In the months after his “victory” in Zimbabwe’s shamelessly rigged elections in August, President Emmerson Mnangagwa has continued to ride roughshod over the country’s remaining political freedoms.
Since election day, opposition MPs and activists have been abducted and murdered, wrongfully imprisoned, and recalled under false pretences. Zimbabweans are living in desperate conditions within a violent and repressive regime.
As Zimbabwe’s opposition and civil society are crushed north of the Limpopo River, South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa remains silent. He regards Mnangagwa as an ally and was one of the few African leaders to attend his inauguration.
By endorsing Mnangagwa’s brutal regime, Ramaphosa proves to South Africans (and the world at large) just how low he values commitment to democracy, human rights, and basic humanity.
A pattern of political repression
Zimbabwe’s ruling Zanu-PF is determined, by any means necessary, to reclaim the two-thirds majority in the National Assembly it lost in this winter’s elections. How fortuitous, then, that a man calling himself the “Interim Secretary General of the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC)” has written to the Speaker of Zimbabwe’s Parliament recalling 28 of the party’s MPs and multiple senators and councillors.
It did not seem to matter to the Speaker that CCC officials vehemently refuted this and denied any knowledge of the man and his supposed role in the party; the MPs were stripped of their seats and by-elections are now scheduled for 9 December.
Opposition candidates for these seats are campaigning in an increasingly dangerous environment. CCC activist and cleric Tapfumaneyi Masaya was abducted while canvassing for his candidate in a constituency just outside of Harare. His body was later found dumped on the outskirts of the city.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Zimbabwe opposition party says activist found dead after abduction
Tragically, this was one in a series of increasingly violent crimes carried out against CCC MPs and supporters. Party activist Jeffrey Kalosi was kidnapped with Masaya, although he survived the ordeal. Two opposition MPs, James Chidhakwa and Takudzwa Ngadziore, were also abducted and tortured in recent weeks.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Technology exposes involvement of intelligence agents in abduction and torture of Zimbabwe’s youngest MP
These tactics are grotesque, although sadly quite common in the Zanu-PF playbook, particularly around an election period. They have naturally prompted deep condemnation of Mnangagwa’s regime by concerned onlookers including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Inter-Parliamentary Union, and the US government.
History, however, teaches that these complaints will have little bearing on Mnangagwa’s behaviour. Especially when regional partners, like South Africa, continue to look the other way.
Ramaphosa’s silent support
In the face of these egregious and well-documented human rights violations, Ramaphosa continues to back his ally in Harare, tacitly condoning the attacks against opposition leaders with his silence.
At the United Nations General Assembly in September, Ramaphosa called Mnangagwa “my brother” and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the Zimbabwean president after SADC and AU election observers had decried his election as deeply flawed.
Ramaphosa’s silence on Zimbabwe is also deeply hypocritical, given how vocally he claims to defend civil liberties elsewhere in the world. On Israel, he has referred the country’s government to the International Criminal Court for its military operation in Gaza, backed a motion to sever diplomatic ties with Tel Aviv, and promised unwavering support to the Palestinian people.
In Ukraine too, the President has sought to style himself as a statesman: leading a delegation of six African heads of state to Moscow and Kyiv in June in a vainglorious attempt to broker a peace agreement. Yet despite travelling over 9,000km to intervene in a European war, he is unwilling to condemn political violence and repression on his own doorstep.
Chickens coming home to roost
Ramaphosa’s tacit support for Mnangagwa is fostering an incredibly unstable situation in Zimbabwe. This will only spell bad news for the South African president, whose party is currently polling below 50% in the lead-up to next year’s elections. He would do well to remember that his stance on Zimbabwe may be consequential for many voters.
As long as Mnangagwa’s regime is allowed to continue unchecked by South African intervention, Zimbabweans will continue to migrate in large numbers to South Africa. They are fleeing from the political repression and economic turmoil, many crossing the border at Beit Bridge into South Africa in search of a more stable, prosperous, and hopeful future.
Figures vary, but there are estimated to be more than one million people in the Zimbabwean diaspora currently residing in South Africa. The issue of migration into the country is a key concern for many voters heading into 2024, many of whom would like to see numbers reduced to free up employment opportunities. As a result, anti-Zimbabwean xenophobia is on the rise, a situation populist opposition politicians are already exploiting.
Ramaphosa’s silence is also fundamentally not a good look for him or South Africa, both at home and on the global stage. It completely undermines any effort by South Africa to present itself as an international peacemaker, and Ramaphosa as a crusader for civil liberties.
It is not too late, however, for Ramaphosa to change course. Nearly 30 years ago, Nelson Mandela notoriously opted for “quiet diplomacy” in his dealings with Nigeria’s General Sani Abacha, refraining from publicly speaking out against his increasingly brutal regime. However, as the atrocities of Abacha’s military rule mounted — culminating in the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa, an environmental activist and government critic — Mandela reversed his earlier stance. He called for sanctions on Nigeria and its suspension from the Commonwealth.
In 1994, Mandela and the ANC swept to victory with the promise of a better life for all. As we approach the 30th anniversary of democracy in South Africa, and the 10th anniversary of Madiba’s passing, Ramaphosa has the chance to embody the teachings of his former mentor by championing political freedoms and human rights in our region.
If he cannot do this for the people of Zimbabwe, perhaps he can do it for his own re-election campaign. DM
Disclosure: SABI Strategy Group (which the authors work for) conducted work for the Citizens Coalition for Change during the Zimbabwe 2023 elections.