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  • Whither nationalism?Are we entering an era of post-nationalist politics in Southern Africa?
  • Krista Johnson (bio)


More than 40 years ago Frantz Fanon provided a potent critique of bourgeois anticolonial nationalism when he argued that it was an ideology aimed at the (re)attainment of nationhood through means of the capture and subsequent occupation of the colonial state, and which represented only the interests of the elite indigenous classes (Fanon 1963). In recent years, in part as a result of the rise of viable opposition political parties with the capacity not only to influence policy but to challenge incumbent parties for state power, and the blossoming networks of civil society in several Southern African countries, Fanon has been resurrected by some scholars of the region to launch scathing critiques of nationalist ideology and practice, and of the national liberation movements whom they suggest were always more concerned with the consolidation of elite power than with the empowering of the powerless, and with the extension of privilege rather than with its overthrow (Bond 2002, Melber 2002). For these scholars, some of the key features and indeed limitations of post-independence African nationalism have been the abuse of power exercised by the national liberation parties over its citizens, and the partnerships forged with capital and international forces by an African leadership that identifies with the decadence of the bourgeoisie of the West.

Under the guise of post-independence African nationalism, national liberation movements turned political parties, to varying degrees, have been able to strengthen their political dominance and maintain control over the state by selectively reconstructing narratives of the wars of liberation and inventing new traditions that establish the nationalist parties' exclusive post-colonial legitimacy to rule. The boundaries between the party, [End Page 1] government/state, and constructions of the nation often have become blurred in the post-independence era of Southern Africa, meaning that those who opposed or dissented from the line of the nationalist party were branded as enemies of the people and of the national interest.

However, in recent years we have witnessed the rise of viable opposition political parties in several Southern African countries, such as the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in Zimbabwe and the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) in Zambia, that have successfully challenged the nationalist parties in some political contests. Perhaps more importantly, we have witnessed a resurgence of grassroots, popular politics and the rise of so-called new social movements such as the Anti-Privatization Forum, the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee, and the Treatment Action Campaign in South Africa that have successfully challenged the ANC government's policies on crucial issues such as AIDS treatment and the privatisation of basic resources and services. The community struggles, demonstrations and marches waged by these groups have received international attention and signal for some the building of an alternative politics that can successfully challenge the dominant neoliberal policies of many Southern African governments. Commenting on the mass mobilisation and demonstrations organised in opposition to the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in September 2002, the Canadian anti-apartheid activist John Saul excitedly remarked,

I feel, even more strongly … that we are now entering into novel and complex political terrain in South Africa, terrain that is extremely dangerous but also marked by genuine promise…it was difficult to be on that march and not sense that it served as a significant signpost on the road to a post-neoliberal and post-nationalist politics in South Africa —and as an impressive rallying point for those forces from below that might yet get things back on track in their country.

(Saul 2002:13)

The growth of so-called new social movements and grassroots organisations centered on material and basic needs and often aligned with broader anti-globalisation and anti-neoliberalism campaigns may in some respects suggest the revitalisation of grassroots popular politics in South Africa. However, this new alliance of social movements is not without its own contradictions. The leftist scholar and activist Patrick Bond argued as much noting that,

As the final rally opened, a spokesperson from the landless movement intoned 'Viva Robert Mugabe, Viva! Viva Zanu-PF, Viva!', to strong [End Page 2...


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