The official SA response to Robert Mugabe’s death indicates how out of touch with reality our governing party has become. First President Cyril Ramaphosa praises him for his contribution to “regional solidarity and development”, then the ANC applauds him for “throughout his life [being] an ardent and vocal advocate of African unity and self-reliance”. Self-reliance, after he had to breathe his last in a Singaporean hospital because the health system in Zimbabwe has collapsed.

The destruction Mugabe has wrought in Zimbabwe is well recorded. Needing a lot more work are efforts to come to terms with the damage he did to SA, the region and Africa as a whole. The ANC seems quite unable to comprehend its own role in giving him and his “comrades” in Zanu-PF the means to push back democracy. This was especially so under Thabo Mbeki, who acted as Mugabe’s pointsman and enabler.

It is hard to see what Mbeki and the ANC leaders after him achieved by continuously compromising their own liberationist principles just to avoid causing Mugabe even the slightest embarrassment. Ostensibly this was for the sake of African solidarity, but SA’s stance only reinforced the divisions caused by Mugabe himself. For the rest of the world he was no icon of African liberation but a symbol of the continent’s continued irrelevance and absurdity.

From Beijing to Belarus, Santiago to Singapore, they saw a banana republic clown dressing up in boy scout pantomime. And Europe felt no compunction to fix the legacies of colonialism when Africa’s leading power, SA, lionised a tyrant whose people had to be saved from starvation by Western charity organisations.

The price SA has paid is a constant stream of Zimbabweans crossing Beit Bridge. Those with education did well, filling affirmative action quotas, but most were desperate and destitute, settling for slave wages or a career in crime. Mbeki’s government steadfastly refused to help the majority of Zimbabweans achieve what they wanted, which was to see Mugabe deposed. For instance, setting up voting stations for the millions of exiles in SA during elections was just never on the radar.

Real damage was done to the SA polity too; duplicity poisoned public debate. When Mbeki sent two judges to get the information he did not trust the highly regarded SA media to furnish, it took the Mail & Guardian several attempts before the release of their withering report was ordered by a court. SA diplomats and officials excelled in finding disingenuous ways to get doubtful election results in Zimbabwe endorsed through bogus observer missions.

Those early years were crucial to the future of SA foreign policy. Still occupying the moral heights, it had a great model for conflict resolution to offer the world — its very successful Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

A TRC might have saved Zimbabwe, but instead a beaming Mbeki let Mugabe hold his hand in public in 2006 after his thugs had beaten up the leader of the opposition, Morgan Tsvangirai, in front of the world’s cameras.

From SA’s early nod to Mugabe’s land grabs, it was downhill for foreign policy, with SA cementing its growing irrelevance by routinely entertaining tyrants and kowtowing to repressive regimes such as China.

The ANC’s ascendancy to power in 1994 heralded a new era for Africa. Elections were becoming more common, military leaders handed over power to civilians and democracy was actively pursued. An architecture was devised for African government, and quite soon an African parliament and a new union were installed with democracy for ordinary people — Africa for the Africans — as the ideal.

It was Mbeki’s greatest hour — the world applauded and was happy to bankroll half of the AU budget. A key part of this was the AU's human rights oversight mechanisms, the African Court on Human and People’s Rights, and, on a lower level, the Southern African Development Community Tribunal. Yet the latter was suspended at the behest of Mugabe when it made too many findings against his government. It is only recently that attempts have started to have it reinstated.

The acceptance of the alternative proposed by Mugabe and his allies, a body that would only deal with disputes between states, showed how the ANC was prepared to allow the human rights base of African institutions to be corrupted in favour of a new AU-led bureaucratic elite.

It swung another key battle, prompted by an unresolved error in the AU constitution. This created the paradox that the AU’s budget had to be endorsed by the Pan-African Parliament, even though the latter got most of its funding from the AU. By helping to establish the principle that all African sovereignties are absolute, even those of the tyrants explicitly discouraged by the AU Charter, SA chose the side of the bureaucratic elite over the people. 

The world has become used to the huge entourages of the AU’s 50-odd members descending on conferences, all paid lavish per diems. Enormous sums and much diplomatic capital were spent on convention centres and stadiums for the hugely ineffectual gatherings of AU units. Into all of these soon-to-be white elephants strode their hero, Mugabe, constantly getting standing ovations while SA officials looked on glumly, unable to utter a squeak.

Mugabe was the rationalisation for these extravagances. “He stood up to the West” was the mantra, never mind that the West sat down to write out more sanctions.

Mugabe’s failure to do the obvious — retire and be elevated to an elderly statesman for Africa — led to the Mbeki administration applying the Sun City model for conflict resolution. This entails luring the rebels living in the bush into negotiations by equating victim and perpetrator. Generous stipends for shopping and gambling then soften them up for entering into governments of national unity, where the perks of the globe-trotting waBenzi are dangled as further reward.

In Zimbabwe the victims of Mugabe’s repression were frogmarched into negotiations. Instead of gaining the government after winning elections, normal democratic contestation was presented as mutual violent conflict, with all sides equally guilty. Ceasefire became the objective, instead of swearing in the newly elected government. The resulting Global Political Agreement cynically allocated all the power portfolios to Mugabe and Zanu-PF, with Mbeki looking the other way, feigning ignorance.

Mbeki and Mugabe must have known they had won when opposition ministers in the government of national unity (GNU) started squabbling over the allocation of SUVs. The GNU was the poisoned chalice that really killed Zimbabwean democracy.

The case can also be made that it became the template for political contestation in SA. If there is one thing that is paralysing the ANC it is its slavish allegiance to unity at all costs. The rationalisation was, and still is, that SA is fighting 19th-century colonialism, with Mugabe and his moribund Zanu-PF the chief allies.

And so, while to everyone with the future of the country at heart it is obvious that the ANC has to split to allow the formation of a new centrist party with the DA — casting aside the ANC-Cosatu-SACP dinosaur — even Ramaphosa is clinging to what is practically a government of national unity in SA, similar in many respects to the Zimbabwean model. Mugabe may be dead, but the ANC is keeping his spirit alive.

• Pienaar is a journalist and author.