Zimbabweans celebrate after President Robert Mugabe resigns in Harare, Zimbabwe, on Tuesday. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings
Zimbabweans celebrate after President Robert Mugabe resigns in Harare, Zimbabwe, on Tuesday. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

SA went from "quiet diplomacy" to "mute" in its response to the dramatic events in Zimbabwe in the past week.

The military coup was not like Sarah from next door running off with the postman and everyone in the neighbourhood having to pretend all is normal when they see her husband.

Robert Mugabe was held under house arrest and some members of his cabinet were also detained by the Zimbabwe Defence Forces. Following a week of uncertainty‚ Mugabe resigned after 37 years in power. His wife Grace was banished. Emmerson Mnangagwa‚ who had fled Zimbabwe for SA‚ will be sworn in as the new president on Friday.

Mnangagwa paid a courtesy call to President Jacob Zuma on Wednesday before returning to a hero’s welcome in Zimbabwe.

It seems the South African Presidency and Department of International Relations and Co-operation are struggling to find the words to react to the developments in the neighbouring country. There has not even been a cursory acknowledgement of the extraordinary events‚ let alone the fall of one of Africa’s strongmen. It is not as if recognising the developments would condone the actions of the military or somehow make resignations of presidents contagious.

SA is a powerful player in the region and on the continent‚ and running for cover does not live up to this role. SA is arguably the country that has been most affected by unfolding events in Zimbabwe from the early 2000s. The flight of people across the border has impacted on South African society in many ways.

There now appears to be some level of "coup envy" among South Africans. Many people here are envious of the rapid removal of Mugabe from office — when Zuma has survived multiple attempts to eject him.

Nations around the world are also looking to SA to provide leadership and direction on how to respond. But the lack of leadership is, of course, South Africa’s biggest weakness.

There is, admittedly, some amount of egg on the face of Zuma and the Southern African Development Community (SADC)‚ which he currently chairs‚ as the Zimbabweans were not prepared to wait for their intervention.

The Presidency announced at 11.23pm on Tuesday that the planned visit by Zuma and Angolan President João Lourenço to Harare on Wednesday was "postponed until further notice". It is unclear what the two leaders had planned to do had their visit gone ahead‚ but the Zimbabweans evidently wanted to determine their own destiny.

Now that SADC’s role has been rendered unnecessary‚ SA’s silence has become awkward.

The situation is, undoubtedly, confusing as the removal of a sitting president through a military coup‚ no matter how well mannered it was‚ is unconstitutional. But the euphoria on the streets of Zimbabwe and around the world showed that citizens of the country wanted their president to leave and that the intervention of the military was welcome.

On Wednesday‚ ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe uttered the ANC’s first reaction to the developments in Zimbabwe at a media briefing. He said they commended the restraint of the Zimbabwean people‚ the "professional" way the coup was handled and the fact that there was "no obvious loss of life".

Mantashe said Mugabe should continue to be respected for his role as a freedom fighter‚ for advocating development in Africa, and as a pan-Africanist.

"We are hoping comrades in Zimbabwe will rebuild it to its former self as a prosperous‚ beautiful neighbour‚" Mantashe said. But he said the ANC did not want to be judges or direct Zanu-PF about who should fill which leadership position.

The real problem for the South African government and the ANC is that they cannot provide leadership because they do not have the standing and gravitas to do so. You cannot prescribe to others about respect for the constitution and the rule of the law when the president of the ANC and the country undermines ours and is involved in the destruction of democratic institutions.

It would be embarrassing for SA if it were told to sort out its own mess before attempting to prescribe to others.

There now appears to be some level of "coup envy" among South Africans. Many people here are envious of the rapid removal of Mugabe from office — when Zuma has survived multiple attempts to eject him — and the jubilation of the Zimbabweans.

There might, therefore, be some nervousness in the ANC in case the spirit of rebellion catches on — as with the Arab Spring. Who knows what the hot African summer might bring.

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