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Check These Nine Scary Parallels Between Zimbabwe and South Africa

Comparing countries political and economic trajectories are always dangerous. Entirely different factors across every facet of society ofte...

Comparing countries political and economic trajectories are always dangerous. Entirely different factors across every facet of society often make such evaluations more academic than practical. Still, events over the last week in Zimbabwe offer South Africa some important lessons amidst this country’s deepening political uncertainty.

Here are 9 parallels and their consequences currently being played out – in different forms and intensity – both north and south of the Limpopo.

1. Single-dominant political parties – especially those immediately post-Liberation like Zanu-PF and the ANC - conflate party and state at all times. 

When the State becomes the Party through cronyism, jobs for pals and a deliberate placement of cadres across all state institutions, the well-being of the state is simply attached to that of the governing party. Usually, the deterioration of state owned institutions and general service delivery as a result of patronage rather than skills being the litmus test for appointments, creates a state in decline.
Check These Nine Scary Parallels Between Zimbabwe and South Africa
 The lesson is clear – resist the temptation to appoint cronies and look for skills at all times.

2. Any policy platform that is either populist or devoid of global best practice, watch out for a decline in GDP, a lack of foreign (and domestic) inward investment an uptick in unemployment. 

By sticking to ideologically-motivated revolutionary rhetoric and false and flawed interpretations of nationalism, you risk creating the environment for a failed state.

3. Undermining institutions which enhance and enshrine democratic accountability creates false electoral outcomes. 

State-sponsored propaganda, election fraud, voter-roll gerrymandering and opposition crackdowns have created a false impression of electoral support for Robert Mugabe for successive elections. That both South Africa and the SADC turned a blind-eye to this – as is often the case across many flawed democracies on the African continent – is a lesson for all to commit to scrupulously free and fair elections and the associated pillars of society that support that.

4. Economic decline is a key catalyst for both voter dissatisfaction as well as internal governing party discord – especially when that governing party increasingly creates a well-paid bloated bureaucracy to shore up its own support. 

While Zimbabwe has had its fair share of economic meltdown’s, 2017 heralded an acute cash crunch in which civil servants increasingly became uncertain over the next pay check. The economic decline was felt in every office of government, in every office building and in the packets of every consumer. Global examples show that you can keep power in a fairly authoritarian way if you deliver economic growth simultaneously. In both Zimbabwe and South Africa’s case, the economic distress created additional fissures in political support. Add to this high-levels of graft and corruption, and a perfect storm brews.

5. In countries governed by strong political parties over an extended period, there is usually no precedent for orderly and regular change at the ballot box. 

Both South Africa and Zimbabwe are still governed by their respective Liberation parties and neither electorate has developed a ritual of overturning their majority party in favour of Opposition. As the pressures mount on the economic front for the reasons above, succession becomes a polarising factor for the governing party. With low growth and deep financial hardship for millions – and with the inability of electoral politics to sort this out – the inner workings of the governing party become elevated in importance. Succession, therefore, when it does occur is a catalyst for volatility, division and debilitating contestation. In both South Africa and Zimbabwe, the governing party will grapple with just how to inject fresh blood, with the minimum of internal damage and the maximum ability to retain a grip on power and access to resources. The unpleasant lesson here is that only a highly competitive multi-party system that becomes ingrained into the political culture of a country, affords the right checks and balances to avoid these succession-based high-stakes periods from further undermining the stability of the nation.

6. Related to the strains of succession is the deep frustration electorates now have with dynastic politics. 

Whether its wives (ex or current), husbands or relatives who seek to perpetuate the rule of their spouses (former or current) or siblings, the family ties of ruling now lacks deep credibility. Again, governance and policy failure simply will prevent the continuity of familial name and the promise of continued governance malaise. Certainly, opposition to Grace Mugabe assuming power was a key consideration for the military to act. Similarly, events in Zimbabwe may well backfire on Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma not just internally within the ANC, but emanating from a variety of new opinion surveys amongst large swathes of the ANC’s electorate highlighting her dwindling approval ratings. Perpetuating a dynamistic name when the predecessor’s star has waned is simply bad politics that will be rejected by the populace.

7. In a climate of heightened political and economic risk, leaders must be careful not to overplay their hand. 

Again, Mugabe’s key error of firing Deputy President Emmerson Mnangagwa just as a hotly contested succession stake was reaching a climax smacked of careless political pique devoid of an understanding of the political temperature on the ground. Again, South Africa’s President Zuma would need to avoid any similar actions against his own Deputy President, Cyril Ramaphosa – so as to avoid a related backlash. Those who disrespect the will of the people are often want to act unilaterally – always assuming that they enjoy an impenetrable bubble of insulation from their opponents. Over-playing your hand as an unpopular leader can make all the difference – as is the case with Robert Mugabe.

8. All leaders – even so called ‘strong-men’ - should never assume their support is all-encompassing. 

A good political leader should know that their political enemies are standing right next to them – applauding them – while harbouring the most convoluted plans to oust you given the first opportunity. Whilst you may enjoy – and command – control and support for some time (as in the case of Zimbabwe), your cumulative years of misrule can and will come back to haunt you – from those whom you have always seen as your closest allies. Even the strongest – almost impenetrable – despots, are vulnerable in the medium term.

9. The governing political party – when their back is pushed to the wall – can ‘self- correct’. 

This is a term used extensively by ANC Secretary General, Gwede Mantashe to describe his predictions for December. For both Zanu-PF and the ANC, their lack of ability to craft growth oriented policies leave them both with one popular trump card – turning their own back on their very own leader who is increasingly politically unpopular. For Zanu-PF, the last week has been their best week in decades – largely because they have seized the moment on Mugabe’s future. They don’t need to present detailed policies to their voters, they just need to turn them against Mugabe. Similarly – should Cyril Ramaphosa – be elected in December, this will be touted as a new start – a new beginning to take the ANC back to its routes. Liberation parties who have sole control over choosing the leadership structure of a country, will spin all of this to their advantage.

It bears repeating that comparisons are fraught with inconsistencies and contradictions – and many might be found in the discourse above. Still, Zimbabwe and South Africa have an important Liberation past to share and an increasingly symbiotic path of corrupt and disappointing leadership and governance.

The ‘Zimbabwe Spring’ experienced this week is a small yet significant opportunity for some type of re-boot – just as the ANC elective conference is in December. Both countries equally have the chance to revive the flagging fortunes. Equally, they can descend into more of the same. Will they continue to converge in decline or rise in a rebirth? Or will their paths diverge? The future awaits. Check These Nine Scary Parallels Between Zimbabwe and South Africa