The South African government and the SADC regional body have evidently been caught in a dilemma about how to condemn the Zimbabwean security forces for shooting dead three protesters against allegedly rigged elections on Wednesday – but without offending their ally, Zimbabwe.
International Relations and Co-operation Minister Lindiwe Sisulu refused to answer questions about the Zimbabwe election, except for a few fleeting remarks, during a press conference in Pretoria on Thursday.
But a statement by President Ramaphosa, which Sisulu’s department apparently issued in error, was critical of the Zimbabwean government.
Sisulu said any comment would interfere with the continuing work of the Zimbabwe Election Commission (ZED) as the full election results were then not yet out. On Wednesday the ZEC announced an overwhelming victory for the ruling Zanu-PF in the parliamentary elections but withheld the presidential election results, pending further auditing. It was due to announce the presidential winner later on Thursday.
Protests erupted in Harare on Wednesday after the parliamentary results were announced and police called in the army to help control them. The security forces reportedly used live ammunition and three people were shot dead. The Zimbabwean government has been widely condemned for over-reacting to the protests while leaders of the main opposition party, the MDC-Alliance, have also received criticism for inciting the violence by refusing to accept defeat.
When asked for comment on the shooting, Sisulu would only say “we were concerned…” and “a bit disappointed with the protests and all that surrounded that. But we will leave it to the Zimbabweans to deal with that.”
However, her department issued a printed statement after the press conference which, apparently in error, contained implied criticism of the Zimbabwean authorities by President Ramaphosa and his Angolan counterpart João Lourenço. In it they “expressed great concern about the unfolding political situation in the Republic of Zimbabwe”.
They called on the Zimbabwean law enforcement agencies in Zimbabwe “to protect the lives and property of the citizens within the parameters of the country’s laws.”
The two leaders also called on “the political and other leaders of society in… Zimbabwe to exercise restraint following the outbreak of protests on Wednesday… pursuant to what is generally regarded as a peaceful election”.
They also called on all political parties and the public to wait for the ZEC to announce the final results.
“President Ramaphosa and President Lourenço added that the SADC prides itself as a peaceful region and affirmed that violence and conflict have no place in a democratic process.”
Sisulu did not read this part of the statement at her press conference on Thursday and it was also not part of the digital statement sent out by her officials. Sisulu insisted that she or Ramaphosa would only comment on the elections after the ZEC had announced the final results.
It was not clear why Ramaphosa and Lourenço’s statement was not officially released. Evidently SA and SADC decided it would be embarrassing to Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Pressed for more comment at the press conference, though, Sisulu later added:
“We were a bit disturbed that there were protests with the resultant call-out of the police and the soldiers and that is as far as I can go.”
Sisulu said that as SADC chairs South Africa and Angola were responsible for ensuring that the elections complied with SADC election requirements.
She and Ramaphosa had been “extremely happy with the way the elections started off, very peaceful… it went very well…. And our hope right now is that it ends as peacefully as it started”.
Any further comment would be “outside interference” and “going into the terrain of the ZEC and we want to give them the space and the respect they deserve. We think they have done a very good job and we would like them to wrap up”.
She added that she hoped everyone would accept the ZEC results.
If there were still outstanding items to discuss about the elections, SADC would deal with them at its summit later in August in Namibia, she said.
Sisulu also denied reports that Pretoria had turned down a request from MDC-Alliance leader and presidential candidate Nelson Chamisa to meet the South African government to discuss his concerns about the way ZEC was conducting the elections. Sisulu said the government had received no request from Chamisa to meet either her or Ramaphosa.
“We are very happy to meet him even at this last moment, if only to dispel any idea that we have taken sides or that we have snubbed him. That is not true,” she said.
Sisulu also announced that her government would not appeal the recent decision by the Johannesburg High Court overturning the diplomatic immunity which her predecessor Maite Nkoana-Mashabane had given to then First Lady Grace Mugabe in 2017.
A South African model, Gabriella Engels, had charged Mugabe with assault, saying she had attacked her with an electric extension chord after Mugabe found her with her two sons in a Sandton hotel.
The High Court found Mugabe was not entitled to diplomatic immunity as the spouse of a head of state, which her husband Robert Mugabe still was then. He was deposed in November 2017.
Sisulu said that “after lengthy legal discussion” and consultation with legal experts, she had decided to accept the court’s judgment that the immunity granted to Mugabe was “null and void” and that her department would pay the legal costs of the case.
“For now we leave it to the NPA (National Prosecuting Authority: to decide where we go forward.” DM
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