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What can South Africa learn from Zimbabwe?

It is tempting to draw comparisons between South Africa and Zimbabwe, the two Southern African neighbours. There are points of commonality deriving from their respective and sometimes shared histories. Indeed, these comparisons have been bandied about in the last couple of weeks, following President Zuma’s controversial cabinet reshuffle. The accompanying rhetoric about radical economic transformation and the subsequent downgrading of South Africa’s credit rating to junk status have added to the simmering anxiety.

It is against this background that a common retort is that South Africa is likely to be “another Zimbabwe”. This predicted equivalence is, of course, in reference to Zimbabwe’s dire economic circumstances, which came in the wake of a radical land redistribution process which completely dismantled the system of property rights over agricultural land. The equivalence is encapsulated by a leading opinion in the Washington Post by authors Greg Mills and Jeffery Herbst in which they suggested that South Africa had reached its “Mugabe moment”

Danger of reductionism

While these comparisons are to be expected, one must be mindful of the danger of partial narratives which reduce a complex and nuanced story to a simplistic and bland account. Comparisons are not bad, but they are more useful as analytic tools rather than instruments of alarm. To be informative and useful, comparisons have to be more comprehensive and nuanced, taking into account both the convenient and inconvenient facts.

A comparison between Zimbabwe and South Africa which centres on a so-called “Mugabe moment” is too reductionist, but it is not surprising. It reduces a complex set of challenges faced by a post-colonial state to a “moment” packaged in sinister terms. This is why most of the comparisons have been disappointing: they are too focused on causing alarm instead of interrogating the broad range of issues, even beyond Zuma’s corruption and inept leadership that define South Africa’s present crisis. Our mistake in Zimbabwe is that we have believed for too long that Robert Mugabe is the only problem. He’s undoubtedly a problem but such reductionist approach has meant we have failed to see the broad and complex range of actors and power dynamics that have entrenched the regime. I have called this the system. South Africa should be wary of falling into the same trap, where the Zuma-centric approach can end up obscuring more than it reveals.

Fear of Zimbabwe

To understand why South Africa’s present situation is being compared to Zimbabwe and is being called a “Mugabe moment”, one has to appreciate the history of a "fear of Zimbabwe " in South African politics, which predates Zimbabwe’s present crisis. Indeed, this is not the first time that the “fear of Zimbabwe” in relation to South Africa has been deployed. Evidence from various actors who were involved in South Africa’s transition from apartheid suggests that a request was made to the Zimbabwean leadership in the 1990s to delay any radical plans over the Land Question. The “fear of Zimbabwe” was that any radical land reform policies there would raise anxiety among the white ruling class in South Africa and derail the on-going negotiations. They were already concerned that power could go to the "communists" and a radical land reform exercise in Zimbabwe could have been a cause for concern.

For the first decade of independence, Zimbabwe had been prevented by the Lancaster House Constitution's provisions from changing the property protection provisions which essentially protected the rights of white landowners. This protection ended in 1990, the same year that Nelson Mandela was released from prison, heralding a new era of negotiations to end apartheid. Many actors, including former President Thabo Mbeki, have said that Mugabe was asked to delay any radical reforms. In this context, one might even argue that the so-called “Mugabe moment” in Zimbabwe was delayed by South Africa. What this evidence shows is that the “fear of Zimbabwe” has always been present in the South African political narrative. One of its weaknesses is that it does not critically enquire into the factors that inform this fear. Is it just a “fear of Zimbabwe” or a fear of confronting the issues that result in a so-called “Mugabe moment”? It is more likely a fear of confronting the issues but this is a fatal error.

Series of “Mugabe moments”

The view that South Africa faces a “Mugabe moment” now obscures the fact that the country has in fact had “Mugabe moments” in the past. Recognising these moments is important because it completes the story, showing there is a narrative that links both countries. This is a defence of fair and accurate representations of history. For this purpose I will cite one “Mugabe moment” that is easily air-brushed from history. On 4th of March 1980, the newly-elected Mugabe surprised his critics when he delivered his historic victory speech which was magnanimous and reconciliatory. His new government left the old civil service, judiciary and military almost intact.

Fourteen years later, Nelson Mandela was feted for his magnanimity and hand of reconciliation. Of these two moments, history remembers Mandela’s. But Mandela’s act was not new. He was walking a path that Mugabe had already travelled. Is this seen as a “Mugabe moment”? No, it isn’t because it does not fit into the narrative. The “Mugabe moment” is the darker, more sinister one. But if South Africa has now reached a “Mugabe moment”, isn’t it helpful to appreciate that it also had a “Mugabe moment” in 1994 - that it is a process rather than an event? What should exercise the mind is why there has been a change in South Africa from the first brighter “Mugabe moment” in 1994 to the present darker “Mugabe moment”. This will unravel the complex set of factors that demand attention.

Balancing rights and claims

A better appreciation of the trajectory of events in South Africa, compared to Zimbabwe’s must factor in the post-colonial challenge of negotiating a balance between rights and claims, particularly in relation to property. I have referred to this as competition between existing property rights and property claims. Both countries inherited sophisticated but highly unequal economies and racially-polarised societies. Little was done to close the gap, especially in the early years. Between the competing demands of capital and the poor, the new governments sought to reassure capital and to safeguard stability. In fact, in the early decades, the new leadership in both countries believed the myths of their own success. The belief in superiority and disdain for fellow African countries was demonstrated a few years ago when President Zuma made a mocking reference to Malawi, saying a freeway in South Africa was not like some road in Malawi. They were pampered, received accolades and adulation, even though they were not actually carrying out their struggle promises. The point of this is that South Africa had its “Mugabe moment” long before the current events.

Negotiated futures

To understand the similar trajectories that both countries have had since independence, one has to understand that they both owe their origins to negotiated settlements. Although the nationalists in both countries like to praise themselves for having won against colonialism and apartheid, the fact of the matter is that they compromised and made important concessions to secure political power. Consequently, they had severe constraints which prevented them from taking any radical approaches, even if they wanted to. The new eras of constitutionalism and the rule of law were excellent but they also protected the gains and privileges of highly unequal and unfair colonial and apartheid societies. While both countries scored well on the indicators of good governance and economic stability, the situation of the poor and marginalised got worse.

Opportunistic behaviour

The trouble is that having failed the poor and marginalised while they lined their pockets, the leadership in both countries decided to latch on to legitimate resentment for political survival. By the end of the 1990s there was resentment among the peasants and war veterans over Mugabe’s failure to deliver on his independence promises and the egregious corruption among political elites. Contrary to common narratives, the first land invasions were carried out by local villagers. They were sporadic, but they were evidence of existing grievances which the government had failed to deal with. Realising that his political life was at stake, Mugabe capitalised on these old grievances. In South Africa, Zuma is trying the same trick, raising the radical economic transformation card at a time when he is under pressure for ineptitude and corruption. While this might be regarded as a “Mugabe moment”, it is only partial and incomplete unless it is presented as a series of “Mugabe moments” that South Africa has gone through.

Reservoir of grievances

It is imperative therefore to understand why men like Mugabe and Zuma exist and flourish even when their weaknesses and failings are so apparent. They exist because they have at their disposal a vast reservoir of the aggrieved and grievances to exploit. This reservoir of the aggrieved is rooted in an unjust past which created a big racial and class divide. The negotiated settlements achieved stability during the transition, but they postponed problems. It is these postponed problems that continue to pose a threat and are exploited by political demagogues. Mugabe or Zuma could be the ones who exploit this reservoir of grievances today, but it could well be other characters tomorrow. As long as these legacy problems remain, the challenges will endure.

I have always thought that the events in Zimbabwe after 2000 were avoidable but only if the key stakeholders around land had taken positive steps to deal with the issue. The Lancaster House Constitution gave false comfort but unfortunately, capital took comfort in it and forgot its own historic responsibility to play a role in fostering wealth redistribution. Capital did not look at the bigger picture, that to protect its privileges it needed to play an active, even leading role, in uplifting the poor and marginalised. The government fortified this impression that capital was safe until the ruling party’s own survival was at stake. At that point, government threw away the script it had followed since 1980 and decided that it was now a champion of radical reforms and empowerment.


This, in my view, is probably the most important lesson that South African stakeholders can take from Zimbabwe. Capital must understand that its position will always be imperiled as long as it sits side by side with a vast reservoir of poverty, disaffection and marginalisation. Zimbabwe’s tragedy is an abject failure by government to deal with the post-colonial conundrum of protecting an established economic order while at the same time having to respond to the demands for a new order. But it is also a tragedy of capital’s failure to recognise the threat of its own aloofness and arrogance in the face of poverty and inequality.

In short, there was in Zimbabwe a gross failure to manage the transformation process by key stakeholders who could have taken pre-emptive initiatives. This will also haunt South Africa well beyond the expiry of Zuma’s inept and corrupt tenure. The historic challenge that all stakeholders face is the minimisation and preferably, the eradication of the reservoir of grievances which opportunistic demagogues are wont to exploit. Opportunists can only flourish if opportunities are presented to them and right now South Africa presents vast opportunities for such characters.

Finally, the metaphor of the Rainbow Nation was beautiful for the transition but like all rainbows, its lifespan was always going to be limited. At some point, rainbows do fade. The metaphor was never meant to obscure the harsh realities and the hard questions faced by all post-colonial societies. This is not the time to raise alarm by making reducing the present situation to a “Mugabe moment”. It requires sober heads and more nuanced analysis of the ailments at the heart of a nation’s sickness.


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