Because of our shared history and historical links, developments in Zimbabwe have often sparked polarising debates in South Africa. The public support for Zanu PF by ANC Secretary-General Fikile Mbalula may lead to questions about his commitment to democracy. And after a week of tumult in Zimbabwe, there are important lessons for SA ahead of our elections next year.
Over the weekend, as the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) was announcing the election results, ANC Secretary-General Fikile Mbalula tweeted “Viva President Mnangwangwa” [sic], an apparent gesture of support for the Zanu PF leader, Emmerson Mnangagwa, who was claimed by the ZEC to be the winner of Zimbabwe’s elections.
This followed a comment he made several weeks before the election, in which he claimed that unless the US gets “their puppet in power, they will never be satisfied”. He said, without evidence, that the US wanted Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) leader Nelson Chamisa to be elected president.
While Mbalula occupies a key position in the ANC and is officially the voice of the party (his office controls communications on behalf of the ANC), so far the South African government has said very little on the subject.
This may be because of the important fact that the SADC observer mission has said in its preliminary report that the polls were not free and fair.
In the meantime, it is not clear whether Mbalula was speaking for the majority of the country or even of the ANC. In fact, his comments could cost the ANC.
Because of our shared histories, Zimbabwe has often offered politicians here a chance to send certain signals to their constituencies.
In the 1970s, white South Africans would cheer then Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith when he attended rugby Test matches here.
The liberation of Zimbabwe in 1980 gave people in South Africa hope that democracy would come here too (and in the following years, many people involved in the Struggle received shelter and aid from Zimbabweans).
In the late 1990s, President Robert Mugabe’s policy of taking or “reclaiming” land from white farmers inflamed opinions on different sides in South Africa.
When Mugabe arrived at the second presidential inauguration of Thabo Mbeki at the Union Buildings in 2004 he received perhaps the biggest cheer of the day.
But views here on Mugabe and Zanu PF changed.
The ANC under President Jacob Zuma took a much more nuanced view, to the point where Mugabe grew so frustrated that he publicly insulted one of Zuma’s key envoys, Lindiwe Zulu.
Mugabe’s choicest insult was directed at the man who is currently the leader of the ANC, President Cyril Ramaphosa. In 1999, Mugabe referred to Ramaphosa as a “white man in a black man’s skin”, a comment designed to hurt him politically.
Senior political figures in South Africa have changed their views too.
In 2010, the then ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema regarded Mugabe and Zanu PF as his heroes. Famously, he was invited to Zimbabwe as a special guest of Mugabe. While there, he sang “Kill the Boer” just after a South African judge had ruled it would be illegal for him to sing it in this country.
Mugabe invited Malema mainly to weaken Zuma. Soon after, Zuma began proceedings that ended with Malema’s expulsion from the ANC.
In 2019, Malema was still singing Mugabe’s praises. But before last week’s election, the EFF said it was paying for 500 buses to transport Zimbabweans living here to go home to vote.
Lessons to be learnt
There is much that we can learn from the shortcomings of the polls across the Limpopo River.
It must first be remembered that South Africa is a very diverse country where no one group of people can easily force their will on everyone else.
Second, our society is more transparent than Zimbabwe’s and it would be difficult for political players here to intimidate voters into acting in a particular way. This was a major shortcoming in Zimbabwe, where a group called Forever Associates Zimbabwe was intimidating people as they were voting.
Third, our police officers are not politicised the way Zimbabwean police officers are. While our officers have their individual views (and are legally allowed to vote), there is no evidence they work to help one party or another.
But most important is the structure of our elections.
In our system, every party contesting elections can have party agents monitoring the process, from voter registration through to voting itself and the tabulation process.
However, not everything is bulletproof and there is one big lesson to learn from the situation in Zimbabwe.
It is now likely that opposition parties will reject Mnangagwa’s suggestion that they work together and will continue to dispute the elections in every way they can.
Normally, the way to resolve this dispute is through the courts. But it appears no one outside Zanu PF believes that the judiciary is independent. Twelve CCC candidate MPs were denied the chance to contest the elections because a judge found they had filed their nomination papers after the stated deadline.
This was despite the fact that even the ZEC said in court they had filed their papers on time.
Again, this is different to the situation in South Africa, where judges still have legitimacy and their rulings are respected. Even though several parties have criticised the judiciary, the fact is that almost all our major parties have both won and lost cases in court. It is hard to accuse our courts of working only for one party.
The legitimacy of the judiciary is of paramount importance and political parties can cause great damage with unfounded criticism of judges.
Meanwhile, there is evidence, on social media and talk radio, that many South Africans have very little time for Zanu PF. They blame that political party for the economic crisis in Zimbabwe and are well aware of the many Zimbabweans who have left their country and now live here.
While in the past they accepted the ANC’s support for Zanu PF, that may no longer be the case. It’s possible that Mbalula’s stated support for Mnangagwa will be used against him and the ANC. Mbalula’s critics will say his support shows his limited understanding of economics and demonstrates that he is not a true democrat.
In the meantime, events in Zimbabwe are followed closely by people in South Africa because the resonance between their story and ours is still strong.