Whispers from Zimababwe

by Laurence Ticehurst.

In the bad old days before 1990, September was the month when think pieces about South Africa started to appear in the British newspapers. The reason, of course, was that September marks the start of spring in the Southern African sub continent when the climate there is at its most congenial – which is saying a good deal- no wonder then that it appeared to so many all the more urgent to report first hand on the evils of apartheid!

south africa mapI have not myself been able to join this years migration. But whispers continue to reach me from the region, whispers which I cannot absolutely confirm, but which I have reason to suppose have not been invented.

The politics of South Africa are notoriously raucous. Those who know the area best are the least likely to be alarmed. At its worst the commonly used phrase “That’s Africa” – most accurately translated by the exclamation “Stuff happens!” expresses a certain smugness and disdain, at its best it reflects a realism about what is possible which cuts across the idealism of those who demonised Ian Smith and P. W. Botha, but it should not blind us to the political progress that has been made- at least in South Africa, and the enormous potential of the area as a whole.ian smith

There is no more richly endowed part of the world. It is true that Namibia has so far been unlucky in its search for oil. But diamonds can be seen glinting in the sand at Luderitz airport. Every imaginable mineral is to be found in South Africa. The wheat fields of the Orange Free State stretch for miles along the railway line- one grain elevator small as a child’s toy twenty miles away in the haze coming into view the moment the train pulls out from beneath the shadow of its predecessor. The potential for tourism is enormous- every sport except for skiing is catered for. It is the same story further North.

Politics is the bane of the region.  What both Zimbabwe and South Africa need is twenty, thirty, fifty, a hundred years of good government so that, their tourist potential can be realised, and so that their mineral and agricultural wealth can be unlocked.  They need the rule of law (  which, by the way, was never completely extinguished even in the worst days of apartheid). They need property rights. Above all they need a culture which while not neglectful of the poor- looks kindly on individual initiative and enterprise- both things which pose difficulties for African culture – with its greater sense of the collective. Above all the whole region needs the kind of political stability that is now only to be found in Botswana- because it is only against this background that the long term private plans that are needed can be brought to fruition. Investors do not need Southern Africa. But Southern Africa badly needs investors.

Robert-Mugabe-ZimbabweToday’s Zimbabwe stands in the shadow of Robert Mugabe, or “Bob” as he used to be half affectionately called by those who remember his first successful years in power. But Bob has long since been corrupted by power. He is now no more than a dictator closer to Idi Amin than to Nelson Mandela. He is 91. Even more importantly he is certainly long passed his best, and perhaps past it altogether.

All the more troubling then is the extent to which he has been able to destroy the opposition. There was a time some years ago when it seemed that The Movement for Democratic Change ( M.D.C.) might be able to arrest the slide into dictatorship. But this moment has passed. Thanks to a disgraceful combination of intimidation- especially in rural areas and voting rigging ZANU ( Bob’s political party) is now and likely to remain the only serious political force in Zimbawe.  Worse, Morgan Tsvangirai the leader of the MDC has lost much of his credibility and may have been turned by the government- although this is not certain. ( His private life is rumoured to be a disaster area, and blackmail cannot be completely discounted.)morgan-tsvangirai

This means that Zimbabwe is in practice, if not in form, a one party state. And in such states of course the battles for succession can be fought with a mediaeval ferocity. No one has yet been drowned in a vat of wine in Zimbabwe, although opposition leaders are advised to check their brake cables. In the absence of effective leadership ZANU is disintegrating into competing factions around the various claimants. There are no discernible ideological differences. Surprisingly for such a male orientated society two of the leading actors in the drama are women. First up then in this gallery of conteneders waiting to take over from Bob is his wife Grace Mugabe. Grace-MugabeWhile Grace holds an honorary doctorate from The University of Zimbabwe word in Harare is that she is not the brightest firework in the box. Nevertheless she is well placed to influence events and patronage in her favour as she naturally enjoys her husbands support.

Another possible successor to Bob is Joice Mujuru a former Vice President, and widow of the powerful Solomon Mujuru, who may have met an untimely end.

The smart money though is increasingly supporting Emerson Mnangagwa who will probably get the call.

The question is what does all this mean for the ordinary Zimbabwean? In truth it doesn’t really matter much who gets the nod. As long as the incessant infighting goes on the news is not good. Factional government is bad government. And the kind of prolonged factional squabling at the highest levels of power in Zimababwe is even worse This is all the more true when there is no effective opposition, and when parliament is unable to call the executive to account.

In such a political environment decisions and appointments are not made on their merits but in order to advance the factional interests of those who make them. Wise political decision making is never easy. In a case like Zimbabwe’s  it becomes all but impossible. In any event the powerless, i.e. those without influence- black or white- will remain powerless. The whites though can pack for Perth- assuming they can sell their property. But for poor urban blacks???

And what of South Africa? A generous marker would give South Africa’s ruling party the ANC no more than five out of ten for its performance in power. The old Rhodesian hands, for lack of a better term, certainly don’t much like what they see. Obviously they are biased. However they are not fools. They were happy to praise Bob in the first years after independence when he performed well. But they would consider that  South Africa seems to be heading in the same direction as Zimbabwe- nothing but trouble.

One of Adam Smith’s interlocutors once said that American independence would be the the ruin of the nation, but the great economist replied that there was “a deal of ruin in a asmithnation.” Well there is still a deal of ruin left in South Africa and perhaps even still some cultural, and economic capital left in Zimbabwe. Consequently a gradual decline is more likely than any sudden catastrophe Nevertheless neither Zimbabwe nor South Africa look as if they will be realising their vast potential anytime soon.


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