Is time running out for liberation movements in government? The case of South Africa and Zimbabwe

Mugabe and Zuma

This past year saw the back of two gargantuan figures in Southern African politics. Robert Mugabe resigned in November 2017, having been President of Zimbabwe since its liberation from colonial rule in 1980. Just 3 months later, in February 2018, Jacob Zuma resigned from the Presidency of South Africa, ending a 9-year spell in office. Mugabe and Zuma have two crucial things in common. Firstly, they were both intimately involved in the struggle for the liberation of their countries from colonial rule and, secondly, their departures were widely celebrated amongst the citizens of Zimbabwe and South Africa.

The departure of the two Presidents is part of a wider trend in Africa in recent years of long-standing rulers either stepping down or being forced out of office. Still, an EU Institute of Security Studies study demonstrated that currently 30% of African countries are ruled by long-standing rulers (10 years or longer), many of whom, like Mugabe and Zuma, belong to the movements that liberated their respective countries from colonial rule.

Both Mugabe and Zuma have been replaced by members of their own party, Emerson Mnangagwa for ZANU and Cyril Ramaphosa for the ANC, but the corrupt activities of their predecessors have left public trust in their government at an all-time low. Will the recent leadership changes loosen the stranglehold that the ZANU and the ANC have had over the government of South Africa and Zimbabwe since their independence?

Mugabe: from liberation to resignation

Mugabe was forced to resign in November 2017 in the midst of a military coup orchestrated by leading members of Mugabe’s party ZANU PF, including the new President Emerson Mnangagwa. The sacking of the then Vice President Mnangagwa earlier in November, sparked the coup. It was seen as a manoeuvre to clear a path for Mugabe’s unpopular wife Grace, mockingly nicknamed ‘Gucci Grace’ due to her lavish shopping habit, to succeed him as President. ‘Leadership is not sexually transmitted’ was the dry comment of a couple of ZANU military officials.[1]

This manoeuvre was the latest of a long line of Mugabe’s misdeeds as President that had replaced post-independence optimism with despair amongst Zimbabweans. Mugabe’s indiscretions have been well documented in the media: electoral violence and rigging, land and economic policies that decimated the food supply and caused hyperinflation. The economic performance of sub-Saharan African states post-liberation has varied, yet none have performed as poorly as Zimbabwe; according to the World Bank, real per capita income in 2017 was 15% lower than at independence in 1980.

What is less well documented is that Mugabe’s ZANU was not the only liberation movement that fought for independence in Zimbabwe. The Zimbabwean African National Union was established in 1973, after splintering from Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU). From that point on, the two movements operated with separate guerrilla armies in different parts of Southern Rhodesia (colonial Zimbabwe). Attempts to unite the organisations and their armies ended in violent disaster. When independence was achieved in 1980, their rivalry turned to the ballot box and Mugabe was victorious. A few years later, Mugabe sent the military into ZAPU regions to hunt down ‘dissidents’, resulting in 10,000 deaths, many of whom were civilians.[2]

This illustrates a problem that has faced post-colonial states across the world who have had to fight for their independence: how to deconstruct the cultures of violence cultivated through wars of liberation, when independence has been achieved. The internal rivalries that had been forged through over 15 years of guerrilla warfare did not disappear when Southern Rhodesia became Zimbabwe in 1980.

The Zuma saga

Jacob Zuma’s resignation was a more drawn out process, but the crucial push, similarly to that of Mugabe, came from within his own party. The ANC’s National Executive Committee told Zuma in early 2018 to step down or face a vote of no confidence in parliament. Zuma had fought off widespread calls for his resignation for several years, as his Presidency became overshadowed by one corruption allegation after another.

‘State capture’, the idea that public money and decision making is directed towards private interests, entered mainstream political discourse during Zuma’s time in office, in relation to his alleged connections with the private business interests of the multi-millionaire Gupta family. Perhaps his most glaring indiscretion was the use of public money to fit his house with a pool, amphitheatre and visitor centre.

In terms of the economy, South Africa and Zimbabwe are less comparable. While Zimbabwe has lagged, South Africa continues to be the most advanced industrial powerhouse of the region. However, South Africa too has suffered from economic recession in recent years. Zuma did inherit an economy in its first post-apartheid recession on the back of the 2008 global financial crash, but under his leadership state debt has increased further and unemployment reached 27.7% in 2017.[3]

How did they last so long?

To a great extent the answer lies in the attachment of Mugabe and Zuma to the liberation history of their countries; an attachment that they have both relentlessly cultivated to legitimise their personal leadership, and the leadership of their party.

The fact that Mugabe and Zuma both dedicated and risked their lives for the liberation of their countries from colonial rule cannot be forgotten. Mugabe was imprisoned in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) for 12 years, between 1963 and 1975, while Zuma served 10 years in prison alongside Mandela on Robben Island. The respect that this experience demanded, and still demands, provided a credibility that did much to mitigate the negative impact of their corrupt policies.

Mugabe attacked opposition parties in Zimbabwe throughout his Presidency, claiming they were the ‘puppets’ of white imperialists that would re-enslave the country.[4] In a similar way, Zuma consistently dismissed allegations of state capture as the desperate claims of ‘friends of apartheid’. Whether or not these claims have any basis, both men used their intimate ties to the liberation from colonial rule to hitch their wagon to the idea that the ‘revolution’ they had won was not complete.

Over the years this appears to have had a psychological impact on the Presidents, creating a level of hubris to the extent that they feel entitled to their position of power, regardless of a chorus of voices to the contrary. When Zuma finally resigned he did not admit any wrongdoing on his part, rather he stated, ‘the ANC should never be divided in my name’, presenting his resignation as a personal sacrifice for party unity.

For Mugabe in particular, his status as a liberation hero amongst other African leaders, although in no way uniform, served as a buffer from the international condemnation he received from ‘Western’ governments and media. The EU had maintained a travel ban for Mugabe since 2002, yet in 2008, the then President of Gabon, Omar Bongo, stated that African leaders would not have their perceptions of Mugabe shaped by Western governments.[5]

A new dawn for Zimbabwe?

The excitement on the streets of Zimbabwe was almost like a second liberation. Yet the wild celebrations at the resignation of Mugabe can conceal that, in reality, his resignation was an internal party exercise. Mugabe took it a step too far with his succession plan, and ZANU members like Mnangagwa finally snapped.

The ZANU army chief, General Constantino Chiwenga stated after the coup: ‘when it comes to matters of protecting our revolution, the military will not hesitate to step in.This looks rather like the familiar Mugabe rhetoric with some new faces, rather than a new dawn. However, to some extent there have been mixed signals, as Mnangagwa himself has heralded ‘a new Zimbabwe’.

With $10 billion of foreign debt, $50 limits at ATMs across the country and a highly unstable and inflated currency, a new economic approach is desperately needed.

The first real litmus test was the Presidential election in August of this year and the results were mixed. Officially, Mnangagwa won with just over 50%, while his opponent Nelson Chamisa won 44% of the vote. The legality of the election was disputed by Chamisa, particularly due to the three-day wait for results. However, the election day was peaceful with minimal military presence and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) were able to hold nationwide rallies without interference. Moreover, for the first time in 16 years, representatives from the EU and US were allowed in to monitor the election.

In short, it is too soon to say, but there is clearly cause for optimism that a new path may be forged.

The future of the ANC

The similarities between the politics of South Africa and Zimbabwe do run thin at a certain point. South Africa has more comprehensive checks and balances on personal political power, as well as a stronger reputation for free elections. In March 2018, the National Prosecuting Authority announced that Zuma will face trial on 16 charges of corruption, money laundering and racketeering. It remains unclear what course this trial will take, but there has not been an attempt in Zimbabwe to pursue similar legal sanctions against Mugabe.

Nonetheless, President Ramaphosa has a lot of work to do to restore public trust in the ANC. In the 2016 local elections, the ANC suffered substantial losses in urban areas. They lost the capital Pretoria and more symbolically, Mandela Bay, named after the late President and liberation hero. In the aftermath of this election, an 2017 ANC organisational report warned that if their vote continues to ‘decline systematically’, they will soon fall under 50% of the popular vote.

Interestingly, ZANU also lost out in crucial urban areas in the 2018 election, including the capital Harare. This has been a recent trend with the support for liberation movements in sub-Saharan Africa; their roots in the country are deeper, especially if their guerrilla soldiers lived amongst the people during the struggle for independence.

It is not clear, however, that an organisation that can really challenge the ANC has emerged. An Ipsos poll in 2017 estimated that if there was another election, the ANC vote would fall below 50%, but the Economic Freedom Fighters and the Democratic Alliance, South Africa’s second and third parties, would not increase their vote. With the low hanging fruit of Zuma’s corruption now gone, the picture for these parties cannot look much better moving into 2019.

Instead of votes going elsewhere, there has been an increasingly low voter turnout. From this trend it could be speculated that the link in the public imaginary between the post-Apartheid political system and the organisation that delivered it, the ANC, remains strong. Thus, rather than searching for alternative political allegiances, disillusionment with the ANC equates to disillusionment with the political system as a whole.

A final word

On the balance of the evidence, it may seem that the simple answer to whether time is running out for liberation movements in government is ‘No’. It does not seem that there is a popular conception of future governance outside of the ANC in South Africa, nor is it clear what it would take to shift ZANU PF from the government of Zimbabwe.

The issues within the ANC and ZANU certainly have not evaporated with the fall of their leaders, yet it should not be assumed that pushing the two parties out of government is the only path available. Dr Knox Chitiyo, of Chatham House, believes that Ramaphosa and Mnangagwa could herald a new beginning, as they belong to ‘a pragmatic new wave of regional economic reformers nudging liberationism away from ideology’.[6]

Now that the biggest bricks have tumbled, it remains to be seen whether the ANC and ZANU PF will be able to renew the trust of the people, or whether the house will fall down. It was not the will of the people that pushed out Zuma and Mugabe, but the eyes of the public are wide open to see what will happen next. What seems certain is that there cannot be a return to the previous status quo.