Opinionista

South Africa must rethink its policy towards Zimbabwe

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Mills Soko is Professor of International Business and Strategy, Wits Business School.

The ANC government must stop mollycoddling its Zanu-PF brethren to the detriment of South Africa’s national welfare. Liberation solidarity may stoke feelings of fraternal camaraderie, but it is not a substitute for policy.

The ongoing political and economic mayhem in Zimbabwe constitutes a spectacular repudiation of South Africa’s policy towards the country, which has for the past two decades served to prop up the ruling Zanu-PF at the expense of the collective well-being of the Zimbabwean people. This policy has harmed South Africa’s national interests. The time has come for the South African government to make a decisive break with it. 

The fundamental precepts of South Africa’s policy towards Zimbabwe were set out during the Thabo Mbeki presidency. Under Mbeki’s leadership, South Africa pursued a policy of “quiet diplomacy” that was designed to encourage the Robert Mugabe regime to bring about democratic change in Zimbabwe. This policy was based on the view that even though Pretoria could not impose its will on others, it could help tackle regional instability by offering leadership to bring conflicting parties to the negotiating table. This was grounded on the belief that the country could export its successful post-apartheid negotiated settlement to other settings.

The policy evolved through various distinct phases, ranging from constructive engagement and support for the land reform process as a solution to the “colonial problem”, to crisis containment through heightened regional diplomacy, and to sustained dialogue focused on mediation between Zanu-PF and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), with a view to brokering a government of national unity.

The Mbeki government’s policy posture towards Zimbabwe was influenced by a number of factors, including a desire to dispense with South Africa’s “Big Brother” image on the continent, a disinclination to intervene in Zimbabwe’s domestic affairs, a belief that African leaders, rather than Western powers, should resolve the problems within Africa, and a preference for multilateral, rather than unilateral, approaches to conflict resolution.

Mbeki was also sensitive to domestic opinion and conscious of the potential uneasiness that a forceful attack on Mugabe’s regime may provoke among the supporters of the African National Congress (ANC), many of whom sympathised with the Zimbabwean government’s land reform efforts to rectify historical social and economic imbalances. 

Rightly so, South Africa’s unwillingness to adopt a tougher stance against the abuse of political power, human rights abuses, the breakdown of the rule of law and economic collapse in Zimbabwe sparked widespread local and international criticism. Some critics went as far as intimating that Pretoria’s policy bordered on collusion with Mugabe’s tyrannical regime. Others castigated Mbeki for championing the grand vision of an “African Renaissance”, while simultaneously failing to adequately confront the worsening governance crisis in Zimbabwe. 

Despite these criticisms, the Mbeki administration succeeded to lay the foundation for the creation of a government of national unity (GNU) in Zimbabwe in 2009, comprising Zanu-PF and two MDC formations. The GNU was the outcome of Mbeki’s inter-party mediation in the wake of a rerun of elections in 2008 that were marred by violence amid allegations of electoral flaws. The GNU ushered in a period of relative political and economic stability in the country. 

The current ANC government lacks the moral capital that served South Africa’s policy to Zimbabwe well during the Mandela and Mbeki eras. However, given Zimbabwe’s overwhelming dependence on South Africa, it still has the political, diplomatic and economic power to shape an inclusive, peaceful and progressive long-term political settlement in the country.

Since the end of the GNU in 2013, South Africa has not engaged with Zimbabwe in a sustained and comprehensive manner. The Binational Commission, set up to strengthen co-operation between the two countries, met in March 2019, but the implementation of its agreements has been hindered by the constant volatility in Zimbabwe, which has made it impossible to conduct government business predictably and reliably. What’s more, the removal of Mugabe from office at the behest of the military in 2017, and his subsequent death, heralded a new phase in the history of bilateral relations that has yet to be met with a well-considered policy response from South Africa. 

The persistence of political repression and economic chaos in Zimbabwe, in spite of the pledge of a new era of peace and prosperity by president Emmerson Mnangagwa when he took office, represents an affront to South Africa’s foreign policy values and interests. These include the promotion of equality, human rights, democracy and reconciliation. Key to South Africa’s national interests is also fostering economic prosperity and addressing the challenges of underdevelopment, poverty, unemployment and inequality within the country and across the southern African region. South Africa is an integral part of Africa and its national security is inextricably tied to the stability and prosperity of the region and the broader African continent. 

For several years, the ANC government’s engagement with Zimbabwe has been guided by the nebulous notion of liberation solidarity between the ANC and Zanu-PF, not by the national interests outlined in South African foreign policy. The parochial ideological obsessions of the ANC have superseded and trumped collective national well-being.

Zanu-PF’s repressive policies and actions have inflicted untold human and economic suffering, forcing millions of Zimbabweans to flee their country. For too long Zimbabwe has been plagued by intolerable levels of unemployment and poverty, as well as chronic shortages of food and fuel.

South Africa has borne the brunt of the excesses of Zanu-PF’s misrule, as demonstrated by the massive influx of Zimbabweans into the country in the past two decades. The country has struggled to manage the mass exodus of Zimbabweans and its attendant social and economic costs. Courtesy of Zanu-PF’s flagrant political and economic mismanagement, Zimbabwe has become a vector of instability within the southern African region. 

The ANC government must stop mollycoddling its Zanu-PF brethren to the detriment of South Africa’s national welfare. Liberation solidarity may stoke feelings of fraternal camaraderie, but it is not a substitute for policy. On the contrary, it has allowed a governance culture of political blackmail, scapegoating and impunity to flourish without any concern for democratic accountability.

South Africa needs to change its policy approach towards Zimbabwe. Such a policy change must be underpinned by the country’s national interests.

It must recognise that Zimbabwe’s problems are essentially political and that Zanu-PF lies at the core of the country’s governance crisis. It must accept that South Africa is the only actor in Africa that has the political, economic and diplomatic sway to force democratic change in Zimbabwe. It must accept that Pretoria needs to ditch the principle of non-interference in the domestic affairs of Harare, and other African countries, and intervene decisively when its national security is endangered. It must also recognise South Africa’s status as the predominant regional actor and the leadership responsibilities this entails. And it must acknowledge that South Africa cannot successfully fulfil its domestic and external policy goals in an unstable region. 

The current ANC government lacks the moral capital that served South Africa’s policy to Zimbabwe well during the Mandela and Mbeki eras. However, given Zimbabwe’s overwhelming dependence on South Africa, it still has the political, diplomatic and economic power to shape an inclusive, peaceful and progressive long-term political settlement in the country.

Zimbabwe represents a litmus test for South African foreign policy. It stands as a test of whether South Africa, a regional power, has the ability to influence developments and safeguard stability in its “near abroad”. How Pretoria deals with the current governance crisis in Harare will have enduring ramifications in terms of how the country’s standing is perceived within the southern African region and across the world. DM

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