IN any discussion on the political and economic crisis in Zimbabwe, the need for South Africa’s mediation to find resolution is invariably raised. Calls for South African involvement are getting louder as the crisis deepens with no end in sight.
The crisis has entered its third decade. Zimbabweans must wake up and smell the coffee. South Africa will not come to the rescue. The ruling ANC neither has the will nor inclination to help Zimbabweans in their fight for democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
Most political pundits are guilty of perpetuating a narrative that sees South Africa as key to resolving the political and economic crisis in Zimbabwe. The ANC supports Zanu PF as a sister liberation movement it wants to see remain in power.
The intention of then South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki, when he responded to the outbreak of the crisis in 2000 was to save the late former president Robert Mugabe’s regime. He took on the role of mediator in Zimbabwe long before Sadc made it official in 2007.
If countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom wanted regime change in Zimbabwe as is alleged, Mbeki sought its preservation.
A combination of the invasion of white-owned farms in 2000 and the violent and rigged elections of 2000 and 2002 set the country on a path of increased repression and a downward economic spiral. Economic decline, loss of electoral support and the imposition of limited sanctions by the European Union and US combined to pose an existential threat to Zanu PF’s rule.
Mbeki’s mediation was intended to shield Zanu PF from these headwinds. He succeeded. The putative unity government his mediation yielded enabled Zanu PF to outmanoeuvre a gullible MDC and reassert its dominance. With Zanu PF now firmly in the saddle and the situation in the country “stable” the ANC is happy with the outcome.
If Mbeki had been an honest broker, the situation in Zimbabwe could have been resolved partly because of Zanu PF’s weakness at the time. Instead, the South African leader ignored a consensus among major election observer missions that the 2002 presidential election results were not a true reflection of the will of the people of Zimbabwe.
He suppressed a report by Judge Sisi Khampepe that concluded that the 2002 election was not free and fair. The report was released for public consumption 12 years later after the Mail and Guardian newspaper successfully petitioned the courts.
Mbeki also suppressed a report by six retired generals of the South African military on the 2008 election, which cited widespread state-sponsored violence in its immediate aftermath.
Both reports had been commissioned by Mbeki himself. He fought hard to have Zimbabwe’s suspension from the Commonwealth in 2002 lifted a year later at a summit in Abuja, Nigeria despite the refusal of Mugabe’s regime to address any of the issues flagged by the 54-member body.
The New Partnership for African Development (Nepad) was Mbeki’s signature diplomatic initiative intended to give rise to an African renaissance. For Nepad to succeed, industrialised countries had to commit to greater economic engagement with Africa. In return, Africa had to commit to good governance, human rights and probity in the management of public finances and resources.
With South Africa being the sole representative of Africa in the G20 of 19 advanced nations plus the European Union, Mbeki was well-positioned to advance the Nepad agenda. But faced with a regime in Harare not committed to any of the principles underlying Nepad, Mbeki imperilled his own initiative by his persistent defence of a defiant Mugabe regime. This stance and his ouster as state president in 2008 effectively killed Nepad as a viable programme for Africa’s development and renewal. Nepad, which at some point had become part of South Africa’s political lexicon, is now an extinct acronym. This background information is given to underscore the depth of Mbeki’s support for Zanu PF.
Mbeki is now gone, but nothing has changed in terms of the ANC’s support for Zanu PF. His successors Jacob Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa follow the party line of supporting Zanu PF. To be fair to the much-maligned Zuma, when he took over the role of mediator in 2009, he mandated his two envoys to Zimbabwe to push for the creation of conditions for free and fair elections after the expiry of the unity government. That this did not happen was the fault of the unity government dominated by Zanu PF, with the two MDC parties co-opted as impotent junior partners.
Ramaphosa has on a few occasions expressed his admiration for Zanu PF, most memorably after he attended its annual conference in Masvingo a few years ago. He did not elaborate on what he found so admirable about Zanu PF. His recent feeble response to outcries about continued human rights abuses was evidence that the ANC’s support for Zanu PF still remains.
Ramaphosa’s envoys were told by President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government there was no crisis in Zimbabwe and forbidden to meet opposition parties and civil society organisations. The ANC felt it was important to send a party delegation to meet its revolutionary comrades in Zanu PF for “robust” discussions. The ANC delegation got similar short shrift.
The matter is closed. Ramaphosa and the ANC are too consumed with domestic crises to pay serious attention to foreign issues. The despatch of government and party envoys to Zimbabwe were empty gestures to placate critics of their limp-wristed response to the crisis north of its border. Furthermore the ANC, distracted by bitter factional in-fighting, cannot effectively respond to domestic challenges of an economy in free fall, Covid-19, crime and corruption.
Bereft of the confidence and moral authority of the Nelson Mandela and early Mbeki years, South Africa cannot project power beyond its borders. Nor is it inclined to attempt. To make matters worse, Sadc is a passive onlooker as Zimbabwe continues to sink down a rabbit hole. Its most recent statement on Zimbabwe was a mindless call for the lifting of sanctions without a single thought given to why they were imposed in the first place.
Zimbabwe is not the only undemocratic country and serial abuser of human rights in Sadc. Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), is a feudal society that denies its citizens the right to form political parties and trade unions.
The People’s United Democratic Movement (Pudemo) opposition alliance has lobbied South Africa to support its cause to no avail. As a member of the South African Customs Union (Sacu), Eswatini’s economy is regarded as an extension of South Africa’s. If South Africa has no political will to influence change in a small country so dependent on it for its economic sustenance, how can it be expected to play a helpful role in Zimbabwe?
It is time to call a spade a spade. Zimbabweans must accept the reality that South Africa and Sadc will not come to their rescue. They are on their own. As long as there is ‘stability‘ in Zimbabwe as they define it there is no crisis. The crisis in Zimbabwe goes beyond governance and human rights. A recent report by publishing outfit, Maverick Citizen, exposed systemic plunder of Zimbabwe’s resources by cartels comprising top politicians, senior military officers and a fledgling class of oligarchs. The wealth of the country is being stolen by ruthless and unyielding predatory elite.
Oppressed and impoverished Zimbabweans stand alone in their fight to bring this nightmare to an end. The borders of a country now called Zimbabwe were drawn up at the end of the 19th century by major European powers carving out Africa for themselves.
Successive generations who inhabited this land for over a century have never experienced the joys of living in a democratic and open society. Ninety years of white minority racist rule were replaced by a black majority government in 1980, which from the outset was bent on denying its citizens the right for their votes to be cast freely and counted fairly.
They have persisted to deny their people basic freedoms of speech and assembly enjoyed by many of their neighbours. Brutal, capricious and arbitrary rule has been perpetuated and entrenched. The nation’s wealth is being appropriated illegally and corruptly by a government which truly believes that power emanates not from the consent of the people, but the barrel of a gun.
But hope springs eternal. Giving up is not an option. The conscious elements of society must lead the struggle to change how the country is governed. All hands on deck. Civil society organisations, political parties, churches, youth formations and other stakeholders have a responsibility to fight for a country they can be proud to call their own. All this must be done with a clear understanding that change can only come from within Zimbabwe. Those foreigners of goodwill will take their cue from what Zimbabweans themselves do. Beware of envoys from Pretoria who come bearing gifts.
Dumbutshena is a journalist who worked for The Zimbabwe Times, BBC Focus On Africa and Times Media Group (now Tiso Blackstar) in South Africa. He is based in Johannesburg.