“Heh, you people, you used to laugh at us. Look at you now. You can’t even buy a bottle of Coke!”
It was the early 2000s, during the economic free-fall that had followed Zimbabwe’s Fast Track Land Reform program, which began 20 years after the country had won its political independence from Ian Smith’s settler colonial regime. My parents were visiting Zambia from South Africa and in the town of Livingstone met a woman who, upon discovering that they were Zimbabwean, could not hide her schadenfreude.
She recalled the period in the late 1980s when Zambians had flocked to Zimbabwe to buy basic goods with Zambian bank notes that had lost much of their former value, thanks to hyperinflation and economic instability caused by a series of so-called structural adjustment programs. Zimbabweans, she wanted my parents to know, were not so special, after all — and now Zimbabwe was doomed to the same downward economic trajectory as Zambia and other post-independence states in Southern Africa.
It’s an encounter I have often thought about over the years — even more so now, in the wake of the widespread protests against President Jacob Zuma in South Africa in response to the recent depreciation of the rand and the downgrading of our economy to junk status. These events were incited by the president’s cabinet reshuffle, in which several key ministers lost their positions, including the finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, who was viewed as an obstacle to accessing state coffers.
The official rationale for the reshuffle was that the African National Congress-led government now seeks to carry out a “radical economic transformation.” Though there is not much clarity about what exactly this might entail, the president has hinted at large-scale redistribution of land, an issue over which the A.N.C. has prevaricated for years.
As a result, many South Africans are now voicing a long-held fear: Is South Africa headed in the same direction as Zimbabwe? Or as a Washington Post opinion piece put it: “South Africa has reached its Mugabe moment.” Far from being helpful, though, this idea usually involves a crude mischaracterization of Zimbabwe’s experience that mostly seems intended to alarm South Africans and scare them away from any meaningful debate about economic justice and the redistribution of wealth in the post-apartheid era.
The type of political system that emerged out of Southern Africa’s settler colonies was a liberal constitutionalism built on transitional power sharing brokered between “moderates” from the liberation movements and the settler colonial authorities. A key feature of the historic compromise was that settler representatives handed over political control to the black majority in return for their economic interests being secured by a constitution that enshrined property rights.
The foreign policy orientation of these liberal democracies reflected their reliance on Western investment and free-enterprise capitalism. The dominant settler states — Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa — all followed this model.
Their newly inaugurated governments soon faced the question of whether to reform, or conform to, the historic compromises that had brought them into power. Their answer, by default, was to shelve the issue — and land restitution was sidelined. In the new economic and social order, the black political elites shifted their focus from the ousting of colonialism to development policies that often overlapped with private wealth accumulation and patronage.
In this context, Zimbabwe’s land redistribution program was a Rubicon moment. It struck a belated blow against the enduring economic injustices of colonialism. It also signaled a loss of faith in the ability of liberal constitutionalism to address the structural problems of inequality inherited by the post-independence state.
In Zimbabwe, the redistribution of land had been delayed by the 1980 peace settlement, which gave the white landowners 10 years of protection from any restitution measures. By the 1990s, the rule of President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party was threatened on two fronts. On one hand, organized labor and civil groups were challenging the government’s structural adjustment policies that had precipitated an economic downturn. On the other hand, veterans of the independence war were demanding compensation, including pensions and parcels of land.
President Mugabe chose to split the opposition by accusing the independent labor movement of plotting with the British government to bring down the government, while at the same time increasing the compensation awarded to war veterans. The labor activists were labeled “sellouts” and “imperialist puppets”; the veterans were celebrated as revolutionary heroes.
Zimbabwe offers important lessons on how a post-independence black-majority government can manage, or mismanage, the gap between the strictures of liberal constitutions that entrench the property rights of the white minority and the demands of the black majority to right historical injustices and structural inequalities that disproportionately affect them. One of those lessons would be for opposition movements to resist the temptation to exaggerate the individual role of President Mugabe to the detriment of a focus on social and economic justice.
In South Africa, vilification of President Zuma often has the paradoxical effect of strengthening his hard-line support, especially when critics resort to racist and colonial tropes. More important, it is often forgotten that the politics of patronage, exemplified by Mr. Zuma’s dubious financial dealings with the Gupta family, is not limited to the president but is widely shared within the A.N.C. As the political analyst Stephen Friedman argues, patronage is so central to the party’s political machinery partly because most black South Africans are locked out of the white-dominated economy. Often, their only access to wealth is through political networks.
More than anything, Zimbabwe teaches us that if the South African people’s legitimate demands for land and wealth redistribution remain unaddressed for too long in the post-apartheid era, it will take only the right political entrepreneurs to cynically capitalize on a hollow rhetoric of “radical” and “revolutionary” demands to consolidate power in the face of widespread dissent. Like the A.N.C., Mr. Mugabe’s ZANU-PF long prevaricated on these historic issues central to the liberation struggles. It was only when Mr. Mugabe was losing political ground and international credibility that his party appeared to rediscover its revolutionary roots.
What we are witnessing now in South Africa is not so much a matter of an exceptional, corrupt president as the surfacing of contradictions that were inherent in the negotiated settlement. The longer these stay unresolved, and subject to cynical manipulation, the worse the consequences could be. What will determine whether South Africa can escape the “Zimbabwe complex” is its ability to confront the inequity that was the legacy of the political settlement that ended apartheid.
Panashe Chigumadzi is the author of the novel “Sweet Medicine” and the forthcoming book of essays “Beautiful Hair for a Landless People.”