For about 20 years SA has watched, rarely exerted pressure, and in some instances aided and abetted, the tragedy Zimbabwe has become.

SA is now home to millions of Zimbabweans. Last week xenophobic violence swept through Thokoza, east of Johannesburg, targeting foreign shopkeepers, including Zimbabweans. SA will have to re-engage meaningfully soon for its own sake and that of the region.

Since the crisis in Zimbabwe began 20 years ago in the wake of the failed constitutional referendum and subsequent, chaotic land reform, the economic and social calamity has become more intense. Governance institutions and the rule of law continue to be undermined.

People have voted with their feet, the body politic has eroded and the brief moments of hope that things might turn around — during the 2008 elections and towards the end of Robert Mugabe’s rule in 2017 — were little more than mini-versions of the much touted but ultimately disappointing Arab Spring or SA’s own New Dawn.

The 2008 global political agreement and the ensuing government of national unity were an interregnum. The 2013 elections heralded a return to the polarisation and fragmentation that characterised the preceding period. The changing of the guard in 2017 was accompanied by no real commitment to address the political and governance challenges, including the vested interests of the ruling elite. The few reforms that did take place, such as the repeal of the 2002 Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act and the Public Order and Security Act, did not change the situation on the ground.

Covid-19 has only added to the woes of a system at breaking point, where Zimbabweans still display a resilience and patience that is at odds with 20 years of misgovernance, corruption and human rights abuses. Health workers have been on strike protesting against poor wages and working conditions. Further protests against corruption planned for July 31 were met with more arrests — journalists, activists, opposition figures and a Booker Prize nominee.

Zimbabwe’s most recent IMF Article IV consultations — before Covid-19 — found that the country’s economic reforms were “off track”. The IMF was concerned that the country was facing “an economic and humanitarian crisis worsened by policy missteps and climate-related shocks”, which would require “difficult policy choices from the authorities and support from the international community”.

The report stressed the “need to address governance and corruption challenges, entrenched vested interests, and enforcement of the rule of law to improve the business climate and support private sector-led inclusive growth”.

The IMF report identifies misgovernance and corruption as the cause of Zimbabwe’s malaise.

The Southern African Development Community (Sadc) and SA, on the other hand, have taken a different view, calling for the immediate lifting of sanctions. The only significant sanctions remaining are those imposed by the US. The 2001 Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act also requires the US to veto any international financial institution payments to Zimbabwe.

Who will break the stalemate? For these sanctions to be lifted Zimbabwe will have to undertake both political and economic reforms, but it will take more than just the lifting of US sanctions to revitalise the economy. The refrain that “Zimbabweans must sort out their own problems” has worn thin in the face of an internal impasse.

The recent protests in Mali, where the Economic Community of West African States attempted to mediate, illustrate the limits of external intervention when one or other of the internal actors is unwilling to come to the table. But that does not obviate the role external actors can play in an impasse.

Last November, SA international relations & co-operation minister Naledi Pandor said: “Even as we support the call for an end to economic sanctions, the political dynamics are inextricably linked to the economic, and thus should be confronted simultaneously ... we may have to devise innovative forms of institutional collaboration that would help ... restore the efficacy of critical institutions”.

The SA government knows what is required to get out of this crisis. But it needs political will. The incentives for SA are clear.

First, a stable and prosperous Zimbabwe creates greater economic opportunities for SA and the region.

Second, Covid-19 has further strained economic and social tensions domestically. As a result, foreigners become useful scapegoats and ensuing xenophobic violence may fully unravel an already fragile social fabric. It is very much in our interests to help Zimbabweans return to a stable and prosperous home to be able to build lives of dignity there.

Third, in a more value-based vein, SA should not ignore the ongoing human rights violations in Zimbabwe.

SA should not believe that it has no leverage. Zimbabwe, unlike Libya, does not have a host of external players wanting to advance their interests. This makes it easier for SA and the Sadc to begin a meaningful engagement with all stakeholders.

Initially, this can take the form of informal discussions with all parties. SA government officials need to overcome their discomfort to engage meaningfully with sectors outside Zanu (PF). SA should take a multifaceted approach involving labour unions, think-tanks, civil society organisations, business and the churches, as well as a multiparty parliamentary group that would report back to parliament.

SA’s approach has been to work through the Sadc, but how can the Sadc act if the chair of the organ on politics, security and defence is Zimbabwean president Emmerson Mnangagwa?

Putting human resources into helping Zimbabweans overcome the political impasse is an investment worth making for SA. A politically and economically resuscitated Zimbabwe is important for our own economic progress.

Furthermore, SA needs to be alert to the crisis brewing in its other neighbour, Mozambique, in Cabo Delgado. Both Zimbabwe and Mozambique are neighbours. Instability in both will only worsen internal problems and erode the region’s ability to effectively recover after Covid-19.

We need to undertake serious introspection about whether, irrespective of what a government does to its people, external actors have to respect the principle of non-interference. This was not a principle worth honouring during apartheid, but have the actions of Zanu (PF) against its own people, many of whom have sought political and economic refuge here, been any more legitimate?

• Sidiropoulos is CEO of the SA Institute of International Affairs

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