Monday, May 3, 2010

A great article on the state of Southern Africa by Colleen Lowe Morna

Cry, two beloved, troubled countries


strain; that is the mood that hangs over South Africa in the month we celebrate the first democratic elections. The political shenanigans of the far right, who still dream of a separate homeland for whites, and the far left, who insist on singing "kill the Boer" even after the high court ruled that this is hate speech, have led the Mail & Guardian to coin the term "idiotocracy" to describe our national politics.

Next door Zimbabwe celebrated a muted 30th birthday on April 18 -- having swung from bread basket of the region to poverty-stricken autocracy, led by the same leader who got away with stealing an election and who calls the shots in a supposed government of national unity.

As I turn 50 next month, I cannot help but cry two beloved countries, whose destinies are inextricably linked and have shaped my life. I was born on a United Church of Christ mission in a remote corner of southeast Zimbabwe, a few kilometres from the Mozambique border. My parents were both white South Africans who fled apartheid in the Fifties and hoped that the then Southern Rhodesia would gain independence.

When Ian Smith unilaterally declared independence in 1965 and half the students at the school left to join guerrilla forces in Mozambique after that country's independence a decade later, my parents became active in liberation politics. In 1976 they were stripped of their citizenship and took refuge in Botswana.

I returned to Zimbabwe soon after its independence in 1980 after studying journalism overseas, as President Robert Mugabe called on all to turn swords into ploughshares. Plugging the gap in the black education system, he invested heavily in education. The legacy is evident in the Zimbabwean brain power that was to become the country's biggest export.

Geographically the hub of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), Zimbabwe also became its intellectual heartbeat: the centre of efforts to divert economic dependence on South Africa; the experimenting ground for every new development theory.

But by the late Eighties, the shine was wearing off. A state-dominated media sang the praises of a one-party state. The army moved in to crush opposition in the Zimbabwe African People's Union (Zapu) stronghold of Matabeleland. It was both a happy and a profoundly sad day when the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu) and Zapu signed a peace pact. This was the end of any semblance of opposition and the beginning of the hegemonic thinking that saw an orderly land redistribution programme sink into lawlessness.

From 1991 to 1994 I was posted as the Commonwealth Secretariat's chief of operations for its observer mission to South Africa. The 1994 elections were far from perfect, but had to be made to work. I recall in our Commonwealth report trying to find words that would give the elections a pass mark without compromising the requirements of free and fair elections. We settled on the phrase that the elections "substantially reflected the will of the people".

Like April 18 1980 in Zimbabwe, April 27 1994 in South Africa was an ecstatic moment. Fast-forward to 2010 and the question on everyone's mind is: Will South Africa take the same route as Zimbabwe?

It's not inevitable, but the danger is real. South Africa is a far larger and more diverse country than Zimbabwe. Ironically, the "idiotocracy" of the right and the left is one of its strengths: such polarisation creates space for the more rational middle ground if the fringes are not allowed to dominate. The complete closure of that space in Zimbabwe is what has made it so difficult for the Movement for Democratic Change to make any headway. The pillars of democracy -- freedom of association, freedom of speech and an independent judiciary - may be worn in South Africa, but they are still intact.

Leadership, however, is a serious concern. A telling barometer of leadership is how those in power view women, often the silent majority. I have a vivid memory, while still a journalist in Zimbabwe, of Nelson Mandela's first visit soon after his release from prison in 1990. Walking down the red carpet with Mugabe, he looked decidedly uncomfortable as he approached the Zanu women laying kangas that bore their leader's image on the ground. Mugabe, on the other hand, cringed when scores of South African women exiles broke from behind the barriers to embrace Mandela in a public display of equality.

That was South Africa's first leader. Now we have Jacob Zuma -- the populist polygamist, unable to articulate a clear vision for his country (including on women's rights) or to control the wayward tendencies in his party. The demise of the Commission on Gender Equality is symptomatic of a broader malaise.

One of the most painful media images I have as Zimbabwe turns 30 and South Africa 16 is ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema wearing a Mugabe shirt and basking in his halo with a belated and weak reprimand from Zuma. Malema, it will be recalled, is appealing an Equality Court ruling finding him guilty of sexism for his comment that women who are raped do not ask for taxi money in the morning.

At a time when we should be celebrating the ending of the worst forms of racism and sexism and the emergence of rainbow nations that thrive on diversity, we are crying two beloved countries. The only hope is that from these tears will emerge redemptive strategies and a clear Vision 2020. Too many have given too much for us to get lost so soon.

Colleen Lowe Morna is executive director of Gender Links. This article, written in her personal capacity, forms part of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service

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