Different roads: South Africa and Zimbabwe

Today, South Africa votes in the 3rd fully open election since the end of minority rule. Despite problems, S.A. is a culturally, economically and politically vibrant and progressing society.

Zimbambwe totters as a one-party state, economically depressed, politically repressed and unable to even feed its own people from what was once some of the most productive farmland in Africa.

I believe the difference in the paths taken was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The ability and willingness of people from all sides to confess wrongs made South Africa able to move on. Rather than maintain an aura of bitterness, and a sense of injustice, the people chose to move on and to build their new country together. There has been no massive white emigration, and no desire on the part of the majority to go down the path Mugabe has chosen. In my opinion, South Africa is a sterling example of reconciling old hatreds and beliefs, and is showing the rest of the world how it is possible to have something new and exciting grow from the ashes of the old order.

… what’s the debate? Wondering why the two countries have taken different paths?

Well, they have very different histories. Notably, Zimbabwe didn’t have apartheid, and racism (W to B) has never been nearly so much of a problem as it was in SA. It was, as you note, a functioning democracy for the first 15 years of its independence.

There is no ‘truth’ to ‘reconcile’ in the way there was/is in SA, partly because of the lack of apartheid and also because of SA’s specific history of ethnic strife between Boers, south Asians, English, etc - Zimbabwe’s history of tribal conflict pales in comparison.

Also, I will note that it is not all sunshine and roses in S Africa. They are managing just as well (no better) than other postcolonial states, which isn’t very well. Specifically, their assets are still largely foreign-owned (so the ANC doesn’t have much room to manouvre, as much as they may like to) and the gap between rich and poor is growing.

Mugabe’s insanity is only one (albeit important) factor in Zimbabwe’s troubles.

Well, for whatever reason, Zimbabwe post-independence has followed the sad path of the classic African Strongman. The majority of its current troubles can, IMO be fairly laid on the corruption, cronyism and phony populism of the Mugabe government. On the plus side, the legal and procedural institutions of democracy remain in Zim, even if ZANU-PF has run roughshod over them.

Still, it may not be all that fair to directly compare the two. SA has, IMO numerous geographical and economic advantages over smaller, landlocked Zim. Its more robust economy helps to paper over some of the many problems that SA shares with its northern neighbor.

Well, certainly more representative of the populace than the old white-dominated government, but let’s not go overboard. Crime rates in SA apparently are some of the highest in the world, for one thing. The dirt-poor in SA remain dirt-poor in vast numbers , for another. For a third, as I understand it, a land-redistribution crisis is looming in SA that may be just as intractable as the one that has caused such strife and misery in Zim. Lastly, I was just reading that the ANC is expected to take 70% of the parlaimentary vote. To me, this means that SA is a de facto one-party state, just like (hey!) Zim. If that’s what the majority want, fine, but I hope the lack of any effective balance to the ANC does not come back to bite anyone on the ass.

Now, I realize that Mbeki is no Mugabe, and the ANC apparently has not indulged in the sort of widespread shenanigans against its opposition that ZANU-PF has against the MDC in Zim, but I have little trouble envisioning a reversed scenario ten years down the road: democracy revived in Zim with the departure (for whatever reason) of Mugabe, while uncontrolled crime, massive AIDS infection rates, the desire for land and disaffection with total control by the ANC result in crisis and strife in South Africa. Hope it all works out, but I do not share the OP’s optimism.

Well, yeah, pretty much.

I’m not sure where I noted that Zimbabwe was a functioning democracy, because I don’t believe it ever was. And though apartheid may never have been institutionalized in Rhodesia, I don’t think the treatment of the majority population was any better there than in S.A.

I’m not naive enough to believe that all is sunshine and roses in South Africa today. However, I spent many years believing that the only way minority rule was going to go away was through a decade of long knives. Frankly, I’m delighted that that wasn’t necessary, and delighted that mass retribution and confiscation has not taken place.

That’s putting it a bit strongly, I think.

And on preview:

Well worth worrying about. My understanding is that 2/3 is enough to change the constitution. And your gloom and doom scenario may well be what happens. I’m not normally an optimist, but as I said above, I’m pleased about how it’s gone so far.

A year ago I started a related thread: “Why are white people being oppressed in Zimbabwe, but not in South Africa?” – http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?t=176914 The general consensus was that Mugabe was to blame.

My fear for my homeland is that it is starting to show the early signs of a journey toward Zimbabwe-hood…

When I was at University in Cape Town in the early 90’s, there were a significant number of Zimbabweans there as well. At the time, Zim was a peaceful country with some of the friendliest people I have ever met and a prosperous agriculture-based economy. Zimbabweans (black and white) were massively proud of their country, and everything seemed to be proceeding smoothly. One of my favorite stories comes from that time - a young Zim schoolboy was telling a visiting uncle about his rugby team and about one other player who was his best friend in the team. The little boy asked if the uncle would like to see a picture of this friend, and bought over a team photograph - from the friend’s name, it was clear that he was black, and there was just one black face in the team. In spite of this, the boy went looked at each face in turn until he found his friend - his race was not just irrelevant, it went unnoticed. And yet there were little signs…

When I went with a group of friends to a wedding in Harare in 1994, we were shown the road down which President Mugabe’s house was - we couldn’t travel past it, as the road was closed whenever he was resident. This meant a long detour to get where we were going, as the road past his house was a through road to the suburb where my friends lived. To me that was a sign that Mugabe was somewhat distant from what was going on around him. Something else that struck me was the number of private security firms that there were - there was a patch of open ground outside Bulawayo where they would all assemble military-style before the shift change in the evening, and I must have counted over a dozen different uniforms.

I see both these trends in South Africa (from my rather distant view) - the trend of the ANC and Mbeki in particular to not be willing to note criticism from any quarter and the proliferation of private security guards. I welcome the elections, as they celebrate the democracy that so many fought and died for and as they express the will of the people for their country, but I long for the day when there is a significant, nation-wide, multi-racial, viable opposition party. For the ANC to win by too significant a margin would also echo Zimbabwe’s history in a far more sinister way…


Firstly, I too would like to congratulate the RSA on their third set of multi-racial democratic General Elections. It is a wonderful sight to see the right to vote so valued, people in queues for hours to do so.

I also support the need for a credible opposition (hell, we need one of those back in the UK, my home country :rolleyes: ) , but given what the ANC could have done over the last 10 years in the absence of such an opposition… Well I think they should be congratulated for having resisted dictatorial temptations as much as they have - this just needs to be intitutionalised to ensure it is retained.

My take on where all this differs fundamentally from Zimbabwe. The white-minority rulers of Zimbabwe declared UDI from the UK, itself an unconstitutional act. It was not as if the UK handed over independence to ZAPA-PF et al directly, the road was significantly different to RSA. Zimbabwe won majority rule through a successful Civil War not through successful resistance to colonial rule - I believe this road map has had a significant influence on the history of that sad country since…

I guess it depends on how you define ‘democracy.’ It had a functioning economy, a widely respected (elected) leader, low unemployment, etc. I guess we can agree to disagree.

FWIW, the black Zimbabweans I know (who grew up there while SA was under apartheid) strongly disagree with that statement. I’d be interested to see any evidence to support it.

Maybe so. Again we can agree to disagree. I’m just pointing out that while a lot of things have (apparently) gotten better, many things have gotten worse. Let’s not let ourselves be fooled that SA (or any sub-saharan African country; I’ll modify my original ‘any postcolonial states’ statement) is on some kind of clear path to prosperity.

What about their enormous international debt? And the fact that most land, natural resources and public utilities are owned by private, foreign agents - which prevents Zimbabweans from making money to pay that debt, or building up an infrastructure which works in the people’s interests, gives Zimbabweans skills and training, and keeps the money within the country? And which allows most of the money in the country to fly overseas, overnight, crashing the economy, leaving the nation with very little money or ability to make it, and leaving Zimbabweans with no resources to sustain or grow their economy?

Doesn’t that have anything to do with Zimbabwe’s troubles?

Don’t worry so much, grim. Sure, Mbeki’s not the most open to criticism, but he’s a lot better than Bush IMHO.

I’d have to disagree there - SA is on just such a path - sure, there is a widening rich/poor gap, but that’s a worldwide problem. The average South African is better off in real, material ways now. They have a say in our future, improved housing & sanitation, electricity and drinking water.

I think the (very vocal) people who say they are worse off now are those who no longer have the privilege (and the protection that goes with it) they had under the previous regime. Now they bitch and moan about crime. The townships always had crime, but now that it comes to the white suburbs, suddenly it’s a problem? They get no sympathy from me!
I voted yesterday, gave me the same rush it did in '94 (couldn’t vote before that - not white), and the mood in-country is optimistic. 70+% voter turnout points to a healthy democracy (certainly healthier than the last US and UK elections). Sure, the ANC will probably get the 66.6% majority that allows it to alter the constitution, but it’s had that for the last 5 years and not really abused that aspect of it. The Democratic Alliance will be the official opposition, and it was nice to see the implosion of the New National Party. It just remains to be seen who runs the Western Cape - ANC or DA/minorities coalition.

I think one of the main reasons SA hasn’t gone the Zim route is the strong influence the provincial level plays in politics. And there, in the 3 most populous and economically-important provinces, the ANC doesn’t have such a clear majority, and a lot more dealing and concessions have to happen.

Also, never underestimate the role Mandela played in the transition - leading by an example of statemanship and forgiveness.

I’m generally feeling quite good about the state of the nation 10 years after apartheid. There’s also a whole “Proud to be South African” movement on the go that is having a very visible prescence. Good Times!

I’m glad you mentioned the role Nelson Mandela played MrDibble , because I was about to. He showed such generosity of spirit by not blaming the previous white regime for all that had gone on before. Compare that with Mugabe who took a different approach.

Well, I’ll certainly accept first-hand reports over my impressions from reading and news reports. And I’ll stand corrected. It was over 20 years ago that the Smith regime lost power, I could easily be remembering wrong anyway.

I’ll agree to disagree on the rest. I don’t believe I’m remembering incorrectly that there was one free election in Zimbabwe, and that the oppression of the political opposition began almost immediately thereafter. I don’t believe that South Africa is at the level of most or even many sub-Saharan countries. As bad as Uganda? As bad as Congo? As bad as Angola?

TYM: cool ! we’re agreeing to disagree. What kind of a great debate is this ?! :wink:

And yes, SA is probably better off than Angola. Point taken. But things are very bad for many people, and getting worse for many as well. This is too easily forgotten when we talk about how ‘well off’ a nation is.

Re Democracy: as we can see in Iraq, the word has very different meanings to different people. Zimbabweans were generally quite happy with Mugabe for the first little while; he was part of the independence movement and he kept everyone fed and the economy moving.

My (Zimbabwean) husband thinks that ‘democracy’ is a pretty ludicrous description of the two-party systems that North America employs. I’m inclined to agree.

I don’t mean to be difficult, but could you tell me who exactly is the ‘average South African’? How closely does this person resemble the poorest South African? And I’d love to hear more about how they have a say in things. We don’t get much news from Africa over here.

While on the bus to Heathrow last summer, I had a wonderful conversation with a South African judge. Having never been to South Africa, I was very interested in his views of the political situation there, and since he turned out to be interested in the American Civil War my history degree was put to good use. I asked him the very question of the OP, and his response was two words, “Nelson Mandela.”

I was under the impression that Harry Oppenheimer, the natural resources exploiter/monopolist/magnate, was also instrumental in the peaceful transition in RSA – specifically, that he threw quiet but instrumental support to Mandela, perhaps in exchange for peace.

I don’t think that there is such a thing as an average South African - what is certain is that for the poorest who were denied access to services under Apartheid, things are dramatically better. The difference between having running water and having to collect water from an unsanitary river miles away is immeasurable. What is also certain is that there is a quickly growing Black “middle class” whose ambition for self-advancement was held back by their race in the past and who are now affluent and prosperous. In addition, it is clear that the whites at the lower ends of thier economic spectrum are worse off, as they are no longer given the advantages and benefits that they once were - and probably lack the ambition or skills to change thier direction in life.

The ANC has made many great strides, not the least of which is keeping the economy under control - when I left in 2000, there was great fear of a 7-11 economy (7 Rand to the Dollar and 11 Rand to the Pound) and how that would mean the country was “going to the dogs”. Well, the Rand has been to R20 to the £ and back to R10 and seems stable at around R11 and the country is not in the doghouse yet… BUT there is still much to do - the AIDS pandemic not least…

(Info below FYI - taken from the BBC’s Decade of Democracy pages)
**Achievements **(of the ANC govt.)
1.6m new houses built for poor
Stable economy, low inflation
70% households electrified
9m access to water

**Challenges **
30% unemployment
5.3m with HIV/Aids
Massive wealth inequality
Crime Levels

Oh, and I just found this quote form Desmond Tutu who is one of my personal heroes:


Yes, the ‘average’ South African * is * the poorest South African. grimpixie has enumerated some of the ways the poorest South African is materialy better off. Yes, there are problems (AIDS, enemployment, crime), but things are still getting better all the time (and grim, I think you’re right about the influence of the rising Black middle class).

They have a say in things now because they can vote, and it is largely the ‘average’ South African who keeps the ANC government in power. Overall, despite corruption scandals and a woeful mishandling of AIDS, the Government seems to have the best interests of the people at heart, and does its best by them, albeit at a slow pace. Some government ministers (Finance, enviro) are better than others (health!)

Look, I don’t claim to be that average South African, but I’m a typical middle-class South African - I’ve got wireless internet, could have Satellite TV but choose not to, watch DVDs, eat out a bit but can also order in Pizza. I have several friends who’ve been robbed at gun- or knifepoint (as have I), I know several HIV+ people, and half my friends live in London now, but most of them are coming back.

My life seems pretty normal, and I don’t get the sense that my country is worse off now than 10 years ago - I remember what it was like, my sister was wanted by the Apartheid police for political activity, my Grandfather was made into a paranoid delusional broken man by torture on Robben Island - and that’s a fear I’ll never have to live with, nor will my eventual kids. So yeah, we aren’t like Zim, and the reasons are manifold - we’re a more racially pluralistic society, we are a lot bigger,
we have better leaders. We may be Third world, but we’re the cutting edge of that world.

Interesting, Grim. Can you recommend a good book about the good Mr Tutu? I’d love to know more about him.

Do you have any comments about racism in SA? Has it gotten better, worse, gone underground?

And I’m still wondering about MrDribble’s comment about having more say in how things are run. Are you referring to having a vote, or are there other mechanisms that have been introduced?

Finally, I heard on the radio something about ‘peace commissions’ (I can’t remember the exact name) - quasi-judicial, community-based groups that act as kind of an alternative to police in settling disputes, apparently with enormous success. Does anyone know more about these?

That’s Archishop Tutu (Retd.) - I’m pretty sure there was a good biog, but would have to search - or grim knows. You can start with his Nobel Peace Prize biog, here.

It’s gotten better, IMHO - I spent the two years '96-'97 working on a goldmine in Randfontein, once bastion of the racists - never a problem. Of course, there are still incidents (Last year, some revolutionary racist holdouts were arrested for bombings and are now on trial) - but that happens everywhere else, too.

I was referring to the vote, but it goes beyond that too. There are more non-governmental forums now that society is free-er. These tend to be very issue-focused (the Treatment Action Campaign has had a huge influence on how the government deals with AIDS, for instance). Also, there is now a large black component to a media that was almost exclusively white-owned and -operated “back in the day”. I’m noticing more social justice programming on TV as well.

I 'm not sure if you mean the community policing forums? These are community-funded rather than national police, a little like Metro or Transit police in some American cities. Or the community justice forums? These are dispute-settling bodies in the townships* based on tribal traditions and community order. I don’t know too much about them, other than that they tacke boundary and civil disputes, and hand criminal cases over to the police.

  • Just for those who don’t know, SA ‘townships’ are the Black lower class-> middle class settlements that surround major urban areas, but are far larger and more impoverished than the regular ‘suburbs’. Little bit like the Brazilian Favelas, but with a combination of self-built shacks and proper houses

Hey, Mr Dibble !

My apologies for misspelling your name above ! And you seem to keep posting seconds before I do, so it seems like I’m ignoring you. I’m not ! It’s just that I’m not alway too particular about previewing.

I appreciate your comments. I plan to go to your part of the world one day, and information about it is very scarce in these parts. I still wonder about the stories I hear about privatization of crucial resources (eg water), so people who can’t pay lose access. This is the kind of thing that is happening all over the world (even in developed countries) and I hope that it doesn’t become too much of a pattern.