TCS Daily

South Zimbabwe?

By Richard Tren - April 13, 2005 12:00 AM

JOHANNESBURG -- The people of Zimbabwe recently voted in a general election with the result that Robert Mugabe's ZANU PF party remains in power. Most European countries and the United States condemned the election as illegitimate, un-free and unfair, yet the South African government and Zimbabwe's other neighbours endorsed the election. South Africa's ringing endorsement of and loyalty to the Mugabe regime raises a troubling question: can South Africa go the same way as Zimbabwe?

The Mugabe Way?

In 1980 Robert Mugabe was voted in as President when the first democratic election ended years of minority white rule by Ian Smith's government. Mugabe turned what was a repressive and racist Rhodesia into a democratic and freer Zimbabwe. Mugabe oversaw a relatively peaceful Zimbabwe during his first decade of rule, his government improved healthcare and education immeasurably, and the economy continued to function.

But the decade was not peaceful if you were a Matebele, a member of the major tribal group in the south of the country. There is no love lost between the Matabele and the Shona, the other major tribe. Mugabe is a Shona, and shortly after his election, Mugabe sent his troops (trained by North Koreans) into Matabeleland. The troops killed thousands of Matabele in an attempt to crush any form of political dissent.

Soon after Mugabe took power, Britain gave Zimbabwe considerable funding for land reform in Zimbabwe so that Mugabe's government could return land to the millions of Zimbabweans dispossessed by Britain's colonial rule. Instead of rectifying this great wrong, Mugabe increased it, parcelling the land out to his political allies and parcelling out the land reform funds to his government ministers.

Mugabe continued his destruction of property rights over the decades, culminating ultimately in the chaotic and often violent land grabs from white farmers beginning in 2000. In destroying one of the most fundamental institutions of the free society, Mugabe also destroyed the economy.

Not content with destroying property rights and the economy, Mugabe also destroyed another fundamental institution of a free society, the rule of law. Mugabe ignored the high courts, intimidated those judges that passed judgements unfavourable to the government, and replaced judges with his yes-men. The Zanu PF led Parliament passed a host of laws outlawing free speech and freedom of association, and the police have extraordinary powers to detain people without charge.

Squandered Moral Capital

The laws that Mugabe uses to retain power are remarkably similar to the laws that the Apartheid government used in South Africa in their attempts to crush political opposition. The African National Congress (ANC), which is now in power in South Africa, fought a long and hard struggle, with many sacrifices, to give South Africans the fundamental human rights that Mugabe has taken away from Zimbabweans. One would have thought, therefore, that South Africa would defend the institutions of a free society and condemn Mugabe's actions. Yet President Mbeki and his government lack principles and moral courage when it comes to Zimbabwe

The leader of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) observer mission to the recent election, Minister Mlambo-Ncugka, is South Africa's Minister of Minerals and Energy Affairs. After the election she declared, "It is SADC's overall view that the elections were conducted in an open, transparent and professional manner. The electoral authorities of Zimbabwe displayed not only a professional discharge of duty but also a high sense of gender equality and youth representation in the electoral process."

It is a depressing measure of the political climate in South Africa that one of the government's most senior ministers is so impressed by the gender and youth sensitivity of Mugabe's government that she can overlook the, violence, intimidation, repressive laws and horrific human rights abuses ongoing in that country. Perhaps Mlambo-Ncugka is impressed that Mugabe's secret police and party thugs torture and rape both men and women equally. She should be equally heartened then that Mugabe's government also withholds food and medical services from the young and old alike if they cannot prove they belong to Zanu PF.

South Africa's endorsement of the Mugabe regime has eaten away at the international moral capital the country earned after the 1994 democratic elections that put Nelson Mandela and his party in power. Is the ANC's support of the Mugabe regime a sign of things to come in South Africa?

It is crucial to be reminded of the fact that South Africans today enjoy more freedoms and democracy than ever before, thanks in large part to the ANC. We have enjoyed free and fair elections and violent abuses of government are a thing of the past. Unlike during the period of Apartheid, people are not arrested without charge, tortured in dank basements and then made to disappear.

Worrying Trends

Yet despite these enormous advances in freedom, the ANC's pro-Mugabe's stance is disquieting and unfortunately is accompanied by some other worrying trends. One could argue that the ANC's support for Zimbabwe demonstrates that, just like the Nationalist Party that created Apartheid, the ANC does not really respect, nor believe in the institutions of a free society.

Last year the ANC made vague, but nonetheless ominous, threats towards the judiciary, potentially undermining their independence. Although the ANC has not yet directly attacked the rule of law, the grindingly slow legal system and an often corrupt police force make for a de facto assault on the rule of law.

Although there hasn't been a direct threat to property rights in South Africa, the government's policy of Black Economic Empowerment forces companies to hand over equity to black shareholders. Like Mugabe's "land reforms" in Zimbabwe, this system of "empowerment" is a partial taking that undermines a key institution and enriches a tiny, politically powerful elite. It has increased the risk of investing and has probably slowed economic growth.

South Africa enjoys a free and vibrant press, even though the state TV and radio broadcaster shows signs of becoming an ANC mouthpiece, just as it was a National Party mouthpiece in the past. More worrying is the way the ANC and in particular President Mbeki make vitriolic, personal attacks on individuals who criticise the government. Leading businessmen and even Archbishop Desmond Tutu have been subjected to Mbeki's spitting rebukes. The result may well be that people self-sensor themselves for fear of being attacked by the country's most powerful politician.

Add to these worrying signs the recent comments made by a senior and influential academic, Professor Malegapuru Makgoba of the University of KwaZulu Natal. In a recent column ranting against white males, he concluded that "[the white South African] must soon accept, value and imitate the things that matter dearly to Africans. The sooner this white male gets out of his denial mode, the sooner he will receive treatment and proper African rehabilitation"

South Africans, black or white, don't need rehabilitation or treatment. They need to be able to live peaceful and prosperous lives free of interference or coercion from government. The ANC government greatly increased freedoms for most South Africans, but then so did Mugabe's government when it first came to power.

There are of course some important differences between South Africa and Zimbabwe. As Jonathan Katzenellenbogen, international affairs editor of South Africa's Business Day newspaper points out "the crucial difference is that SA has a liberal constitution and a far more active union, business, and civil society movement than Zimbabwe."

When it comes to Mbeki's policy of 'quiet diplomacy' on Zimbabwe, Katzenellenbogen explains that this policy "has to raise questions about the democratic future in SA and even the Communist party has said as much. By not criticising Mugabe openly and early, while there were screams from the west, Mbeki lost the ground on which to do so, as the rhetoric of external opposition became western and white. As politics in South Africa still has a large racial dimension it would have been difficult for Mbeki to criticise Mugabe."

The crucial test going forward will come with future elections in South Africa. South Africa has had unimpressive per capita economic growth, unemployment at around 40% and vocal and increasingly critical labour movement. This, along with the country's growing HIV/AIDS problem that the government has done its best to ignore, means that South African voters may turn away from the ANC. If and when this happens, one hopes the ANC will do the right thing, and allow South Africans to make free choices. South Africa has an awful lot going for it, but the government's disgraceful behaviour over Zimbabwe is a frightening warning that the hard-won freedoms that South Africans enjoy may be on the way out.



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