As the extraordinary events unfold to the north of our border, South Africans cannot help but get a sense of self-satisfied smugness: “rather them than us … he had it coming”.
There are those who fail to appreciate the similarities between SA’s situation and that of Zimbabwe.
And who can blame them? For years, Zimbabwe has been maligned as the basket case of southern Africa: a country that had fallen prey to the greedy and desperate acts of a former liberation hero turned a looting dictator.
Many South Africans feel justified in looking at the Zimbabwean situation with contempt because “our democracy would never allow someone to rule over the country for 37 years”.
But when one scratches below the surface, the similarities are glaring.
Both countries have only been ruled by a single party since attaining democracy.
In both countries, the ruling party is the party that was once hailed as the party that brought liberation. Both countries were once held as shining examples of the stability that a sound constitution can bring.
But the scariest similarities between ourselves and our neighbours are that liberation heroes at the helm of the country can turn into constitution destroyers.
Even worse, liberation heroes of the poor can steal from the poor without the slightest shame.
South Africans need to look at Zimbabwe as a warning sign.
There is condemnation all round for an unconstitutional transfer of power through a military takeover – but there is also a unanimous silent agreement that anything is better than the continued pillage under Robert Mugabe.
The party that claims to have won electionsfor more than 30 years did not take to the streets to defend their leader.
Instead, they breathed a sigh of relief that their army did what a sound constitution could not do: remove a despot from power.
The ruling party in SA probably sleeps soundly through these events because they are self-assured that our army would not do what the Zimbabwean army has done.
But therein lies the problem: their confidence does not come from how well they’ve governed the country but from a sense that our army is on their side.
The Zimbabwean army was once on Mugabe’s side.
It should not be a matter of how long Mugabe has been in power that gives us a sense of pride that things are not as bad in SA, but it should be a sense of how well our own president still respects our world-admired constitution.
“Nkandlagate” and state capture have shown us that a kleptocrat does not require 37 years to steal a country blind.
Eight years, combined with a yellow-bellied and broken ruling party, is enough.
SA might not have seen hyperinflation levels that render our currency worthless – yet.
But we have witnessed the same methodical destruction of state institutions that Zimbabweans witnessed.
Rather than focusing on differences that give them a false sense of being the special kids of the African continent, South Africans would do really well to note that we are on the same road that Zimbabwe travelled to get where they are.
SA faces disrespect for the constitution, looting of state resources, maligning of voices of reason, chaos within the ruling party and the worst, defending a ruling party leader in the face of excesses.
Let’s not play proud.
Let’s look at Zimbabwe and work hard to ensure that we avoid becoming them.