Zimbabwe Review

Reflections on Zimbabwe

How Zimbabwe will influence events in a post-Mbeki South Africa

Posted by CM on September 20, 2008

One doesn’t hear South Africa referred to as ‘the rainbow nation’ very much anymore. That post-apartheid fantasy could not and did not hold for long. The realities of the leftovers of one of the world’s most brutally efficient systems of state-sponsored oppression meant that it was not realistic to hope that South Africa  could turn into a ‘non-racial’ state overnight. Still, the country’s transition from apartheid to majority rule has been remarkably smooth and peaceful considering its history.

A growing but still small clique of blacks now drive the fanciest BMWs, live in formerly white-designated areas and generally enjoy the consumerist ‘good life.’ An even smaller clique have been able to position themselves to become instant millionaires from the country’s ‘black economic empowerment (BEE) program,’ a kind of lottery where you can peddle your influence to get shares in white enterprises.

No white person will now publicly  own up to having supported apartheid, and whites are generally happy and relieved that there were no reprisals. There is of course the grumbling about the fall of ‘standards’ as the national cake that previously mainly was shared amongst a small white population now must serve the whole country, but overall, South Africa continues to be ‘successful’ in the IMF/World Bank terms by which countries are typically judged.

Both Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki have received high praise for not rocking the economic boat. Investors heap praise on Mbeki for being so business-friendly, unlike  that nasty fellow to the north, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.

But there are apparently a lot of people in South Africa, including in Mbeki’s own ANC, who are not particularly impressed with the economic course the country has chartered since 1994. They would like to see a more radical, more interventionist role for the government in bringing about post-apartheid socio-economic transformation, including on issues such as land.

It is these influential power centers within the ANC who have forced Thabo Mbeki to agree to resign from the presidency a year before his second term was due to expire. They are the same power centers who are likely to make Jacob Zuma a shoo-in for president next year.

These latest political moves signal the end of the softly-softly period of post-apartheid transition. We are now going to see a dispensation in which business and investor-friendliness are not going to be necessarily regarded as positives. Of course Zuma has made the expected noises of assurance to the nervous. But as has been shown by the unprecedented, un-Africa like humiliation Mbeki has suffered in the last year at the hands of his party, Zuma is not likely to be all-powerful in the mould of Mugabe, or of African leaders in general. The ‘radicalization’ of policy under Zuma as president will be largely independent of what he says. Even if he were inclined to (and it is not clear that this would be his inclination) resist it, there is clearly strong pressure within the ANC for what are considered more ‘people-friendly’ policies.

Perhaps South Africa will find its own unique blend of satisfying the heightened pressure for faster post-apartheid change while remaining ‘business and investor’ friendly, but the two are generally considered to be opposite each other. This is likely to have profound effects on the economy as foreign investors and the still overwhelmingly white business sector hedge their bets until it is clear that South Africa is not ‘going the way of Zimbabwe.’

This phase of transition had to come, it was almost inevitable. For now, it looks like a good thing that it is coming after 16 years of the kind of classical economic ‘stability’ and ‘growth’ that outfits like the World Bank and the IMF find praiseworthy. Perhaps this drift to a more radical agenda now will be much less frightening to those who control the economy than would have been the case if it had instead been a  sudden, radical shift right from Mandela’s time at the helm in 1994.

But then again, there are those who look at Zimbabwe and say meaningful land reform and general ‘economic empowerment’ would have been more successful and less disruptive if they had been embarked on right from independence in 1980, rather than being postponed for almost 20 years. The argument is that the racists who couldn’t handle this would have left early on, and those who chose to stay would have had the long-term security of knowing that a thorny political issue had been dealt with once and for all. Whatever shock to the economy that would have been felt would have been expected at a time of overall change in both political and economic spheres, and after a spell the country would begin to work itself up and forward.

Of course we will never know if this is indeed how things would have played out. In any case, in both Zimbabwe and South Africa, it was clearly felt by the incoming majority-rule leaders that assuring local business, foreign investors and money lenders like the World Bank and the IMF that change would be slow and gradual was the best course of action to take. And indeed, the leaders were praised profusely for being ‘responsible,’ model Africans. Praise was heaped on them in Western capitals for not paying heed to any  amongst their ranks who wanted a radical new order in regards to land and the economy in general from the start.

Despite the classical economic parameters for which today’s South Africa is praised (low inflation, good FDI levels and reputation amongst investors, rising GDP, low budget deficits, etc, etc) many of its black citizens feel cheated out of ‘the good times.’ As anywhere else, many of the poorest hoped for overnight change in their fortunes. Told to be patient, they became less so as they witnessed the emergence of a small, well-connected, not-necessarily-productive black BMW/BEE brigade, flaunting their new-found wealth provocatively while they continued to be jobless, living in shacks with no running water.

It is still too early to know what kind of model of economic recovery Zimbabwe will undergo in the coming months and years after its recent political settlement. It is not hard to guess that there will be pressure on the coalition government to reverse some of the ’empowerment laws’ of recent years in order for aid and investment to flow. But it will be difficult or impossible to reverse Mugabe’s land reform programme, for many reasons. Former white farmers and many in the British power structures would be unhappy with this, but they would learn to live with this reality of Southern Africa’s continuing winds of post-colonial change. They don’t have much choice.

It would be an interesting Zimbabwe that began a slow recovery with foreign assistance, but with much of the economy in black hands as a result of Mugabe’s aggressive changes over the years. Some of them might be softened, but it would be a fundamentally changed Zimbabwe in which foreign investors were returning if much of the empowerment changes of recent years were largely left in place, such as the requirement for foreigners to give a certain minimum stake to locals.

Almost inevitably, agricultural recovery will largely consist of capacitating the black farmers who are allowed to keep their land, rather than handing it back to the previous white owners. It may take many years, but this could be the start of a new black-dominated commercial farming model.

What all this could mean is that Zimbabwe would be rising from its ashes at a time when South Africa is under-going its first experiments with really widespread and deep economic transformation. Such fundamental changes are hard to manage smoothly, so it may very well be that the country would begin to experience Zimbabwe-like difficulties, even if they never get anywhere near as bad as at its northern neighbour’s lowest point.

Zimbabwe might well be beginning to rise up from its long, inefficient, costly and painful process of post-colonial economic transformation at a time when South Africa is just beginning its own in earnest. That would create many interesting contrasts and ironies. One hopes that South Africa’s will not be as costly and painful as Zimbabwe’s, but the nature of this kind of change almost rules out a flawlessly smooth process.

Many aspects of it will be experimental with a lot of ‘honest’ mistakes made. But it could also be driven by  hotheads to whom a smooth process is far less important than scoring ideological points, settling political scores and just appearing romantically ‘radical.’ All these  have been among the elements of Zimbabwe’s experience, and their historical/political/racial/ideological drivers exist as much in South Africa as they did in Zimbabwe; perhaps even more so.

The tired, weak and dilapidated Zimbabwe of today looks like a ‘failed state,’ especially compared to its robust neighbour South Africa. But could it perhaps now be in a position to rise up from a difficult, not entirely well-managed period of wrenching economic transformation at the same time that South Africa under Zuma will just be entering its own era of an attempt at more meaningful change than has been experienced up to now?

If so, the Zimbabwe that is such a mess today could in a few years of well-managed recovery (obviously a very big ‘if’) look like an attractive model of radical transformation to be adopted and modified by impatient South African radicals un-impressed by the dry indices by which their country is today praised as being ‘successful.’ Those indices ignore the anger and cynicism in the townships, rural areas and the sectors of the country that have not yet benefited from the ‘rainbow nation’ benefits of the privileged few.

There are uncertain but interesting, hot times ahead in southern Africa.


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