By Barney Mthombothi
It is probably the result of our usual obsession with our own little difficulties that we’ve been unable to pay adequate attention to the drama unfolding north of the Limpopo.
Zimbabwe is a free and independent State, but South Africa has often tended to treat it like a baby to be nannied.
As Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe seemed to steadily lose his faculties in recent years, and his people fled to our shores in droves as a result, South Africa took his country under its wing, manfully trying, without success, to bring peace among its warring factions.
But South Africa has bigger fish to fry now. Its own house is in flames. There’s anger everywhere.
Schools and universities are being put to the torch; streets are war zones. Apparently even the government is at war with itself. We’re certainly in no position to hold a candle to anybody.
President Jacob Zuma is as much a threat to the wellbeing of South Africans as Mugabe is to Zimbabweans.
It is ironic — no, laughable — that not so long ago Zuma was a mediator in the Zimbabwean conflict.
Last week in Parliament, Zuma was called a criminal and a thief by EFF MPs as they raucously left the chamber.
Nobody batted an eyelid. It seemed an accurate, even fair, observation. Not even his usual flunkeys came to his defence. They’re simply exhausted.
The speaker, for once, kept her counsel. For Zuma, Parliament has become hostile territory. So, it seems, is a big chunk of the country.
Zuma’s difficulty cannot be a personal matter. As his reputation sinks deeper into the sewer, so does the country’s prestige.
He is, after all, the main reason South Africa is facing junk status. He earns a salary to destroy the country.
Remove him and the country’s prospects would improve appreciably.
One cannot, for instance, imagine Zuma being called upon in current circumstances to mediate in Zimbabwe.
Mugabe would simply laugh him out of court.
It is indeed a tragedy that the two most influential countries in the region are saddled with dreadful leadership at a time when they could otherwise have been a force for good on the continent.
But it seems, unlike in the past, Zimbabweans aren’t sitting on their hands waiting for outside intervention anymore.
They’re gatvol (fed up). The situation is so bad they have nothing to lose. As Mugabe slowly but surely limps off into the sunset, the country is well and truly on its knees.
Mugabe can look at the devastation across Zimbabwe and pat himself on the back for a job well done.
Few leaders in living memory have visited such misery on their populace.
Now young people, impatient and fearless, want him out as soon as possible so that rehabilitation of the country can begin.
Mugabe is too old and infirm and not the man to do it. Also, wreckers can’t be builders.
But we’ve been here before. Mugabe’s political obituary has been written many times in his 36 years in power, and each time he’s proved his critics wrong.
He’s outlasted his opponents, mediators, even Tony Blair, his perennial nemesis.
At 92, he seems intent on standing for office again in two years. But Mother Nature will certainly prove a wilier adversary.
Mugabe’s advanced age seems to have not only encouraged the succession battles within his Zanu PF party, but has also emboldened young people to take to the streets.
Fear, which had kept many Zimbabweans in check for many years, seems to be a thing of the past.
Running battles between the police and young people, rocks littering the streets and even the odd building on fire — scenes almost unheard of until recently — are becoming a frequent occurrence.
Social media, the bane of autocrats everywhere, makes it easier for activists to mobilise.
Never before has Mugabe faced such open revolt.
Even the judiciary, ever keen to do the regime’s bidding, seems to have grown a backbone. Recently it ruled in favour of demonstrators, much to Mugabe’s chagrin. People are beginning to envisage a future without Mugabe.
The Achilles heel, as always, has been the economy.
In 2009, Thabo Mbeki helped to put together a unity government between Zanu PF and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. The economy seemed to get back on the mend.
But the notable achievement of that arrangement was to destroy the MDC or its credibility and to give Mugabe a new lease on life.
And after winning the 2013 elections, he simply went back to his old ways.
An indigenisation programme designed to cede control of companies to black Zimbabweans — similar to the seizure of white farms more than a decade ago — dealt a killer blow to an economy that was trying to recover.
The country is flat on its face: no money, no jobs. Some estimates put the unemployment rate at 90 percent.
It is unthinkable that South Africans, having watched this tragedy unfold over the years, would want to re-enact it here at home.
- Article appeared in the Sunday Times in September.