The Mystery of South Africa's Position

It is now very apparent to anyone with half a brain that all is not well in South Africa when it comes to handling the Zimbabwe crisis. Here we have a situation where by every measure, the Zanu PF led government has failed - the economy is in tatters, half our population needs food aid, the quality of life for the majority has deteriorated to the point where nearly half the adult population has decamped. Almost all basic human and political rights are being abused and worse on a daily basis. And the regime has lost its legitimacy because of a well-known and clearly exposed record of electoral fraud and abuse.

Yet, the leadership in South Africa and many of its apologists insist on maintaining the position that things are "improving" and that a "free and fair election" is still possible. It's not out of ignorance. Its not because they simply want to be perverse. What then is the reason - the real reason for this ridiculous stance?

We in the MDC have tried everything - we have tried to be charitable - "they do not know what is going on"; we have tried the diplomatic route "lets talk about these things - then they will understand". We have tried "quiet diplomacy" and just about every other strategy you can name - with little or no effect.

I have pondered this situation long and hard and feel that we are missing something. The first order of business is to stay in business - politics is no different. Thabo Mbeki has only one real objective and that is to maintain the ANC as the dominant political force in South Africa until he can retire and go off and do other things. Everything else is subordinate to that goal.

If that is the case then what threats exist which might explain his attitude to Zimbabwe? Its not history or relationships - Mbeki and Mugabe are not soul mates and Zanu PF did not support the ANC during their long struggle against apartheid in South Africa. If anything the two parties have a long time animosity towards each other. So why the huddle behind the laager?

It can only be because Mbeki fears some aspect of the political evolution of events in South Africa and is doing all that he can - within the constraints of his global role and the situation in South Africa itself, to subvert the process of change in Zimbabwe. Its not that he simply wants to be kingmaker - although that might explain some of the motivation. It is something more.

I think it is because the MDC is a by product of the trade union movement in Zimbabwe and above all, Mbeki fears the fallout of an MDC victory in South Africa itself. Although we always knew it, we never fully appreciated the fact that the ANC is really an amalgam of three political institutions - the ANC itself, COSATU and the South African Communist Party. What we also never fully appreciated was that while the ANC drew its intellectual and other strengths from within, its real political muscle was drawn from the SACP and COSATU. In fact in this political game COSATU is the senior figure with its 2 million members and national infrastructure.

Now that the struggle against apartheid is over, the unifying forces that this brought to the ANC alliance, have gone and in their place are the normal political forces of policy and programmes that political parties everywhere have to contend with. The ANC is in power and with this has come new wealth and privilege. As a consequence many ANC figures and persons connected to the ANC have suddenly found themselves part of the "Sandton set" and the beneficiaries of wealth and privilege that they only imagined in the days of the struggle.

Not so for the poor working class in South Africa from which the membership of the SACP and COSATU are drawn. They are, if anything more marginalized and feel left out of the new South Africa. For them little seems to have changed and they are becoming restless. The tripartite alliance is under strain.

COSATU has gone so far as to visit Brazil to see for itself what a "Workers Party" can do in a developing country. They were impressed and even came home with a draft constitution. This is blowing a chill wind under the South African Presidents chair. As the ANC moves to the right in the South African context, this tension can only increase.

Mbeki knows this and he fears that an MDC victory, followed by the formation of a government, which restores our economy and our rights as a people and then goes on to be a real success in social and political terms, would have serious implications for the ANC itself. I think he is right and that our needs as a country are being subordinated to these perceived South African (ANC) interests.

So we have had all the different games being played by the South African government here - first the support for Simba Makoni as the Prince Charming - that fell apart because he had no constituency in Zanu PF itself. Then the whole fiasco with Munangagwa as Prince Charming. This falling apart when they tried to go too fast for the "veterans of the war" in the Zanu PF administration. Had Mugabe gone along with Mbeki in this exercise he would have made things very difficult for the MDC and might even have attracted some of the less principled members of the international community to his side.

As it is Mugabe slapped him in the face, his heir apparent tossed aside and his spy ring inside Zanu PF was wiped out. MDC now faces a Zanu PF led regime, without its sharpest minds at the center of things and with an aging and less and less able coterie of politicians in control. It is a testimony to the strength of Mbeki's fear of the forces at work in the ANC/COSATU/SACP alliance that despite all this, he still holds onto his indefensible position towards Zimbabwe.

This is a very dangerous game for South Africa. Mbeki is sacrificing serious political capital in his pursuit of this goal. He is in fact sacrificing economic growth in South Africa and much of the promise of NEPAD on this regional spat. In doing so he is in fact strengthening the very forces he fears in South Africa itself and perhaps hastening the day when a new democratic movement on the left will emerge to challenge the ANC for supremacy in South Africa. It took 20 years in Zimbabwe; it will take less time in South Africa.

Eddie Cross
Bulawayo, 19th March 2005