Robert Mugabe's swerve to populism followed  political setbacks, a scenario playing out in South Africa, too. Picture:  Getty Images
Robert Mugabe's swerve to populism followed political setbacks, a scenario playing out in South Africa, too. Picture: Getty Images

How low can South Africa go? This is the question that haunts the country as it grapples with its worst economic and political crisis since the advent of democracy in 1994.

In the search for an answer to this question, the experience of Zimbabwe looms large — and can make for painful comparisons.

Could South Africa, a once shining example of democracy and economic growth on a continent beset with problems, go the way of its neighbour, widely regarded as the sick man of the SADC region?

On the surface, South Africa's economic and political troubles have some semblance to the problems Zimbabwe faces — but deep complexities lie beneath.

Anne Frühauf, senior vice-president of Teneo Intelligence, conceded that there were similarities in the socioeconomic grievances and demands in the two countries, especially to do with economic liberation and redistribution.

"However, this does not mean that South Africa's story will necessarily follow the Zimbabwean playbook," she said.

South African politicians have become increasingly reliant on populist policies to score points with a restless electorate, invoking issues from the land question — which refuses to die down and came up for debate again at last month's ANC policy conference — to tougher mining legislation in the Mining Charter.

Anne Frühauf said liberation-movement parties tended to have a political shelf-life of two to three decades.

"They tend to court the electorate with past achievements, but often fall short when voters begin to judge them on their ability to deliver services and economic opportunities.

"As the 2016 [local government] election showed, South African voters, particularly younger urban voters, increasingly think about bread-and-butter issues when they cast their ballot," she said.

Electoral theft

At his weakest point politically, after a rejection in a referendum vote in 2000, President Robert Mugabe turned to populist policies such as the land question.

He used these and, later, the 51% indigenisation law, to curry favour with voters regardless of the implications these policies had for the economy.

Gary van Staden, an economic analyst at NKC African Economics, said the ANC was likely to meet resistance if it continued on its current trajectory, and would have to bear significant political costs if it persisted.

"There are superficial similarities on the issues of land and mining rights, but the levels of repression, violence and electoral theft that have maintained Mugabe and his cohorts are not in sight in South Africa, nor would they be allowed by our people to take hold," Van Staden said.

A series of questionable decisions by President Jacob Zuma, primarily involving cabinet reshuffles, have ensured that South Africa's economic performance in the first half of the year will make this yet another annus horribilis for the country.

South Africa has been hard-hit by downgrades from global ratings agencies, a rise in unemployment to 27.7% and a slide into technical recession. Foreign investors are blinking twice and markets remain volatile. Economic growth is expected to stagnate.

Putting further pressure on South Africa's economy is the rot at state-owned enterprises such as Eskom, SAA and Transnet, which appears to continue unchecked.

In Zimbabwe, SOEs such as Air Zimbabwe and the National Railways of Zimbabwe have bled the fiscus. There is resistance by the government to privatise its loss-making parastatals, which rely on the state for everlasting bailouts.

Both countries are plagued by contentious succession races with no clear frontrunner to take over from either Zuma or Mugabe.

Zuma favours his former wife Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to take over ahead of his deputy, Cyril Ramaphosa, while Mugabe appears to be keen for Grace Mugabe, his wife, to take over ahead of his deputy, Emmerson Mnangagwa.

As a result, party factions have emerged in both the ANC and Zanu-PF and each one of these is baring its fangs at the other, as the contest increasingly becomes a high-stakes race to get their preferred candidate to succeed the incumbent - with the economic slowdown taking a back seat.

Citizen power

Tara O'Connor, executive director of London-based Africa Risk Consulting, said despite the uncertainty over who would take over, South Africa had in its favour a constitution that places strict limits on the presidential term.

"Unlike in Zimbabwe, there is a date which will mark the end of Zuma's rule. Even if his ex-wife wins the ANC's nomination, her presidential mandate will be her own and there is no certainty that she will continue along Zuma's disastrous path," she said.

Piers Pigou, the Southern Africa director at the International Crisis Group, said a key feature that distinguished South Africa from Zimbabwe was the independence and robustness of the institutions supporting its democracy.

"This is complemented by a strong, vocal civil society and a relatively powerful, interrogative media, which is not present in Zimbabwe," Pigou said.

Gupta factor

Yet South Africa's tipping point might come from the undue influence that the Gupta family wields over state institutions and their role in state capture.

While no Gupta-like family is known to associate with Mugabe, his close ties with several individuals in the past have raised eyebrows. Pigou said the Gupta phenomenon was "a red light" on many fronts, but South Africa had many more options for addressing the matter than Zimbabwe has ever had.

"The relative silence in Zimbabwe about endemic corruption is very noticeable. South Africa is qualitatively distinct from Zimbabwe, where options for manipulation are more contained," he said.

For now, it seems that despite South Africa hitting a low point, it is at least not Zimbabwe — the epitome of the lowest point.

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