Our flunking FLMs

Andrew Donaldson on the southern African 'liberation movements' who won't move on


UPPERMOST in the minds of those who in December 2017 attended the biennial summit in Zimbabwe of the Former Liberation Movements of Southern Africa was an imminent existential crisis: how to remain relevant in a world that, frankly, is moving on and regards them as increasingly irrelevant?

These FLMs may of course take issue with those who question their importance. All of them boast they led their countries to independence. All remain in power: Swapo in Namibia, Frelimo in Mozambique, Zanu-PF in Zimbabwe, Chama Cha Mapinduzo in Tanzania, MPLA in Angola and the ANC in South Africa. 

And while all ostensibly participate in multi-party political systems, they are intolerant of any opposition and have employed any number of anti-democratic measures to cling to power. The result, in effect, is that most of these post-liberation entities are effectively one-party states — and not very successful one-party states, at that.___STEADY_PAYWALL___

However, and while they may still jail, harass and silence their critics, they face a cruel and insurmountable obstacle. These people are not the Rolling Stones, you know, and as such are unable to belt out, decade after decade, the hits of their heyday without appearing ludicrous and very tired. They are done and their time is up. They are so last century, these old men. Even the so-called “Born Frees”, those youngsters supposedly indebted to these elderly struggle poster boys, are now fast approaching middle age.

But, even as their prostates balloon and their teeth fall out, the old toppies continue to slavishly watch out for each other. Take the case of Zimbabwe’s disputed August 2023 elections, for example. The FLMs all sent their own observer missions to monitor the polls yet none of their reports were made public — for quite obvious reasons. They will not speak ill of their own.

Elsewhere, the SADC Electoral Observer Mission, headed by former Zambian vice president Nevers Mumba, concluded that the polls were however riddled with widespread irregularities. In response, Zanu-PF attacked and insulted both Mumba and Zambian president Hakainde Hichilema. 

The latter, who chairs the SADC’s politics, defence and security co-operation structure, came in for particular stick from Zanu-PF spokesman Chris Mutsvangwa: Hichilema was branded a “puppet” who “did not participate in the liberation struggle” and was one of those leaders who “wanted to see the back of the liberation movements”. 

In Mutsvangwa’s view, then, anyone who did not participate in the armed struggle had no right to govern, much less criticise Zanu-PF. It is an opinion shared by many of these greying veterans.

But no amount of ratbag collectivism and demonstrations of solidarity will disguise the fact that Emmerson Mnangagwa, who was returned as Zimbabwean president, is 81 years old and has a wooden bladder, while his main challenger, Nelson Chamisa of the Citizens Coalition for Change, is a spry 45-year-old whose faculties remain soundly intact. And there’s the rub: the Zimmer frame is not a helpful accessory when portraying oneself as a tough anti-colonial freedom fighter. 

Those delegates at the 2017 FLMSA summit clearly had a problem. The memory of their various revolutions is going to run out of puff just as fast as their leaders do when tackling a flight of stairs. The solution, they decided, was to start an academy of sorts, a place where that fiery ideological fervour of the good old days may be rekindled in the virgin bosom of the youthful cadre. 

And so the Mwalimu Julius Nyerere Leadership School in Kibaha, Tanzania, was ushered into being.

At the time of the summit, the journalist Peter Fabricius reported that one of the FLM’s main aims is to “keep each other in power, not least by constantly reminding their respective electorates of how grateful they should be for liberation. The FLM probably also acts as a kind of historical society, evoking nostalgia for the glorious days of the liberation struggles.”

Worryingly, Fabricius’s report, published by the Institute for Security Studies, stated that the motivation for the school was to counter “ideological bankruptcy” among party members — that is, the “growing tendency of the born-free generation” to vote for parties other than the FLMs. “Such measures to bring ideological deviants sternly back into line have a rather disturbingly Stalinist or Maoist air about them,” Fabricius said.

Or, perhaps to be more accurate, a disturbingly Xi’ist air. For it was the Chinese premier, Xi Jinping, who in February last year formally addressed the up-and-coming party officials in the inaugural class of the leadership school in a recorded message about “great changes unseen in a century” and the “urgent need for China and African countries to strengthen solidarity, common development, and exchange of Chinese experience and mutual understanding in governance”.

The school is run in partnership with the Chinese Communist Party, who stumped up some $40-million to launch the project. Its vast campus was built by a Chinese construction company and contains a banquet hall, gyms, tennis courts and about 300 hotel-style rooms with Chinese-made furniture, according to The Times.

The CCP sends teachers to give lessons in subjects such as “Xi Jinping thought”, propaganda and enforcing discipline in line with party ideology, the newspaper said. “[The instructors] show future leaders how to fuse their parties with their respective states, through apparatchiks directing courts and other state institutions.”

Other subjects taught include party governance, party recruitment and lessons from China’s revolutionary past. “Officials are encouraged to fall in line with China on issues such as its advances in the contested South China Sea,” The Times reported.

Collin Ngujapeua, a Swapo official who was one of the 170 students who attended classes in June this year, told the Axios news agency that he hoped to implement several “wonderful lessons” taught by an instructor from the CCP's Central Party School, especially the fusion of party and government.

“Look at the Communist Party of China and the way they are working,” Ngujapeua said. “They are working hand in hand [with the government] … That's one of the very important aspects that we need also to work on in Namibia and also in other African sister parties.” He added that their instructor emphasised that party discipline should be above and outside the law.

Here at the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”), there was some grumbling that, where the ANC are concerned, it was the opposite, the indiscipline, that was above the law. Be that as it may, there was no indication that more practical subjects — how to run a municipality, let’s say, or look after a hospital — are on the school’s curriculum. Instead, the chief lesson the FLMs must learn is that they are the permanent ruling parties and nothing must be allowed to change that.

Classical life and thought

I was not until fairly recently aware of the obscure and ill-fated Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, better known as Elagabalus, who ruled for four years from AD218 until his assassination, aged 18, in AD222. 

But now that a museum in Hertfordshire has stirred up controversy by declaring that Elagabalus was, in fact, a trans woman and henceforth assigned the pronoun “she”, this may well change and we’ll never hear the end of it.

The BBC reports that evidence of Elagabalus’ gender frailty comes from the Roman chronicler Cassius Dio, who claimed that the young emperor, famed for his eccentricity and decadence, was labelled “wife, mistress and queen” and instructed one of his lovers, “Call me not Lord, for I am a Lady.” Dio also noted that the promiscuous Elagabalus was married five times — four times to women and once to Hiercoles, a former slave and chariot driver said to be enormous in the trouser department.

Keith Hoskins, a local Liberal Democrat councillor, maintains that Dio’s text provides proof “that Elagabalus most definitely preferred the ‘she’ pronoun and as such this is something we reflect when discussing her in contemporary times, as we believe is standard practice elsewhere. We know that Elagabalus identified as a woman and was explicit about which pronouns to use, which shows that pronouns are not a new thing.”

Academics are not so sure about this. 

Shushma Malik, a Cambridge university classics professor, told the BBC: “The words Dio uses are not a direct quote from Elagabalus, and at the time of writing the emperor would have been in his early teenage years. There are many examples in Roman literature of times where effeminate language and words were used as a way of criticising or weakening a political figure. References to Elagabalus wearing makeup, wigs and removing body hair may have been written in order to undermine the unpopular emperor.”

Then there is the fact that Dio served the emperor Severus Alexander, who ruled directly after Elagabalus. Dio’s reports stress the slain emperor’s deviant behaviour as justification for his assassination. 

Historians have said feminine behaviour would have been a dishonour to men in Rome, and suggested that accounts of Elagabalus’ life are replete with the most vile accusations that could be levelled at a Roman because they are character assassinations. As another Cambridge professor, Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, told the Telegraph: “The Romans didn’t have our idea of ‘trans’ as a category, but they used accusations of sexual behaviour ‘as a woman’ as one of the worst insults against men.” He added that, as Elagabalus was Syrian and not Roman, “there’s racial prejudice going on there too”.

Critics have also pointed out that the rationale for portraying Elagabalus as transgender is clearly to suggest that issues of gender identity are not new. This, it is argued, risks normalising the more extreme wing of the trans movement on the grounds that all this really is the stuff of history. Even so, I fear it’s going to be a while before we start seeing the likes of Elagabalus in the chronicles of that indomitable Gaul, Asterix.