Neighbour’s Voices: re-considering the role of the neighbour in Africa

Taruvinga Magwiroto

In Africa, being regional neighbours is a little bit like family. The mere fact of geographical proximity makes the history similar, the struggles analogous and the future somehow conjoined. It also makes your fortunes somewhat intertwined, such that “neighbourhood” has much more meaning than we think.

The other day on Twitter, an influential South African journalist surmised how hard it must be for the average person to cope with the situation in Zimbabwe, given the cost of everyday commodities and the rates of inflation. I responded that it was good that people in the region were beginning to take notice, and voice their concerns.

It started quite a discussion, with others opining that taking notice may not be enough, action and revolts were necessary. Others even suggested that there are some in South Africa who are happy with the status quo, as migrants provide them with cheap labour and bigger market. There is no doubt that that is a correct analysis. However, as usual with developmental issues, there are always questions, some of which touch on ethical issues. What are the strategic interests of the region? What are the social consequences of immigration on different classes of South African society? What could be the role of ordinary South Africans and South African politicians in trying to solve the issues in Zimbabwe? To what extent do various categories of people see their role, and how justified is it?

Julius Malema and his entourage swaggered into Harare the other day. Taking no prisoners as he is wont to do, he basically tongue-lashed, shamed and rebuked the Zimbabwe government for literally commandeering Mugabe’s body to be buried at National Heroes Acre against his wishes. A few days later, an emboldened Grace Mugabe and the family announced new (old) burial arrangements for Mugabe and quickly buried him at his rural home at Kutama. In my mind, there is no doubt about who was the catalyst in that development. The neighbour did his job.

Going a bit further into history, we know that Zimbabwe was assisted by many neighbouring countries in its quest for independence from Ian Smith’s government. Julius Nyerere of Tanzania played a crucial but understated role. He was the leading ideological and intellectual leader of Southern Africa in that period, hugely influential on such people as Samora Machel. Samora Machel himself was pivotal to the success of the liberation war as an independent Mozambique allowed the guerrillas access to the entire eastern flank of Zimbabwe, making it impossible for Rhodesian forces to defend. Zambia played its bit, same as Libya, Angola and others.

 In all this, there was clarity in the issues at stake. Colonialism was seen to be wrong. It was something to be negated. Neighbours assisted each other, even at the expense of reprisal bombings by the enemy. It was all deemed worth it. There was convergence of purpose.

Fast forward a couple of decades into post colonial Africa, things are not well in the neighbourhood. Zimbabwe in particular has been slowly combusting since 2000. Robert Mugabe presided over a progressively poor economy and political unrest plagued the latter part of his rule. The Zimbabwean currency plummeted dangerously in 2007/2008.

What were the neighbours saying? This becomes really interesting. With the emergence of South Africa from apartheid, it automatically became the big brother in the neighbourhood, having a proportionally big influence in the region.

Unsurprisingly, South Africa has felt the brunt of the Zimbabwe situation, with millions of economic refugees pouring into that country, with attendant problems. One of the iconic images of 2008 is a tense and harassed-looking Thabo Mbeki at UN Security Council saying: “There is no crisis in Zimbabwe”. Well, Mbeki knew there was a big crisis in Zimbabwe. But he was basically saying: we will sort it out amongst ourselves. And to be fair to Thabo Mbeki, he delivered. Brokering the Global Political Agreement in Zimbabwe has to be his biggest achievement which has assured him a place in African history.

Malema left Zimbabwe, but not before unleashing a sting in his tail. He was asked a question about SADC and basically buried the organisation. He said SADC was just a club of old useless people, toothless and ineffectual. Well, if SADC represents an institutionalisation of neighbourhood, Malema has a poor opinion of the bureaucratic, subordinated nature of the system.

Neighbours are powerful because (or especially if) they have nothing to lose. What they simply need to do is care. Malema cared. Peter Ndoro, the South African journalist, cared enough to speak about the Zimbabwe situation. That’s enough. With time, a critical mass is reached, a groundswell. That’s how change happens, one voice at a time.

Read more about my thoughts here:

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