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Why South Africa will never be like Zimbabwe

Jeremy Cronin

2008-05-05, Issue 368

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In this Chris Hani Memorial Lecture, Jeremy Cronin traces the differences between the ANC and Zanu-PF as liberation movements and as parties in power. He argues that while Zanu-PF succeeded in demobilising a militant population the ANC did not, and as a result the ANC is being held in check by the people of South Africa.

Our government’s stand on Zimbabwe has once again distressed many South Africans. How can President Thabo Mbeki say there is no crisis in Zimbabwe? He later claimed he was not talking about the social and economic reality but about the elections in Zimbabwe. But isn’t there an electoral crisis?

If this denial were a one-off oversight on President Mbeki’s part then it would only be opposition parties here in South Africa and those not in solidarity with the Zimbabwean people who would want to go on making a meal of it. Unfortunately the denial was part of an entrenched pattern. In his state of the nation address in February Mbeki assured parliament that everything was ‘on track’ in Zimbabwe apart from a ‘few procedural matters’. This is not to say that absolutely nothing was achieved in the current round of mediation, which managed to edge the Zanu-PF government into a half-hearted and belated implementation of some of the agreements reached. These helped to place a few more tripwires against the dangers of brazen electoral fraud. For instance, results were posted outside polling stations, and for a few weeks opposition parties had access to rural areas.

But, as several other commentators have remarked, what are we to make of apologists who extol the mediation efforts and point to the access enjoyed by the opposition in this election to areas that had previously been no-go zones? If they were previously no-go zones, why did our own government and SADC declare the elections of 2000, 2002 and 2005 sufficiently free and fair? How do we explain this pattern of denial by our government?

Many commentators suggest that it is fundamentally about solidarity between national liberation movements. This is probably true, but it requires considerable qualification. In the first place, the ANC and Zanu-PF hardly enjoyed cordial relations in the decade and a half before Zimbabwe’s independence. The ANC’s Zimbabwean ally was Zapu. MK and Zipra forces fought together in the Wankie and Sipolilo campaigns. After independence, Zapu’s mass base and forces in Matabeleland were dealt a brutal blow in 1985 in a scorched earth campaign that left some 20,000 people dead. A badly mauled Zapu was forced as a junior partner into a ‘government of national unity’ (one reason why many Zimbabweans have a distaste for the words, if not the reality, of a government of national unity).

Notwithstanding all of this, I believe that what informs much of President Mbeki’s Zimbabwean strategy is the belief that national liberation movements in our region should close ranks. This is informed by a conviction that the crisis in Zimbabwe is being used as an entry point by imperialist powers to reassert hegemony over a former colony and eventually over our whole region. Well, of course, all kinds of forces will seek to exploit the crisis in Zimbabwe, but attributing the crisis itself to imperialism is exactly what Mugabe himself does constantly. Of course, Mbeki will never say this as stridently as Mugabe. In fact, he hardly ever mentions the words anti-imperialism, and perhaps for good reason. How then would you explain yourself to your various presidential expert panels on investment, IT, and so on, which bristle with chief executives from all of the largest multinationals? Is this perhaps another reason why quiet diplomacy has to be quiet?

For his part, Mugabe blatantly uses the British colonial threat in an entirely demagogic and increasingly futile attempt to distract Zimbabweans from the failures and brutality of his own government. We are told, for instance, that ‘land reform’ did not succeed because the British failed to meet their financial obligations as agreed in the Lancaster House negotiations. But what kind of heroic anti-imperialist liberation movement is this? Can you imagine the Cubans arguing two decades after their revolutionary breakthrough that they had not implemented land reform because the US refused to subsidise it? President Mugabe’s demagogic ‘anti-imperialism’ is not an anti-imperialism that seeks to defend the interests of the peasantry, the workers (insofar as any remain employed) and the progressive professional and middle strata of Zimbabwe’s society (and indeed of our region). It is a pseudo anti-imperialism that seeks to defend the narrow interests of a rentier capitalist elite within Zanu-PF and the upper echelons of the state. It is a stratum that is entirely parasitic on state power. State power is used to pillage for the purposes of primitive accumulation. And remember, much of the recent socio-economic crisis in Zimbabwe dates back to the pillaging ‘peace mission’ to the DRC in the mid-1990s, which ended in bankruptcy and defeat for a once professional and proud Zimbabwean army.

State power also insulates the ruling class from the worst of the crisis they have provoked. And because access to state power rather than productive activity is the basis of its accumulation, state power is not something that will easily be surrendered or even shared, no matter how many doses of quiet diplomacy or rounds of elections.

As South Africans, and especially as ANC members, what lessons can we learn from all of this? There are many factors that make the ANC a very different national liberation movement from Zanu-PF. Just a few weeks before the ANC’s Polokwane national conference, Zanu-PF also held a national conference. In sharp contrast to Polokwane, the Zanu-PF conference was a thoroughly orchestrated, top-down affair. The organisational report, for instance, was not discussed; it was not even distributed to delegates. A copy was held up on the podium. ‘Here is the organisational report. Does conference adopt it? Thank you very much.’ South Africans are, of course, no more inherently democratic than Zimbabweans. However, there are various factors that we need to appreciate. As a much older organisation, the ANC developed strong ideological and culturally pluralistic traditions, with progressive liberal, radical democratic and socialist currents. By contrast, Zanu-PF in its first decades was almost entirely shaped by a bitter military struggle and its politics (like the MDC’s) are still strongly marked by ethnicity.

In the 1970s the overwhelming majority of Zimbabweans were peasants and almost half of Rhodesia’s territory was tribal trust land. This contrasts with the scattered and miniscule 13% of land reserved for Africans in apartheid South Africa. This is the secret behind the relative success of the Zimbabwean guerrilla struggle, especially in the Eastern Highlands. It is also why, in contrast, our own guerrilla struggle seldom got beyond the armed propaganda phase.

In contrast to most Third World liberation struggles in the 20th century, the epicentre of the South African struggle was the township (both rural and urban), the university campus, the factory shop floor, the faith community and the newsroom. None of this means that South Africans are immune to the ruling party stagnation and bureaucratisation that we have seen in Zimbabwe or, for that matter, and in a somewhat different context, in the communist parties of the former Soviet bloc. But after independence in Zimbabwe, the mass base of the liberation struggle was demobilised back to a remote countryside while its leadership became cabinet ministers and generals.

In South Africa, while there may well have been attempts to demobilise the mass base of struggle after 1994, this is less easy when dealing with trade unions, alliance partners, students and youth, a robust media, faith-based campaigns, women’s organisations and much more. Demobilisation is especially complicated if these forces are not in opposition but are rather your own core mass base. Polokwane was a complex event, but beneath it all was, I believe, a strong reaffirmation of these democratic, mass-based, pluralistic traditions in our movement. They are our key antidote to ‘Zanufication’.

*Jeremy Cronin is the SACP Deputy General-Secretary. This is a Chris Hani memorial lecture delivered in Durban on 4 May 2008.

**Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at

Readers' Comments

Let your voice be heard. Comment on this article.

It seems, SACP did not yet get corrupted by power, could resist stalinification and never got subjugated. Correct historical analysis (like this article on Zimbabwe) does not get supressed. The deputy general secretary of SAPC speakes out against ZANUfication of South Africa and pulls its hypocrite and powerfull protectors into focus. YCL and COSATU seem to be the South African hope for democracy and solidatity. I salute to all these people of sincerity and human dignity.
Writing as data from Germany


According to Cronin and SACP the situation in Zimbabwe can be explained by the fact that Zanu-PF is just a band of scoundrels robbing, in daylight, (What an impudence!) the Zimbabwean people of their elections and wealth. The president of the party, Robert Mugabe, as it appears, is the most consummated capitalist exploiter ever seen, who only “seeks to defend the narrow interests of a rentier capitalist elite” within the party and the state apparatus.
In this case, one must ask onselfe; what in heck have Brown and Bush against such a nice guy?
Do this perverted rentier capitalist elite and its great Helmsman refuse to assist in Iraq, or..?
Is there anybody out there having an another explanation?

Question Mark

John Eagle, Eagle Reportage

It is a question of time! How long it has taken in Kenya, beacuse the land issue was the truth catalysator of the Kenyan drama?
More than 1000 white farmers have been killed in their frams in SA, even the Western medias are keeping silence about this fact.
Soon or later, an insolved problem of landreform will lead to political disturbancies in SA.



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