Military vehicles and soldiers patrol the streets in Harare, Zimbabwe. Picture: REUTERS/PHILIMON BULAWAYO
Military vehicles and soldiers patrol the streets in Harare, Zimbabwe. Picture: REUTERS/PHILIMON BULAWAYO

“SA must break ANC taboos to lift growth,” The Financial Times headlined one of its editorials last week. It wasn’t saying anything nobody had heard before.      

While acknowledging the weaknesses and excesses of the national lockdown to contain the Covid-19 pandemic, such as corruption and overhanded policing, it broadly gave President Cyril Ramaphosa’s actions the thumbs up and credited him with possibly saving thousands of lives.

The rest is similar to what has been written by many, from finance minister Tito Mboweni to professional economists and credit rating companies. It can be summarised broadly as a call for the ruling party to let go of some of its ideological rigidity in favour of pursuing what has been described broadly as structural reforms to unlock growth.

There is broad consensus on that, though there is a loud minority locally that thinks the economic policies that ruined Zimbabwe are appropriate for SA. Headlines out of what used to be the country’s most prosperous neighbour show that economics isn’t the only area where SA needs to be freed of ANC taboos.

The decline of Zimbabwe is sad enough on its own. From a South African perspective, it is even sadder to note that these headlines could have easily been written any time over the past two decades as that country spiralled into the disaster zone it is today, with SA watching helplessly. That is testament to this country’s impotence when dealing with the one foreign-policy issue that should have been its domain and where it could have led an international approach to finding a solution.

In recent weeks, President Cyril Ramaphosa has sent two delegations to Zimbabwe in an attempt to mediate in that country’s political and economic crisis. They both ended in humiliating failure for different reasons.

In August, he sent former parliamentary speaker Baleka Mbete and former ministers Sydney Mufamadi and Ngoako Ramatlhodi on a mission that produced nothing as they were blocked from meeting opposition leader Nelson Chamisa. And then there was another farce with the decision to send an ANC delegation led by party  secretary-general Ace Magashule to Harare earlier in September.

That of course will only be memorable for the spectacular abuse of state resources that saw defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula providing a South African National Defence Force (SANDF) jet for the trip. After the initial defiance, the party “humbled” itself in front of the country and offered to reimburse the state. It’s no great surprise that there has since been no word on who will pay what, to whom or when. And also there’s still been no word on the report on the incident that Ramaphosa demanded from the minister.

On Zimbabwe itself, there is no crisis, according to the president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, who has turned out to be as much of a despot as his predecessor, ruthlessly putting down protests over a failing economy and jailing journalists. The crisis existed only “in their minds”, he said. Here one would assume he includes Ramaphosa and the teachers who are set to strike over work conditions and pay.

This could easily be Robert Mugabe all over again, and Thabo Mbeki would be the SA president being played. But SA has always gone back for more, guided by its rather misguided loyalty to what Mnangagwa calls a “sister revolutionary party”. Back in the day, the buzzwords were “quiet diplomacy”, which was just as ineffective a policy as its current version. Mnangagwa has  through his actions and words shown that he doesn’t take the ANC’s sisterly approach any more seriously than Mugabe did.

The ANC has to drop some of its taboos with Zimbabwe and other countries in the region that act contrary to the values in SA’s constitution. What should have been taboo in the first place was the placing of loyalty towards elites and political parties ahead of the country’s stated commitment to democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

SA needs to change its approach and stand with the people of Zimbabwe. Only then might it have a chance of playing a constructive role.

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