Is South Africa going the way of Zimbabwe?

It’s a very obvious overstatement to say that South Africa is becoming more like its delinquent neighbor, Zimbabwe. Nonetheless, an incident reported in South Africa’s Business Today gave reason for the comparison: Last weekend, a mob overran a fruit and sugar cane farm, allegedly in frustration for the slow pace of long-promised land reform. It ...

By , International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.
586676_090416_safrica2.jpg
586676_090416_safrica2.jpg
TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY FRAN BLANDY A Zimbabwean farm worker harvests pumpkins on March 17, 2008 on a South African farm in Waterpoort. Desperate to escape the poverty and hunger in Zimbabwe, whose economy is collapsing under sky-high inflation, the flood of illegal immigrants often find exploitation where they sought greener pastures. AFP PHOTO/GIANLUIGI GUERCIA (Photo credit should read GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images)

It's a very obvious overstatement to say that South Africa is becoming more like its delinquent neighbor, Zimbabwe. Nonetheless, an incident reported in South Africa's Business Today gave reason for the comparison: Last weekend, a mob overran a fruit and sugar cane farm, allegedly in frustration for the slow pace of long-promised land reform. It sparked memories of the public outcry in Zimbabwe that spawned a policy of "fast track" reallocation of land from white to black hands.

As South Africa approaches its fourth elections since the end of apartheid this weekend, this is a dismaying analogy. Both countries began independence with striking imbalances -- with some 80 to 90 percent of land in white hands. In South Africa, that persists today, and calls for a more rapid solution to reallocation are growing. Elections are likely to be won by the African National Congress Party's Jacob Zuma, known for a more populist stance on precisely these types of issues. The pressure on Zuma to move forward quickly could be quite intense.

It’s a very obvious overstatement to say that South Africa is becoming more like its delinquent neighbor, Zimbabwe. Nonetheless, an incident reported in South Africa’s Business Today gave reason for the comparison: Last weekend, a mob overran a fruit and sugar cane farm, allegedly in frustration for the slow pace of long-promised land reform. It sparked memories of the public outcry in Zimbabwe that spawned a policy of “fast track” reallocation of land from white to black hands.

As South Africa approaches its fourth elections since the end of apartheid this weekend, this is a dismaying analogy. Both countries began independence with striking imbalances — with some 80 to 90 percent of land in white hands. In South Africa, that persists today, and calls for a more rapid solution to reallocation are growing. Elections are likely to be won by the African National Congress Party’s Jacob Zuma, known for a more populist stance on precisely these types of issues. The pressure on Zuma to move forward quickly could be quite intense.

So far, South Africa’s approach has been more moderate than Zimbabwe’s raid-and-reallocate approach: Pretoria has tried to encourage land owners to sell and private investment to revamp the productivity of failed plots. The government assures that Zimbabwe will not be the model to follow. But success is percieved to be mixed at best, and there is much transferring to be done before the promised 30 percent of land returns to majority black hands by 2014. And land is just one of the manifestations of the inequality that continues to plague South Africa. Patience is wearing thin. 

Where South Africa goes after its Sunday vote is yet unclear. Former parliamentarian Raenette Taljaard has a few predictions in FP‘s Think Again: South Africa. But one can only hope that the answer to the title of this post is, “no.”

AFP PHOTO/GIANLUIGI GUERCIA

Elizabeth Dickinson is International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.