Sweet sixteen and already showing signs of strain: that is the mood that hangs over South Africa as the 27 April celebration of the first democratic elections approaches, writes Colleen Lowe Morna. The political shenanigans of the far right who still dream of a separate homeland for white people and far left who insist on singing the song “kill the Boer” even after the High Court ruled that this is hate speech have led the Mail and Guardian to coin the term “idiotocracy” to describe our national politics.
Sweet sixteen and already showing signs of strain: that is the mood that hangs over South Africa as the 27 April celebration of the first democratic elections approaches. The political shenanigans of the far right who still dream of a separate homeland for white people and far left who insist on singing the song “kill the Boer” even after the High Court ruled that this is hate speech have led the Mail and Guardian to coin the term “idiotocracy” to describe our national politics.
Next door, Zimbabwe celebrated a muted thirtieth birthday on 18 April: the country that has swung in our lifetime from bread basket of the region to a poverty stricken autocracy led by the same leader who got away with stealing an election from the opposition and calls the shots in a supposed government of national unity.
As I turn fifty next month, I cannot help but cry two beloved countries, whose destinies are inextricably linked and have shaped my life. I was born and spent the first sixteen years of my life on a United Church of Christ mission in a remote corner of south east Zimbabwe, a few kilometres as the crow flies from the Mozambique border.
My parents, both white South Africans who fled apartheid in the fifties and hoped that the then Southern Rhodesia would gain independence like its neighbours, sought to live their vision of the future in this quiet community. Instead, as Ian Smith unilaterally declared independence in 1965 and half the students at the school left to join guerrilla forces in Mozambique after that country’s independence a decade later, they became active in liberation politics. In 1976 they were stripped of their citizenship and took refuge in Botswana.
I returned to Zimbabwe soon after its independence in 1980 after completing my journalism studies overseas to one of the most exciting chapters in my career as President Robert Mugabe called on all to turn swords to ploughshares. Plugging the gap in the black education system that I went through until secondary school, he invested heavily in education. The legacy is evident in the Zimbabwean brain power that has become the country’s biggest export.
Geographically the hub of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), Zimbabwe also became its intellectual heart beat: the centre of efforts to divert economic dependence on South Africa; the experimenting ground for every new development theory.
But by the late eighties the shine was wearing. An overwhelmingly state dominated media sang the praises of a one party state. The army moved in to crush opposition in the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) stronghold of Matebeleland. It was both a happy and profoundly sad day when the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) and ZAPU signed a peace pact. This was the end of any semblance of opposition, the beginning of the hegemonic thinking that saw an orderly land redistribution programme sink into lawlessness and inevitable economic decline.
By then I had taken a job with, and been posted by the Commonwealth Secretariat as chief of operations for its observer mission to South Africa from 1991 to 1994. The 1994 elections - that saw the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) come in at the last minute with reprints of election ballots and major logistic nightmares - were far from perfect, but had to be made to work. I recall in our late night crafting of the Commonwealth report trying to find words that would give the elections a pass mark without compromising the requirements of free and fair elections. We settled on the phrase that the elections “substantially reflected the will of the people.”
Like 18 April 1980 in Zimbabwe, 27 April 1994 in South Africa was an ecstatic moment. Those of us who have had the good fortune to live both these moments will treasure them as once-in-a-lifetime experiences that you cherish no matter what. Fast forward to 2010 and the question on everyone’s mind is: will South Africa take the same route as Zimbabwe? It’s not inevitable, but the danger is real.
South Africa is a far larger and more diverse country than Zimbabwe. Ironically, the “idiotocacy” of the right and left are one of its strengths: such polarisation creates space for the more rational middle ground if the fringes are not allowed to dominate. The complete closure of that space in Zimbabwe is what has made it so difficult for the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) to make any headway. The pillars of democracy: freedom of association, freedom of speech and an independent judiciary may be worn but they are still in tact in South Africa.
Leadership, however, is a serious concern. A telling barometer of leadership is how those in power view women, who constitute the often silent majority in all our countries. I have a vivid memory, while still a journalist in Zimbabwe, of Nelson Mandela’s first visit soon after his release from prison in 1990. Walking down the red carpet with Mugabe, he looked decidedly uncomfortable as he approached the ZANU women laying kangas that bore their leader’s image on the ground. Mugabe, on the other hand, cringed when scores of South African women exiles broke from behind the barriers to embrace Mandela in a public display of equality.
That was South Africa’s first leader. Now we have Jacob Zuma: the populist; openly polygamous and promiscuous in his personal life; unable to articulate a clear vision for his country including on women’s rights, or to control the wayward tendencies in his African National Congress (ANC) party. The demise of the Commission on Gender Equality is symptomatic of a broader malaise in the task of strengthening and deepening democracy for which 27 April 1994 marked a mere beginning.
One of the most haunting media images I have as Zimbabwe turns thirty and South Africa sixteen is ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema wearing a Mugabe shirt and basking in the hallo of Zimbabwe’s octogenarian leader. The reprimand from Zuma and the ANC are welcome but one has learned to be sceptical about what will follow. Malema, it should be recalled, is appealing an Equality Court ruling that found him guilty of sexism in his crass statement that women who are raped don’t ask for taxi money in the morning.
At a moment we should be celebrating the ending of the worst forms of racism under white settler colonialism and emergence of rainbow nations that thrive on diversity we are crying two beloved countries. The only hope is that from these tears will emerge redemptive strategies and a clear Vision 2020. Too many have given too much for us to get lost so soon.
* Colleen Lowe Morna is Executive Director of Gender Links. The article, written in her personal capacity, forms part of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service that offers fresh views on every day news.