The adage “familiarity breeds contempt” may – with some legitimacy it seems – be slightly rephrased as “complacency breeds apathy”, judging by the lack of reaction from South Africans in support of any potential populist uprising a la North Africa and the Middle East in neighbouring Zimbabwe, suggests TO MOLEFE.
With authoritarian regimes toppling in Tunisia, Egypt and very likely (very soon), Libya, eyes are trained on Zimbabwe, assessing the likelihood of Robert Mugabe’s 31-year reign also being “Mubaraked”. The arrest of 45 activists on 19 February, including Tafadzwa Choto, Mike Sambo and Munya Gwisai, go to show Mugabe, not known for taking kindly to any kind of opposition, has not taken for granted that Egypt-style protests will not happen in Zimbabwe. The arrests also show that, true to form, Mugabe’s government will move quickly to quash any rebellion before it gains momentum. With these developments, tough questions lie ahead, not just for South African foreign policymakers, but for the general South African public.
On 1 March in Cape Town, People Against Suffering, Oppression and Poverty, a community-based non-profit organisation, organised a protest outside Parliament. Braam Hanekom, Passop’s director, said the protest was organised as a show of solidarity with the 45 people arrested in Harare for watching a video of the uprising in Egypt. He said that, though they did not expect the protest to have a huge turnout, they hoped it would raise the awareness of continued human rights abuses in Zimbabwe and put pressure on the South African government to act. The protest took place around the same time the 45 activists, charged with trying to unseat a constitutionally elected government, were to be brought before a Harare magistrate and also to coincide with what was billed as a “million citizen march” in Harare Gardens.
In a petition to the speaker of the national assembly, Max Sisulu, and handed to Tango Lamani, Parliament’s chief operating officer, Passop said the South African government had budgeted an additional R500 million to strengthen its borders and likened the move to plugging a hole in a sinking ship. It called on the government to deal with migration as a foreign policy problem. The memorandum, supported by the South African National Civic Organisation and apparently its alliance partner Cosatu, also said: “Silence is complacency and complacency is shameful.”
However, not just the South African government stand accused of complacent silence. Langton Miriyoga, a Zimbabwean national working for Passop, said: “South Africans and Zimbabweans living in South Africa can and should do more to put pressure on the South African government to intervene more decisively and proactively to stop Mugabe’s human rights abuses.” He added that people in Zimbabwe are either too scared to do anything, fearing retribution, or have completely bought into the propaganda that there can be no Zimbabwe without the Zanu-PF.
With these conditions then a popular Egypt-style uprising against Robert Mugabe’s regime seems unlikely. Were it ever to happen, Miriyoga agrees that it is more likely to begin in South Africa, where freedom of assembly and other democratic rights are a given, and also where many millions of Zimbabweans both legal and otherwise live. Tumelo Kwena, a South African who was part of the day’s protests outside Parliament, said that when she asked her friends and others to join the protest, they were less than enthusiastic. She said, “It shows that South Africans have been quick to forget how Zimbabweans and other Africans stood by our side during our time of need.” She said now was the time for South Africans to stand up for Zimbabweans.
Reuters reported that no protests took place in Harare Gardens and that other parks in the capital, which are normally packed with people, were largely empty. The wife of one of the 45, Santha Bloemen, tweeted the thought that likely kept Zimbabweans away: “No one knows who is organising [the million citizen march]. It may be a trap.” FAM
TO Molefe is a freelance writer on Twitter at @TOMolefe.
Main photo: Protesters outside Parliament in Cape Town on Tuesday (TO Molefe).