Zimbabwe was working and former president Robert Mugabe was seen as running a successful transition from the colonial days to a democratic future.
South Africa was then enduring some of the worst PW Botha years. Democracy seemed very far away indeed with negligible prospects for a peaceful end to apartheid. Our holiday party was entranced by Zimbabwean progress and despondency about the South African situation.
Ever the optimist, I said the difference between Zimbabwe and South Africa was one of time and scale and that what had happened in Zimbabwe would inevitably also happen in South Africa. My prophetic words cheered us all, but came back to haunt me as I was often reminded of them while South Africa emerged from its long night and Zimbabwe entered the dark years of misrule under Mugabe.
Of course, I was wrong. South Africa is not Zimbabwe. South Africa is also not Angola. There is no inevitability about our future going as badly wrong as theirs did. But there are many parallels and useful lessons for us in both countries.
Angola had a president, Eduardo dos Santos, who ruled for 38 years.
When he retired recently, he was the richest man in Angola, worth $20million (R275m), while most of his people live in poverty and deprivation. His successor is former minister of defence, Joao Lourenco, worth somewhere between $50m and $100m after a life spent in the military and in politics. Even with that fortune he is reckoned to be far less corrupt than his predecessor in a country that is rated 164th out of 179 countries in the world on the Transparency International Corruption Index for 2016.
Compare this with Zimbabwe at 154th in the world and contrast both with South Africa’s rating on the same index, at 64th in the world. Given the corruption scandals that erupt in South Africa almost every day, it is difficult to credit that the immense corruption in Angola and Zimbabwe make us look almost respectable by comparison.
What Angola needed was not merely a change of president. It needed a defeat of the ruling People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), now in power for 38 years, and its replacement by new, clean, uncorrupted leaders.
Many people are heartened by Mugabe’s removal, hoping Emmerson Mnangagwa will change Zimbabwe, putting it back on the path to prosperity and good governance.
Many doubt though, that replacing a 93-year-old president, a dictator in all but name, through what was clearly a coup, with a 75-year-old with an extremely dodgy record, is even remotely likely to restore democracy and human rights, not to speak of economic reform. Of course, we and the world community must give him the benefit of the doubt and pray that he succeeds.
But what that country needs is a total political clean-out in an election where Zanu-PF is decisively defeated. Mugabe was not a one-man band. His party Zanu-PF ruled with him for 37 years. The very people in Zanu-PF, and those in the army, who gave Zimbabwe one of the most corrupt countries in the world and are suddenly so ecstatic about his departure, bear co-responsibility for the misrule that brought Zimbabwe to its current dismal situation. These same hypocrites jubilantly celebrated Mugabe’s announcement a few weeks ago that he would be the party standard bearer in the next election in 2018.
One of the reasons that South Africa is different is that the framers of our constitution wisely decided against a strong-man presidency, elected by a direct mandate.
Thanks to our constitution we have a president elected by Parliament and limited to two terms. Without that, one can only imagine how Zuma would have gone on and on, Mugabe-like, supported by the Tripartite Alliance and the national executive committee (NEC) of the ANC where even today he still has overwhelming control.
Our proportional representation system gives each party the exact percentage of seats in Parliament in terms of the percentage of votes it wins, preventing the governing party from gerrymandering voting districts and constituencies.
It also ensures that every opinion that can gather about 40000 votes will get a seat in Parliament.
This makes it increasingly likely that a coalition of smaller parties could deny the ANC a majority, giving to South Africa exactly what Zimbabwe and Angola also need: a new government after a generation and more in power. We differ too from other countries in that we have the Chapter 9 Institutions of the constitution, some of them subverted to be sure, but several still providing checks and balances in government.
Our courts, too, have not yet been subverted and they provide the most important guarantee and protection for the citizens of our constitutional democracy.
We have a vibrant civil society that does not hesitate to stand up for what is right and we have free media, and social media, not shy to expose for public scrutiny every misdeed, wrong policy, corrupt deed, and violation of our constitution.
An important difference between us and the others is the rule of law. Mugabe received a promise of payment to himself of $10m, plus retention of all his properties (presumably Grace’s too), that were stolen under the guise of land reform, his salary for life and an indemnity against prosecution. Our justice system does not permit this. Zuma will eventually be prosecuted for his alleged crimes and appropriately sentenced if found guilty. Our law does not allow an amnesty. The most he can get is a pardon after being convicted. That is another heartening difference between South Africa, Zimbabwe and Angola.