When the Zimbabwean parliament voted overwhelming in August 2005 to endorse constitutional amendments that would further restrict private property rights and allow the government to deny passports to its critics, exultant Zanu-PF MPs danced and cheered in the aisles. Several apparently even did cartwheels. Similar displays of vindictive glee had reportedly taken place previous, such as when the House voted to speed up the state-seizure of white farms.

The recollection of elected lawmakers across the border raucously celebrating the destruction of democracy in their country inevitably came to mind last week when the Protection of State Information Bill was passed in the National Assembly. There, too, ANC MPs reacted by cheering and stamping, as well as taunting the opposition.

I know that some will regard yet another Zimbabwe comparison as trite, and it is true that by mid-2005, democracy in Zimbabwe had already largely disintegrated, yet the historical resonances between these two incidents are disturbingly powerful. Both are indicative of the politics of revenge running roughshod over those of natural justice, of blindly partisan party loyalties trumping the common interest, not to mention basic common sense. The info bill may not in itself be as blatant an attack on fundamental democratic freedoms as were some of the measures railroaded through the Zimbabwean parliament, but if seen as a statement of intent by this country’s ruling party, its implications are chilling indeed. Will this prove to be the proverbial thin end of the wedge, leading to the systematic unravelling of South African democracy?

On paper, democracy in this country remains very robust, with all the building blocks of a free society — an independent judiciary, a Bill of Rights, full media and academic freedom, universal suffrage etc — currently in place. Why, then, should there be anything to really worry about? Surely, the system itself has sufficient self-correcting mechanisms to bring over-reaching politicians into line?

That might be true in the established Western democracies. There is little doubt, for example, that if the ruling parties in the UK and US forced through legislation that undermined basic democratic freedoms they would quickly find themselves out of office; their respective electorates simply would not countenance it. Nor would the electorates in those countries stand for the kind of brazen, in-your-face corruption on the part of those in power that is now commonplace in South Africa.

There is something that puzzles me very much about Zimbabwe. By every objective standard, the country has been in free fall for over a decade, with economic collapse going hand in hand with a progressive descent into one-party totalitarianism. Even prior to that, the writing was on the wall for all to see. It was evident throughout the 1990s that civil rights were being systematically eroded, that members of the government were fraudulently enriching themselves at the public’s expense, that service delivery was constantly falling off and that the economy was in ruinously decline. Despite this, Zanu-PF suffered no backlash at the polls, and in fact did not even face any credible opposition in parliament. Only in 1999 was the Movement for Democratic Change established. This commenced making substantial inroads into the ruling party’s majority in subsequent elections, without being able to wrest from it an overall majority. Obviously a decisive factor here was that Zimbabwe’s elections no longer met even minimum international standards for legitimacy (although a number of other African states, including our own, were happy to legitimise Mugabe’s “victories”). Violence and intimidation, poll fraud, and a media almost completely under the sway of the ruling party did a great deal to prevent a change of regime. And yet, there is more to it than that. Despite everything, it is evident that even after Zimbabwe’s slow decline escalated into an all-out collapse from 2000 onwards, substantial numbers of Zimbabweans still continued to support Zanu-PF at the polls.

Is it fair to say that the plight of the majority of the Zimbabwean people today can in large part be attributed to their political passivity at a time when they were still in a position to make a much-needed difference with their votes? Why, indeed, did it take so long — too long, as it now seems — for a credible political opposition to emerge? Why, moreover, did it take so long for a clear majority of the electorate to support it, despite the disastrous state the nation found itself in?

One possible answer is that liberation-era sentimentality was for too long allowed to overshadow realities on the ground. In other words, voters were willing to overlook the ruling party’s shortcomings because they still revered it as the party that had brought them national liberation. To vote against it was almost seen as an act of disloyalty, not just to the party but to the country itself.

You can see where I’m going with this. The ANC, too, is heavily reliant on its mystique as the party of liberation. It, too, has made short work of mainly black-supported opposition parties (including the IFP, PAC, UDM and now Cope). While the DA has established itself as a credible opposition, its actual inroads in to the black electorate have been negligible. These high support levels have continued, despite the by now all-pervasive corruption, poor service delivery, mounting evidence of mismanagement on an epic scale and of late, ominous anti-democratic tendencies inter alia involving the media and the judicial system.

It has always struck me how Winston Churchill, at the very height of his career, was unexpectedly voted out of office even before the world war, in which he had provided such inspiring leadership, was over. The British electorate revered him as a wartime leader, but clearly wanted someone else to take the country forward once peace was made. Sentimentality did not come into it. By contrast, sentimentality has clearly been a major factor in keeping post-colonial African administrations in power, not just in Zimbabwe, but in Namibia and South Africa as well.

A majority of the Zimbabwe electorate finally woke up to the need to vote in a new government, but did so too late. Not only had most of the damage already been done (so that voting for the opposition looked a little like the Titanic passengers voting to replace the captain shortly before the final plunge), but by then the ruling party had no intention of relinquishing power and would stop at nothing to preserve it.

Will the greater South African electorate also wake up too late? I’m afraid it will be touch and go. Ironically, though, I take some comfort by what has taken place within the ANC itself in recent years. It was really quite remarkable how unceremoniously the party dumped Thabo Mbeki and his administration when internal dissatisfaction over his autocratic style reached saturation point. The party rank and file did not merely grumble, shake their heads and go, “Aish!” but took decisive action, using the party’s democratic procedures to vote in a completely new leadership. One can only hope that the democratic culture of South Africa as a whole will prove to be similarly resilient in the face of the kind of challenges it will undoubtedly be facing in the coming months and years.


  • David Saks has worked for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) since April 1997, and is currently its associate director. Over the years, he has written extensively on aspects of South African history, Judaism and the Middle East for local and international newspapers and journals. David has an MA in history from Rhodes University. Prior to joining the SAJBD, he was curator -- history at MuseumAfrica in Johannesburg. He is editor of the journal Jewish Affairs, appears regularly on local radio discussing Jewish and Middle East subjects and is a contributor to various Jewish publications.


David Saks

David Saks has worked for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) since April 1997, and is currently its associate director. Over the years, he has written extensively on aspects of South African...

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