What Africa’s Most Newly Independent States Did With 22 Years Of Freedom

South Africa is celebrating 22 years since its first democratic elections. To get a feel for its progress The Conversation Africa’s politics editor Thabo Leshilo asked academics to review how well Namibia and Zimbabwe, the other two most recently independent countries on the continent, had performed 22 years into their independence journey. Twenty years after independence first began to sweep across Africa Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980. Ten years later, in 1990, it was Namibia’s turn.


Enock C. Mudzamiri, PhD candidate in Politics, University of South Africa

After 22 years of freedom Zimbabwe was in the throes of a severe socio-economic and political crisis. The turbulent political environment had reduced it to a pariah state: human rights abuses and political intolerance led to condemnation of the ruling elite.

State of democracy: In the first and second decades after independence, ZANU-PF had effectively used co-option to neutralise the opposition. But the governing ZANU-PF began declining in popularity amid growing unrest and a failing economy.

As a result, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) was formed in late 1999. It presented the greatest challenge to ZANU-PF hegemony. Being a national liberation movement, the incumbent viewed itself as the only legitimate representation of people’s aspirations. It viewed any form of opposition as betrayal to the aspirations of independence.

The regime resorted to repression and manipulation of the electoral process. It used its control of the bureaucratic and state security apparatus to good effect.

Given ZANU-PF’s disdain for opposition, the MDC’s formation and subsequent popularity heightened political tension in the country. Barely a year old, it won almost half of the parliamentary seats in the 2000 parliamentary elections. But two years later it lost a highly controversial presidential election.

Instead of viewing the emergence of a vibrant opposition political party as good for multi-party democracy, ZANU-PF unleashed violence against the MDC as it became increasingly desperate to cling to power.

Independence of the judiciary: This period was characterised by an acrimonious relationship between the executive and the judiciary.

Two issues were of primary concern: land, and petitions by the opposition over flawed elections. The Supreme Court had earlier ruled against compulsory land acquisitions and human rights abuses perpetrated by the state.

But the judiciary came under assault. The executive systematically replaced judges whose rulings opposed its policy positions.

The economy: By the end of 2002 Zimbabwe was in economic meltdown. It battled a complicated combination of domestic and external debt, crippling foreign exchange shortages, cronyism and corruption, and escalating inflation. Access to land was a particularly pertinent issue.

Subsequently, President Robert Mugabe pursued an aggressive programme of confiscating white-owned farms. More than half of the country’s white farmers were forced to relinquish their property. The confiscated land was often claimed by politically connected individuals with little or no farming experience, and redistributed for the political expediency of ZANU-PF. Decline in GDP per capita was an accumulative 23%, with an annual rate of inflation of 112%.

By the end of 2002 it was estimated that 200,000 jobs had been lost since 2000, mostly in agriculture and manufacturing, investment had shrunk by 80% between January and May 2002 and that over 60% of the country’s 12.5 million people were living below the poverty line.

Overnight, Zimbabwe was transformed from being a bread-basket to a basket case. By mid 2003 the IMF had suspended its technical assistance.

The general deterioration of the economy also led to high unemployment and escalating prices for basic commodities.

Delivery on basic services: Social programmes, particularly in health and education, suffered because of the state’s weak fiscal position. Electricity, fuel and food shortages, a brain drain, a breakdown of social services and disease were rife. At the time the HIV infection rate was the third highest in Africa. Zimbabwe continues on a downward spiral despite assertions to the contrary.



Henning Melber, Extraordinary Professor, Department of Political Sciences, University of Pretoria

Namibia’s independence was a negotiated, controlled process. After 22 years, the country’s harvest of the fruits of independence remained mixed.

State of democracy: The governing SWAPO of Namibia translated the slogan from the “struggle days” that “SWAPO is the nation and the nation is SWAPO” into an ever-increasing political dominance.

Namibia independence celebrations at Windhoek Stadium in 2003. Henning Melber

It started off with an absolute majority in the United Nations supervised elections for a Constituent Assembly prior to independence. It obtained a two-thirds majority in the first elections afterwards. It subsequently expanded this into three-quarters of the votes. Namibia meets all criteria of a multi-party democracy, but at 22 it was a de facto one-party state.

The political opposition remains scattered and is more occupied with internal rivalries. Alternatives to SWAPO are hardly visible. Between 2000 and 2010 and between 2010 to 2015 two breakaway parties managed to emerge as the official opposition. But they never snatched votes from the SWAPO base and later collapsed.

Independence of the judiciacy: Namibia has benefited from an independent judiciary, which at times has also reigned in the dominant party. But delivery of justice is often painfully slow and lacks efficiency. A high treason trial against more than 140 accused, originally arrested in late 1999, only ended in 2015. Many of the accused awaited trial in jail for up to 16 years. Finally, only a quarter were convicted. Notwithstanding this scandal, Namibia maintains a rule of law, which to a large extent has not been abused as the law of the rulers.

The economy: In terms of annual per capita figures, Namibia ranks as a higher middle-income country. Its GDP benefits from resource extraction in mining and fisheries. But the rent seeking nature of local capitalism has hardly changed the fundamental structures of the colonial economy.

A new elite has used “affirmative action” for self-enrichment, while the majority of the population remains excluded from the benefits of the relative wealth. Gains from natural resources end up in the accounts of foreign companies and some perks for a local elite, which is no longer exclusively white. The country’s economy operates on borrowed time and has not yet created meaningful investments into the future.

The discrepancy in Namibia’s ranking in terms of average per capita income and its poverty adjusted Human Development Index is the second highest in the world (after Iran).

Delivery on basic services: The government has made some measurable and visible progress. For example, there is wider access to clean water, electricity and roads. There has also been heavy investment in education but this has been highly inefficient. In addition, public utilities and services require payment, which is often unaffordable to the majority of Namibians who live at the margins of society.

Material aspects of freedom – such as freedom from poverty and right to proper shelter – remain below original expectations. At independence national sovereignty was associated with a better life, if not for all, then at least for most. Namibians enjoy a high degree of individual civil rights and freedoms, including free media. But they lack meaningful political alternatives to the former liberation movement.

The fruits of independence remain more on the side of relative liberties in terms of civil rights without adequate freedom from want in economic terms. Namibia at 22 – and since then – can best be characterised as a society based on a pragmatic pact to the benefit of an old and a new elite. It is a case documenting the limits to liberation.

Source: The Conversation


Written by PH

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