In South Africa, the mass media attention on Robert Mugabe’s death has forced the country to reflect on its own tensions and upheavals. Its historic similarities with Zimbabwe, and renewed focus on land ownership, have brought Mugabe’s legacy to the fore. LSE’s Rishika Yadav asks how South Africa should remember the liberator-turned-despot.
I was barely a few days into fieldwork in South Africa when Robert Mugabe, former President and founding father of Zimbabwe, passed away in a hospital in Singapore. Johannesburg was only beginning to wake up to a chilly Friday morning when news of his death reached the region. Within moments #RIPMugabe became the most tweeted hashtag with an outpouring of messages of remembrance.
SABC and eNCA, the two largest news broadcasters in South Africa, swiftly proceeded to televise a day-long broadcast that reflected on the life and times of Mugabe. Other major news, including on-going protests against gender-based violence across the country and the World Economic Forum on Africa in Cape Town, received no more than a brief headline. For the next few days, Mugabe occupied people’s screens and minds, his legacy forcing South Africans to reflect amidst their country’s own brewing tensions.
The focus on Mugabe’s death in South Africa is not unwarranted. The former President has shared a long and interwoven history with the southern nation. Mugabe first came to South Africa as a student at University of Fort Hare where he was awarded a scholarship. He would later join the African National Congress (ANC) and would come into contact with the South African Communist Party, his first exposure to Marxist-Leninist ideology. At the time, Mugabe looked to Gandhi and the example of the Indian struggle for independence for political inspiration. It would be a while before he would immerse himself completely in the politics of his own homeland.
For South Africa’s anti-Apartheid movement, Mugabe’s rise to power in Zimbabwe in the 1980s was a time of euphoria. His promise of redistribution of land, the anti-imperial narrative and his dream of a pan-African utopia resonated with oppressed South Africans. They looked up to him as an example of a black man ousting a white minority from power, then leading his country into political, economic and social liberation.
After South Africa’s liberation in 1994, however, he was often at odds with his counterpart in the southern nation, Nelson Mandela. He critiqued the new President for his ‘soft’ policies aimed at accommodating South Africa’s post-Apartheid white population and was opposed to his measured approach on the redistribution of land. For his part, Mandela publicly condemned the violence under Mugabe’s rule: ‘Nearer to home we have seen the outbreak of violence against fellow Africans in our own country and the tragic failure of leadership in our neighbouring Zimbabwe.’
Even so, senior leaders of the ANC offered condolences on his death, remembering him as a leader, an elder and a statesman with a ‘complex’ legacy. This reflected the mood of the ruling party. SABC’s anchors, although not shying away from addressing Mugabe’s more scarring policies, maintained an overall tenor of reminiscence. A montage of ‘Robert Mugabe in His Own Words’ highlighted excerpts of his speeches every half hour – ‘So Blair, you keep your England, let me keep my Zimbabwe’, Mugabe’s voice echoed.
The underlying sardonic irony of the affair was that, while the Zimbabwean President was being revered, Zimbabweans themselves (amongst Nigerians and other African nationals) were targeted in an outbreak of xenophobic violence triggered by rising unemployment and crime in South Africa. One then wonders – as Justice Malala (the country’s incisive political commentator) bluntly put it, ‘What is this nonsense the ANC is telling us about Mugabe?’
What is it about the liberator-turned-despot that still resonates with South Africa’s top leadership and biggest broadcasters, as well as its millennials and unemployed populace? The answer is as simple as it is complicated – land.
In all stages of his political career, Mugabe emphasised the importance of owning resources, land in particular, to uplift Africans from the devasting economic consequences of centuries of imperial rule. Land reform in Zimbabwe, although initially a measured policy with a low success rate, came to a head in 1997 with Mugabe’s fall-out with Tony Blair’s Labour government in Britain. After failing to amend the constitution in 2000, pro-Mugabe supporters (on alleged encouragement from the leader himself) proceeded to occupy farmlands owned by white farmers. This forced occupation sent the economy in a spiral as the government refused to provide any compensation – an economic instability that the nation is still reeling from with record inflation.
In South Africa, much like Zimbabwe, 72 per cent of the arable land is owned by 10 per cent of the population. The newly elected government has promised to take concrete steps to correct this. In 2018, on President Ramaphosa’s initiative, a proposal to draft a constitutional amendment was adopted overwhelmingly by Parliament. This amendment would allow the government to seize ‘unused’ private land with no compensation, although how this will be implemented remains to be seen.
Despite the eerie similarities, there are some fundamental differences from the Zimbabwean experience. For one, the debate in South Africa is constitutional. It is being carried out in the public domain. It is inviting input from experts across the spectrum. And it is, in theory, paying heed to possible economic repercussions. But how can a government facing unemployment at 29 per cent (more than half of South Africa’s youth are jobless) carry out a cautious approach in a politically volatile state? The attacks on African nationals are only one consequence of this unemployed youth. There are rapidly rising statistics on drug-trafficking, gender-based violence, knife-crime, murders and gang violence – statistics that are showing similar trends across the African continent.
However, amidst the expeditious need to create wealth and employment for the country’s poorest citizens, Mugabe’s legacy presents a dilemma for the country. How will South Africa’s leadership remember Mugabe? Will they pay heed to the recklessness of Zimbabwe’s land reform or revere him as a liberator of his people? Will the country relaunch the pan-Africa utopia or be inhospitable to migrants from the continent? Will they remember the oppression and violence of his rule or strengthen their judicial and policing institutions to promote security?
How South Africa chooses to remember Mugabe will allow us a glance into the future of the nation.
Photo: Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe addressing the South Africa-Zimbabwe Bi-National Commission (BNC). Credit: GovernmentZA.