Struggle heroes tend to suppress dissent

Zoleka Ndayi

At a UN workshop on Consolidating Peace and Democracy in Africa, African academics, ambassadors, media and civil society organisations expressed disappointment about the state of play in South African politics.

The UN meeting was held in Bamako, Mali, on November 24 and 25.

Once a beacon of hope on the continent, South Africa is slowly becoming a typical African country characterised by political intolerance and suppression of opposing views.

However, the country's emerging opposition and the independent media could play an important role in restoring South Africa's image in Africa and the world at large.

In the last 30 years or so, the African continent has been undergoing tremendous political transformation.

The varieties of "bullet" and non-elected "ballot" regimes have been replaced by elected and democratic governments. This transformation can partly be attributed to the triumph of liberation movements in their quest for freedom of the oppressed.

To mention a few, in 1994 the ANC managed to unseat the apartheid government. Before that, in 1980, Zanu-PF liberated Zimbabweans from the oppressive regime of Ian Smith. Earlier in Uganda, the National Resistance Movement emancipated Ugandans from the tyrannical regimes of both Idi Amin and Milton Obote in the 1970s and the 1980srespectively.

Nonetheless in Africa, liberation movements that came to power after oppressive regimes tend to find it difficult to transcend the politics of struggle and, as a result, undermine the views of the opposition. Yet multiparty politics is the bedrock of democratic consolidation in every society. The most interesting notion is that good and strong opposition tend to come from within these ruling parties.

This opposition is normally the previous leadership or people who were part of the government but critical of its policies.

In an effort to "preserve" the hard-fought for freedom, ruling parties tend to use everything in their power to suppress any opposing views from the breakaway faction and or the opposition.

The emergence of the MDC in Zimbabwe, the leadership of which was once members of Zanu-PF, was triggered by the "ill-conceived" and "corrupt" policies of the Mugabe regime. The ANC's breakaway party, the Congress of the People (Cope), emerged because of differences in principles and other factors.

In Zimbabwe, there are despicable reports of gross human rights violations, especially against MDC supporters. In South Africa, since the recall of former president Thabo Mbeki and the emergence of Cope, there is growing intimidation of the breakaway party by the ANC.

But the ANC's "engagement" with Cope is of a lesser extent, involving disruption of meetings, harassment and physical abuse of Cope's membership by the ANC.

Both Zanu-PF and the ANC claim that they will never allow any party or anyone else to reverse their freedom gains.

However, the levels of democratic maturity in South Africa and in other parts of the continent are not comparable.

It is widely believed that the media is one of the benchmarks used to measure the level of democratic maturity in a country and it is in turn shaped by the level of democratic maturity.

In 1991 in Benin, the media played a very important role in bringing down the bullet regime of President Mathieu Kerekou.

Kerekou himself acknowledged that journalists were responsible for his downfall.

In Zimbabwe, journalistic criticism is not allowed and the government censors the media and ensures that the state-run broadcasters and newspapers support the ruling party.

At some point in South Africa, views and opinions of journalists and political analysts who were critical of the government were censored by the national broadcaster. That is now changing.

In South Africa there is a paranoia within the ANC of the relationship between the media and the emerging opposition.

This is a normal and healthy situation in a young democracy, considering that in the run-up to next year's general elections, there is an indication of convergence of interests between the media and the opposition.

In a bid to guard against being politically outmanoeuvred, the incumbent regime of the ANC alliance is calling for the dissolution of the SABC board and it accuses the public broadcaster of giving more airtime to the opposition than to the ruling party.

It is in this light that civil society in the form of "Save our SABC" is calling for non-government intervention in the functioning of the national broadcaster and is asking everyone to join and support its campaign.

This means that as long as there is a strong opposition, an independent media and a robust civil society, South Africa would not be following the path of other African countries.

lThe writer teaches at Wits University.