Military vehicles and soldiers patrol the streets in Harare, Zimbabwe. Picture: REUTERS/PHILIMON BULAWAYO
Military vehicles and soldiers patrol the streets in Harare, Zimbabwe. Picture: REUTERS/PHILIMON BULAWAYO

“We note with great concern the unfolding political developments in Zimbabwe and hope that they would not lead to unconstitutional change of government. We urge all the parties to ensure that maintenance of peace and security as enshrined in their constitution is not compromised.”

These words were not uttered by President Cyril Ramaphosa in the light of the recent surge in human rights violations in Zimbabwe. This was his predecessor, Jacob Zuma, in 2017, shortly after then president Robert Mugabe had fired his deputy, Emmerson Mnangagwa, who fled to SA. The military ended Mugabe's rule soon after, and Mnangagwa was installed to start what was supposed to be Zimbabwe's new dawn.

When it comes to SA’s involvement with Zimbabwe, it often seems as if it’s a case of the more things change, the more they stay they same. So it wasn’t a big shock that the SA government, led by Ramaphosa, last week merely noted with concern new reports of repression in Zimbabwe, including the arrest of a journalist.

Few will draw comfort from the appointment of Baleka Mbete, the parliamentary speaker, and former safety & security minister Sydney Mufamadi, as special envoys to Zimbabwe. This trick has been tried before, and the economic ruin and debasement of basic human rights is testimony to its continued failure.

Who would have imagined that it would be left to ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule to call a spade a spade, attracting a predictable rebuke from Zanu-PF? It was not clear what was more offensive, meeting exiled members of the Zimbabwe ruling party or merely suggesting that there was a crisis in that country.

If history is to prove any guide, people are right to be sceptical about the Mbete-Mufamadi initiative producing anything worth celebrating. From Thabo Mbeki to Ramaphosa today, SA presidents have been expertly played by their counterparts in Zimbabwe, who have used such initiatives to regroup and sharpen their tools of oppression.

This is exactly what happened in 2008 when, instead of insisting Mugabe accept the result of the election, SA was instead party to the formation of a government of national unity that served to extend his rule and pave the way to a new phase of repression.

Successive ANC governments have misread the situation in Zimbabwe due to their insistence that to have influence they need to refrain from picking sides, and behave as if all parties have equal power and common responsibility for the country’s plight.

But Zimbabwe’s fuel and food shortage, and an inflation rate above 700%, are the result of one party’s mismanagement. And as evidence has emerged that its rulers have used the spread of Covid-19 as an excuse to crush political opposition and suppress protests, SA has been quiet.

While SA’s authorities might indeed believe their “quiet diplomacy” approach makes them honest brokers who are best suited to engineer a solution, it should not come as a surprise that their peers in Zanu-PF see their silence as tacit approval.

Granted, the other type of diplomacy, including sanctions from the Western powers, have also not had the desired effect. But it’s not outside the realm of possibility that, faced with a robust and powerful response from its most powerful neighbour, Zimbabwe’s rulers might think harder next time they considered attacking peaceful protesters or arresting journalists.

SA and most of the Southern African Development Community have been so impotent on Zimbabwe for so long that it seems pointless to again point out how this destroys their credibility. Who would believe Ramaphosa, as the head of the AU, when he speaks about the continent’s potential, if SA continues to stand on the sidelines and watch what is happening in Zimbabwe?

Of course, there are also selfish reasons for SA to intervene more forcefully in the crisis in Zimbabwe, not least a potential surge in the number of people seeking refuge in this country.

Zanu-PF’s repressive machine has acted with unrestrained brutality, partly in the not-mistaken belief that SA would look the other way. It is time that changed. It was time for that to change a decade ago already.

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