Among the failures of SA foreign policy, Zimbabwe stands out as probably the worst. Over two decades, it allowed Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, to dominate the relationship in every respect, severely damaging SA’s national interests and those of the entire Southern African region.

Without lifting a finger, SA looked on while Zimbabwe slid from bad to worse, degenerating into a failed authoritarian police state. Over decades, it helped Mugabe cling to power and commit atrocities of the worst kind, revering him as untouchable, treating an abnormal Zimbabwe as normal, even as a friend.

For SA, allowing this to happen right next door is downright incomprehensible, a travesty, defying all political logic. In comparative terms, Zimbabwe is a puny state with a national budget about the size of an SA metropole. Its economy is bankrupt and in perpetual chaos, reducing the country to a beggar state in spite of its potential.

For SA, priding itself as the dominant African regional power, it ought to be a pushover. Embarrassingly, however, the country has been unmasked by Mugabe as a paper tiger, eroding its leadership and respect in Africa and further afield.

Most of what Zimbabwe needs comes from SA. More than 70% of its foreign trade is with SA, as well as the bulk of its electricity. Thousands of its citizens voted with their feet, looking for freedom in SA and other neighbouring states.

Yet getting rid of this pernicious regime across the Limpopo is apparently not even contemplated by Pretoria’s foreign policy makers. On the contrary, they bend over backwards to please and sustain Mugabe.

Over many years, Mugabe enjoyed the unstinted support of both former president Thabo Mbeki and President Jacob Zuma. Mbeki, the main architect of this foreign policy fiasco, prescribed "quiet diplomacy", decreeing that SA should avoid criticising Mugabe and that Zimbabweans "should solve their own problems". His misplaced premise was that Mugabe, posing as Africa’s elder statesman, could do no wrong. Stealing elections, like his "victory" in the shameless 2013 electoral swindle, was blithely condoned by Mbeki, giving Mugabe carte blanche to continue along his destructive path.

Mbeki’s quiet diplomacy remains the lode star of SA’s Zimbabwean policy. However, after so many years of failure, it amounts to no more than a smokescreen for doing nothing, allowing Zimbabwe to degenerate into a veritable Orwellian police state.

Zuma continued this hands-off policy, pathetically kowtowing before Mugabe, a feeble tin-pot dictator. Being led by anachronistic ideological dictates, the two South African presidents made no effort to exploit Zimbabwe’s dependence and SA’s corresponding leverage in the bilateral equation. Flouting SA’s national interests so haphazardly is the real tragedy of SA’s post-Mandela diplomacy, although it has followed the dismal pattern of our domestic policies.

A most recent example of SA’s diplomatic incompetence is its pathetic response to the thuggish behaviour of Grace Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s first lady, who reportedly criminally assaulted and injured a South African citizen in a fit of fury. This was clearly a serious offence in terms of South African law, but was overlooked in cavalier fashion by the government. International Relations and Co-operation Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane granted diplomatic immunity at the drop of a hat, disingenuously stating that she had "agonised" over the decision.

Normal diplomatic practice would be to serve a protest note and/or summon the relevant ambassador. Nothing of the sort happened. Grace Mugabe has not even deigned to apologise, and departed SA unscathed. Explaining her decision, the minister made the implausible statement that SA risked facing reprisals should Zimbabwe, "an important African trading partner", be antagonised. Yet she must have been aware that the boot was on the other foot; Zimbabwe had already imposed its own selective import ban of South African goods. In June 2016, it unilaterally announced a hefty list of 43 South African product categories that it banned from importation into Zimbabwe.

A shot across the bows such as "turning off the lights" — SA supplies Zimbabwe with 300MW of electricity each day — would have sent a clear message that SA’s dignity and sovereignty were not negotiable.

Hot on the heels of his wife’s shenanigans, Mugabe insulted SA’s sovereignty and dignity even more seriously. Consumed with obsessive jealousy towards former president Nelson Mandela as paragon of African liberation, he insulted him in the most disrespectful and racist terms. This insult to a great South African leader was casually ignored by the government, leaving it to ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe to fashion a response.

With the prospect of Mugabe being re-elected and the government’s refusal to rein him in, SA will probably have to endure even more of his senile insults. Even if the old man should die on the job, it appears increasingly likely that his wife will simply carry on where he lets off.

Interference in the domestic affairs of a sovereign state is a serious offence in international law and diplomatic protocol. But this was what the two incidents amounted to. Knowing SA’s diplomatic spinelessness, the Mugabes could not care a hoot about disrespecting the country. And still the "Mugabe syndrome" keeps Pretoria transfixed.

Unquestionably, given the animus, SA has the overweening power to influence Zimbabwe’s domestic politics to change for the better

SA has apparently laboured under the assumption that Mugabe is an old man and that the problem would therefore soon go away by itself. It refused to apply sanctions, arguing that this would ruin Zimbabwe even further. Of course, sanctions and isolation would not bring Mugabe to his senses — he would rather eat grass than give in. For him, having an enemy is manna from heaven, a way to prove his indispensability to gullible followers. Even so, the "alternative" policy, to the extent that it existed at all, was useless, simply a dysfunctional holding action.

The laissez faire pseudostrategy of "soft diplomacy" failed simply because it is intellectually and strategically bankrupt. It is overly simplistic, one-dimensional, without teeth, leading absolutely nowhere except backwards. Extreme policies such as military intervention or sanctions are clearly not the way to go. What is needed is prescient, innovative, dynamic and prudent diplomacy. Call it (in culinary terms) "diplomacy al dente" — not too hard, not too soft. These attributes are conspicuously absent in SA’s feeble foreign policy.

Unquestionably, given the animus, SA has the overweening power to influence Zimbabwe’s domestic politics to change for the better. What is missing is the desire and diplomatic nous to use it effectively. An obvious route could be to disempower Mugabe and his clique. With the internet technology and other means available, one way to do it is to support the many disaffected Zimbabweans everywhere. This approach could be augmented by minimising official co-operation with the Mugabe regime, with the implied message that it cannot be business as usual.

This calls for competent diplomacy: it should be multidimensional, multidisciplinary, well-planned and well-executed. In this way, Zimbabwe’s problems could be solved by Zimbabweans themselves — as Mbeki intoned — if not in the manner he intended.

• Olivier, a former South African ambassador, is with the political sciences department of the University of Pretoria.

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