Reject the "Zimbabwe option"

Government attacks on the Democratic Party have become intemperate and aggressive.

Since taking office President Thabo Mbeki seems to have been largely preoccupied with foreign affairs. No sooner was his inauguration over than he set off for the Congo, trying to fit together the peace deal that has eluded all comers so far. Thereafter we have seen attempts to bring peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia, a trip to Algiers to lecture the Organisation of African Unity on globalisation — and even back home Mbeki is hardly safe from visitors such as Laurent Kabila. Perhaps it was not surprising that when the gold price crisis struck, the government’s first instinct was to attempt to solve that by diplomatic action too, sending missions scudding around Europe to preach an anti-gold sales message. Unfortunately, commodity prices are not set in that way.

No doubt, Mbeki’s efforts are inspired by his belief that if the rest of Africa is continually a theatre of turmoil and war not only can there be no African renaissance but the image of a basket case continent will rub off on South Africa too. This is all very well but South Africa cannot make itself responsible for the whole continent and its own domestic problems are extremely pressing. The huge number of job losses announced since the election has created a jobs crisis about which Mbeki has thus far been silent. With the South African Communist Party interpreting the election victory as a triumph for the RDP and Mbeki’s own supporters treating it as a vindication of Gear — which has yet to be fully applied — the country is still some way from clarity and coherence in economic affairs. In the end the success or failure of the Mbeki government will be judged on what it achieves economically, whether it can bring crime under control and whether it is willing to adopt a far more courageous and high profile anti-Aids strategy than anything we have seen to date. While there is no certainty that the government could control events elsewhere in Africa even if it were to despatch ground troops all round the continent, one thing is sure — if South Africa fails to get its act together this will be bad news for the whole of Africa.

Yet most of the ANC’s energy in domestic affairs since the election seems to have been devoted to flailing attacks on the Democratic Party (DP), now variously branded as fascist, neo-Nazi and even Nazi. So intemperate and irrationally aggressive has the tone of these attacks become that one is forced to wonder how committed the ANC really is to pluralist democracy. Indeed, the open pursuit of “hegemony” and Soviet-style attempts to exercise a political monopoly over all public sector appointments raises the same question.

Postures and policies such as these are extremely expensive. Collectively, they give the impression that the government’s instincts are still the same as those which led African nationalists to the north to create a series of socialist one-party states, every one of which has failed utterly. Nothing could more effectively drive money and jobs away than to give domestic and foreign investors such an impression. To put it bluntly, the pursuit of hegemony will bring economic failure, while the acceptance of an open, liberal pluralist democracy will help create wealth and jobs. And if the government fails economically no amount of political manipulation or deployment of cadres will prevent the fruits of failure — rising unemployment, rising crime, falling real incomes and deteriorating services — from damaging the government to its very heart. For these things are all of a piece. Much of the skilled manpower that the country needs to retain voted for the DP at the last election. To treat such people as lepers and to use hate speech against them will not merely create a sour, embittered and racially polarised atmosphere but will encourage a further brain drain.

The risk is that, without ever choosing or wanting that outcome, the government may gradually back itself into the same corner that President Robert Mugabe has ended up in. As Zimbabwe’s economy and government failed, he simply turned up the volume of racist abuse against his erstwhile opponents. This has further damaged the economy, leading to yet more intemperate rhetoric — and so on down. Neither Mbeki nor even his doughtiest opponents want to see either their country or its president end up in that position. If the president wants to build a truly united nation around a single theme, he need look no further than a full-hearted refusal of this “Zimbabwe option”.