Let's not wait until a coup is the only way out

Emmerson Mnangagwa is sworn in as President in Harare. (Ben Curtis, AP)
Emmerson Mnangagwa is sworn in as President in Harare. (Ben Curtis, AP)

Since Zimbabwe's near lifetime president, Robert Mugabe, was ousted last week, many comparisons have been made on how the case can be used to reflect on leadership challenges currently experienced in South Africa. 

Zimbabwe's bloodless revolution has been hailed in South Africa and afield as an indication that the people of Zimbabwe have reclaimed their rights to determine their destiny. For a moment, South Africans felt like non-achievers as Zimbabweans bid goodbye to Mugabe. 

The truth of the matter is that there are indeed a few lessons we can learn from the Zimbabwean revolution, or whatever we call it. There are also things that we should avoid repeating from the Zimbabwean experience. This is what I want to focus on in this article: things South Africa ought to avoid regarding the Zimbabwean revolution. 

The most important thing we ought to learn was well expressed in Malcom X's words: 

"If you stick a knife in my back 9 inches and pull it out 6 inches, that's not progress. If you pull it all the way out, that's not progress. The progress comes from healing the wounds that the blow made." 

Nations should avoid celebrating mediocrity and some half measures, and should instead strive for the best, no matter what. Indeed, Mugabe is gone, and his party, the Zanu-PF, has pressed a reset button by distancing itself from the dictator. But the truth is that senior members of Zanu-PF used their party to prop him up for years and allowed him to destroy Zimbabwe with crazy, vengeful policies.

What happened last week is that the very same Zanu-PF that sank a knife 9 inches into the back of the Zimbabwean people, pulled it out 6 inches by removing Mugabe. Should they be celebrated for freeing the people from Mugabe? The answer is no, or not yet. 

Zanu-PF should only be celebrated for restoring the people of Zimbabwe to economic progress and open democracy; conditions they would have had long ago were it not for Zanu-PF's rampage under Mugabe's leadership. This is the reason why Zanu-PF cannot be trusted to solely lead Zimbabwe away from Mugabe's legacy. Opposition parties, together with the people, should be involved in the attempt to rebuild the country.  

For South Africans, the lesson is that there will come a point where the solution to the country's political problems will not rest solely within the ANC. 

The frustrations in South Africa regarding President Jacob Zuma's leadership has South Africans keeping an eye on events in Zimbabwe; asking if that could bear consequences for our own country. The ANC is protecting Zuma as the party has ensured his continued hold on power despite mounting allegations that he might be involved in corruption. This is exactly how Mugabe was protected by Zanu-PF. 

In the case of South Africa, the ANC has democratically lost recourse on Zuma and the party has virtually lost control of their president. In Zimbabwe, however, the same results of a president on the rampage was achieved through non-democratic means including repression of the opposition and rigging of the elections, for example. 

Zanu-PF does not make for a good candidate when it comes to taking Zimbabwe forward, given how the party has been mortgaged to Mugabe and his loyalists' interests. I have doubts if Zanu-PF can be rehabilitated to exist beyond Mugabe. I also think it should not. 

ANC members are battling to save the party and ensure that it is under good, righteous leadership, but there comes a point where this is unachievable, no matter how much effort is put into "corrective" measures. 

Zanu-PF used the military – a state institution – to correct its internal leadership problems. The ANC cannot use those extraordinary measures simply because the problems within the party are created democratically and still remain within the confines of a democratic system. The only issue is that the democratic process keeps on producing strange results within the ANC. 

If our ruling party continues to fail to deal with its internal leadership challenge, it will be up to South Africans to look for solutions elsewhere using the democratic avenues that still exist. In Zimbabwe, the solutions were only possible within Zanu-PF, and only through unconstitutional means, leaving the people in the awkward position of having to celebrate a military coup. South Africans are fortunate not to be there yet, at least not in principle. 

The main point of comparison between Zanu-PF and the ANC is that both parties are in the wrong hands to such an extent that the party might not be trusted beyond the leaders who preside upon moments of crisis within those parties. Our problem may still be resolved democratically, while the Zimbabwean issue had reached a point where it is beyond a democratic solution. 

The main similarity between the two cases however is that, by removing Mugabe, Zanu-PF might have only pulled the knife 6 inches out of the back of Zimbabweans. The removal of President Zuma from the ANC, might also have a similar effect: a mere alleviation of the pain that still continues to exist. 

South Africa should avoid getting to a point where a non-democratic means of change in leadership becomes acceptable. This is the lesson to learn from Zimbabwe: don't wait until democratic processes are no longer effective in bringing change.   

- Ralph Mathekga is a Fellow at the SARChI Chair: African Diplomacy and Foreign Policy at the University of Johannesburg and author of When Zuma Goes

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