Much has been written about the results of the Zimbabwe election. President Robert Mugabe has entrenched his grip on power amid serious question marks about the electoral process that stretch from ballot rigging to deliberately compromised voting rolls – not to mention the somewhat questionable leadership from MDC contender Morgan Tsvangirai. Expecting a sudden move towards an unfettered and transparent ballot was always rather naive, but expecting a more critical analysis of the flawed process from key player South Africa has been singularly disappointing. President Jacob Zuma’s hasty and virtually unconditional support for the poll result reflects more on the internal dynamics of South African politics in 2013 than any attempt to critically analyse the deficiencies in the Zimbabwe poll.
The ANC is staring down its toughest election yet. The 2014 poll holds the prospects of the ruling party facing multiple fronts on both the left (Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Front) and the centre-right (the Democratic Alliance and Agang). Approval ratings for Zuma are at a low ebb due to ongoing scandals, while the trade union movement itself is increasingly fragmented and facing its own fragilities as a result of the misdemeanours of Cosatu’s Zwelinzima Vavi. Given this level of political insecurity for the ruling alliance, the last thing the ANC needed was a relatively peaceful change of political leadership in its northern neighbour. By proclaiming the Zimbabwe election ‘harmonised’ and ‘successful’, the ANC has swept aside any concern for transparent accountability in that country, opting rather for political continuity and the continued public show of ‘big man’ politics of which Mugabe has become a global master.
Zimbabwe remains the most influential political model in the region for the ANC. Its shared liberation struggle and fight against colonialism with Zanu-PF, together with its close historical relationship with the party, have always allowed Mugabe to stay in power despite the dereliction of the rule of law. While other African countries are increasingly developing some democratic traction – notably Kenya and Zambia – all of South Africa’s immediate neighbours are still locked into rule by the original post-colonial liberators. Should the MDC in Zimbabwe have been able to break this mould, it would have set a risky trend for the ANC, particularly in the light of the 2014 election. Although South African politics is becoming more fluid with a broader variety of political parties able to campaign and attract new groups of voters, the emotional loyalties of liberation remain key to the ANC’s extended grip on power. Had voters in Zimbabwe rejected this in Zimbabwe, it would have opened the doors to an even more competitive election in South Africa where ‘big man’ politics would have been questioned.
So, South Africa has opted to support continuity even if this means a questionable electoral process. And the more controversial aspects of Zanu-PF’s ongoing indigenisation policies can now be seen as a distant but nevertheless visible economic option, even if the ANC disavows them domestically. This allows the ANC to be seen to be on the side of populism in Zimbabwe, even if it takes a more considered approach back at home. Zimbabwe has become a proxy for the ANC’s more populist or radical wing and ironically has kept some of this support group within its fold. Ultimately, the ANC is trying to minimise the possible electoral fallout from the balkanisation of its support – both to the left and right. In particular, the populist land expropriation policies of the EFF may find some electoral traction and keeping the Zanu-PF world view ensconced in Harare just provides Zuma with a populist icon he is happy to deal with. The ANC might be playing a clever political game in the short term. But given the disastrous economic consequences of pre-government of national unity Zimbabwe, any return to this in the aftermath of the MDC defeat will ultimately destabilise the country.
But the 2014 election will be over by then, and this strategy might just be what’s needed to keep the liberationists within the ANC in the pound seats for another term.