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The enduring liabilities of a dictatorship

Zimbabwe Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai now contends that the world should get over President Robert Mugabe. If his recent comments on the matter are to be believed, it confirms that Zimbabwe’s many problems are likely to endure long after Mugabe is gone.

Reading between the lines, one gets the sense that Mugabe’s rule has produced many untouchable political fiefdoms which are presided over by those who have benefitted the most from the decay into misrule, the wanton plunder of national assets and in other cases, outright theft of what was legally other people’s hard earned property. And then of course there are those driven by personal vendettas as is in the sad case of Roy Bennett who was arrested shortly after being nominated deputy minister of agriculture. Indeed, much of Zimbabwe’s political reform inertia is rooted in this most callous trait of those who seek not the progress of a nation but the elitist privileges of power.

At the risk of labouring the point, it is instructive for South Africa to carefully review and learn from the protracted developments that led to Zimbabwe’s decline. The allies a dictator enlists in his bid to retain power eventually become liabilities for a future government, hampering every effort to rebuild what would have been destroyed.

In Zimbabwe, the enforcers of constitutional violations and disregard for the rule of law were many and multi-faceted but more dangerously, they became uncontrollable and a law unto themselves. They ranged from judges, to secret police, the army and run-of-the-mill civil service bureaucrats; all of them driven by the rewards of personal gain which such loyalty guaranteed them.

Justice Malala, writing in the Times a few weeks ago, eloquently theorised that Jacob Zuma could potentially be the “man who will be the lamest and most manipulated president”, South Africa has ever seen. This is hardly surprising when you have the youth league and other opportunists pulling the sort of intolerant antics that for many years have been the hallmark of Zanu-PF’s shameful behavior. Zuma may not be a dictator but an increasingly intolerant ANC is certainly rising up to the challenge. This is all the more reason why a two-thirds ANC majority would be an unforgivable outcome for South Africa in the upcoming elections.

If wisdom can be gained with the benefit of hindsight, what happened in Zimbabwe over the last ten years should serve as a frame of hindsight-reference for the would-be guarantors of a robust democratic order in South Africa. Because our worst instincts borne out of self interest are far easier to muster than our lofty ideals, it is less onerous to reproduce a dictatorship and much harder to reproduce a better model of governance. For South Africa, now is the time to sound the warning bell.

Throughout the years of Zimbabwe’s long plunge towards self destruction, Mugabe became the most compromised head of state Africa has seen to date, involuntarily franchising out his brand of dictatorship to loyal cadres. Loathed by a nation but protected by the few who reaped immense profits from giving such support, his fortunes and that of the men who supported him, became inexorably intertwined. So strong did the alliance of the dictator and his enforcers become that even when he chose to throw in the towel after the March elections as speculated by some, he was prevented from doing so by those who thrived on his being a permanent fixture of the established corrupt order.

Although the world’s best wishes are with Tsvangirai and for the people of Zimbabwe to succeed, the prime minister is well advised to be measured in his task and guarded in what he says. The biggest mistake Morgan can make is underestimate the nefarious intent of many from the old guard who want to see him fail.

At this hour in South Africa, the enforcers of a Zuma presidency are undergoing the sort of ideological corruption which the defenders of a Mugabe-led leadership went through in their downward spiral towards a failed state. Although the institutions of state, governance and democracy failed, Mugabe’s supporters succeeded in terms of personal gains. For them, the government of national unity has now officially become a clear and present danger to that order of corrupt success.

Returning to Tsvangirai’s contention that the world must get over Mugabe as he is no longer the principal problem, we can conclude that the new prime minister has fully appreciated the far reaching and enduring liabilities of a dictatorship. It does however beg the question whether his party’s decision to join forces with Zanu-PF was well advised given the full knowledge the MDC has of Zanu’s culture of impunity and its many factional fiefdoms which thrive on manipulating the dictator and are in turn manipulated by him in an ongoing act of collusion for self preservation, power and control. Bennett’s arrest is proof that the political leopards of Zimbabwe cannot change their spots. So far if the government of national unity in Zimbabwe is a triumph, it is a triumph for Mugabe who has managed to keep his friends-cum-enforcers closer and now with the MDC ensconced in the state apparatus, he is keeping his enemies closer.