Protesters stand behind a burning barricade during protests on a road leading to Harare, Zimbabwe, January 15, 2019. REUTERS/ PHILIMON BULAWAYO
Protesters stand behind a burning barricade during protests on a road leading to Harare, Zimbabwe, January 15, 2019. REUTERS/ PHILIMON BULAWAYO

Can and should SA help Zimbabwe, and if so how? It’s a much more complicated question than it seems.

Apart from simple good neighbourliness and human compassion, it cannot be in SA’s interest for yet another flood of Zimbabweans to arrive in a country already struggling with one of the world’s highest youth unemployment rates.

Nobody knows how many Zimbabweans are currently in SA but estimates range from 1-million to 5-million.

Late in 2018,SA turned down a request from Zimbabwe for a $1.1bn emergency loan, but  President Cyril Ramaphosa has vowed to use SA’s “good offices” to encourage the IMF to re-engage with Zimbabwe after ties were cut in 1999.

Yet, all the good progress made following the removal of then-president Robert Mugabe in 2017  has come crashing down over the past few weeks.

Zimbabwean human rights groups claim 12 people have been killed, at least 78 shot and more than 240 have been assaulted and tortured, as the aggressive policing of civil disturbances typical of the Zimbabwean government under Zanu-PF leadership. Even the internet has been shut down. These are the actions of a dictatorship, not a democracy.

The reaction of the security forces to the protests re-opens the question of whether its possible for a leopard to change its spots, a common question asked after President Emmerson Mnangagwa ousted Mugabe after being his chief side-kick for years.

But the more pertinent question is whether an economy can change its spots and how quickly. The fact is that the Zimbabwean economy is structurally a disaster typical of the kind populist governments succumb to over time.

First, come the unrealistic promises based on the political exigencies of the moment, then come the self-mutilating policies designed to put these fantastical political promises into effect, and when that doesn’t work, what follows is mass migration, violent repression and economic collapse. Undoing this cycle of disaster is nearly impossible without fundamental political change.

Mnangagwa and Zanu-PF won the election by a tiny  majority in 2018, reflecting the polarity of the population’s view over whether Zanu-PF was truly a different party or just the same repressive, autocratic beast with a new coat of paint.

Zanu-PF holds its power particularly in the rural areas by maintaining an iron grip on the only real economic function in Zimbabwe, agriculture. It does so because the government is now the owner of all land, and is both the distributor of rights to farm and also, in many cases, the sole buyer of the products.

Mnangagwa has gone some way in reforming agriculture by extending land leases from 20 to 99 years in an effort to reinvigorate the sector by providing farmers with the ability to start investing capital in their businesses. Some white farmers have even been allowed to return. But the problem in 2019 has been a severe drought, which has complicated the reform process.

What has not happened in Zimbabwe is a true opening up of the economy. The politicians have returned to their old tricks of trying to game the system by introducing local bond notes, which is a way of reintroducing the local currency via  the back door.

What followed is the overissuance of those notes, so now inflation is up to 24%. In a sense, this was forced on the government because with no real industry outside of a stuttering agricultural sector, the country has a consistent trade deficit, and is constantly vulnerable to capital flight.

Absolutely nothing has been done to address the corruption now ingrained in the system.

Some progress has been made in some areas. Initial discussions with the World Bank and the IMF did take place, and curtailment of the government overspending was agreed. Ironically, that may have sparked the unrest after the huge fuel price increases and the lowly 10% pay rise  offer to civil servants.

The question is, if SA, or the IMF, or a combination did provide Zimbabwe with emergency aid, would it help, or would it slip into the pockets of the usual suspects in the Zimbabwean security cluster, the very people who are emphatically, almost desperately, supporting Mnangagwa?

The opposite question is equally valid: can SA really afford to do nothing? The trick will be finding a path between these two  poles.