One of the few reasons to be cautiously optimistic about the impending presidency of Jacob Zuma in South Africa was the expectation that the ousted Deputy President would change his country’s disastrous policies towards Zimbabwe. Zuma’s leadership style is that of the populist, in stark contrast to Thabo Mbeki, an English-educated intellectual with an aloof demeanor. Zuma has long been the man of the African National Congress’ left wing, and is firmly supported by the country’s Communist Party and COSATU, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, both of which fought a years-long struggle to mobilize support for Zuma over Mbeki, whom they viewed as too friendly to business. The support Zuma has garnered from the most left-wing elements in South African politics would normally give those supportive of liberal democracy and free markets pause, yet on the issue of Zimbabwe, South Africa’s trade unions have been stalwart opponents of Mugabe. The Zimbabwean dictator, after all, has tried to crush free labor unions, and the main opposition party in Zimbabwe — the Movement for Democratic Change — is led by a trade unionist. South African labor has put worker brotherhood before vague appeals to liberation-era, anti-imperialist “struggle” politics, and for that it should be applauded.
Yet the expectation that Zuma would follow South African labor’s lead in favoring a more aggressive policy to end the rule of Robert Mugabe and restore constitutional government seems to have been dashed. In an interview at the World Economic Forum in Davos last week, Zuma criticized the United States and Europe for “tell[ing] us what we need to do” about Zimbabwe and said that Western appeals contained “an element of racism.” He went onto state that “I’m not sure I will do anything fundamentally different,” from Mbeki in terms of Zimbabwe policy.
For years, Zuma’s critics have alleged that he will prove to be another Mugabe. I’ve long found such criticism hysterical, as South Africa’s economic infrastructure, centuries-long example of (limited) parliamentary government, and connections to Western capital would preclude a Zimbabwe-type tragedy from occurring there. Jacob Zuma will not be another Mugabe, but, at the very least, he does not seem all too bothered by him.