Partie 1.1 - Sources de légitimité du pouvoir / Synthèse des débats

Part 1.1 - Sources of Power Legitimacy / Syntesis of the Debate

Book : Parcours international de débat et propositions sur la gouvernance, International Meeting Process for debate and proposals on governance

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Power legitimacy, is the result of a mixture of different type of legitimacy. To better understand the governance of one country (referring to the State and societies) it is thus important to identify the sources of legitimacy which are meaningful for people’s beliefs about power and which participate to the making of society’s shared value and imaginary. In this perspective, the first session of the colloquium aimed at better understanding three sources of power legitimacy, identified as being strongly anchored in the collective imaginary in Southern Africa, namely: liberation struggles, religion and tradition. These three sources of legitimacy have been subdivided into two for the colloquium: Liberation struggle being one and tradition and religion being grouped together. Indirectly it was linked to the fact that tradition and religion are, most of the time, classified under the same category of sources of legitimacy, that is to say, “beliefs”. Nevertheless, the debates highlighted Liberation struggles movements are mostly defined by the values (sacrifices, freedom, etc.) they are carrying out in the collective imaginary so that they also somehow fit in the “beliefs” category. Categorizations of legitimacy sources are useful for analysis but reality shows everything is linked and most important are not the categories themselves but their interactions. Regarding the major role, within the sub-region, historically played by the liberation movements, they were the first source of power legitimacy dealt with by the participants.

Liberation movements

Political parties stemming from liberation movements rule four out of the five countries participating in the colloquium. This reveals a specificity of the sub-region, particularly with regards to the institutional framework and power ownership. Liberation movements are a core historical and sociological phenomenon. “They played a seminal role in the emancipation from authoritarianism or colonial rule” (D. Darbon). It was thus clearly stated that liberation struggles movement and their leaders benefited from an unambiguous and massive support from the population thanks to that historical and political role.

The basis of liberation movements as a source of legitimacy: shared value of freedom, equity, etc.

Decades after liberation struggle, as mentioned by Assane Mbaye, legitimacy of political parties and leaders coming from liberation movement “result from the values inherited by the liberations movements. So the question is how can these values be perpetuated beyond the persons and leaders that brought them?” Furthermore, are these values still founding the legitimacy of the liberation movements and their leaders? In his intervention, Reverend Ngeno Nakamhela describes the partaken experiences in such social movements as an important means of creating shared values: “liberation movements [were] mostly fuelled by [the] aspiration of people”. “The leaders of liberation movement risked their life together, among other people, [which created a] sense of solidarity”. In Mozambique and Namibia, moreover, references to liberation movements are even embedded in their/the constitution. As Professor André Mbata Mangu pointed out, an article of the Mozambican constitution refers to this ‘sacrifice’ of liberation fighters. The constitution « even explain[s] that the red colour of the flag represents the blood of those who fought. (…) [it] defines the rights of the descendants of those who died for the cause”. In Namibia, there was an amendment, implicitly reminding the context of the struggle. Post-liberation leaders often feel this sacrifice has given them “the right to govern”. Two striking examples from Namibia and Zimbabwe were presented. Mutandiri Munjodzi, from Zimbabwe, corroborated that: “The nation is rallied on by a cry of “we liberated you”. (..) There is an attempt [..] to shape gods and heroes who cannot be challenged because of the sacrifices they made towards the liberation of the country. Furthermore they strongly supported the principles of democracy and contiguity to the spreading of values of individual freedom, equality and human dignity. Those movements, members, and leaders which took an active part in the liberation struggle rightly draw a considerable amount of respect and popularity they duly deserved”.

Are liberation movements, and political parties stemming from them, the same sources of legitimacy? The liberation movement, as a source of legitimacy, is increasingly challenged by the reality of the exercise of political power. Statements were done on their difficulties to transform themselves into political parties and on their tendency to de facto become “state parties”. There is a strong disappointment in the affirmation of these values within political parties stemming from liberation movements and their translation into public policies. Paul Hoffman talked about “hijacking [of power] by a liberation movement elite.” This is a step too far for Roger Southall, who warned for the “danger to confuse the regime established by the current elite with the type of oppression that existed before”. Participants agreed however that the transformation from liberation movements to democratic political parties has not been achieved, wondering “where we are going?” since “they failed to go beyond independence” when they “inherited the state, [while] they have no skills to run the state”, noticed the participants. Simon Kobedi pointed out the urgent need for counter-powers. In practice, “people’s power” and their participation in the political process are undermined to varying extents in the different countries.

These discussions drove the participants to remind that legitimacy is a pragmatic and dynamic process. As synthesized by Professor Dominique Darbon, at this point the debates insisted on the fact that a particular legitimacy does not last forever. “It is based upon mere beliefs and representations. These beliefs and representations make people accept or reject a power”. If the gap between the values basing a specific source of legitimacy and the reality is too big, the legitimacy of the political power is compromised. The debates showed a real concern about the state parties and the liberations movements. The question, whether participation in the liberation struggle guarantees, its leaders and movements who fought it, a lifelong right to rule a country and a society, was asked by the participants. A clear answer was given: History cannot buy out political power. Once the struggle is over and the goal of liberation is achieved, liberation movements become ordinary social and political organisations, which, as such, must obey

to the common rule of law they contributed to lay down. Leaders and organisations actively engaged in the liberation struggle played a major role in bringing into being a new and more equal and fair political and constitutional order. Once this new order is established and entrenched in a constitution, as for any other organisation, they must abide by it. They can neither enjoy special political benefits nor demand a right to power. Nevertheless, liberation movements and leaders are still meaningful for people’s beliefs about power, even if more and more people discuss the idea that the “holy story” of liberation is still a driver of political legitimacy. But on what is it based on?

During election campaigns, politicians refer to their role in ‘the struggle’, but when time passes, the amount of people having experienced the struggle decreases. More than that, as Roger Southall reminded us “concerns [of people] have evolved”. Mundjozi Mutandiri confirmed this when he explained that development issues are more and more replacing the liberation’s one. Are political leaders able to renew or reinvent their discourse and legitimacy base? There is a risk that the dominant party gains exclusive ownership of the ideals of the struggle and political opponents are being accused of not being loyal to those ideals. As explained by Nozipho Kwenaite: “Liberation movement have appropriated the space to speak for everyone. […] They do not allow criticisms outside of the movement”. “People are vilipended if they don’t belong to the liberation movement”. On her part, Pauline Dempers refers to the “risk of having a system trying to survive on the legitimacy that carried it to power”. Reverend Ngeno Nakamhela also mentioned: “a risk of holding a new generation hostage of the liberation area (…) [while] loyalty to freedom fighters is not their motivation, they want a secure life.” For Roger Southall “it is important to challenge the monopoly of legitimacy” of liberation movements. He confirmed: “we often talk about liberation movements as a political religion, (..) [the] ANC [is] often seen as a broad Church. “Liberation movements have to be secularized, and desanctified”. Here the religious grammar is rewriting the holy story of Liberation movement. In any case, beyond the historical heritage of liberation struggles, Southern Africa’s political legitimacy is also rooted in longer-term sources, religion and tradition being identified as the most frequently observed in the region.


Religion is currently a major source of power legitimacy in Africa as a whole and in Southern Africa in particular. Religion has also played a major role during the liberation struggle both to delegitimate the apartheid power and to mobilise and organise civil society organisations. Experiences in nearby countries (Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Namibia) but also all over African countries confirm this status. During the debates, religions were said to be a major asset to legitimate the power but also to provide basis to contest a power if it no longer act in conformity with the values it promotes.

Religion as a positive factor to increase political legitimacy: uses and abuses

For reverend Ngeno Nakamhela, in the years of the struggle against minority rule, liberation and religious movements were coherent with their message. Churches were highly politicised and were an important support for the liberation movement. Reverend Ngeno Nakamhela explained the positive role they played in creating social cohesion by providing a value base, shared by the entire population. He further added: “what counts is not the institutional ritual but how it establishes a face to-face dialogue. The legitimacy of the religious leader derives from his actual role in the community more than any religious institution”. For him there is continuity between the positive role churches played in the past and can play in current day politics, but he is critical about the way religion is used for political goals and the limited political space for religious leaders.

During the debates it was stated that this source of legitimacy might as well act against a constitutional and democratic political power be it through extremist religious position (mix of religion and politics can be terrible and lead to fundamentalism) or religion instrumentalisation. These are indeed less positive effects of linking religion and politics. While Europe has secularised over the last century, an inverse trend is observable in Southern Africa. What are the implications of the formal and informal links between religion and the political sphere?

Taking the case of liberation movements, R. Southall explained, that “liberation movements talk about themselves in religious terms, they are secular only formally”. “They have historical missions”, for that reason “they claim the right to rule”. They are “charismatic leaders” as it is “widely used by journalists”. Charisma as defined by Weber is the gift of grace; “the leaders are very close to God”; they call themselves “Father of the nation”. “Mixed governments” as “a combination of religious and political […] is dangerous” as it can lead to fundamentalism. Camille Kuyu responds that “Many politicians try to instrumentalise religious movements in order to strengthen their own legitimacy”. He sees this as a negative trend. This is the case of liberation movement as it was discussed in the first part of this session. Roger Southall insisted on the fact that “secularisation is not deeply rooted” and there is “tension between religion and political parties stemming from liberation movements” as there is between the church and the state”.

Religion as a substitute for the state, to satisfy people’s expectations and needs.

The broad word of religion gathers a wide range of different faiths, denominations and understandings that may contribute to social and political unrest, and to conflicts among citizens. In the discussion, participants shared analyses of the increasing importance of new religious (Christian) movements in Southern Africa. Different voices agreed that the increasing popularity of new religious movements and religious leaders can be explained as better corresponding to the needs of the population. They provide new spaces for values and social norms creation where the state is lacking. Religious institutions are subject to recent competition from new religious movements. Camille Kuyu explained that “in Congo, the religions that possess authority are not the institutionalized religions (main monotheisms) which are rejected by the population. (…) New religious movements like Pentecotism have real positions of power. They provide space for the emergence of new forms of sociability and they produce norms. As such, they are very important for rebuilding Congo”. “People find in these religious environments solutions to their problems (social, health etc.)”. “The pastor represents a popular authority, more than a simple authority based on the institutional ritual”. While particularly popular in the Democratic Republic of Congo, new religious movements were also visible in the vicinity of the colloquium venue. Limpopo is home to the headquarters of the Zion Christ Church, the largest African initiated Church in Southern Africa and a place of yearly pilgrimage for thousands of believers. Roger Southall’s assumption was that religions are more popular than constitutions because they better satisfy people’s needs than the state.


Tradition, more precisely tradition and modernity, was a core issue analysed during the colloquium of Bamako-Mali (2007). Tradition was thus identified as a major source of legitimacy being a strong driver of shared value and imaginary making. As reminded by Professor Dominique Darbon, the notion of tradition refers to a complex range of potentially widely different types of beliefs, social and political organisations.

The basis of tradition as a source of legitimacy

In the Colloquium, Chief Lerotholi from Lesotho explicitly asked to be called Morena instead of “chief”. By insisting on using a term from an African language rather than the English “chief”, used under colonisation and apartheid, he brought the sociological context of traditional leadership to attention. He started his presentation with a strong: “I’m the chief because I’m the first son of my father” and “we are here because the people want us to be here …” its legitimacy is thus unquestionable since it has it source in the people. He later continued with: “The day the people no longer want me to be there, I will be gone”. He also explained Chiefs live “among” the people, they rule, carry out value of collectivism (“I am not another from my people”) and their role in building unity (“animals and land belong to the chief, what belongs to the chief belong to the people”).

In Southern Africa the role of traditions and traditional leaders and organisations were stressed not only by traditional leaders themselves but by other participants as well, underlying both their inclusion within the institutional organisation, their role among the society and the importance of the traditional regulation in these societies. Traditions appear to be an asset on which traditional leaders can build a social role, contribute to the ruling to parts of the society, and participate in the shaping of public policies through their own organisations and capacity of lobby. They are meaningful for a considerable amount of the population particularly in rural areas and at local level and have been given by law a number of powers regarding the particular social group they are involved with.

Although Chiefs are partly integrated in the modern legal system, Roger Southall pointed out that “there is a tension between constitutionalism and the African traditional authority”. These tensions can be distilled from Morena Lerotholi’s expressed dissatisfaction with the limitation of his power under the constitution. He argued that: “Chiefs should directly have a seat in the Senate and not be elected”. He followed up earlier comments with “Chiefs should be allowed to arrest the ones who commit crimes, without a mandate. Preventing that system obliges the government to hire more policemen and not to rely on chiefs for judiciary matters”.

Manene Tabane builds on another domain of tension, previously touched upon by Morena Lerotholi: the confrontation between moral traditional values and the rules and rights ensured by the constitution. The principle of equality, at the basis of a “one man, one vote” system, is in contradiction with societies where rights and responsibilities follow hierarchical patterns. This becomes clear in Morena Lerotholi’s claim that: “Chiefs will not want to submit themselves to the election process”. Other issues of contention between traditional and constitutional values are laws regulating women’s, children’s and gay’s rights. In cases of a contradiction between constitutional and traditional values, the constitution overrules other norm-making mechanisms. The legitimacy of the constitution comes to question however (see next chapter).


Liberation movements, tradition and religion are thus three important sources of legitimacy affecting both society’s imaginary and practice of power. They are coexisting through competing, completing, mixing or hybridization interactions. These diverse sources of legitimacy are present in any people and this, in various proportions, depending on its status (gender, family, social and professional situation, etc.) and the way it will be used to satisfy material or symbolic expectations. On the other side, the power, to be legitimate, has to take into account these different types of legitimacy and furthermore to reflect them. The following other two sessions of the colloquium were precisely dedicated on such analysis with a special focus on Constitutions (which are also a source of legitimacy) and Land management.