08/11/2017 09:24 SAST | Updated 08/11/2017 11:22 SAST

Zimbabwe At A Crossroads -- And South Africa’s Inability To Intervene

Political interests at home and abroad attempt to blow new life in the ruling ZANU-PF or the fractured opposition.

Siphiwe Sibeko/ Reuters
Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe (L) and South Africa's President Jacob Zuma (R).

South Africa and Zimbabwe behave like conjoined twins: hard to live together, painful to separate, and conscious of the fact that a separation might result in one survivor. Indeed, these two have much in common: a painful colonial history, a moment of glory as the post-colonial ruling elite made the nation proud, followed by a rather disappointing and depressing end to the relevance of liberation movement politics.

Does it follow that South Africa has to follow the same downward trajectory, or that there is no rescuing Zimbabwe from complete collapse? Not necessarily. It is worth noting that a range of factors conspire against positive and peaceful outcomes. One relates to leadership weaknesses -- ruling and opposition parties alike.

Despite the dangers of predicting the "demise of Mugabe" (by now a legendary tale of how to get it wrong, a bit like predicting the end of the Cold War), it is becoming clear that even as Mr Mugabe nears the end of his reign, he manages to disrupt the succession race -- using his motley crew of supporters to remove any and all challengers to the throne.

Philimon Bulawayo / Reuters
A supporter of the ruling party Zanu PF holds a poster outside the party headquarters to show support for President Robert Mugabe following a wave of anti-governement protests over the last two weeks in Harare, Zimbabwe July 20, 2016.

One after the other, they end up joining the equally bleak opposition landscape. Could it be that Grace Mugabe has a chance to take control of the presidency? Under these conditions, conspiracy theories and speculation swirl and clog the social media.

Eerily, South Africa's ruling party fortunes are beginning to show similar symptoms of degenerate behaviour. There is no telling the outcome of the December elective conference and whether the Zuma or Ramaphosa block will take control of the party (and it is another question what to expect at the forthcoming national elections in 2019).

Mike Hutchings / Reuters
South Africa's President Jacob Zuma (R) jokes with his party's newly appointed Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa (L).

Accompanying this trend -- the failure of liberation movement politics -- is the growth of complex and multilayered criminal networks that benefit from state fragility. Its dynamics have variously been described as "state capture", or the "shadow or mafia state" at work.

Viewed together with the established phenomenon of the rule of the big man -- patrimonialism -- it is hard not to conclude that both Zimbabwe and South Africa are inescapably degenerating into violent state failure.

South Africa as the most powerful neighbour seems divided over strategy. A range of civil society organisations demand action.

Several initiatives are at hand to intervene, arrest, and recover the slide. In Zimbabwe, the most recent big intervention -- SADC mediation under the leadership of Mr Mbeki resulting in a government of national unity -- brought temporary relief, but arguably allowed criminal networks to spring even deeper roots.

South Africa as the most powerful neighbour seems divided over strategy. A range of civil society organisations demand action. Political interests at home and abroad attempt to blow new life in the governing ZANU-PF or the fractured opposition.

The private sector appears disinterested, passively awaiting the inevitable. What is to be done? Unfortunately, South Africa finds itself under similar pressure -- trying to avoid falling over the socio-economic, political and fiscal cliff.

Under these conditions, it is everyone for him and herself, and the prospects for the twins look bleak indeed.

Anthoni van Nieuwkerk is a professor at the Wits School of Governance.