The day after the election in Zimbabwe, the Cape Times (of Cape Town) carried a front-page story on the South African government’s new policy to ‘turn the tide against poverty’ by cutting back on the tax-funded opulence of ANC politicians. President Mbeki’s private jet would be sold and he would in future travel by South African Airways. There would be no more mansions and Mercedes for ministers and no more full-page advertisements in the newspapers singing the praises of the ANC government. This story appeared on 1 April.
Being naturally gullible and tired after a long night before, I read it in a dreamlike state, feeling that I had been transported into a different universe where the ordinary laws of African politics had broken down. In this strange realm, African leaders put the welfare of the people ahead of their own luxury and vainglory. Then I came to the last line of the article, designed to make dimwits like me check the date, and was bumped back to reality.
Part of this reality was the grisly farce of the Zimbabwean election, the inevitable result and its equally inevitable endorsement by the South African government. President Mugabe of Zimbabwe must be extremely grateful to President Mbeki of South Africa, without whose constant support and encouragement he would probably not have been able to sustain his tyranny. The ANC shouted and screamed against apartheid South Africa and Ian Smith’s Rhodesia and called for sanctions against both. It denounces what it sees as crimes of the Israeli government, such as the building of the wall to shut out Palestine. But against the mass murder, torture, terror, gang rape and deliberate starvation of the Zimbabwe people by Mugabe’s dictatorship, neither President Mbeki nor any other leading figure of the ANC in his government has whispered one word of protest. Mbeki’s policy of ‘quiet diplomacy’ towards Zimbabwe has usually consisted of picking up a big megaphone and bellowing the virtues of Robert Mugabe. The ANC’s support for Mugabe is total.
The most frightening question hanging over the future of South Africa is this. Does the ANC support Mugabe out of political expediency or because it agrees with his actions? If the latter, will South Africa go the way of Zimbabwe?
Expediency would be easy to understand. The curse of black Africans, in Africa and abroad, is their unrequited obsession with the white man. Black Africans try to reduce all human existence to a simple morality tale in which the white man is the source of all evil and misfortune. They have little interest in black people beyond their borders but enormous interest in white people. If there is an atrocity in an African country, black people outside that country will not care unless there are white people concerned, either as instigators or as victims.
When Mugabe slaughtered 20,000 black people in southern Zimbabwe in 1983, nobody outside Zimbabwe, including the ANC, paid it the slightest attention. Nor did they care when, after 2000, he drove thousands of black farm workers out of their livelihoods and committed countless atrocities against his black population. But when he killed a dozen white farmers and pushed others off their farms, it caused tremendous excitement. Mugabe became a hero in the eyes of black activists in South Africa, the US and England. That he has ruined Zimbabwe, a beautiful and naturally blessed country; that he has turned it from a food exporter to a hungry food importer; that he has caused 80 per cent unemployment and 600 per cent inflation; that he has killed and tortured tens of thousands of Africans; that he has crushed democracy; that he has reduced life expectancy from 55 years in 1980 when he came to power to 33 years now—none of this matters compared with his glorious triumph in beating up a handful of white farmers.
Whenever there is a South African radio phone-in programme on Zimbabwe, white South Africans and black Zimbabweans denounce Mugabe, and black South Africans applaud him. Therefore, one theory goes, Mbeki cannot afford to criticise Mugabe. This explains Mbeki’s constant support for Mugabe, his endorsement of the fraudulent presidential election in 2002, and his recent statement—made after Mugabe had shut down independent newspapers, rigged the voters’ roll, terrorised opposition supporters and banned opposition party meetings—that ‘I have no reason to think that anybody in Zimbabwe will militate against elections being free and fair.’
The most plausible advocate of this theory is Jeremy Cronin of the South African Communist party (SACP). The ANC is in a three-party alliance with the SACP and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu). In a strange but hopeful twist, the SACP and Cosatu have denounced Mugabe and declared the 31 March election a sham. I heard Cronin speak at the University of Cape Town. He is a middle-aged white man with an endearing demeanour, rather like one of those earnest schoolboys determined to be good and often bullied for it. He said that Mbeki had been painted into a corner by Mugabe. Mugabe’s skill at evoking the devils of white imperialism, Tony Blair and the IMF, had outmanoeuvred Mbeki. Mbeki genuinely wanted democracy in Zimbabwe and had hoped for democratic reform before this election, but unfortunately the cunning Mugabe had tricked him by declaring the election suddenly before anything could be done.
I listened to this nice man and thought, ‘Come off it!’ Mugabe’s skill? It needs no skill at all to win the applause of black activists around the world. Any African president can kill as many black people as he likes knowing that, if he then condemns white imperialism, he is guaranteed acclamation. Idi Amin, no Machiavelli, did it in the 1970s. He murdered about a quarter of a million Africans but became a great African hero by expelling Asians from Uganda and announcing himself as a conqueror of the British empire. For this achievement he was made president of the Organisation of African Unity. Mugabe’s tactics are almost as crude. Mbeki would be an idiot to be surprised by them, and he is not.
Moreover, the ANC is now almost unassailable in South Africa. It won 70 per cent of the vote in the election last year and has no credible rival for power. Mbeki could easily stop supporting Mugabe’s reign of terror without losing significant support at home.
So then there is the sinister possibility that Mbeki genuinely approves of Mugabe’s actions, both the persecution of opponents and the confiscation of white assets. Mugabe and Mbeki are similar in many ways, and so are their parties. Both men spend fortunes on pomp and ceremony. Both attack white Western culture while adoring it. Both try to dress like English squires and to sound like Oxford dons while at the same time ranting against white colonialism. Both silence all critics by calling them racists. (A difference, which probably does not have much practical importance, is that Mbeki seems to be a genuine racist whereas Mugabe’s racism is simply a device for retaining power.) The ANC and Zanu-PF both believe they are not just political parties but divinely ordained ‘liberation movements’, entitled to rule in perpetuity. Both seem unable to distinguish between the state and the party, and the opposition and the enemy.
South Africa’s press is free, even if it labours under heavy self-censorship, but the national television broadcaster, the SABC, increasingly resembles Mugabe’s state television with much of the ‘news’ consisting of the mighty accomplishments of the ruling party and the great utterances of its supreme leader. At present the ANC faces no serious challenge at elections. If it did face a serious challenge, as Mugabe did in 2000, would it act as he did?
Unfortunately, there are many signs that this is exactly what it would do. The ANC has long experience in using violence and terror against its black opponents in the 1980s and 1990s, and would probably put this to use if too many blacks began to vote against it. This might be a reason why the ANC so enthusiastically supports Mugabe, saying in effect to potential black dissidents, ‘Be careful. We can do what he does.’
Mugabe became heroic by seizing white-owned farms in Zimbabwe (most of which were bought during his government with its full legal approval). Since farming is a negligible part of the South African economy, the ANC, to reproduce Mugabe’s heroism, would have to seize other white assets such as mines, banks and factories. The farms taken from the whites in Zimbabwe did not, of course, go in the main to ordinary black people in Zimbabwe but to a handful of rich cronies in the ruling party. In the ANC’s ideology of ‘transformation’, this is fine. ‘Transformation’ does not mean reducing inequality or improving the living standards of all. It means changing the race of ownership and power. It is not about rich and poor; it is purely about black and white. If all South African industry were owned by a dozen black billionaires while the majority of black people were living in penury, this would count as successful transformation, just as Zimbabwe, which is now in ruins but has black ownership of the farms, is seen as having had a successful transformation.
In South Africa, the main instrument of transformation is Black Economic Empowerment (BEE). This requires whites to hand over big chunks of the ownership of companies to blacks and to surrender top jobs to them. Almost all the blacks so enriched belong to a small elite connected to the ANC. BEE is already happening to mines, banks and factories. In other words, a peaceful Mugabe-like programme is already in progress in South Africa. What are the chances of its turning violent?
Before the fall of apartheid in 1990, the ANC was Marxist in thought and believed in the command economy. It abandoned this, thanks in large part to Mbeki, because it felt constrained by the realities of the global economy after the fall of communism and the need for foreign investment. Does it now really want to follow Mugabe’s violent example but feel constrained by these same considerations? If circumstances changed, as they did for Mugabe, would the ANC cast aside constraint and unleash the ‘comrades’ on white-owned businesses and properties? Such a move would provide a marvellous opportunity for mayhem, for the multitudes of unemployed young black men would be ecstatically received by the rich but resentful black elite that spends its energy obsessing about whites, and would be cheered to the rooftops by the UN, the African Union and ‘progressive forces’ around the world. Imagine TV pictures of the white executives of Anglo-America being manacled and whipped through the streets of Johannesburg by grinning black youths. What could be more delightful?
White South Africans are told that they should ‘learn the lessons of the white farmers in Zimbabwe’. What lessons? That you should never trust a black government (since they bought their farms with the approval of a black government)? That you should never invest in Africa or pour your sweat into Africa? That you should not try to befriend black people and improve their living standards (since those Zimbabwean farmers who did so were the first to have their lands confiscated)? When Mugabe took power in 1980, there were about 300,000 whites in Zimbabwe. Now there are about 25,000. Is the lesson for white South Africans that they should all emigrate?
I do not know the answers. I did not predict the fall of communism or the fall of apartheid. I am not a good prophet. Zimbabwe is an imperfect comparison with South Africa. But looking at all the evidence as clearly as I can, it seems to me that Zimbabwe is the best comparison we have; and if you want to see the future of South Africa, it might not be a bad idea to look at the present in Zimbabwe.