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SA must show courage in dealing with Zimbabwe

A significant admission

“IS there a political crisis in the ANC’s view in Zimbabwe?” asked the eNCA television host directing the question to Lindiwe Zulu, who is the head of the International Relations Committee of the ANC, South Africa’s ruling party. Zulu is also the Minister of Social Development in the South African government.
“In the ANC’s view, yes, there is a political crisis in Zimbabwe and we have to be frank and honest about it,” Zulu said in response.

Alex T Magaisa

This admission of the existence of a crisis in Zimbabwe was a significant moment. Zanu PF and the ANC regard each other as sister parties based on their historical roles in the liberation of their countries. For this reason, they exercise deference towards each other, often excessively so in the minds of observers.

These historical ties have prevented them from being openly critical of each other, and calling a spade by its proper name. Between the two parties, Zanu PF has benefited from this mutual deference, which has meant the ANC has looked aside over the past 20 years as Zimbabwe’s ruling party has violated human rights. The ANC has been aloof even though the political crisis in Zimbabwe has spilled over into its borders, with hordes of political and economic refugees fleeing Zimbabwe.

For its part, Zanu PF does not believe there is a political crisis in Zimbabwe. The ANC has gone along with it, pretending that the situation was not as bad. For one of the ANC’s leaders to make such an open admission of the existence of a crisis is no small feat.

Lindiwe Zulu knows Zimbabwe well. She is not a new witness to the crisis. She was part of the group of facilitators deployed by former president Jacob Zuma to help resolve the crisis nearly just under a decade ago. Even then, she was the most forthright and vocal, a quality that attracted the wrath of former president Robert Mugabe who retorted angrily by calling her a “street woman”.

What Zulu expressed is a long way from the situation just 12 years ago, when Zimbabwe was in the midst of a serious crisis. The then leader of the ANC and president of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki infamously retorted “Crisis? What crisis?” when asked about the situation in Zimbabwe. Mbeki did not want to know. That retort will go down in history as the most visible evidence of Mbeki’s lame and deceptive approach when it came to Zimbabwe. He was denying something that was obvious to the rest of the world.

Failure of quiet diplomacy

Mbeki’s refusal to openly admit to the existence of a crisis was consistent with his policy of quiet diplomacy, which was framed in contradistinction to the public criticism of the Zimbabwean regime by largely Western powers. He thought he could achieve results by working quietly in the background, appealing to Mugabe’s better nature. It was a gross error of judgment. The Mugabe regime took full advantage of Mbeki’s soft approach and bought more lives when it was nearing its demise.

As is evident with the continuing crisis, the policy of quiet diplomacy failed to provide a lasting solution to Zimbabwe’s challenges. It helped to sustain Zanu PF rule and therefore, perpetuated the primary condition of Zimbabwe’s crisis.

This is why the public admission by a senior official of the ANC is significant. If the recent conduct is a barometer, this may draw a negative reaction from Zanu PF. Just last week, Zanu PF’s acting spokesperson Patrick Chinamasa issued a vituperative statement against ANC secretary general Ace Magashule.

Magashule had condemned human rights violations in Zimbabwe during a television interview. However, Chinamasa’s intemperate statement was later toned down by a second statement issued on the same day by Zanu PF. Others in Zanu PF had probably sensed that Chinamasa’s aggressiveness was counterproductive.

However, there are certainly more critical voices concerning Zimbabwe from the South African government than before. Last year, international relations minister, Naledi Pandour made it clear at a conference that there was an inextricable connection between the political and economic crisis in Zimbabwe. The economic crisis required a solution to the political crisis. The fact that the same message is now coming out of Africa’s oldest political party is of some significance.

Questions over special envoys

But there have been questions over the envoys chosen by President Cyril Ramaphosa. Baleka Mbete, a former Speaker of Parliament has a close relationship with Zimbabwe’s President, Emmerson Mnangagwa, who has described her as a personal friend. “Mbete is a good friend of mine” Mnangagwa said in 2017 as he described his escape from Zimbabwe after his sacking by President Mugabe just before the coup.

Mbete helped Mnangagwa reach out to former president Jacob Zuma. This close relationship with a key protagonist in the Zimbabwean political crisis makes it difficult to trust her objectivity.

The other envoy is Dr Sydney Mufamadi, who has business interests in Zimbabwe. He is chairperson of Zimplats, a platinum mining company and a member of the Implats Group in South Africa. Mufamadi has also previously been involved in efforts to resolve the Zimbabwean crisis during the Mbeki era more than a decade ago. He has a vested interest in Zimbabwe.

Would Dr Mufamadi take an approach that could jeopardise these business interests in Zimbabwe? Certainly a tough stance on the Zimbabwean regime would upset it and he might want to avoid that approach. The positive might be that it is in the best interests of these businesses that there be a solution to Zimbabwe’s continuing crisis.

Therefore he has an added incentive to find a resolution. But the Zimbabwean regime is vindictive, as has been evident in its treatment of Old Mutual and Econet, two of Zimbabwe’s corporate giants.

These questions mean the special envoys have their work cut out. Nevertheless, it is important to note that they are merely envoys, not mediators. Their mandate is not to facilitate the resolution of the political crisis in Zimbabwe. Envoys deliver a message from their principal, carry out consultations, gather the facts and return to their principal with their findings. Their mandate is to report back to the principal, advising him of the state of the situation in Zimbabwe. They might also advise on what they think ought to be done.

If he is sufficiently persuaded that there is a crisis requiring mediation, maybe President Ramaphosa will appoint a team of facilitators. He would need to seriously consider the quality of such facilitators. Those who are conflicted by personal relationships or business interests in Zimbabwe would not be suitable for the role. Facilitators must inspire confidence in all participants. They must not fear that their interests or personal friendships might be affected by their role.

Even as envoys, their output might be adversely affected by those personal relationships and business interests. How they identify the problem and how they frame it might be influenced by these factors. Likewise, the advice and solutions they offer might be coloured by those relationships. These are the shortcomings that are likely to impact this latest effort.

When the envoys came to Harare

If there were serious concerns over the special envoys and their relationship with the Harare regime, they were enhanced by what happened when the envoys came to Harare this week. The envoys met with President Mnangagwa and his delegation. They were meeting the government but by extension they met the ruling party, Zanu PF.

However, they did not meet with the main opposition party, the MDC Alliance. The MDC Alliance issued a statement indicating that the meeting they had been promised by the special envoys did not happen. A formal request had been made for the MDC Alliance to be available and it had spent all day on standby. The MDC Alliance suspected that the delegation had been pressured by Zanu PF into not meeting with the opposition.

The selective approach of the special enjoys does not bode well for the future. If they were coming to see the government only, they should never have requested a meeting with the MDC Alliance. The fact that they cancelled the meeting and did not give reasons for the cancellation suggests that they yielded control of the process to Zanu PF.

It also means the special envoys got only one side of the story from Harare. The message they carried to President Ramaphosa was therefore one-sided and partial to Zanu PF. This is a poor start. If South Africa is serious about resolving the crisis across the Limpopo, it has to be more courageous in the face of an intransigent Zanu PF which is used to bullying everyone around. If Ramaphosa only wanted to get a briefing from the government, he could easily have summoned the Zimbabwean ambassador to Pretoria.

It now seems like the South African leader acted merely to give an impression that he was doing something in response to broad calls to do something in light of the escalating crisis. Maybe he does not believe there is a crisis in Zimbabwe.

Certainly, his conduct until now has been one of aloofness, probably worse than his predecessors. The fact that you have people in his government like Zulu and Pandour being more candid might point to different opinions between political factions within the ANC.

What is to be done?

In dealing with the Zimbabwean crisis, President Ramaphosa needs to consider the following:

A clear admission, as Lindiwe Zulu, Ace Magashule and Naledi Pandour have done, of the existence of a political and human rights crisis in Zimbabwe. The South African government needs to accept this bitter reality at the highest level. It is all very well for his subordinates to make this point, but it requires President Ramaphosa to show courage and make this admission. Anything short of this would not only be false and misleading, but it would lead to wrong solutions to Zimbabwe’s challenges.

A clear recognition, as minister Naledi Pandour did last year, that the political and economic crises are inextricably linked; the economic crisis is an outcome of the political crisis and its resolution depends on a resolution of the political question. This political question requires a comprehensive and permanent solution to the deeply flawed electoral system which accounts for the crisis of legitimacy at virtually every election cycle. Zimbabwe’s electoral machinery is quite simply unfit for purpose.

An acceptance that the Zimbabwean crisis is a domestic crisis for South Africa given the influx of economic and political refugees from Zimbabwe, putting pressure on South Africa’s public services. A stable and successful Zimbabwe is in South Africa’s interests, not only because it will relieve pressure on South Africa but because it will strengthen a trading partner which has excellent physical and human resources.

A better appreciation that Zimbabwe’s primary problem is a crisis of legitimacy, stemming first from a deeply flawed electoral system and second, the government’s complete and utter failure to perform. Zanu PF’s persistent refusal to carry out reforms, both on paper and in practice means the outcome of future elections will continue to be contested, thereby presenting the legitimacy question as a perennial problem.

South Africa must appreciate that the primary dispute is between Zanu PF and the MDC Alliance. It must be careful not to be hoodwinked by Zanu PF surrogates masquerading as the opposition. Zanu PF is adept at creating surrogate parties with the sole purpose of diluting its main opponent’s voice. While it is important to listen to a wide variety of voices, the political logjam exists between those two major actors. The irrelevance of the MDC-T led by Thokozani Khupe was evident in its lame response to the snub by South Africa’s special envoys. Whereas the main opposition was concerned by the sudden change by the envoys, the Khupe MDC-T “welcomed” it and expressed confidence that “the two leaders in Ramaphosa and Mnangagwa will get to the bottom of the issues bedevilling our beautiful nation …”. Instead of being firm, it is being apologetic in the face of a snub.

If South Africa is going to play a mediation role, Ramaphosa must appoint persons who do not have conflicts of interest. Conflicted individuals are not going to inspire trust and confidence in the players. I would suggest facilitators be drawn from the ranks of retired judges who have professional ethics and understand the principles of fairness, impartiality and independence. They are also accustomed to handling disputes and finding common ground between parties. They are also less likely to be conflicted or corrupted.

Moral courage to lead

Ramaphosa has to demonstrate moral courage to engage his counterpart in a frank, honest and robust manner. ZANU PF is used to being in total control. If President Ramaphosa and the ANC allow themselves to be controlled and dictated to by President Mnangagwa and Zanu PF, the whole exercise becomes pointless.
To assert control, the South Africans have to recognise and use their leverage, especially on the economic front over Zimbabwe. The Zimbabwean government needs South Africa and its support, despite posturing by the former.

South Africa will do well to assert strong leadership if this long-running crisis is to be resolved. Previous South African leaders have failed because they lacked the moral courage to challenge Zanu PF’s uncouth politics.

If Ramaphosa and his team are to do better, they will have to learn to call a spade and spade, something that Zulu, herself a former facilitator, has done this week.

“If we are to help the situation,” Zulu said, “we have to be frank and honest about it”. That would be a firm starting point.
Dr Magaisa is a United Kingdom-based Zimbabwean academic and lecturer of law at the Kent Law School of the University of Kent. He served as the Advisor of the then prime minister of Zimbabwe Morgan Tsvangirai from 2012-2013.

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