HomeOpinionWhy South Africa Will Never Be Like Zimbabwe

Why South Africa Will Never Be Like Zimbabwe

OUR government’s stand on Zimbabwe has once again distressed many South Africans. How can President Thabo Mbeki say there is no crisis in Zimbabwe? He later claimed he was not talking about the social and economic reality but about the elections in Zimbabwe.


But isn’t there an electoral crisis?

If this denial were a one-off oversight on President Mbeki’s part then it would only be opposition parties here in South Africa and those not in solidarity with the Zimbabwean people who would want to go on making a meal of it.

Unfortunately the denial was part of an entrenched pattern. In his state of the nation address in February Mbeki assured parliament that everything was “on track” in Zimbabwe apart from a “few procedural matters”.

This is not to say that absolutely nothing was achieved in the current round of mediation, which managed to edge the Zanu PF government into a half-hearted and belated implementation of some of the agreements reached.

These helped to place a few more tripwires against the dangers of brazen electoral fraud. For instance, results were posted outside polling stations, and for a few
weeks opposition parties had access to rural areas.

But, as several other commentators have remarked, what are we to make of apologists who extol the mediation efforts and point to the access enjoyed by the opposition in this election to areas that had previously been no-go zones?

If they were previously no-go zones, why did our own government and Sadc declare the elections of 2000, 2002 and 2005 sufficiently free and fair? How do we explain this pattern of denial by our government?

Many commentators suggest that it is fundamentally about solidarity between national liberation movements.

This is probably true, but it requires considerable qualification. In the first place, the ANC and Zanu PF hardly enjoyed cordial relations in the decade and a half before Zimbabwe’s Independence. The ANC’s Zimbabwean ally was Zapu.

MK and Zipra forces fought together in the Wankie (Hwange) and Sipolilo (Guruve) campaigns. After Independence, Zapu’s mass base and forces in Matabeleland were dealt a brutal blow in 1983-7 in a scorched earth campaign that left some 20 000 people dead.

A badly mauled Zapu was forced as a junior partner into a “government of national unity”.

Notwithstanding all of this, I believe that what informs much of President Mbeki’s Zimbabwean strategy is the belief that national liberation movements in our region should close ranks.

This is informed by a conviction that the crisis in Zimbabwe is being used as an entry point by imperialist powers to reassert hegemony over a former colony and eventually over our whole region.

Well, of course, all kinds of forces will seek to exploit the crisis in Zimbabwe, but attributing the crisis itself to imperialism is exactly what Mugabe himself does constantly.

Of course, Mbeki will never say this as stridently as Mugabe. How then would you explain yourself to your various presidential expert panels on investment, IT, and so on, which bristle with chief executives from all of the largest multinationals? Is this perhaps another reason why quiet diplomacy has to be quiet?

For his part, Mugabe blatantly uses the British colonial threat in an entirely demagogic and increasingly futile attempt to distract Zimbabweans from the failures and brutality of his own government.

We are told, for instance, that “land reform” did not succeed because the British failed to meet their financial obligations as agreed in the Lancaster House negotiations.

But what kind of heroic anti-imperialist liberation movement is this? Can you imagine the Cubans arguing two decades after their revolutionary breakthrough that they had not implemented land reform because the US refused to subsidise it?

President Mugabe’s demagogic “anti-imperialism” is not an anti-imperialism that seeks to defend the interests of the peasantry, the workers and the progressive professional and middle strata of Zimbabwe’s society. It is a pseudo anti-imperialism that seeks to defend the narrow interests of a rentier capitalist elite within Zanu PF and the upper echelons of the state.

It is a stratum that is entirely parasitic on state power. State power is used to pillage for the purposes of primitive accumulation. And remember, much of the recent socio-economic crisis in Zimbabwe dates back to the pillaging “peace mission” to the DRC in the late-1990s, which ended in bankruptcy and defeat for a once professional and proud Zimbabwean army.

State power also insulates the ruling class from the worst of the crisis they have provoked. And because access to state power rather than productive activity is the basis of its accumulation, state power is not something that will easily be surrendered or even shared, no matter how many doses of quiet diplomacy or rounds of elections. As South Africans, and especially as ANC members, what lessons can we learn from all of this?

Just a few weeks before the ANC’s Polokwane national conference, Zanu PF also held a national conference. In sharp contrast to Polokwane, the Zanu PF conference was a thoroughly orchestrated, top-down affair.

The organisational report, for instance, was not discussed; it was not even distributed to delegates. A copy was held up on the podium. “Here is the organisational report. Does conference adopt it? Thank you very much.”

South Africans are, of course, no more inherently democratic than Zimbabweans. However, there are various factors that we need to appreciate. As a much older organisation, the ANC developed strong ideological and culturally pluralistic traditions, with progressive liberal, radical democratic and socialist currents. By contrast, Zanu PF in its first decades was almost entirely shaped by a bitter military struggle and its politics are still strongly marked by ethnicity.

In the 1970s the overwhelming majority of Zimbabweans were peasants and almost half of Rhodesia’s territory was tribal trust land. This contrasts with the scattered and minuscule 13% of land reserved for Africans in apartheid South Africa.

This is the secret behind the relative success of the Zimbabwean guerrilla struggle, especially in the Eastern Highlands. It is also why, in contrast, our own guerrilla struggle seldom got beyond the armed propaganda phase.

In contrast to most Third World liberation struggles in the 20th century, the epicentre of the South African struggle was the township, the university campus, the factory shop floor, the faith community and the newsroom.

None of this means that South Africans are immune to the ruling party stagnation and bureaucratisation that we have seen in Zimbabwe or, for that matter, and in a somewhat different context, in the communist parties of the former Soviet bloc. But after Independence in Zimbabwe, the mass base of the liberation struggle was demobilised back to a remote countryside while its leadership became cabinet ministers and generals.

In South Africa, while there may well have been attempts to demobilise the mass base of struggle after 1994, this is less easy when dealing with trade unions, alliance partners, students and youth, a robust media, faith-based campaigns, women’s organisations and much more.

Demobilisation is especially complicated if these forces are not in opposition but are rather your own core mass base. Polokwane was a complex event, but beneath it all was, I believe, a strong reaffirmation of these democratic, mass-based, pluralistic traditions in our movement. They are our key antidote to “Zanufication”.

By Jeremy Cronin: The SACP deputy general-secretary. He delivered this Chris Hani Memorial Lecture in Durban on May 4.

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