Politics is fickle and the support not guaranteed

This week has been significant and even historic, words that get used glibly sometimes, but which are not out of place in the context of what happened in southern Africa.
The significance for some people, especially those on the Cape Flats and more especially those in Bishop Lavis, is that a 17-year-old schoolgirl named Paxton Fielies won season 13 of Idols South Africa. I suspect it is important, but I would not know because I have not watched Idols for many years.

But what happened on Idols pales into comparison with what happened in our neighbouring country, Zimbabwe.

After the military took over key government ministries and the president’s home last week, there was a wait-and-see situation: will Robert Gabriel Mugabe leave willingly and, pardon the pun, gracefully, or will he have to be impeached?

It all came to a head on Tuesday night when the Speaker of parliament announced that, after 37 years in charge, Mugabe had resigned.

The people of Zimbabwe should be allowed to celebrate their victory, but they will soon realise that their struggle is only beginning. The replacement of one leader with another cut from the same cloth is not ideal, but at least it is a start. In some ways, Zimbabweans will know that they are dealing with a devil they know.

Mugabe’s replacement, Emmerson Mnangagwa, was one of Mugabe’s closest confidantes over many years. He occupied several positions in government and, like Mugabe, is a struggle hero with close links to the military.

Mugabe is 93. Mnangagwa is 75. Mnangagwa’s age should not be a problem. Nelson Mandela was 75 when he became president of South Africa. But Mandela was clear that he saw his role as being a caretaker president, meant to guide South Africa through what could potentially have been a difficult period.

Whether Mnangagwa will be prepared to change the political milieu in Zimbabwe and create a more enabling environment, where political parties work together in the interest of the country irrespective of political differences, remains to be seen.

If he delivers more of the same, then the celebrations this week would have been misplaced.

There are several lessons South Africans and others can learn from what happened in Zimbabwe. The first is that politics is fickle. People who may support you today will easily turn their backs on you tomorrow. We have seen this in South Africa where not too long ago, Julius Malema was prepared to die for Jacob Zuma. Today he is Zuma’s biggest enemy.

Political support is not guaranteed. No one could have predicted that Mugabe’s rule would have ended so acrimoniously after he had been revered in Zimbabwe for most of his 37 years in power. The same people who ended Mugabe’s rule are the ones who propped him up for all these years.

This shows that any leader can lose political support and can be deposed. A good example of this is Libya where Muammar Gaddafi ruled with an iron fist for 42 years until he was killed when the country descended into civil war.

We don’t know what went through the minds of Zanu-PF politicians in Zimbabwe when they finally decided to turn on Mugabe. Maybe they saw him becoming a liability. Maybe they dreaded being ruled by his young wife, who it appeared he anointed as his successor.

Maybe the military simply felt that their grip on society and, more importantly, the finances in society, would be lessened if somebody from outside their circles became president.

Maybe, politicians simply read the cards and saw that their bread would continue to be buttered by supporting Mnangagwa as opposed to his rival, Grace Mugabe. Politicians tend to support whoever can guarantee them something equal or better to what they have become accustomed.

There have been hopeful signs in Zimbabwe before, especially after the formation of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and the MDC’s good showing in the 2008 elections, despite being split into two factions.

Another lesson relates to the role of the military. The use of the military in any situation should always be a last resort and should never be a long-term solution. The Zimbabwean military should be complimented for exerting pressure on politicians to seek a political solution.

South Africa is, of course, a different situation to Zimbabwe and those people who are hoping that we would have a coup, of sorts, in South Africa need to be less hopeful.

We’ve never really used military solutions in a positive way. The ANC will be the first to admit that uMkhonto we Sizwe on their own did not bring the apartheid government to the negotiating table. The combination of internal mass protests and international isolation probably played a bigger role.

Those who are unhappy with the status quo, need to continue to engage politicians and put pressure on them to bring about the changes that will benefit our country. Who knows, they might even realise that change would benefit them too and things could improve for the better.

What happened in Zimbabwe this week has proven that anything is possible. And that should be enough to give us hope in South Africa.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 25 November 2017)