It’s not surprising given their histories that both in Zimbabwe and South Africa, land is central to the populist discourse – linking in turn to nationalist narratives and liberation struggle commitments.
With debates about ‘expropriation without compensation’ this has risen to a higher gear in South Africa, and parallels (usually wildly inaccurate) with Zimbabwe are frequently made.
Now with Zuma and Mugabe gone, what are we to make of Ramaphosa and Mnangagwa in this frame?
Both have been spouting populist promises in their first months in power, but this is fairly standard political fare, and large pinches of salt are recommended. Both also appear to be committed to a business-friendly, open investment economic position.
Both countries are ‘open for business;’ presumably including both leaders’ businesses, of which there are many.
It is too early to see whether a new state project is being cultivated, and whether this could be described as ‘authoritarian populism’, as Zuma and Mugabe clearly were, although with very southern African flavours.
Key will be to understand the nature of underlying power, and how accountable this is.
Neither have faced national elections as yet, so we don’t yet know how popular the populist pleading will be.
While South Africa’s democratic roots run deeper, the concerns validly expressed about the military influence in Zimbabwe are real.
Much discussion of southern African politics – and perhaps especially Zimbabwean – is rather insular.
However, the intersections of authoritarianism (in various forms) and populism (also with many dimensions) is a phenomenon across the world.
Reflecting on other settings may help us understand how military muscle and populist promises mix and match in the Zimbabwe setting. It’s often not a pretty sight.
Effective resistance and opposition mobilisation with new styles of emancipatory politics are needed to counter authoritarian populism globally, but currently in Zimbabwe this doesn’t look likely, as in its early days Nelson Chamisa’s MDC seems to be exhibiting some of the worst authoritarian populist traits, this time with an evangelical Christian religious tinge.
As the election year in Zimbabwe unfolds, making sense of the new politics will require some new lenses, and different responses.
Thinking about authoritarian populism and how to confront it across the world may help focus thinking in Zimbabwe, so do check out the many materials emerging from the ERPI.
By Ian Scoones. This article first appeared on Zimbabweland