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20 October 2017 16:09 (South Africa)
Opinionista Stephen Grootes

The eternal frustration of living next door to Robert

  • Stephen Grootes
    Grootes for DM.jpg
    Stephen Grootes

    Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on 702 and Cape Talk, and the Senior Political Correspondent for Eyewitness News. He's been part of the political hack pack since before the Polokwane Tsunami, and covers politics in a slightly obsessive manner. Those who love him have recommended help for his politics addiction. He quotes Amy Winehouse.

As the results of Zimbabwe’s elections trickled and then rather suspiciously poured in, the frustration mounted. By now it has been replaced by the familiar shrugged shoulders of resignation, despair and hopelessness. How did Robert Gabriel Mugabe win another election? Why was the Movement for Democratic Change unable to unseat him? And, more importantly for us South Africans, why does it look as if President Zuma is unable to remove him?

At melanin-deficient braais this weekend there no doubt was much debating of Zimbabwe’s elections. And, as always, blame looked for a back to rest upon and in the politics of today, it would pretty quickly have found its way to Zuma’s. After all, he’s the man in charge of Zimbabwe’s biggest neighbour, an economy that dwarfs its neighbours' and arguably the region's most powerful military. He is also currently the unwitting host of millions of Mugabe’s countrymen. Surely he’s the man who can actually do something? But if he won’t, or doesn’t, then why not?

This presumption can only be strengthened when Zuma issues public statements offering his “profound congratulations” to Mugabe, and calling the elections “successful”. That would be the proof, after all, that Zuma and Mugabe are simply in it together.

But this kind of understanding begins from a wrong assumption. It’s based on a belief that Zuma and Mugabe actually like each other, or that Mugabe has some kind of hold over Zuma, the ANC and, eventually, South Africa. These assumptions cannot be true. If the were, Mugabe would not have referred to Zuma's advisor Lindiwe Zulu as a “street woman”.

In examining why Mugabe won this weekend, and why Zuma has appeared to simply let it happen, we need to start with the biggest question.

If someone has been in power for 33 years, how do you get them out?

It’s not easy. By the time you’ve been in power for 20 years, your son-in-law is police chief. By the time you’ve been in power for 30, you pretty much own the entire country. Mugabe controls all the levers of power. There are some who will claim the ANC has done this in South Africa through its system of deployment, but the crucial difference here is that our judges do not cower before Zuma. In Zimbabwe they do, and this would explain why that country’s courts ordered a quick and dirty election. It was always going to be easier for Mugabe to fix if it were early, and so all that needed to happen was for the courts to rule in his favour and then he would simply be able to say there was nothing he could do.

But the argument goes further. Surely Zuma and the ANC could, and should, do something?

Well, the “should” is actually correct. The ANC, and Zuma would want to do something. Of course they would. They have to deal with millions more people in South Africa than they should have to cater for, in a way that places strains on our social fabric. No government or president wants to have to deal with xenophobic tensions under any circumstance.

Zimbabwe’s economy is much smaller than it should be because it has shrunk over the last decade. If it were bigger, it would be helping our economy as well. And our firms would be operating in completely different ways if they could invest freely, with confidence, across the border.

So it is entirely in the ANC’s self-interest to fix Zimbabwe. And make no mistake, fixing Zimbabwe means getting Mugabe out of power. Crucially, this doesn’t just mean clearing Mugabe out of the picture, but everyone around him as well. If you think he's scary, you should see some of his military guys. They don't seem to have the usual human compunction for fairness or allowing other people to breathe if it doesn’t suit them. They would not go easily—their road out would be paved with corpses.

This is where the conspiracy theories start. That Mugabe has some hold over Zuma, some documentary evidence that would damage the ANC, or a picture of a man with a goat. Or even better, that Zanu-PF is simply doing what the ANC wants to do in power, but can’t or won’t. Or that there’s a sense of displaced liberation movement loyalty, and so Mugabe must be helped, no matter what he does.

This is all rubbish.

There is no hold Mugabe could have over the ANC. If there were some information or something, surely the ANC would have information on Mugabe too. There were strong and long links between the two and information would have flowed both ways. Further, whatever information there was would be so old now by now that it wouldn’t matter. As for the ANC wanting to do what Zanu-PF is doing, why would ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe be claiming that Julius Malema's EFFing party was “sponsored by Zanu-PF”?

As for the liberation movement loyalty argument, the ANC Women’s League would be going ballistic if that were the only reason the party hasn’t defended Zulu against Mugabe’s incredibly sexist comments.

And so we now must ask, what “could” Zuma do about Zimbabwe.

It is the usual outsider question. What should Barak Obama do about Syria? What can anyone do about North Korea? What should the whole world have done about Apartheid?

In these situations, it helps to quote, once again, the immortal Sir Humphrey Appleby, the civil servant character from the British political TV comedy Yes, Minister. During a flare-up with another country he points out to his political master, the cabinet minister, that there are the “usual five options”:

  • One, you can do nothing,
  • Two, you can publicly deplore the incident,
  • Three, you can cut off foreign aid or impose sanctions,
  • Four, you can recall your ambassador,

and

  • Five, you can declare war.

And these have the usual five results:

  • If you do nothing, you look weak,
  • If you deplore the incident you look weak,
  • If you withdraw foreign aid or impose sanctions in this case you’ll hurt the people you're trying to help,
  • If you recall your ambassador you can't communicate with them anymore,

and

  • If you declare war, “you’re usually over-reacting”.

His sage advice absolutely applies in this case. If you were in Zuma’s position, what would you do? You could publicly condemn Mugabe, declare the election “stolen” and generally change the tone of the debate. His response then would be to immediately declare that you are no longer neutral and to reject your status as a SADC mediator. And so SADC would have no official point of communication with him and no influence whatsoever.

If you cut off any aid or imposed sanctions, the people in Zimbabwe would simply be worse off than they are now; Mugabe’s inner circle would be fine. The argument could be made that Zuma should stop sending any electricity to Harare. But that would only inflame a difficult situation and make it harder for that country’s economy to function. Not to mention make it more dangerous for possibly vulnerable groups, like MDC activists and even minorities.

If you recalled your ambassador there would be no communication lines and you would achieve nothing.

And so we’re left to the final option, declaring war, which, in this case, would certainly be an over-reaction. This is why Zuma, has, up until this point, done what he has to do, i.e. nothing. And don’t read too much into his statement of congratulations. He has to do that, like he does with every country in the world, to do anything else would be considered, in diplomatic speak, unconscionably rude.

Zuma is not helped by the fact that Zimbabwe’s opposition movement simply isn’t up to the job. If Zuma or Helen Zille or many people within the ANC had been running the MDC, they might well be in power in Zimbabwe now. But Morgan Tsvangirai has wasted way too much energy on peripheral issues and then managed to fall for simple honey traps. As a result, he has been unable to properly mobilise the opposition.

The fact is, when someone has been in power as long as Mugabe has, you pretty much have to wait for unforeseen catalytic events, or for nature to take its course. There is no other way, unless you’re willing to violently change a regime. Which, of course, has not worked so well when imposed by outsiders.

It must not be forgotten that these things can happen quite fast. Many a system has appeared to be cast in stone only to be swept aside very quickly. Communist parties in Russia and Eastern Europe looked omnipotent before 1990; people like Slobodan Milosevic appeared immovable in Serbia, until swept aside in 2000. The same could well happen in Zimbabwe in a completely unexpected way. And Zanu-PF would probably cease to exist afterwards.

Zuma’s job now can only be to massage the situation to keep things as peaceful as possible, for as long as possible, until something does happen. Preferably from within Zimbabwe itself.

As frustrating as it is, there are no other options. DM

  • Stephen Grootes
    Grootes for DM.jpg
    Stephen Grootes

    Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on 702 and Cape Talk, and the Senior Political Correspondent for Eyewitness News. He's been part of the political hack pack since before the Polokwane Tsunami, and covers politics in a slightly obsessive manner. Those who love him have recommended help for his politics addiction. He quotes Amy Winehouse.

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