READERS were angry. I had rained on their parade by venturing that the appointment of a new party boss to head South-Africa's dominant party was an insignificant game of musical chairs.
But perhaps it is I who should have been annoyed. Nobody with a modicum of cerebral agility should see in the new South-African Strong Man, union boss-cum-tycoon Cyril Ramaphosa, a significant change of the guard.
Surely by now it should be common knowledge that in Africa, you replace a despot, but not despotism; you oust a tyrant, but not tyranny.
There's a reason Ramaphosa riles crowds at a South African Communist Party rally just as easily as he excites the head of Goldman Sachs’s South Africa office. (For a clue, ask yourselves how a union boss becomes a tycoon.)
In the tradition of dimming debate, the chattering class has reduced systemic corruption in South Africa and near collapse in Zimbabwe, respectively, to the shenanigans of two men: Jacob Zuma and Robert Mugabe.
Emblematic of this is a thematically confused article in The Economist, offering a description of the dynamics set in motion by the Zuma dynasty's capture of the state.
At first, the magazine explains the concept of “state capture” as "private actors [having] subverted the state to steal public money."
Later, the concept is more candidly refined: “The nub of the state capture argument is that Mr. Zuma and his friends are putting state-owned enterprises and other governmental institutions in the hands of people who are allowing them to loot public funds."
Indeed. Corruption invariably flows from state to society.
And, “state capture” is quite common across Africa, even if "unfamiliar elsewhere in the world," which is all the "context" The Economist iswilling to provide.
"To avoid a dire, two-decade dynasty of dysfunction, South Africa’s ruling African National Congress should ditch the Zumas," the magazine concludes.
That's it? If only.
"The Corruption of South Africa," courtesy of The Economist, hurtles between being an excellent exposé, yet providing nothing more than reportorial reductionism.
Continental context, if you will, is essential if one is to shed light on the "Dark Continent."
To wit, the seductive narrative about the ANC's new boss, Cyril Ramaphosa, gets this much right: There is nothing new about the meaningless game of musical chairs enacted throughout Africa like clockwork. The Big Man is overthrown or demoted; another Alpha Male jockeys his way into his predecessor’s position and asserts his primacy over the people and their property.
Elections across Africa have traditionally followed a familiar pattern: Radical black nationalist movements like the ANC take power everywhere, then elections cease. “One man, one vote, one time,” to quote the book, “Into the Cannibal’s Pot: Lessons for America From Post-Apartheid South Africa.” Or, if they take place, as they do in South Africa, they’re rigged, in a manner.
A prerequisite for a half-decent liberal democracy is that majority and minority status be interchangeable and fluid, and that a ruling majority party (the ANC) be as likely to become a minority party as the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA). In South Africa, however, the majority and the minorities are politically permanent, not temporary, and voting along racial lines is the rule.
So, as the dictator Mugabe hung on to power for dear life, reasonable people were being persuaded by the pulp and pixel press that if not for this one megalomaniac, freedom would have flourished in Zimbabwe, as it has, presumably, in Angola, Congo, Congo-Brazzaville, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, and the rest of strife-torn Africa south of the Sahara.
Reasonable people are also expected to infer from permissible analysis that now that Mugabe has been dislodged, his successor will not deign to commandeer the state’s security forces to subdue his opposition as his predecessor had done.
The pundit peanut gallery’s latest imperfect messiah in Zimbabwe is Emmerson Mnangagwa. His rickety political plank will promise indubitably what the majority of Zimbabweans want, including “equitable” land reform. A euphemism for land distribution in the Mugabe mold, this concept is anathema to private property rights.
Does Mnangagwa grasp that his country is bankrupt and that, unlike the mighty USA, Zimbabwe has no line of credit? Or that, as the great American writer Henry Hazlitt put it, “Government has nothing to give to anybody that it doesn’t first take from somebody else.” Or, that there are precious few left in Zimbabwe from whom to take?
The shortages and queues, courtesy of communism, exist in Zimbabwe as they did in the Soviet Union. Jokes from Hammer & Tickle, a book of black humor under Red rule, are not out of place in Zimbabwe:
"The problem of queues will be solved when we reach full Communism. How come? There will be nothing left to queue up for."
Contrary to convictions in the West, any improvement experienced subsequent to the dethroning of the dictator Mugabe will be due to the West’s renewed investment in Zimbabwe and not to the changing of the guard.
For even if Mr. Mnangagwa proves no dictator-in-waiting, there is nothing in his political platform to indicate he will not continue to rob Peter to pay Paul until there is nobody left to rob.
Seemingly absent from the repertoire of both Mr. Mnangagwa and Ramaphosa is an understanding that only the rule of law and the protection of individual liberties, especially private property rights—for wealth-creating whites as well—can begin to reduce the dizzying scale of the two countries' problems. Without these building blocks and bulwarks of prosperity and peace—Zimbabwe and South African cannot be rehabilitated.
“Even when regimes have changed hands, new governments, whatever promises they made on arrival, have lost little time in adopting the habits of their predecessors,” observed historian Martin Meredith, in The State of Africa (2005).
Of the 44 countries of sub-Saharan Africa, The Economist’s own democracy index lists 23 as authoritarian and 13 as hybrids. Only seven, including South Africa, hold notionally free elections.
Only two, South Africa and Botswana, did Meredith single out as relatively well-managed African democracies. And that was back in 2005!
Propounded by Duke University scholar Donald L. Horowitz, the arguments against democracy for South Africa, in particular, have considerable force. Finely attuned to "important currents in South African thought," Horowitz offered up an excruciatingly detailed analysis of South Africa's constitutional options.
In A Democratic South Africa?: Constitutional Engineering in a Divided Society (1991), Horowitz concluded that democracy is, in general, unusual in Africa, and, in particular, rare in ethnically and racially divided societies, where majorities and minorities are rigidly predetermined (also the dispensation presently being cultivated by craven American elites).
Prone to seeing faces in the clouds, the West, however, sees Sideshow Bob Mugabe’s epic villainy and Jacob Zuma's confederacy of state-capturing knaves as nothing but a detail of history.
Lost in the din is the historically predictable pattern. Chaotic countries are hardly an anomaly in the annals of Africa south of the Sahara.
The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not represent the views of Townhall.com.