Following the cosplay Nazi invasion of Washington, DC, in early January, Florida senator and former Trumpista quisling Marco Rubio tweeted, “There is nothing patriotic about what is occurring on Capitol Hill. This is 3rd world style anti-American anarchy.” Across that same website, African intellectual elites took offence. What was happening in America was a specifically American species of dysfunction, they insisted — a white supremacist jamboree that wasn’t of the 3rd world [sic], but had in fact created the 3rd world, or at least the version of it that exists in Rubio’s imagination.
This was followed by an assessment of where Africa stood in relation to the world’s richest, noisiest imploding democracy. After all, give or take a few holdouts, Mobutu Sese Seko-style Big Man politics seemed to have migrated to the West, and a busy calendar of elections has recast Africa as the most sizeable conglomeration of democracies anywhere in the world.
“When I first said that I was going to write a book about the history of democracy in Africa, quite a few people responded with a joke,” wrote Nic Cheeseman, Professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham. “But, it turned out that there was a lot to talk about: Africa’s past reveals more fragments of democracy than you would think. And, its present has a number of important things to teach the world about the conditions under which democracy can be built.”
But democracy, as the fascist imperialist dogs have proven, is nothing more than a buggy OS: once installed, it requires constant updating. Miss a scheduled update, and the hardware starts flaking out.
Across Africa, that’s exactly what is happening. The recent elections in Uganda were obscenely weighted against the opposition and ended in another landslide win for Yoweri Museveni, who came to power in 1986, in the middle of Ronald Reagan’s second term.
Next door in Tanzania, John Magufuli continues a crackdown that ticks all the democratic backsliding boxes — his late 2020 election “win” was a parody of democratic processes.
In Ethiopia, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Abiy Ahmed is engaged in deadly conflict with the Tigray region that has already claimed hundreds of lives, and threatens to plunge the entire region into war: troops are massing along the Sudanese border and bombs have fallen in Asmara, the capital of neighbouring Eritrea.
As Softie, a superb recent documentary has made clear, Kenya’s election campaigns are flecked with cash, violence, corruption and cheating. And that’s just East Africa, which, following South Sudanese independence from Sudan almost a decade ago, was considered to be Africa’s most promising region.
Surely South Africa, the continent’s most advanced economy, might have something to say about all of this?
As a reward, South Africa has been pressed into hosting between three and five million Zimbabwean economic migrants and political asylum seekers, a cohort the country is constitutionally obliged to treat with dignity, but instead treats with disdain and, in some cases, with overt brutality.
President Cyril Ramaphosa, who holds the chair of the African Union, is perhaps the most internationally respected African politician, for whatever that is worth. He is a Davos stalwart, a business bro, and a gentleman who has never roused himself to use incendiary language to start a violent uprising. (This excludes, of course, a case of epistolary encouragement for harsh enforcement during a mining labour crisis, which resulted in the deaths of 44 people during the Marikana massacre.) But while Ramaphosa enjoys a reputation as a moderate social democrat, he is making all the moves of an old school plutocrat, having allegedly purchased his position as leader of his country’s liberation movement on the crest of a wave of corporate money in late 2017.
Keeping this in mind, we start to understand why his support for democratic norms across the continent might be so spotty.
It begins, as everything in South Africa does, with Zimbabwe. Over the course of the past terrible year, Zimbabweans have faced increasing brutality from Emmerson Mnangagwa’s rebranded Zanu-PF regime. As ever, the South African government has done nothing to upset them. Famously, successive South African administrations enabled first Mugabe, and now Mnangagwa, to erase the Zimbabwean economy and batter the people — some of it along ideological lines, all of it repressive in practice.
As a reward, South Africa has been pressed into hosting between three and five million Zimbabwean economic migrants and political asylum seekers, a cohort the country is constitutionally obliged to treat with dignity, but instead treats with disdain and, in some cases, with overt brutality. In communities where there are no spare resources, our African neighbours are deemed to be threats, despite having no protection from the ravages of a brutal economic system, and even less protection from our capricious rule of law.
South African citizens have very literally paid for this two-decade, four-president foreign policy mess with our taxes. We’re paying for it now, still: over the holiday period, Zimbabweans massed at the Beitbridge border crossing as tens of thousands of people attempted to enter South Africa, despite a second wave of Covid infections that has dwarfed the first. (The National Command Council, nominally in charge of the country’s pandemic response, has ignored the fact that foreign nationals also require assistance.) The suffering and desperation was appalling. But instead of issuing a statement critical of the ongoing political violence — or, God forbid, in support of beleaguered dissident journalist Hopewell Chin’ono and his peers — Ramaphosa allowed the land borders to be closed.
He shut Africa out, and got back to business.
What is his business? In part, it’s rubber stamping the bullshit African election “victories” won by his peers. Whether it’s in his capacity as chair of the AU or president of South Africa, Ramaphosa has stayed silent regarding the recent Ugandan elections, and said nothing about the obvious brutality visited upon Bobi Wine, the singer and opposition politician who has live-posted Museveni’s attempts to have him silenced. It is long past time that the Ugandan president-for-life faces censure from his fellow African gerontocrats, but the silence reveals a self-serving commitment to non-intervention — a nakedly transactional don’t-fuck-with-me-I-won’t-fuck-with-you arrangement that erases any possible moral authority.
This is the Mutually Assured Destruction law of smallanyana skeletons, and Ramaphosa obeys it religiously. Following a massively delayed and epically flawed election process in the DRC in 2018, it was clear that long-shot candidate Felix Tshisekedi’s victory deserved at least a measure of circumspection. No matter. Ramaphosa was the first leader to endorse the results, which were at the time proved fraudulent by this publication and Financial Times — an indisputable fact that the president has not acknowledged.
(Tshisekedi would enter an odd-ball power-sharing agreement with his predecessor, Joseph Kabila, which fell apart at the end of 2020. The DRC remains a mess. Anyone surprised?)
Slavishly respectful of the Organisation of African Unity’s (now the AU’s) decision to respect the sovereignty of African borders, themselves colonial constructs that made no sense for Africans at the time, and make even less sense now, Ramaphosa has even restrained himself from decrying the farce that was the election in Tanzania last November. John Magufuli is, at best, a lunatic — and yet, under Ramaphosa’s stewardship, the African Union wished “to congratulate H.E. Dr John Pombe Magufuli on his re-election as the President of the United Republic of Tanzania following the presidential, parliamentary and local council elections held on 28 October 2020”.
So what is the upside for South Africa in this insane, 26-year endorsement of African governance fluff-jobs? The answer is obvious: it guarantees the ANC the same treatment should they require some creative democratic bookkeeping down the line. There is the old justification regarding liberation movement kinship and the shared memory of colonial subjugation, but the truth is that most African regimes are entirely unburdened by historical memory or ideological coherence. None of that stuff matters any more.
It’s all about ass-coverage.
But what comes around goes around. As the democracy scholar Larry Diamond has noted:
“If the current modest recession of democracy spirals into a depression, it will be because those of us in the established democracies were our own worst enemies.”
In this, Cyril Ramaphosa may find himself staring down the barrel of his own Hallmark congratulatory card. When local autocrats decide to bury him alive and call it an election, who in Africa will speak for him? DM