Political Economy - Opinion

South Africa emulating the Zimbabwe template?

Emulating Mugabe?

The unfolding political and economic developments in South Africa is showing signs of edging ever closer to a Zimbabwe scenario as the president and the ruling party comes under increasing pressure.

One of the many jokes circulating on social media shows an elated Robert Mugabe expressing satisfaction that he is no longer the most unpopular leader in Africa – the label now belongs to Jacob Zuma.

It got me thinking that the recent dramatic South African events, with President Jacob Zuma as catalyst, should have all denialists questioning the notion that we could go Zimbabwe’s way, reconsider.

A viable option

President Zuma and the ANC’s responses to challenges, triggered by their own action or inaction, started to create the impression of some emulation of the Mugabe and ZANU-PF’s treatment of their opposition and critics.    

President Mugabe’s nonsensical approach to the economy and disregard for sound economic principles, led to Zimbabwe’s economy collapse and leaving one of Africa’s once most prosperous countries in ruins.

Like Mr Zuma now, Mugabe also blamed foreign interference, international financial institutions, and Zimbabwe’s white citizens as the culprits.

By twice axing two highly respected finance ministers, replacing them with lightweight “yes men,” President Zuma caused the South African economy to lose billions overnight. And, the axing of Pravin Gordhan had two major rating agencies, downgrading South Africa to junk status with a third set to follow.

In typical ZANU-PF style, the “Zuma fan club” accused the rating agencies of bias and conspiring on behalf of foreign (Western )powers to topple President Zuma.

Like those who benefitted from Mugabe’s ill-fated economic policies, Zuma fans applauded him for showing the international financial institutions the ‘middle finger.’

 Some of Zuma’s close allies, a cabinet minister, and his son Edward “displaying a breath-taking ignorance of economics.

Middle finger to power base

”Applauding the downgrade, Edward Zuma argued that the ratings agencies “did us a favour, really,” a weekend paper reported..

And, amongst these ‘cheer leaders were the Minister of Water and Sanitation Nomvula Mokonyane, the extremely incompetent SAA chairperson and close Zuma associate Dudu Myeni, and the disgraced former SABC chairperson who resigned after lying about her academic qualifications  Ellen Tshabalala.

They arrogantly fail to recognise that their obnoxious behaviour will only hasten the inevitable demise of ‘Godfather’ Zuma.

To find if funny that R80-billion was wiped off banking stocks alone in less than a week, the rand falling from being the strongest-performing emerging-market currency to the worst-performing of all 24 emerging-market currencies, hitting the poor the hardest is to show the ANC’s power base a thick middle finger.

Well, it is told that during the last days of Hitler his bunker in Berlin was one big party scene while those inside were waiting for the inevitable and Nero played the fiddle while Rome was burning....

Blame shifting

With his back against the wall as support continues to plunge to an all-time low in an recent survey, Zuma and those depending on his patronage opt to follow the Mugabe script, placing the blame for the economy going to pot, on “white monopoly capital.”    

Since his State of the Nation address, Zuma has been driving radical economic transformation relentlessly in the same manner Mugabe drove his indigenisation policy.

Instead of benefitting the disadvantaged, Mugabe’s policy soon proved to benefit only those well-connected as the economy underwent meltdown and external investments dried up.

Also read: Zuma cost the ANC dearly in the 2016 election

Other similarities

There is agreement and approval for the Black Economic Empowerment policy in South Africa, but concern is growing that as pressure on the Zuma government mounts, economy growth falters and unemployment escalates, Zuma will seek redress in a Zimbabwe type solution – the latest land redistribution proposal serving as an example.

In Zimbabwe land expropriation without compensation and land invasions followed soon after the “willing buyer willing seller” policy failed to promote black ownership.

The same process seems to be repeating itself in South Africa.  

At its 2012 conference the ANC adopted the "expropriation without compensation" as official policy, which now wants to fast track.    

Similar to Mugabe, Zuma’s power base lies in the rural areas among the poor where land remains an important issue. Attempting to solidify his dwindling support, Zuma has promised to increase efforts for constitution change to make expropriation without compensation possible.

It would be brave to presently argue it unlikely that South Africa will “go the way of Zimbabwe” – suffering the same devastation to the agricultural sector resulting from violent land invasions and occupation that could follow in the wake of promoting a more radical policy.


It is true that South Africa has many safeguards that should theoretically prevent the sort of lawlessness and mayhem experienced in Zimbabwe during the early 2000s.

These safeguards are, however, under pressure.

Unlike Zimbabwe, South Africa has a robust, independent judiciary as check on government, but everyone knows the judiciary is under immense pressure to conform, and Zuma doing his utmost to create  a more ‘accommodating’ judiciary.

It is risky to take Zuma at his word that South Africa will not embark on a Zimbabwe-like land grab phase.  

Changing the constitution for Zuma’s declared fast tracking “radical economic transformation” plans, including “radical land reform” would not be easy, according to some analysts and commentators.

It is argued that Zuma will find such a notion difficult because the ANC is sharply divided over his leadership, but this argument was apparently kicked into touch as the ANC closed ranks after initial signs of strong division and disagreement after his controversial midnight cabinet reshuffle.

That the ANC last year voted down an Economic Freedom Fighters’ motion on constitutional amendments to facilitate land expropriation without compensation, does not mean they will not approve a similar proposal if they are convinced it will help to stop the party’s decline. 

Nobody can foresee in what direction the South African issue will be heading under the “more radical” land redistribution as advocated by president Zuma is put into motion.

More clarity might come after the ANC’s party policy conference in June/July, when the issue will feature prominently on the agenda, but there are reasons for concern.

Concerns from protests

Last week’s anti-Zuma marches also highlighted two concerns leaving a disconcerting feeling that South Africa could be following the Zimbabwe template.

The initial reluctance to allow some of the marches to go ahead, and issuing confusing and conflicting orders, even ignoring court orders, caused the uneasy sense that ‘this is familiar.’

In Zimbabwe, the police have shown their bias and have mastered the art to confuse and stall any legitimate actions by the opposition to protest peacefully in public.

To their credit the South African police cleared up the confusion and displayed the level of professionalism expected from them to ensure law and order.

Also read: Managing change in a fast-changing South Africa  

Uneasiness lingers

 To prevent a Zimbabwe-like situation, where the security sector is used to keep the president and the ruling party in power by force and to intimidate and harass the opposition and other critical voices, it is imperative that all security institutions are monitored with unwavering diligence.

More disconcerting is the self-righteous way in whih  pro-ANC and Zuma followers use violence and intimidation against opposition, even when granted permission to public protests.

Confusing, and belligerent remarks by ANC office bearers, like those by the executive mayor of eThekwini, that metro police would be out to arrest those who march against President Zuma because “it is treason”, promote a poisonous climate from where it is a small step to improper and/or action.

Such action was displayed by particularly the ANC Youth League and the MK war veterans during last year’s local government election and last week’s protest marches, when violence was used against opponents.

Similar tactics was used in Zimbabwe when Mugabe and ZANU-PF released youthful thugs and “war veterans” to intimidate, threaten and beat the opposition.

Such tactics have also become practice within the ANC with senior ANC members, including Gordhan, Mantashe, Mkhize and Sisulu are singled out and intimidated, even receiving death threats, for critizising president Zuma.

In Zimbabwe Mugabe, has perfected such smear- and intimidation tactics to a fine art to rid ZANU-PF of those he considers dissidents or threats.  

It certainly looks like a tactic president Zuma would condone, judged by his silence on the matter domestically.

Taking a leaf from the Mugabe handbook on how to discredit the opposition the government’s communications and information system unit (GCIS) described the anti-Zuma protests as “acts of civil disobedience” and as “actions of a select few infringing on the constitutional rights of the majority” warning them that they would face "the full might of the law."

It creates an atmosphere conducive to legitimising actions by ANC and Zuma supporters – acting “within their right” – to attack and/or disrupting the protesters.

In Zimbabwe, this kind of action has become the standard response by supports of Mugabe and ZANU-PF.


In South Africa we are not there yet, and we should take comfort from statements such as the one made by ANC Under Secretary General Jessie Duarte, saying that  People have a right to march if they so wish and do it in peace.

But, there remain many ominous signs, and all right minded and peace loving South Africans should and must remain vigilant.

by Garth Cilliers

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