more immediate priority than nationalization. More than any other country on the continent, South Africa has rich history of developed left-wing tendencies and working class organization. If a wide range of political groupings are allowed to operate freely in a majority-ruled South Africa, the roots of a democratic-socialist society may take hold.

However, if the lessons of Eastern Europe, and indeed of one-party states in Africa, have not been learned by the leaders of a post-apartheid regime, the potential for violent conflict and political repression, especially of the revolutionary left, is terrifying.


  1. Lloyd Sachikonye, Zimbabwean political scientist, “Eastern Europe: Restructuring or End of Socialism?” Southern African Political and Economic Monthly, v. 3, n. 5, 1990, 33.
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  2. “Ujamaa: The Basis of African Socialism,” in Friedland and Rosberg (eds.), African Socialism, Stanford, 1964, 238-47.
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  3. No author, “All Change Course,” Africa Events, January 1990, 11.
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  4. Harare Financial Gazette, January 5, 1990.
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  5. Editorial, v. 2 n. 12, 1989, 1.
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  6. See Pape, “Zimbabwe’s Independence Without Socialism,” Against the Current 21.
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  7. Harare Herald, April 8, 1990.
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  8. Harare Financial Gazette, April  6, 1990.
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  9. “Perestroika and Amandla,” Tribute (South Africa), November 3, 1989, 70-5.
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*Tekere, historically associated with a populist Black appeal, this year campaigned against one-party rule while forming a tacit electoral bloc with the white party of former rule Ian Smith.

September-October 1990, ATC 28

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