Daniel Silke: Brand Mugabe may take down Brand Zuma


South African and ANC delegates will be viewing events in Zimbabwe with some concern, explains Daniel Silke.

Events in Zimbabwe this last week might be bad for the brand of President Robert Mugabe, but they are set to have a knock-on effect in South Africa as the country moves towards a similar watershed moment in December at the ANC’s elective conference.

ANC supporters have always had a love-hate relationship with Mugabe. They have always admired his liberation and revolutionary lineage, yet they equally questioned his ruthless rule and the decent of his country into a virtual failed state.

The sheer power of Mugabe was always attractive, as was his anti-colonial rhetoric, but years of misrule were also seen as a mirror of South Africa – an image about a decade ahead of South Africa.

It was an image of what South Africa could become if similar policies were enacted here. It was an image of ruthless – and largely inept leadership and cronyism – which were fast becoming a reality south of the Limpopo.

So, as South Africans watch the end of the Mugabe era, similarities and parallels abound. And, these are not good news for the ANC or the brand of Zuma – President Jacob Zuma or Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

Whilst the apparent ‘Zimbabwe Spring’ may be very short-lived and a largely internal Zanu-PF move to shuffle leadership ahead of their succession conference and elections next year, a tyrant, who outlived his sell-by-date will have been ousted.

There is a symbolic value in the ability of a long-suffering nation like Zimbabwe, so synonymous with the rule of Mugabe, to shrug off his damaging persona and present a shallow, yet important, opportunity for a political re-boot. How uncanny the parallels for South Africa as the eight-year Presidency of Zuma comes to an end amidst an equal disdain for his leadership and calls for his replacement or early resignation.

For many, the view will be that if the strong-man Mugabe could be shafted, so could Zuma – Jacob or even Nkosazana. There will be a palpable sympathy and admiration from South Africans towards their long-suffering counterparts in Harare and Bulawayo who – with the help of the military – were seen cheering in the streets in unprecedented scenes of hope this last weekend.

For many South Africans, the weekend’s visuals were not only a joyful sign as they empathised with their regional comrades, they were also watching a country one-step ahead of South Africa – a populace now able in an unfettered way out on the street to vent their frustration and anger at debilitating and damaging leadership.

There will have been an important psychological effect on many South Africans which encourages a more independent way of thinking – a greater willingness to question leadership – and a greater pro-active citizenry to take to the streets.

Whilst the end of the Mugabe era is a signal to electorates that it is acceptable to speak out against bad leadership and to call for a fresh start. South Africa has precisely this chance in December. And, South Africa’s incumbent is our local Mugabe, namely Zuma.

Not that one can remotely compare the excesses of the Mugabe regime with that of Zuma’s ANC; it is precisely the incumbency of a deeply unpopular leader that is the common thread. And, it is the direct parallel of a Liberation movement that has lost its moral and ethical way fighting for its political survival. Indeed, the movement can survive, but leadership can be shafted. That message is powerful.

The end of brand Mugabe comes a month before the ANC’s crucial elective conference. What bad timing for the Zuma faction. Not only is the ‘Zimbabwe Spring’ a factor in legitimising new leadership, it smacks in the face of dynastic rule and the desire to perpetuate the Zuma name as the nation’s president.

Without a doubt, the attempts to install Grace Mugabe as the preferred successor to her husband was a step too far for Zanu-PF. Clearly, a familial spouse acting as the anointed successor of her deeply problematic husband was critical tactical error – as much as the firing of Deputy President Mnangagwa was.

Again, whilst it is grossly unfair to compare Grace Mugabe with Dlamini-Zuma, it is precisely the incumbency of the name and support base that is similarly problematic in the South African situation. Dlamini-Zuma – rightly or wrongly – will be seen as the candidate of continuity – the continuation of the Zuma brand and all that it stands for.

For Dlamini-Zuma, her key failure has been to distance or differentiate herself from her husband. She has been singularly silent on the Gupta-Leaks and State Capture. She has not helped herself to be seen in her own right. In that respect, she mirrors Grace Mugabe in carrying the name of disappointment and decay.

Finally, both South Africa and Zimbabwe to a lesser and greater extent are in deep economic distress. Again, both governing parties have been unable to develop coherent best-practice policies to instil confidence and attract sufficient domestic and foreign investment to offset alarming unemployment rates.

Once again, the ‘Zimbabwe Spring’ is also an acknowledgement of an imminent further economic meltdown in that country and is a distinct effort to prevent this through the tweaking of economic policy. It is an admission that economic crisis will affect the salaries of Zimbabwe’s bloated bureaucrats and will need to be addressed through substantial policy shifts.

Similarly, South Africa’s deepening economic malaise requires a drastic fresh approach which the incumbency may not be able to secure. Those concerned about South Africa’s rising debt, the cost of corruption and the inability to service the needs of the populace will look north for the example of leadership change and the desire to break from the past. That too is not good news for the Zuma camp.

Ultimately, South African and ANC delegates will be viewing events to the north with some concern. There is more fluidity in both Zanu-PF and the ANC than ever before. Governing party formations, opposition and civil society have been re-activated.

There is a greater vulnerability to the ‘strong-men’ of the SADC region. And, more global eyes will be on both countries as they grapple with leadership contestation and economic decline.

Zimbabwe sends a message. Incumbency that has failed does not deserve to be rewarded with succession. And rightly or wrongly, the Zuma brand will bear the brunt of this. Others in the region may await a similar fate.

Daniel Silke is director of the Political Futures Consultancy and is a noted keynote speaker and commentator. Views expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter at @DanielSilke or visit his website.

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