Opinionista Farid Abdulhamid 17 January 2019

The secret of power: Dominating the political landscape of southern Africa

Political upheavals and scandals aside, it appears that Southern Africa’s ruling hegemonic parties remain a force to reckon with owing to their solid organisational structure and their resilient, hegemonic nature largely boosted by their historical role in the Pan-African liberation.

The African continent’s ruling hegemonic parties that have perfected the art of longevity in the realm of political power have proven difficult to unseat in successive decades. Most of these hegemonic parties originate in Southern Africa and have roots in the Pan-African Liberation struggles of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s and are erstwhile considered the parties of national independence. These hegemonic parties dominate the political landscape in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Mozambique, Angola and Tanzania.

While most of the region’s hegemonic parties have enjoyed a smooth ride in maintaining their ruling power over the decades, the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF), the ruling liberation era party that held the reins of power since the Southern African country’s independence in 1980, is a clear exception, having survived a tumultuous political terrain in retaining its stranglehold on power. Despite its popularity in some circles, Zanu-PF’s apparent hegemonic weakness stems from its reliance on some element of coercion during closely contested elections as opposed to other hegemonic parties in the region that sail through electoral processes through political persuasion and mobilisation capacity.

A closer look at Zanu-PF, the most vulnerable of Southern Africa’s long-lasting ruling parties, can best provide an explication as to why such hegemonic parties retain the ability to infinitely maintain a virtual monopoly in ruling circles. If Zanu-PF that occupies the bottom rung of this hegemonic clique continues to enjoy ruling power, the other increasingly powerful band in this coterie can cement their status in power as super hegemonic.

In the run-up to the 30 July 2018 general elections, some political observers and pundits alike expressed their scepticism over the future or longevity of a seemingly fractious, post-Mugabe, (Zanu-PF). But the Nelson Chamisa – led, main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC Alliance) that vied for the top seat for the first time without its late talisman, Morgan Tsvangirai, was once again outmaneuvered by Zanu-PF, and the military-backed incumbent, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who took power following the ouster of Mugabe, emerged victorious. Regarded by his supporters as a liberation-era stalwart, Mnangagwa’s victory ensured that Zanu-PF maintained its hegemonic status – though not in the Gramscian sense – as a formidable party with deep roots in the Pan-African liberation.

According to regional analysts, Zanu-PF may remain a force to reckon with in the future given its unique organisational structure that gives it’s an advantageous edge over its rivals. Like South Africa’s, African National Congress (ANC), Zanu-PF is built around its Central Committee flanked by its two powerful Women and Youth Leagues. In most developing countries, women and the youth constitute among the most marginalised sectors of society lacking the necessary voice and political platform at a national level. In the Women and Youth Leagues, Zimbabwe’s marginalised entities find themselves occupying powerful organs within Zanu-PF. Although opposition parties like the MDC Alliance have women and youth assemblies within their ranks, their status is not easily comparable to Zanu-PF’s entrenched, powerful Women and Youth Leagues that have direct access to state media and resources.

The Women and Youth Leagues afford the stated Zanu-PF constituencies a semblance of power they cannot readily muster in the nation’s oppositional arena. Seen as an empowerment mechanism at national decision-making levels, the powerful women and youth leagues have extended networks of representation across the country’s 10 provinces. Over the years, the independence era party has effectively utilised its Women and Youth Leagues to mobilise national support in its quest to hold onto power especially since the advent of the multi-party era.

The continued presence of the powerful Leagues gives Zanu-PF the appearance of an inclusive, egalitarian party responsive to the needs and interests of a cross-section of Zimbabwean society. As such, Zanu-PF, which considers itself the people’s party, finds it easy to label the MDC Alliance as a party representing the interests of the bourgeois class. While parties like the MDC Alliance appear to retain greater support in urban areas, Zanu-PF’s extensive reach and elaborate structure ensure it remains attractive in the rural areas where the majority of voters reside.

Like the (ANC), Zimbabwe’s Zanu-PF is a political party with national liberation background. In a young country like Zimbabwe, the liberation struggle of the 1970s still lives in the national conscience of the vast majority of the population and this is equally true of the ANC in South Africa. Unlike its rivals, it can still exploit its liberation era credentials and as stated, its current leader, Mnangagwa, is viewed by a sizeable number of Zimbabweans as a liberation-era icon. Additionally, Zanu-PF retains strong support within the military and this can be a critical factor in its ability to cling to power.

With its long history in the liberation and post-liberation national discourse, Zanu-PF has earned its place in the exclusive club of Africa’s hegemonic parties that retain an iron grip on state power.

In power over 24 years, the ANC is an example of a hegemonic party that has single-handedly dominated South African politics and is perennially favoured to win elections despite its top brass leadership being mired in wanton corruption and nepotism. Even though the ANC was riven by bitter wrangling in recent years that led to the ouster of former president and party supremo, Jacob Zuma, it is expected that under current President, Cyril Ramaphosa, partly tainted by his infamous role in the Marikana massacre, the ANC will romp to another electoral victory in the upcoming May polls.

The ruling People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), fought for and secured that country’s independence from Portugal in 1975 and has since ruled unchallenged for over forty-three years. In Maputo, the Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo), which has also reigned for over forty-three years, is credited with that country’s independence from Portugal in 1975 and remains in power consolidating its status as another hegemonic party. In Namibia, the former South West African Peoples Organization currently known as Swapo Party, is a hegemonic independence era party that has ruled uninterrupted for twenty-eight or so years since it defeated former colonial power, apartheid South Africa back in 1990, in an armed struggle that lasted 24 years.

In Tanzania (geographically in East Africa, but geo-politically in Southern Africa), the ruling Chama Cha MapinduziCCM (Revolutionary Party) has ruled that country since 1977. CCM was founded after the merger of the independence party, Tanganyika African National Union (TANU) and the Afro-Shirazi Party (ASP), the former ruling entities in mainland Tanzania and the semi-autonomous island of Zanzibar respectively, effectively making the rebranded party the longest ruling establishment in Africa. As a front line state, Tanzania provided military bases and financial and material support to the Southern African Liberation Movements. Apart from the liberation legacy, the hegemonic strengths of the ANC, MPLA, Frelimo, Swapo Party and CCM is partly credited to their non-coercive, persuasion power and mobilisation clout.

Given that all these independence-era, hegemonic Southern African parties maintain strong ties with Zanu-PF due to their shared history in the Pan-African liberation, Zimbabwe’s ruling party (weakest link in the hegemonic club) is undoubtedly surrounded by powerful allies that will ensure it remains within the exclusive circle of the region’s powerful ruling entities.

Political upheavals and scandals aside, it appears that Southern Africa’s ruling hegemonic parties remain a force to be reckoned with owing to their solid organisational structure and their resilient, hegemonic nature largely boosted by their historical role in the Pan-African liberation. DM


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