South Africa is not Zimbabwe-in-waiting

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It’s a familiar South African refrain: “This country’s going to the dogs.” Or worse: “We’re turning into Zimbabwe.” But just because something is repeated doesn’t make it true. We’re in no danger of turning into our neglected northern neighbour anytime soon.

We are not Zimbabwe-in-waiting.

I have personally heard this complaint from every race in this country. “SA is becoming worse than Zimbabwe.”  Since our new cricketers have recently scored so well I would like to try and smack the Doomsday Ball for six.

First – four against one. The greatest gift the ANC has given us is four presidents. They have varied in quality. From Mandela, who lead by superb example; to Mbeki, whose intelligence was undermined by defeatist introspection; to Motlanthe, who took the poisoned chalice and returned it cleaner than it was before; and to Zuma, the most successful political operator and the most erratic leader.

The transition of leadership from one individual to the other has happened in three different ways. But it HAS happened. And it is happening again. Simply put, we will not become a dictatorship; this seems to be hardwired into the ANC’s DNA. If Mugabe had stepped down in 1994 at the end of his second term, despite the Matabeleland atrocities, he would be lauded as one of the continent’s greatest statesmen. He would have left a thriving economy, a healthy democracy, soaring education standards and a steadily emerging middle class. Instead here he still is, atrophied, unable to free his old man’s claw from the reins.

Second – follow the money. South Africa’s economy is bigger, more complex and globally connected, and more successful than Zimbabwe’s ever was, especially after 14 years of sanctions (SA consistently rates amongst the top ten in the world when it comes to banking practice). When JZ made his short sighted, self serving blunder with his attempt at Ministerial Chess (Ghordan to the left : Nene forward : Nene diagonally back : van Rooyen centre : van Rooyen back right : Ghordan back to centre), it was financial pressure that forced him to his senses. Whether that pressure came from his good friends the Guptas, or his very rich and connected Deputy President, or from some influential capitalists of every color, the message and the result was the same. No-one can play with the economy as if it is his toy.

Simply put, too many people have too much to lose. It is Zimbabwe’s misfortune that a discovery of an unimaginable wealth of diamonds gave Mugabe the money to buy power and protection at the exact moment when he was most vulnerable.

Third – the balance of numbers. We are the most racially complex nation on the continent, by far. Aside from over 40 million Black South Africans of nine different language groups, there are over a million Asian South Africans; more than five million coloured South Africans; and just under five million white South Africans. That means aside from all those tens of millions of black South Africans who want this country to work, and need it to work, there are also 11 million people (22% of the SA population), many of whom have had the gift of excellent education, historical privilege and connection, who are invested emotionally, physically and financially in making sure SA works. Zimbabwe does not enjoy this kind of diversity.

And to answer the charge up front, this is not about whether diversity is better or worse morally than a purely African democracy. Namibia and Botswana prove that African democracies can thrive without ethnic diversity. Nonetheless, diversity is a natural force for equilibrium, and globally a fairly consistent indicator of economic health, and social harmony, so it should be celebrated.

Fourth – one party state, opposition and transition. 7.2 million people did not vote for the ANC in 2014. If the combined opposition parties capture just 1 million of the ANC vote this year (which is certainly possible) and they repeat that in 2019, then we will be very close to passing “the 50% mark”, where opposition parties collectively earn more of the vote than the ANC. You can tell by the heat of the political rhetoric that the pendulum has already begun to swing.

The DA already governs around 1000 kilometres of coast line at municipal level, and has 20 years of relentless electoral growth. It now boasts more than 4.1 million voters, and a wealth of experience of governing successfully, solely or in coalition. Meanwhile, the ANC alliance partners are self-destructing as they fracture into smaller and smaller pieces – and in reality ‘the alliance’, which used to be their electoral backbone , grows weaker and weaker.

In other words, we are not going to become a one party state. Mugabe cannibalized his alliance partner Joshua Nkomo early on, and then was able to steal a march on the late arrival of the Movement for Democratic Change, co-opt them and in doing so successfully maintain what was in fact already a one party state.

Fifth – freedom of the press and judiciary. Despite the best efforts of the ANC to control the press by capturing the SABC, and having yet another wealthy “friend” purchase the Independent Media Group (an oxymoron if ever there was one), they still feel increasingly persecuted by the press (But then again all politicians feel that!). The vigour of our press, allied with the freedom and power of social media – witness how one woman’s racist debate captured the nation’s headlines and forced political agenda for weeks – means that we all know far more about what is going on than ever before. This site is an example of the best of non-aligned journalism.

The judiciary too has managed to maintain its independence, despite some heavy handed and clumsy attempts at political interference. It is sadly true that like America, most South Africans get the justice they can afford rather than the justice they deserve. But even with families of the Marikana massacre, despite the government and Cyril’s appalling inhuman treatment of them, eventually there WAS a judicial commission; and there again was George Bizos, (surely the Greatest Greek of the South), working for justice just as he has done for fifty years.

In Zimbabwe press freedom and judicial freedom were curbed, repressed and completely under Uncle Bob’s control within the first decade of his ‘reign’.

Sixth – Talent. Just to be clear I was born in Zimbabwe and I know lots of talented and successful Zimbabweans. But South Africa seems to produce a range of talent that constantly surprises us. Political satire? Pieter-Dirk Uys, Loyiso Golo, Trevor Noah, Zapiro. Sport? Just this last month Lucas Sithole, Kagiso Radaba, Temba Bavuma, never mind our old golden girls Penny Heyns and Zola Budd. Business? Patrice Motsepe, Herbert Mashaba, Sushi-On-Skin King Kenny Kunene, even the wonderfully weird wunderkind Elon Musk. Literature? Nadine Gordimer, Antjie Krog, Zakes Mda. Music? Well of course that list is so long that I will have to write a whole article about that!

We may need to “fasten our seatbelts for a bumpy ride”, but I am almost certain it will be OUR ride, and not a copycat journey from up north. DM