Conflict in Southern Africa: so far, yet so close

Rhodes>Perspective>2014 Archive

FIVE countries in Southern Africa will hold elections this year. Voters in Malawi and South Africa will go to the polls in May, followed by the citizens of Botswana, Mozambique and Namibia in the subsequent months. Considering where Africa stood a generation ago, the relative calm and peaceful conditions under which these elections will take place are cause for celebration.

True, Malawi’s roads may be disparaged by President Jacob Zuma, whose personal infrastructure courtesy of taxpayers receives ample attention. But between 1994 and this year, Malawi has peacefully moved from rule by a strongman to having a female president accountable to the constitution.

It is all too easy to take political stability in Southern Africa for granted. But memories are short. It was only at the beginning of the 1990s that a deadly, decades-long conflict was coming to an end. The defeat of apartheid opened the space for the region to move ahead in peace.

Namibia became independent in 1990 after 24 years of internal warfare. In 1987, Washington Post foreign correspondent William Claiborne wrote of Namibia that "the cost in lives and resources has been large: an estimated 10,000 South West Africa People’s Organisation (Swapo) guerrillas dead in the past 10 years alone; uncounted civilian casualties on both sides of the border; nearly $1.5m a day spent to maintain the South African military machine … and inestimable property losses and monetary drain from the dislocation of the economy in Namibia and Angola".

Today, Swapo is the ruling party, kept on its toes by political contestation in generally peaceful conditions. Namibia’s tourism industry has garnered worldwide acclaim.

Mozambique held its first democratic elections in 1994 after a civil war that began in 1977 between the Frelimo government and apartheid-sponsored Renamo. The war claimed about 1-million lives and displaced about 5-million people.

The manner of resolution of the Mozambican conflict made lasting peace possible. Former president Thabo Mbeki and Ugandan academic Mahmood Mamdani wrote in the New York Times last week that "in civil wars, no one is wholly innocent and no one wholly guilty. And extreme violence is seldom a stand-alone act. More often than not, it is part of a cycle of violence. Victims and perpetrators often trade places, and each side has a narrative of violence." The protagonists in Mozambique negotiated a peace deal that created an inclusive political space. The country is a far better place 22 years after the fighting ended.

The Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa) brought to an end the violence of apartheid and reaffirmed that South Africa belonged to all who lived in it. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report sketches some of the details of the lives lost and shattered during our own internal conflict and the recent Nelson Mandela movie shows the level of bloody violence that ushered in South Africa’s democracy. The townships were on fire. Freedom fighters were in exile and in jail. Armed soldiers and police walked the streets.

Interestingly, South Africa, a midwife of regional stability, goes into its own elections with a shaky social and political landscape.

Poor black youngsters with no hope of getting jobs are questioning the benefits of freedom. They are in the streets in revolt, some of them torching government buildings and houses belonging to local politicians, just as it was not so long ago. The police are responding with deadly violence, just as it was not so long ago. In the past six weeks alone, the police have reportedly killed nine protesters.

According to police figures, 2,947 "service-delivery" protests took place across the country in the three months to the end of last month. These protests have become increasingly angry, violent and political. In Sebokeng, protesters sang: "Mmuso wa Zuma re a ofetola (We are replacing Zuma’s government)."

The African National Congress, which built much of its political capital on its ability to control the masses, is fast losing political control and legitimacy in working class townships. The warning signals are flashing. Maybe it is time for another Codesa.

By Palesa Morudu

Source: Business Day