Southern Africa Watch

Similar political dramas playing out in South Africa and Zimbabwe


In recent weeks there have been remarkable parallels between political events in South Africa and its northern neighbour Zimbabwe. The trend continues.

In both South Africa and Zimbabwe, a new leader is now in charge of the ruling party after both former party leaders resigned amidst high drama.

And, in both countries the governing party faces a tough and testing general election while on the back foot, with the ANC admittedly confronted with the bigger challenge.

Writing on the wall

The background is obviously different, but the resignation of Mugabe and Jacob Zuma followed after both Zanu-PF and the ANC suffered huge public support as result of gross misadministration and the implementation of ill-advised policies by the two former leaders. Corruption, state capture, plunder and looting of state assets and nepotism became synonymous with the Mugabe and Zuma style of government and in turn gave rise to stuttering economies, rising unemployment and the flight of foreign capital to name but some negative consequences.

The declining support for the two increasingly unpopular leaders reached rock bottom after both tried unsuccessfully to promote their spouses (ex-spouse in the case of Zuma) as their replacements in blatant attempts to retain power and influence. In both instances it back-fired badly and contributed directly to their downfall.

With the writing on the wall it was became obvious to both Zanu-PF and the ANC that continued support for Mugabe and Zuma could become a costly price to pay at the ballot box.

Little time

The two new party leaders/heads of state have restricted time available to prepare for approaching crucial general elections, particularly in South Africa, where the ANC for the first time since coming to power in 1994, face the prospect of ending up in parliament’s opposition benches.

With a slim victory at the ANC December 2017 national elective conference, Cyril Ramaphosa must, not only consolidate his position as party leader while facing major challenges in government, but also try to keep a badly fractured party together. This leaves him with less time and opportunity to prepare for, and take his party to contest what could be a robust and closely fought election in 2019.

In Zimbabwe Emmerson Mnangagwa faces similar challenges – if on a substantially lesser scale. His Zanu-PF is also divided but his challenge to restore party unity and control is far less arduous. He can count on overwhelming internal party support and complete backing from the security establishment – something crucial in the Zimbabwean scenario.

The death of charismatic long-time opposition MDC-T party leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, and the scramble to find his replacement in a faction ridden party, with elections only months away, makes a Zanu-PF victory under Mnangagwa an almost certainty.

Not easy      

Both Ramaphosa and Minagawa have opted to try and re-claim lost support by making promises to right the many wrongs committed by their predecessors. However, for neither is it going to be easy.

Mnangagwa has already buckled under pressure with contradicting remarks about redressing Mugabe’s controversial land policy and returning some land, taken without compensation during the land grabbing rush in 2000 and beyond, to former White owners. 

The European Union’s (EU) initial positive response, promising financial assistance and speedy removal of remaining sanctions, has been replaced by a reluctance to follow through. It constituted a blow to Mnangagwa’s plans to kick start Zimbabwe’s ailing economy.

In a further set back the United States (US) reportedly announced that sanctions will not just be maintained but extended with only a possible review after the elections.

In South Africa, the joyous and positive mood after Zuma’s belated departure, grants President Ramaphosa an opportunity to launch a campaign aimed at restoring confidence in his party and entice dissatisfied supporters back. He could be successful if he delivers on the promises made in his State of the Nation Address (SONA), the economy improves, unemployment reduces, and state capture and corruption is seen to be arrested. None of this will come easy and he will be truly tested.

The recall of Zuma will not be enough to turn the fortunes of the ANC around, with some in the ANC who recalled Zuma simply to do damage control for the 2019 elections and try to trick voters into thinking that this is a new ANC, rising out of the ashes created by their previous leader.

Ramaphosa will be hard pressed put distance between his- and the Zuma-administration without a purge of the cabinet, which in turn might but party unity under considerable strain. 

Opposition challenges

The opposition parties in both countries are also facing stiff challenges of their own – in some respects even stiffer than those faced by the parties in power.

Zimbabwe’s main opposition was particularly hard hit by the death of Morgan Tsvangirai, taking the rift between factions within the MDC probably to beyond repair. At present it seems highly unlikely that the new leader, 40-year-old Nelson Chamisa, stands any chance to unite the party and pose a serious threat to Zanu-PF in the election later this year while Mnangagwa is riding a wave of goodwill generated by his role in the removal of Mugabe.

Similarly South Africa’s opposition parties face an uphill challenge. With Zuma gone the opposition, particularly the DA and EFF, will have to urgently re-strategize well if they want to keep momentum and put the ANC under President Ramaphosa’s leadership under pressure.  

With recent history as backdrop, the EFF might be the party to watch, proving to be the more innovative and effective in hassling the ANC with the DA mostly playing second fiddle. The EFF can rightfully claim that they drove the campaign against Zuma from the opposition benches and already indicated that they will “watch Ramaphosa closely.”

But, there is a flipside. The EFF should be wary not to overdo its disruptive tactics in the face of the tide of public opinion, yearning for some calm after all the political drama of recent years.

The DA in turn is also doing itself no favour by appearing paralyzed to contain the factionalism and infighting within its own ranks. Embroiled in its own internal factional struggles, epitomized by the Patricia de Lille debacle and the sudden resignation of the party’s national spokesperson and rising star‚ Phumzile van Damme‚ the DA will have to mop up its own mess very quickly otherwise the self-inflicted wounds will require major surgery ill affordable with a crucial election on hand.

How the two countries’ parties, both in government and in opposition, respond to their respective challenges on the unfolding the new political landscape, over the days, weeks and months ahead, will determine their fate on election day.

by Garth Cilliers

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