Picture: 123RF/ JEFFREY THOMPSON
Picture: 123RF/ JEFFREY THOMPSON

Hurrah for revolution and more cannon-shot!A beggar upon horseback lashes a beggar on foot.Hurrah for revolution and cannon come again!The beggars have changed places, but the lash goes on."

The change in the presidency in Zimbabwe calls to mind WB Yeats’s cynical poetic comment (above) on desperately needed political change.

On the principle that anyone else would be better, Zimbabweans rejoiced last week as Robert Mugabe stepped down. It is possible his successor, Emmerson "The Crocodile" Mnangagwa (who has his own aura of brutality) may show some sanity on the economy and be slightly more tolerant of dissent. But the base is very low indeed. Already the military has been accused of torturing the finance minister, Ignatius Chombo.

The joy over Mugabe’s removal must have prompted deep reflection within the ANC in SA on how an admired icon of the struggle against colonialism came to be hated as an oppressor.

Millions of Zimbabweans were turned into beggars and economic refugees by Mugabe. Equally, millions of South Africans — without jobs, a decent education, or options — now know the ANC of Mandela and Mbeki is no more. The new emperors have no clothes. After a decade of decay, few are willing to keep pretending this isn’t so.

Which isn’t to say SA is Zimbabwe. For a start, SA’s institutional democracy — such as our media and our judiciary — is much more robust than Zimbabwe’s proved to be.

And SA has had five valid general elections and four presidents since 1994, against Zimbabwe’s one president since independence in 1980 and a series of rigged polls. The Democratic Alliance runs one province and several major cities. Our army has not intervened in politics, as Zimbabwe’s did recently to engineer a coup.

So there are real differences between the two countries. But there is an essential point of comparison between Zimbabwe and SA and it relates to what happens when a ruling elite becomes entirely self-interested, and is able to ensure it is powerful enough to serve that interest with impunity. This is when cabinet and civil servants become mechanisms of patronage for a few, rather than of service to many.

Of course, there is a difference between a government that is misguided or unrealistic, but genuinely concerned to rule for the people, and one that cares nothing for policy or implementation, except if it helps a rent-seeking elite.

In SA, the destruction of the mining industry or the remaining excellent public schools seems less important to some in power than whether they get fat salaries and that those who benefit from their patronage can still win large tenders.

After all, this elite will always be able to buy the best schooling — if not at home, then abroad.

Zimbabwe’s economy didn’t need to end up as a basket case, but the same applies to SA after the Mandela and Mbeki presidencies — low growth and high unemployment were not inevitable, but rather happened because of the ANC’s confusion and capture by a greedy faction.

Like Mugabe’s Zanu-PF, the ANC has been captured by a self-serving elite. It’s entirely possible that the party’s December conference will result in one beggar replacing another, and the lash will go on. Let’s hope not.

Last week, millions of Zimbabweans celebrated the prospect of real change. Hopefully, that’s what they’ll get — rather than a change of the person in the emperor’s seat. It’s a hope we cling to in SA too — that December’s ANC elective conference is about more than changing the name at the head of the table.

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