South Africa’s comparisons to Zimbabwe grow more common and more chilling

IOA analysis in brief | South Africa is undergoing a soul-searching exercise in national identity as the democracy’s founding ideals are threatened by the power plays of a ruling party that is causing economic destruction and racial animosity to hold onto power. The parallels between Jacob Zuma and Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe presidency are glaring.

Picture of President Zuma and Robert Mugabe
Robert Mugabe (left) and Jacob Zuma attend a Southern African Development Community conference in South Africa. The embattled South African president’s readiness to embrace tactics mirroring those employed by Robert Mugabe is a further blight on his tenure.
Photo courtesy: GovernmentZA/Flickr

Key points:

  • President Zuma has weathered corruption and power-grab scandals and even popular opposition by controlling the political structure of the ruling party that controls government
  • Like Mugabe, Zuma is employing anti-white rhetoric and blaming the white minority for the failure of 23 years of ANC economic policy to lift the black majority’s living standards
  • A troubling development is the government-condoned paramilitary wing in service of the ANC to intimidate anti-Zuma members of the public

South Africans fear their young democracy will die the death of Zimbabwe’s, under a corrupt, insular ruling party that seems to be duplicating the power-grab strategies of Robert Mugabe.

An all-powerful ruling party, a liberation leader who feels he is incapable of doing wrong, creeping corruption, youth brigades acting as organised thugs to suppress political opposition, domination of state broadcasting to serve the ruling party, use of state institutions for the personal gain of leadership and its cronies, use of state funds for the president’s personal pleasure – these elements and more, pioneered in Zimbabwe under President Robert Mugabe, are now observed in South Africa.

Some political cynics say South Africa is merely following the inevitable arc of African countries that achieve independence with calls for the uplifting of peoples but then devolve into autocratic oligarchies whose only interest is holding onto power, privilege and personal gain at all costs. However, South Africa has a vibrant political opposition and is filled with idealists who believe in the democratic and egalitarian promise evoked by founding President Nelson Mandela. They are aghast at the country’s ideological destruction wrought by President Jacob Zuma, and they are mobilising to #SaveSA.


Insular ruling parties prioritise party before country and conflate party with country

South Africans born since the 1994 transition to democracy, the so-called ‘Born Frees’, who will soon be the majority of the population, have never known a ruling party other than the African National Congress (ANC). The ANC’s courageous work to overthrow the apartheid regime has been rewarded with landslide election victories. Simultaneously, presidential leadership has devolved from the sainted Mandela to the lacklustre and feckless Thabo Mbeki to corruption-prone and arrogant Jacob Zuma. Zuma controls the ANC party structure, which allows him to control the presidency. Systematically, he has engaged in ‘state capture’, the process of filling ministries, government institutions and state-owned businesses with cronies and loyalists who will do his bidding, motivated by mutual financial gain.

South Africans have been aware of the creeping coup d’état known as state capture for some years, as has the international community. No currency in the world is more sensitive to the actions of its national leader than the rand, which has dropped in value whenever Zuma completes another state capture. His firing of a respected finance minister to fill that vital economic position with an unknown lackey caused the rand to freefall early in 2017. The rand rallied when Zuma was forced to re-appoint a competent finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, whom he had previously fired for being insufficiently sycophantic. Zuma wanted to ‘capture’ the treasury for unfettered funding of money-losing state institutions, like the South African Broadcasting Corporation and South African Airways, where he has installed cronies as executives. Gordhan’s integrity stood in the way, so Zuma fired him again on 31 March 2017. The rand again plummeted, and global credit rating agencies downgraded South Africa to ‘extremely risky’ so-called junk status, signalling to investors that they should stay away because of Zuma’s policies.

Facing economic recession because of Zuma’s personal agenda, South Africans throughout the country took to the streets on 7 April. Five days later, even larger demonstrations uniting political opposition parties, civil society, church groups and ordinary citizens were held in Pretoria on Zuma’s 75th birthday. The response from the ANC and Zuma was to take a page from Mugabe’s playbook, which was to accuse detractors of racism and having an agenda of stealing the country for foreigners and refuse responsibility for damage inflicted on the economy or even acknowledging damages. As witnessed by the May Day workers rally held by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) on 1 May 2017, the scheme is not resonating with ordinary South Africans. COSATU was an instrumental Zuma supporter in his rise to power, but workers booed him off the stage at the May Day rally, waving placards that he must resign.


The Zimbabwe comparisons frighten South Africans

When Mugabe faced serious political opposition that would cost him the 2002 and 2008 elections, he managed to reverse voter will through fraud and intimidation. Central to the latter was the unleashing of a paramilitary force, called the War Veterans. By that time, the actual veterans of the liberation struggle of the 1970s and 1980s were middle-aged men and older. The men, far too young to have participated in the liberation fight, went on a rampage of violence against opponents of Mugabe’s ruling Zanu-PF party and were hired thugs, indoctrinated by security forces. After 20 years of independence with no improvement in Zimbabweans’ lives, Mugabe concocted a strategy of blaming white farmers for holding onto their lands at the expense of the majority. The campaign of bloody evictions that followed was stoked by feverish propaganda intended to divert focus from government’s previous inactivity. In 2000, 80,000 youths were indoctrinated by the ruling party, and some were unleashed as the Green Bombers to attack opposition party supporters during the 2008 elections. In actuality, the violence did not work on its own. Mugabe lost the 2002 and 2008 elections and had to manipulate the results in his favour. The cynical playing on the black majority’s anti-white sentiments resulted in the decimation of agricultural production and economic ruin, characterised by 2008’s hyperinflation that saw treasury printing bank notes with a value of 100 trillion Zimbabwean dollars. Despite that outcome, Zuma is replicating a similar campaign in South Africa.

Blaming the 23-year failure of the ANC to materially improve the lives of the black majority on the white minority, Zuma promised a course of “radical economic transformation.” On 14 April, Zuma’s former wife and his preferred candidate to replace him as president in 2019, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, told a gathering of party faithful that South Africa was “the only country in the world ruled by the minority.” She then shouted the newly-minted slogan, “Viva radical economic transformation.”

The ‘muscle’ many fear will carry out violence to protect Zuma is the ANC’s version of Zimbabwe’s War Veterans, a cadre of camouflage, fatigue-dressed young men who pose as members of uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the ANC combat veterans from the anti-apartheid struggle of the 1970s and 1980s who are largely elderly now. The South African Police Service (SAPS) showed its political leanings by opposing the anti-Zuma marchers on 7 April while giving a free pass to the so-called MK fighters, carrying out manoeuvres in front of ANC headquarters in downtown Johannesburg. That they were ‘protecting’ a building ‘against our enemies’ that was not under threat by anyone was irrelevant. The show of force was intended to send a message that a paramilitary force condoned by the legitimate security forces was now in action.


The ‘take back our country’ pushback

Zuma ratcheted up the belief that his critics are part of a white-controlled conspiracy to seize government, another steal from the Mugabe playbook, when on 12 April, he described the anti-government marchers as racists. Zuma had political mathematics on his side because the tens of thousands of civilian activists in the street were far outnumbered by the hundreds of thousands of unemployed youth eager to blame whites and not ineffective government policies for their poverty. ANC elders are opposing Zuma internally and some in public statement, feeling the party has sacrificed its ideals to corruption, cronyism and the naked worship of power, but they are effectively powerless to stop him and have been sidelined. The airwaves are filled with lively political debate but are threatened by Zuma’s ministers who call for media controls. So it will go, until the ideals of 1994 are accepted as the nation’s destiny or that destiny is hijacked by a party subverting state institutions to achieve perpetual rule under a strongman.