Zimbabwe’s lesson: No coup required

William Saunderson-Meyer says our neighbour has got rid of a despised leader, can we now do the same?


Media commentators have been scurrying to “draw lessons” from the unexpected developments in Zimbabwe after years of stasis. The most obvious moral of the story is that it’s helluva tough to be a president at the pointy end of Africa.

Over the years, the public antipathy builds up. You become the lightning rod for all discontent. By extension, your family members and closest friends become targets of speculation, innuendo and vilification.

No, I’m not thinking of the woes that President Robert Gabriel Mugabe endured before he reluctantly exited. I am thinking, rather, of President Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma, who unfortunately will be with us a while longer.

Like Mugabe, Zuma must be the most despised politician in his own country. Everything that he does is viewed with suspicion, dismissed with contempt. And that’s just by his African National Congress colleagues.

The antipathy of the broader public is such that were Jacob and ex-wife Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to plunge, hand-in-hand, into a raging river to rescue drowning orphans, the reaction would still be sullenly negative. Why are there orphans? Did the Guptas push the kids into the water?

In reality, however, Zuma handled the Harare coup-that-wasn’t-a coup pretty well, although I have yet to read any analysis that gives him a shred of credit. Acting both as the president of the neighbouring country most affected — there are at least 3m economic and political refugees here —  and chair of the Southern African Development Community, Zuma was admirably calm and considered.

He did not bluster or make threats about the African Union intervening to restore Mugabe. He understood immediately that it was important that the military intervention ousting Mugabe should not be labelled a coup d’état, since that perforce would as a matter of policy prevent the AU and United Nations from recognising any transformed Zimbabwe.

How different from the head of AU, Alpha Conde, who is also the president of Guinea, who immediately fulminated publicly against an action that was “clearly soldiers trying to take power by force”. Conde went on to warn that the AU would “never accept a coup d’état in Zimbabwe”.

Zuma, in contrast, referred to the actions of the generals as the “unfolding situation”, noted that Mugabe was “confined to his home” but was otherwise fine, and called for “calm and restraint” and upon the Zimbabwean Defence Force to ensure that “peace and stability are not undermined”.

But then again, Zuma has never been as deferential or well-disposed to Mugabe as former president Thabo Mbeki was. Zuma was never terribly enthusiastic about Mbeki’s policy of “quiet diplomacy”, which saw the former SA leader concocting a deal that stole an election from the Zimbabwean opposition, which tolerated the Mugabe-orchestrated murder of hundreds of opposition voters, and which eviscerated opposition politics in that country for more a decade.

Not that his performance as regards Zimbabwe will help Zuma. The hard truth is that its irresistible, especially for those in the ANC leadership trying to distance themselves from their own failures, to shrug all blame onto the Zuma caravan as it heads towards political oblivion.

More convincing are the analogies drawn between Mugabe’s exit being triggered by trying to install his widely-loathed wife as his successor, with Zuma’s similar moves with former spouse Nkosazana, who shares a jarring arrogance with Grace. It’s difficult to see how NDZ — who looks sulkier and more miserable every day — could still after the Zimbabwe implosion beat Deputy-President Cyril Ramaphosa in any honest voting process.

The most apt comparisons are not between Zuma and Mugabe. It is the less obvious ones between Zanu-PF and the ANC, who incidentally like to draw attention to the “fraternal ties” as self-proclaimed socialist liberators between the two parties.

It was Zanu-PF that colluded in the deification of Mugabe and the destruction of democracy in Zimbabwe. It is the ANC as a party that has become increasingly anti-democratic in its tendencies; which initially facilitated state capture; and which tolerated the Zuma appointments that turned the security agencies and the prosecutorial services into his handmaidens.

Fortunately for South Africans, unlike Zimbabwe we do not need a coup, neither soft nor hard, to bring an end to all of this. ANC members simply have to vote against Madam NDZ and for the immediate recall of Zuma. Alternatively, if they won’t, voters can register their displeasure at the general election, which is barely 18 months away.

It is not only the ANC alliance that will go into the 2019 elections cloaked in the stench of their historical support for Mugabe. The Economic Freedom Fighters and especially their leader, Julius Malema, smell even more rank.

Land seizure, nationalisation, virulent racism, the intimidation of the judiciary, and a socialist ideology. These are all policies or practices of Zanu-PF that the EFF has cheered and that the “new” Zanu-PF will be trying to back away from.

There is no certainty that the events of the past 10 days will bring democracy to Zimbabwe. But it is conceivable that they will awake South Africans from their own sleepwalk along the path that destroyed Zimbabwe.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye