Democracy or solidarity: SA’s Zim dilemma

ZIMBABWE’S political and economic decline since 2000 has been a major pre-occupation for South African policymakers, severely testing Pretoria’s ability to juggle often contradictory narratives in its foreign policy discourse: on one hand, a commitment to democracy and human rights, and on the other, liberation solidarity, the promotion of an African consensus and a residual anti-Western sentiment lingering in the ruling ANC.

Opinion by James Hamill

With Zimbabwe now on the cusp of fresh elections, this issue is set to return to the top of the South African agenda (Harare wants to borrow US$100 million from Pretoria). The elections will take place under a new constitution overwhelmingly endorsed by Zimbabwean voters in a referendum last month.

If respected, the constitution provides for a scaling down of presidential powers and the possibility of a democratic advance. Progress will be confirmed if the upcoming elections allow a genuine expression of the popular will. Zimbabwe can then finally move into a post-crisis era, and South Africa will be removed from the horns of a policy dilemma on which it has been impaled for 13 years.

Unfortunately, such a benign scenario seems improbable, and the peaceful atmosphere surrounding the constitutional referendum gives little insight into the likely conduct of the upcoming elections campaign.

Both Zanu PF, under President Robert Mugabe, and its main challenger, the MDC-T led by Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai had campaigned for a “Yes” vote on the new draft constitution, thus reducing the stakes and lowering the political temperature of the referendum.

By contrast, the elections will see heightened tensions, and there is little basis for optimism that Zanu PF will allow a free and fair vote. No Zimbabwean election since 1980 has been free of intimidation, with the nadir reached in 2008, when a campaign of state terror bludgeoned Mugabe back into power.

While the referendum raised the prospect of a new political dynamic in the country, a more accurate foreshadowing of the upcoming elections is provided by the ongoing state harassment of civil society and opposition activists. The formal start of campaigning will certainly see intimidation intensifying and spreading.

Second, in post-independent Zimbabwe, the lines separating party and state have virtually disappeared, with the army, police and state broadcaster acting as appendages of Zanu PF. In previous elections, the military has made clear it would not accept any result other than a Zanu PF victory, making constitutional government and free elections impossible.

Third, the powerful elite concentrated in the Zanu PF hierarchy and the security forces has too much to lose by permitting free elections and respecting the outcome. This would endanger its patronage networks and a whole range of self-enrichment schemes, with the “redistribution” of land by the Zanu PF elite to itself being but one example. Zanu PF’s political statements are inevitably cloaked in the language of “anti-imperialism”, but such nationalist bluster is only a smokescreen for its systematic looting of state resources.

The high likelihood of violence and electoral fraud will precipitate a renewed international crisis over Zimbabwe that in turn will compel South Africa to respond.

In 2008, then-South African president Thabo Mbeki helped mediate the formation of a government of national unity in Zimbabwe, but there is no enthusiasm within either Zanu PF or the MDC parties for a revival of that arrangement in 2013. Current South African President Jacob Zuma (Sadc facilitator in Zimbabwe) too faces competing pressures on the issue, and any choice he makes will alienate important constituencies and generate considerable costs.

Zuma has two broad options. First, he could adopt the unashamedly pro-Zanu PF position Mbeki embraced. This could see 2013 as a repeat of 2002, in which the South African government accepts rigged elections as a valid expression of the popular will. There are important forces in favour of this option, not least the ANC’s strong feeling of liberation solidarity with Zanu PF, already signalled by the open support of ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe for a Zanu PF victory.

Given the re-assertion of party control over the government in South Africa since Zuma assumed leadership in 2007, the ANC position will likely be very influential in shaping government policy.

Other factors likely to reinforce the pro-Zanu PF position are South Africa’s desire to remain aligned with mainstream opinion within the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) and the African Union, where democracy has traditionally been subordinated to regime solidarity.

Zuma’s second option is to insist on free and fair elections and refuse to recognise the outcome of any rigged poll. Pressure for this approach will come from Western capitals, at least some sections of African elite opinion and civil society, but also, within South Africa, from the Cosatu.

Zuma’s position on Zimbabwe has always been more nuanced than Mbeki’s. Zuma denounced the country as a police state in 2008, and, as the Sadc mediator on Zimbabwe, he has adopted a more neutral position than Mbeki, drawing considerable hostility from pro-Zanu PF media in Zimbabwe.

However, Zuma has never enjoyed greater standing in the ANC than since his re-election as party chief at Mangaung in December last year, and that authority may allow him space to engineer a policy change.

He will also be aware that South Africa’s moral standing, once a prized asset, has been eroded in recent years on account of its defence of states abusing human rights, as well as increased levels of corruption and recent cases of police brutality.

Defending another stolen election in Zimbabwe will further erode that soft power to the detriment of South Africa’s broader diplomatic interests.

Whichever option Zuma chooses will be revealing about the character of his second-term presidency and about South Africa’s ability to see the limits of “liberation” politics that is stifling Zimbabwe and producing the very antithesis of democratic government. Given that the ANC comes from the same political tradition, a defeat for Zanu PF in Zimbabwe could raise the spectre of the ANC’s own demise.

Either way, Zuma will be forced to choose, as straddling these positions — his preferred modus operandi — is likely to prove impossible. — World Politics Review.

Hamill has been a lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Leicester, UK. He has a long-standing research interest in South African politics, particularly in the country’s post-apartheid development.