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Learning from Zimbabwe: the Failure of Liberation Politics

18 September 2012, 10:42

Thabo Mbeki was inaugurated for a second term as South Africa’s president in 2004. I remember seeing the televised spectacle on my first visit to the republic after ten years abroad. There were cheering crowds at the Union Buildings as the dignitaries arrived. The adoring multitudes roared as Madiba made his entrance, but the most rapturous applause was reserved for one Robert Gabriel Mugabe and his entourage.

Later on, I asked an acquaintance from Mutare (in Manicaland Province near the Mozambique border) about the apparent strength of support for Zimbabwe’s president from South Africa’s youth, despite him being a figure of derision and contempt in much of the world. He replied that no matter what cruelties Mugabe visited on his people, he would forever be seen as the champion of Black Africa. This is central to understanding how the overwhelming majority of people in Zimbabwe and South Africa think, regardless of their level of education. Post-colonial politics in both countries does not mean that we have entered an era of post-racial reconciliation. The ruling parties in both countries have a vested interest in maintaining a racially polarised atmosphere, something that they have managed to do quite successfully.

There is a fear among Black South Africans that White people will bring back some version of apartheid if given half a chance to do so. I do not believe that this fear is justified. Most South Africans just want an opportunity to live decent lives and secure the future of their children. However, the dream of a rainbow nation was short-lived, and as a consequence, there are many angry and fearful people out there. It thus becomes easy to resort to stereotypes and finger-pointing on all sides. White people are exasperated by the continued strong support for the ANC despite its obvious failures. In feeling so, they are unable to grasp the significance of the party as a liberation movement for their Black compatriots. Recently there have been a number of articles by prominent Black commentators lamenting the state of their communities so many years after liberation. So one can argue that the issues have nothing to do with race; rather they are the consequence of those age-old human failings of greed and vanity.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. In order to hold themselves together, people deny the reality of what is happening. We can lie to other people and sometimes even get away with it. When we lie to ourselves, it always leads to disaster. There are many Zimbabweans who today cling to the mythology of a post-liberation paradise, despite the ugly truth before them. Likewise, there are many South Africans who desperately grasp for the threads of a torn and shredded dream. These are the people who become very angry when reality presents itself, as it must do. They look for scapegoats, who could be anything from foreigners, farmers, White people, poor people (mostly Black), artists, Coloured and Indian people, gays and lesbians, crime victims to innocent women and children. The result is the normalisation and acceptance of the most appalling acts of violence and cruelty.

Will South Africa become another Zimbabwe? I doubt it. This tragedy will have a unique and distinct character all of its own. Moeletsi Mbeki, the Arch, and columnists Simphiwe Dana and Thabo Seroke, are just a few prominent people who have spoken out recently. There are many more (Black and White) who have courageously given voice to what is happening in the country. However, the louder and more powerful voices belong to the politicians, and in the end they know how to manipulate a desperate and angry population. There are no heroes anymore to save South Africa. When Mandela dies, his dream will die with him.

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