People run at a protest as barricades burn during a storm in Harare, Zimbabwe, January 14 2019. Picture: REUTERS/PHILIMON BULAWAYO
People run at a protest as barricades burn during a storm in Harare, Zimbabwe, January 14 2019. Picture: REUTERS/PHILIMON BULAWAYO
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Could there be a bigger symbol of how out of touch Zimbabwe’s not-so-new president is, than the fact that, while the country was in flames, he opted to go on a state visit to Moscow. 

While President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who took office more than a year ago after a disputed and violence-marred election, was in Russia ostensibly to seek loans to help revive the economy, there was no indication from his Russian counterpart that such help will be forthcoming.

It remains to be seen whether the president will stick to his itinerary, which is due to finish at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, or whether he will attempt to show Zimbabweans he’s not completely insensitive to their suffering by returning home to help solve the mess he created when he announced a 150% hike in the fuel price last Saturday.

A man who made his name as Robert Mugabe’s enforcer during much of the former president’s 37-year reign was hardly going to inspire confidence as a great reformer, but there was at least some hope that there would be a new era of political and economic pragmatism.

It’s more of the same for ordinary people — fuel shortages, a lack of foreign exchange, shops running empty, surging inflation and an increasingly oppressive government. 

But the hope of a new dawn was quickly dashed when the campaign for the July elections descended into violence and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) refused to recognise Mnangagwa’s victory, charging that the electoral commission had collaborated in fraud.  

A court challenge of the result was marred by allegations that the country’s authorities were playing dirty, with SA lawyers representing the MDC being kicked out of the country, before being allowed back as mere advisers.

It wasn’t a good start for the former spy chief who had hoped the elections, held in relatively peaceful conditions, would give him the legitimacy, both from the electorate and the international community, needed to attract investors back to the country and help to start fixing the economy that went to ruin during the latter part of Mugabe’s rule.

The outbreak of violence that saw soldiers shoot at opposition demonstrators, killing  six people just two days after the vote, which ironically had been seen as acceptable by international observers, put paid to any hope that the country was entering a new era of peaceful political engagement.

Senior MDC leaders were detained, with former finance minister Tendai Biti fleeing to Zambia, from where he was controversially deported back to Zimbabwe.

Even those sceptical about Mnangagwa’s credentials and intentions had grudgingly accepted the rise of the man, known as the Crocodile due to his alleged political cunning, in the hope it would at least lead to a departure from Mugabe’s disastrous economic policies. Unfortunately for the people of Zimbabwe, there was no economic new dawn either and the increase in fuel prices at the weekend was just the last straw, sparking a new wave of protests, which by Tuesday afternoon had led to five deaths.

It’s more of the same for ordinary people — fuel shortages, a lack of foreign exchange, shops running empty, surging inflation and an increasingly oppressive government. 

It’s more than a little concerning that the home page of SA’s department of international  relations & co-operation contains no mention of the crisis unfolding on our doorstep. It’s a good thing then that Biti has appealed to the country’s conscience and self-interest. After all, SA is the country that will feel the fallout most from any humanitarian crisis that forces a significant number of Zimbabweans to leave their country.

Former president Thabo Mbeki’s policy of “quiet diplomacy”, pursued as Mugabe systematically undermined democracy and the rule of law in Zimbabwe, will forever be a stain on this country. All it achieved was a government of unity that bought Mugabe time so he could continue his oppressive rule. By most accounts, the MDC won that election then. 

SA and its regional partners should have insisted that Mugabe go and the will of the people be respected.

President Cyril Ramaphosa should heed Biti’s call and play a prominent role in seeking a solution to the crisis in Zimbabwe before it spirals completely out of control. That he met MDC leader Nelson Chamisa two weeks ago is to be welcomed.

SA likes to think of itself as a leader in the region, and it’s time it starts to act like one.