The final struggle is to stay in power

Leaders of ruling African liberation parties believe they are locked in an endless battle against Western imperialism.

Robert Mugabe's speeches at the Zanu-PF rallies held during his presidential re-election campaign consisted, over and over again, of crude abuse of Tony Blair, a hymn of hatred against British colonialism and an insistence that his opponent, Morgan Tsvangirai, was part of a British plot for the recolonisation of Zimbabwe. In his last speech, however, he sounded a new note: there was, he said, a Western - and especially Anglo-American - plot to destroy Zanu-PF and evict it from power because it was a national liberation movement. If this plot succeeded in Zimbabwe it would then be applied successively against all the other ruling liberation movements in southern Africa.

Without doubt this is a conviction quietly shared by the ruling groups in Angola, Mozambique, Namibia and South Africa and it goes far to explain their reaction to the unfolding crisis in Zimbabwe. Had the Soviet Union not abruptly collapsed and the Cold War ended, there is little doubt that sentiments such as Mugabe's would have been heard from these leaders as they greeted each next visiting delegation from the USSR and Eastern bloc.

All the leadership groups in southern Africa represent the exile wing of their movements and during the long years of the struggle they gave such speeches ad infinitum. As honoured visitors, they traipsed from occasions such as Castro's Tricontinental Congress, the Non-Aligned Movement summit, the Afro-Asian Solidarity Committee in Moscow to the endless stations of the cross provided by the congresses of the ruling Communist parties of the world, from Pankow to Pyongang, from Warsaw to Hanoi.

This is, indeed, the great submerged motif behind the Zimbabwean crisis. The world has changed so that Presidents Chissano, Nujoma and Mbeki find themselves, incongruously, hobnobbing with the Queen at Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings, rubbing shoulders with Bill Gates at World Economic Summits and shaking hands with George W. Bush at G8. It is no longer politic to make ringing speeches in which all these liberation movements are depicted as locked in a continuing, indeed endless, struggle to the death against imperialism.

But this is not to say such notions have disappeared, merely that they have become tacit, sotto voce. They remain almost the deepest beliefs such leaders have, providing them from their earliest years with a heroic definition of themselves and their movements and where they fit into the grand sweep of history.

Since the eruption of the Zimbabwean crisis following Mugabe's defeat in the constitutional referendum of February 2000, there have been repeated summit meetings of the region's ruling national liberation movements (NLMs). These are strictly secret affairs: the media are not allowed to attend, no interviews are given, no TV coverage allowed and no communiqués are issued. But one may surmise without difficulty not only that their discussions are phrased in this older, and now largely hidden, vocabulary of anti-imperialism, but that Mugabe's perspective is a shared one. Such summits were not thought necessary until Mugabe's defeat opened up the prospect that a ruling NLM might actually lose power. This nightmare could only be explained by a fresh assault from imperialist forces, in which case they were all threatened. Immediately, Mugabe's struggle to stay in power became a struggle for their own survival too. Supporting Zanu-PF was no longer just a matter of solidarity but of fundamental self-interest.

It is this perspective which explains why Mbeki, though he might prefer Mugabe to hand over to a younger man or constitute a government of national unity, has been unwavering in his insistence that Zanu-PF must retain power. It is why the ANC will always regard Tsvangirai and the MDC as a lesser breed - at worst Inkatha-like puppets, at best the unintentional dupes of imperialism. It is why the ANC is so wholly unmoved by all the killings, torture, beatings and rapes inflicted on the MDC: such things happen in the struggle against imperialism and the only solution is the final triumph of national liberation. Of course, to keep the Common- wealth ("the imperialists") happy, Mbeki carefully insisted right up to the last minute that a free and fair election was still possible.

It is also why most of the election observers sent by Mbeki were wholly unbothered by such matters as ballot-stuffing by Zanu-PF and the manufacture of between 600,000 and one million bogus votes for Mugabe; why they were unwilling to recognize Zanu-PF thuggery even when they were the victims of it themselves; and why they did not even stay for the election count. For they had really gone on a mission of solidarity with Comrade Mugabe not as impartial observers at all. Their mission was to help cement him back in power and to describe such a result as legitimate. If that meant, that the election had to be declared free and fair in the language of the imperialist world. But this was understood from the outset as a form of necessary mumbo-jumbo. The verdict that the election would pass muster had been decided long before the observers set out.

It is this solidarity too which explains the body language of Jacob Zuma - the dancing delight of celebration when he was sent to confer official congratulation on Mugabe - for another great victory of national liberation had been won and the forces of imperialism beaten back.

The NLMs share what can only be termed a common theology. National liberation is both the just and historically necessary conclusion of the struggle between the people and the forces of racism and colonialism. This has two implications. First, the NLMs - whatever venial sins they may commit - are the righteous. They not merely represent the masses but in a sense they are the masses, and as such they cannot really be wrong. Secondly, according to the theology, their coming to power represents the end of a process. No further group can succeed them for that would mean that the masses, the forces of righteousness, had been overthrown. That, in turn, could only mean that the forces of racism and colonialism , after sulking in defeat and biding their time, had regrouped and launched a counter-attack.

Thus it follows that having won, a NLM should, stay in power forever. Many NLM true believers still favour a one-party state - even if it has become impolitic to say so - for if other parties are allowed or encouraged to compete with the NLM, they can only become the vehicles of imperialist counter-attack. Hence the extra-ordinary self-righteousness, even now, of Mugabe and the Zanu-PF leadership. However much they kill and torture they are utterly convinced of their superior moral standing. They are the elect. The only alternative to them, they believe, must be a return to British colonialism - even though this requires a certain degree of mental gymnastics, given the way in which British colonialism intervened in 1980 to help get rid of Ian Smith and smooth Mugabe's way to power.

Land plays a key part in the theology. Originally the masses had the land but then the racists and colonialists stole it from them and thus the masses lost all their power and were reduced to virtual slaves. It is a matter of holy writ to insist on this dispossession. Thus by the 1950s the ANC had hit on the formula that "just 13 per cent of the population owns 87 per cent of the land". As the spurious symmetry with which these two figures added up to 100 suggested, this was never actually true if only because it left out of account the vast landholdings of the state and the parastatals. Yet, despite the handing over to black rule of vast tracts of rural South Africa, these figures of 13 and 87 stayed magically identical. Even as the homelands were consolidated and grew, as squatter camps mushroomed in formerly white areas and the abolition of the Group Areas Act opened up white residential areas, the figures stayed forever stuck at 13 and 87: they remain so to this day.

It is the same in Zimbabwe where, we are told, the whites took all the land. In fact historians dispute whether, when the first settlers arrived in Rhodesia, the black population was as much as 250,000; nobody thinks it was over 500,000. Most of the land settled was actually vacant. Today white farms account for 23 per cent of the land: even if you add in corporately owned land you cannot push the "white" holdings over 30 per cent. Nor is it even true that this was "all the best land". But, as in the case of South Africa, rational discussion of such questions is tantamount to blasphemy - for in NLM theology these are scriptural matters.

That is why Mbeki has insisted at every juncture that "the land issue" is the fundamental question in Zimbabwe, despite opinion polls showing that only 2 per cent of Zimbabweans agree. In fact, of course, modern commercial agriculture everywhere in the world sees most food produced on a tiny number of large farms. This is the future in southern Africa too. Nobody in Britain or the US asks whether Jews, blacks, Hispanics, women or gays are fully represented in the farming population. Doubtless they are not, but provided the food gets produced nobody cares.

The real truth about the NLM governments is that they allow corrupt elites to cling to power indefinitely. The Zanu-PF elite is now benefiting from "blood diamonds" in a way which even King Leopold's ghost would admire. The MPLA elite in Angola is even worse. Last month BP drew attention to the fact that of the many billions of dollars paid annually in taxes and royalties by the 35 oil companies active in Angola, only half shows up as receipts in the national budget: the other half goes straight into the elite's backpockets. BP will, to the fury of the government, henceforth publicly declare exactly how much it is paying over at each payment point.

None of the NLM governments shows much concern for their own poor and all of them have lamentable records of delivery. In every country they govern life expectancy is shrinking and living conditions are generally worsening.

Not surprisingly, this is leading to the rapid decay of the NLM culture - but just as Marx spoke of the uneven development of capitalism, so this decay is uneven too. It has reached a terminal condition in Zimbabwe first, and the other NLM governments are rushing to resurrect it. But the same decline will gradually face them all. As this happens, it is wholly predictable that they will claim that apartheid, colonialism or imperialism is trying to make a comeback and that they must use all means, foul as well as fair, to "defend the gains of liberation". For the NLM culture only allows of this duality: there is no room in it for the advent of more liberal black parties such as the Movement for Democratic Change, fed up with the tyranny, corruption and hypocrisy of it all.

This is, indeed, the awful warning in Mugabe's current predicament. If ordinary black voters across southern Africa see Mugabe ejected from power by his electorate, they will be electrified to face up to their own self-righteous elites, who are determined to rule and enrich themselves forever in the name of liberation. Gradually these voters will start flocking to their own versions of the MDC. This is what gives the Zimbabwe crisis its huge historic importance: it could yet see that country's liberation from the NLM culture and the rooting of real democracy in Africa.