As a global middle-power, South Africa is arguably Zimbabwe’s most influential neighbour and is thus expected to provide leadership in this precarious situation. One of the big questions is how South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa will relate to his Zimbabwean peer, President-elect Emmerson Mnangagwa.
On Monday, 30 July 2018, Zimbabwe held its first elections since the “peaceful” ousting of former President Robert Mugabe and the aftermath of the elections has been violent. Following the announcement of the governing Zanu-PF party winning a sweeping majority in Zimbabwe’s parliament, demonstrators supporting the opposition party took to the streets of Harare on Wednesday, 1 August 2018, claiming that the election results were a sham. The government deployed the military, leading to clashed that have left at least six people dead and fourteen people injured. The elections were largely peaceful with the European Union mission observers noting that there was an “improved political climate, inclusive participation rights and a peaceful vote”. However, the observers also found that “an unlevel playing field, intimidation of voters, and lack of trust in the process undermined the pre-election environment”.
Other states, including the UK, have expressed concern over the recent election violence that took place in Zimbabwe. As a global middle-power, South Africa is arguably Zimbabwe’s most influential neighbour and is thus expected to provide leadership in this precarious situation. One of the big questions is how South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa will relate to his Zimbabwean peer, President-elect Emmerson Mnangagwa. Ramaphosa has positioned himself as the purveyor of a “new dawn” in South Africa; how would this political positioning influence his diplomatic relations with Zimbabwe and other states within the greater SADC regional-bloc. Ramaphosa’s predecessors, former presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki could provide some insights into his potential approach to intervening in Zimbabwe’s fraught political landscape.
In 1996, Nelson Mandela was appointed as chair of the SADC regional economic bloc. His appointment led to confronting Zaire’s (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) rapid descent into chaos under Mobuto Sese Seko’s long-term kleptocratic watch. The resulting conflict – which resulted in Seko’s ousting from office – has often been referred to as Africa’s first World War because of the unprecedented involvement of external interveners, that included neighbouring states and diverse guerilla groups, seeking to get access to the DRC’s abundant resources. The First Congo War officially ended in 1997 with the drafting of peace agreements and the appointment of Laurent Kabila as the new President of the DRC. In 1998 conflicts resumed between Kabila’s and rebel forces. Mugabe became the first foreign leader to send troops to back Kabila’s regime.
This decision split the then-fourteen states who were SADC members. Mandela tried to intervene by hosting a summit between Kabila, Mugabe, the then-Rwandan President Pasteur Bizimungu and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. This peace-brokering attempt resulted in conflict between Mandela and Mugabe with Mugabe accusing Mandela, and South Africa, of acting like a neo-colonial power within the SADC regional bloc. The resolution of the conflict between the two leaders resulted in Mandela being reticent as Mugabe’s dictatorial leadership resulted in Zimbabwe experiencing significant socio-politico-economic challenges. Only in 2010, in a public address, did the now private-citizen Mandela speak out against the septic situation in Zimbabwe by condemning “the tragic failure of leadership in our neighbouring Zimbabwe”.
The reticence on Zimbabwe that Mandela displayed was faithfully adhered to by his successor Mbeki. In the 2000s Zimbabwe became a synonym for bad governance with its significant deterioration brought on by the simultaneous economic and political collapse which resulted in Mugabe adopting increasingly authoritarian and violent tactics to hold onto political power. Western powers responded to the crisis by imposing sanctions against the former “Great Zimbabwe”; furthermore, they placed pressure on South Africa to impose sanctions against Zimbabwe in a bid to get Mugabe to step down. Mbeki, as the then-president of South Africa, adopted a stance of quiet diplomacy and constructive engagement which attracted high attention and widespread criticism. In 2008, G8 leaders confronted Mbeki over his diplomatic stance, telling him that his efforts had failed and rejected his suggestion that Mugabe remain as Zimbabwe’s titular head of state. This criticism resulted in talks between Mugabe and opposition leaders collapsing in the preceding three years. Mbeki responded by warning the UK and the US that Zimbabwe would descend into civil war if they pressed for tougher sanctions against Zimbabwe.
The criticisms levelled against both Mandela and Mbeki’s official quiet diplomatic positions, often fails to consider how the reconciliatory ideal that guided the negotiations that led to the official end of the apartheid regime had influenced post-apartheid foreign policy. Although the reconciliatory position was by no means consistent, post-apartheid South African foreign policy attempted to balance self-interest and universal idealism (particularly advancing the universal human rights project), African solidarity and partnership with the West. What will Ramaphosa do then, you ask? The honest answer to that question is that we do not know. South Africa is in a weaker politico-economic position (both locally and globally) than it was during both Mandela and Mbeki’s presidencies. Additionally, Ramaphosa is desperate to reignite South Africa’s glorious honeymoon years during Mandela’s presidential tenure. Moreover, South Africa is grappling with questions around land redistribution and justice for the legal injustices that advanced the colonial and apartheid projects. So far, Ramaphosa has not levelled any scathing criticisms against Mnangagwa and Zanu-PF for the violence that followed Zimbabwe’s elections.
Does that mean that we are in for another decade of quiet diplomatic stances against human rights abuses in Zimbabwe and other countries in the greater SADC regional bloc? I am afraid to say that this looks to be the case. Despite Ramaphosa’s claims otherwise, his Presidency does not look to be bringing any new dawns for South Africa’s pan-African diplomatic engagements. DM
Sandiswa is currently doing an MSc in Human Geography at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg, South Africa. She used to edit the student-run blog exPress imPress, an experience that made her realise the importance of collaboration. Her educational background in Philosophy, Political Studies, and International Relations has resulted in her developing a passion for writing about various subjects that include fashion, arts and culture, finance, and politics. She hopes to one day integrate her academic training and passion for the social sciences to bring about greater critical engagement between various institutions and young people.
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