There are few things that irk many South Africans as much as any insistence that we are not as special as we think we are.
Just compare the country with Zimbabwe, for example, and you will be trolled online for hours by Afrophobes and ANC hacks who have their heads buried deeply in the sand, if not their snouts in troughs.
Yes, I do mean to use the term “Afrophobe” because one source of annoyance — when our slide towards a mafia state is compared with Zimbabwe — is the implication in such a comparison that South Africa is not exceptional in the global history of post-colonial sins of incumbency. We hate any suggestion that we are like “countries in Africa”. That fear blinds us to critical lessons we need when examining other countries in the region.
ANC hacks, in turn, are so scared by the sudden exit of Robert Mugabe that their additional motive for engaging only waspishly with any comparative analysis between ourselves and Zimbabwe is the fear that such comparisons could embolden citizens to stand up to the looters in South Africa, and their keepers in the private sector. There is, in other words, unsubtle self-interest in stopping any national conversation that deepens citizens’ appreciation of the power of the people to hold thugs to account.
I confess to being a typical South African in that regard (until recently). For years I took refuge in the formal features of our complex and impressively designed constitutional democracy vis-à-vis the built-in mechanisms to keep wayward power in check. Combine these mechanisms, like the Chapter 9 oversight institutions enshrined in our Constitution, with other comforts such as a busy civil society sector, energetic opposition politics, and a media determined to speak back to power, then how on earth could we be compared to that basket case called Zimbabwe? Right?
Well, that is naive. The formal features of the nascent democracy we designed matter, but do not matter decisively in determining the trajectory of our democracy. I am afraid a far simpler — and more dominant — determinant of a new society’s chances of realising its potential is the quality of leadership in the state, in the private sector and in civil society.
We now know that, in fact, there are as many crooks in crucial positions in our state as there have been in the Zimbabwean state. We are not immune to what happened to our neighbour. One difference, and it is a marginal difference, is simply the fact of time: Zimbabwe almost imploded under the leadership of Mugabe and we have not yet come as close to implosion.
That is simply because we are only now entering that critical decade of post-coloniality — the third one — when the proverbial poo can hit the fan. Instead of imagining we are guaranteed a future that is an exemplar of caring governance, we need to pay attention to the objective conditions of our present society. The objective conditions are now well known in terms of the nature, scope and pace of state capture or, as Jacques Pauw characterises it, the mafia state.
This means there is, for the moment, a difference in degree between ourselves and Zimbabwe. There is not, however, a difference in kind. Pointing out obvious differences, such as the fact that we are unlikely to have one person ever being president for more than the maximum of two terms, is shortsighted. Democratic states can be captured even if you have a regular change in the occupancy of the office of the president.
That is why one should pay attention to the cluster of indictors that show a slide towards a mafia state and see which of these are present here that were also present — and still are — in Zimbabwe.
It is almost as though some South Africans think Zimbabwe was always a disaster. We forget the impressive early years of Mugabe’s presidency. Mugabe did not wake up one morning and decide to be an autocrat henceforth. It was a slow slide towards autocracy.
That is why we cannot afford to prioritise our discomfort with comparative analysis over a hard look at reality. Look at the role of the securocrats in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. Then look at the role of the spooks in Zuma’s South Africa.
Look at the disdain for media in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe and then look at the increasing pace of media harassment in Zuma’s South Africa.
Look at teenage boys in military uniform in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe used as goons. Look at youngsters in military garb in front of Luthuli House, chosen to perform the same function in exchange for crumbs to temporarily silence their empty stomachs. Et cetera.
Yes, there are differences between ourselves and Zimbabwe. These differences matter. But only an emotionally stunted and unthinking pseudo-patriot would refuse to see increasing similarities between ourselves and Zimbabwe.
True patriots, in fact, should lovingly point out salient similarities and then work hard to assert the power of the people. It is not shameful to change your conviction about how exceptional South Africa is when the facts have changed or when the true facts that always obtained have now been excavated.