South Africa and the Zimbabwe crisis

Boy playing in Bulawayo neighbourhood
Boy playing in Bulawayo neighbourhood (© Eric Beauchemin)

At the turn of the century, the ongoing political crisis in Zimbabwe was having increasingly disastrous consequences for the country’s 11 million people. The collapse of Zimbabwe was also being felt throughout the rest of southern Africa. Trade with Africa’s former breadbasket had come to a standstill, and hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans were fleeing to neighbouring countries. South Africa was widely seen as the only country that could end the impasse, but why wasn’t it playing a more active role in trying to resolve the crisis in its neighbour to the north?

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: September 13, 2003


For the past three years, Zimbabwe has been in crisis. President Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party are fighting an increasingly bitter battle for power against the opposition MDC or Movement for Democratic Change. The political conflict is having disastrous consequences for the Zimbabwean economy. Cash and fuel are in short supply. 80% of Zimbabweans are unemployed and by the end of this year, inflation is likely to hit 1000%. The political and economic crisis is not only affecting the nation’s 11 million inhabitants. All of southern Africa is feeling the repercussions. Trade with Africa’s former breadbasket has come to a standstill and hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans have fled to neighbouring countries. South Africa is widely seen as the only country that can end the impasse. Eric Beauchemin looks at why South Africa isn’t playing a more active role in trying to resolve the crisis in its neighbour to the north.

South African President Thabo Mbeki and his government have been following events in Zimbabwe closely since the crisis began in 2000, when so-called war veterans, with government supported, invaded white-owned commercial farms. President Mbeki meets regularly with President Mugabe and his ruling ZANU-PF party. He also holds talks, albeit less frequently, with Zimbabwe’s main opposition group, the Movement for Democratic Change or MDC. But according to Dr. Tom Lodge, professor of political studies at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa’s involvement has been largely behind the scenes.

Mr. Mbeki is reluctant to use straight-forward coercion, sanctions, because he’s frightened of the effect they’d have not just on the Zimbabwean economy but also indirectly on South Africa as well. Zimbabwe remains – or was until recently – a very important trading partner. But at the same time, he has a belief that these matters can be settled discretely, out of the public eye, through negotiations. He himself, I don’t think, is the right kind of person to undertake such negotiations but that is his self-belief. He dislikes confrontationist methods of resolving disagreements and problems.

Geo-political factors also lie behind President Mbeki’s decision to opt for quiet diplomacy. When Mr Mbeki came to office in 1999, says Dr. Chris Landsberg, director of the Centre for Policy Studies in Johannesburg, he stated that his top foreign policy goal was to end the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Dr. Chris Landsberg, director of the Centre for Policy Studies in Johannesburg
Dr. Chris Landsberg (© Eric Beauchemin)

Now Mbeki – rightly as far as I’m concerned – interpreted two external powers as holding the dice in that conflict: Rwanda on the side of the rebels, and Mugabe on the side of the beleaguered Laurent Kabila at the time. Now here was the dilemma for Mbeki: on the one hand, he needed Mugabe to bring about peace in Congo, and on the other hand, people say go against him on the home front because of his behaviour at home. I’m simply saying to you that reality doesn’t work like that. He had a choice: he certainly could have gone for punishing Mugabe, but then he would have been cut out deliberately by all sorts of regional actors from playing a decisive role in Congo and Burundi and the like. So there were some cruel choices.

South Africa is the major player in the region. Its gross domestic product is twice as big as the combined GDP of the other 13 countries of SADC, the Southern African Development Community. But that doesn’t necessary translate into political leverage.

The outside world might think that because they see us as the hegemon and the giant, we can act like that. There’s a different reality that prevails in southern Africa. Because of the destabilisation role played by the apartheid state prior to 1989, they are suspicious of South Africa. They believe we have agendas. They believe that just like the apartheid state unleashed military force on them, they’re suspicious that the new government could also do that. They typically believe we do the bidding of the West.

The Zimbabwean leader has adroitly exploited the region’s fears about South Africa. President Mugabe has also repeatedly voiced a view that many leaders in the region hold: that South Africa owes the former Frontline States for their support in the struggle to end apartheid. It’s a debt many of the region’s ageing leaders won’t allow President Mbeki to forget.

All these liberation movement leaders – whether it’s Dos Santos or Nujoma or Mugabe – belong to the same generation. They are all 70 years old. They literally treat Mbeki like the upstart, the new kid on the block. Who is he to come and teach us what to do? He might be in charge of the more powerful country in the region, but he’s certainly in no position to tell us how we should behave. So those are literally dynamics. You know there was a time when people used to joke with the leader of the National Party in this country, Martinus van Schalkwyk, calling him the “kortbroek”, shortie pants leader. In other words just don’t take him seriously. There was a time when the so-called senior liberation leaders in the region – Nujomas, Dos Santos, Mugabes – literally treated Thabo like the young boy whom we’ve groomed and who spent time at Sussex while we were liberating our countries.

If there’s a grouping of leaders who are uncomfortable with South Africa, I think that’s already the case.

Dr. Adam Habib is the Director of the Centre for Civil Society at the University of Natal in the port city of Durban.

Dr. Adam Habib, director of the Centre for Civil Society, University of Natal
Dr. Adam Habib (© Eric Beauchemin)

I think if you go to any part of Africa, they will tell you South African capital is going wild. They’re investing. They’re taking over large parts of this thing, and they actually speak about South African hegemony. It’s already being spoken about in the sub-continent. By you trying not to does not mean that they think you are less of a hegemon. They already assume you are a hegemon. So behave as a hegemon and underwrite the stability that is required. If you are going to be a hegemon, use it for useful purposes which both benefits the nation, the South African nation I mean through investment and all that, but it also stabilises the region. Ultimately we can never been successful as a society unless we realise that we get the surrounding societies to survive.

Morality, though, is rarely a decisive factor in foreign policy. Of greater concern to President Mbeki is changing the world’s perception of Africa and integrating the continent in the world economy.

South Africa was instrumental in bringing about both the New Partnership for Africa’s Development and the African Union. The only reason why South Africa was able to bring that about was that it didn’t parade as ‘this is a South African plan’. It stitched together partnerships and alliances with countries like Nigeria, like Mozambique, like Botswana, like Malawi. It took them with it in terms of bringing about these plans. Now you can’t on the one hand say I need these partners on my terms for NEPAD, but on Zimbabwe I go alone. I’m simply saying to you: they certainly have a choice to go it alone, but there are consequences. The other countries will not only opt out of that relationship because they will feel that South Africa is reneging on deals and alliances and partnerships, but it will even opt of NEPAD.

Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe has skilfully exploited the dilemmas facing his South African counterpart. He knows too that some of the most contentious issues facing Zimbabwe – such as unequal access to land and deep social inequalities – also exist in South Africa. It’s been a constant game of one-upmanship played out both in public and in private. The Zimbabwean leadership likes to remind Mbeki, for example, of an incident involving the Nigerian Foreign Minister Tim Ikimi in 1995.

When Sani Abacha decided to execute the Ogoni leader Ken Sara Wiwa and others, and Mugabe made this passionate speech in New Zealand in 1995 at the Commonwealth heads of state summit about how the Commonwealth should turn on Nigeria, Tom Ikimi made this speech which very few people picked up on and said ‘Mr Mugabe, you have a lot to say about us today. You next.’ And Mugabe has employed exactly the same tactics against Thabo Mbeki. ‘Thabo, don’t talk too much about our inequalities and my land problem. You are the black head of a white state. You are not in control of that state. You’ve got problems. It took us 20 years to get here. It’s going to take you another 5 years to get here.’ So they’ve really not only exploited that as a vulnerability on the part of Mbeki, but even more significantly if Mbeki were to ignore charges like that, the rest of the region would accuse him of not being into solidarity and not siding with them.

Many South Africans express shock at the political turmoil in Zimbabwe, the human rights abuses and the economic decline in their neighbour to the north. But for South Africa’s poor majority, the ANC government’s main or even only priority should be to make good on its promises of better housing, schools, medical care and jobs. The crisis in Zimbabwe, says Professor Lodge, simply hasn’t touched South Africans…at least not yet.

School of Law, Wits Law Clinic
School of Law, Wits Law Clinic

There have of course been a fresh influx of refugees from Zimbabwe. It’s affected some of our regional trade, and South Africa of course is contributing quite significantly to the World Food Programme’s efforts to relieve starvation in Zimbabwe. But so far, it hasn’t had a really dramatic impact on our economy. But it has had an impact of course on foreign perceptions about the region as a whole. And those perceptions damage us because as long as business think that southern Africa is an unstable region, they’re unwilling to make long-term commitments in terms of capital investments in the region as a whole: Zimbabwe, South Africa, Mozambique or whatever.

We can’t afford it for economic reasons. We can’t afford it for social reasons like the refugee crisis, etc. And we can’t afford it for political reasons, because so long as Zimbabwe exists, NEPAD and the AU are non-starters because nobody takes them seriously. Because here, one of the fundamental principles of NEPAD is good governance and that we will correct our own problems, and Zimbabwe continuously is a reminder that you have not been able to do this. That it’s a reminder of the past, not the future. That’s the problem.

But President Mugabe is only prepared to go on his own terms. That’s a reality, says Dr. Landsberg of the Centre for Policy Studies, that South Africa and the rest of the world cannot simply ignore.

We’re dealing with a leader who has reached the level of thinking, an attitude, that ‘go ahead, make my day, push me and I’ll show you how much damage I can cause’. So there’s a brinkmanship game that he loves playing. He knows he’s going down. He knows it’s time up for him, but his attitude is, either ‘make it attractive for me to go by listening to how I want to go, for example take credit for the land programme must be seen as a success, not a failure, must be recognised as a success not a failure internationally or we go the other route where I go down and I take as many with you as possible’. That’s just the character of Mugabe.

President Mugabe wants to be remembered as the man who led his country’s liberation struggle and who helped fight the apartheid regime. He still sees himself as one of the great statesmen of Africa and the developing world, despite the terror and repression he inflicted on his own people in the 1980s and again over the past 3 years. According to Dr. Landsberg, President Mbeki is willing to grant the 79-year-old that honour, as long as does ultimately go.

Mbeki boldly told Bush and he told the World Economic Forum summit and he also told the AU summit that he’s confident – I think overconfident – but he’s confident that within 12 months they will resolve the impasse in Zimbabwe and the crisis will be over. Now I think that’s based on behind the scenes quid pro quos that you and I are not privy to. In other words, he was given certain assurances that ‘please step down and we will try and meet you half way, including insisting that there will be no prosecutions afterwards, no witch hunting afterwards’. Of course the bigger problem for Mbeki with that is that Mugabe has made many promises in the past, so what guarantee does he have that Mugabe would listen? But I just think for example Mugabe being awarded the position of deputy chair of the AU representing SADC on peace and security, I think is part of that quid pro quo. It’s part of that give him grace, give him a face, give him pride. Let him parade as this southern African peacemaker in exchange for him going.

Human rights organisations and many Zimbabweans are determined that their leader should not walk scot-free. They are calling for a peace and reconciliation commission, based on the South African model. But in Zimbabwe, people don’t only want peace and reconciliation. They want justice too. They find it incomprehensible that President Mbeki is continuing his policy of “quiet diplomacy”.

That style has advantages, but it surely has disadvantages. One of the major disadvantages of that style, of what I call the intelligence style, is that it leaves yourself and myself and analysts and journalists to second-guess. The public feels excluded: they put 2 and 2 together and they get to 7. They feel that there’s mischief and selling-out behind the scenes. I think that’s the problem with quiet diplomacy. But as I’ve also said to you, the more confrontational approach and the more public approach also has its downsides. If you go the more public approach with someone like Mugabe, you’ll get even less out of him than all these vague promises he’s made up until now.

Many analysts suspect that President Mbeki’s reluctance to act more aggressively towards the Zimbabwean president is because of his own ambivalence about the Movement for Democratic Change.

I think Mbeki is uncomfortable with MDC. He thinks it’s an amalgamation of lefties, nationalists and right-wing Rhodesians if you like, and he’s uncomfortable with that. He’s uncomfortable with an element in the MDC that he sees as wanting to turn the clock back.

What our approach should have done was to talk as often with Morgan Tsvangirai and the MDC as with it did with ZANU-PF. But the public perception was created and even in their own minds that the change can only come through Mugabe. And even in engaging ZANU-PF, I think the ANC could have been more shrewd in trying to separate the doves from the hawks in ZANU-PF and try to relate to the doves and try and also work with those that might be replacements and replacement candidates for Mugabe.

The consequences of the stalemate have been disastrous for the entire region, and particularly for Zimbabweans. The international community has stood by as the crisis has deepened. But then, says Dr. Adam Habib, the major powers are partly responsible for the present crisis. Over 20 years ago, when the white Rhodesian government and the black nationalists signed a peace agreement at Lancaster House, Britain and the other nations only insisted on a political settlement. The country’s fundamental socio-economic problems, such as land distribution, were ignored, a fact which President Mugabe has been skillfully manipulating. But, says Dr. Habib, that doesn’t absolve the South African leader of his responsibility for allowing the crisis to continue.

I think an engagement, a far more aggressive intervention in Zimbabwe is what is warranted. We also require the outside world to learn the lessons of Zimbabwe, and the problem is unless we understand what the lesson of Zimbabwe is, it will continuously happen in other parts of this thing. And then it might not be South Africa and somebody else, it might be another country, another neighbour. We have to understand that socio-economic issues are crucial in addressing in transitions. And that’s what we didn’t allow to happen in Zimbabwe and now that’s why it’s come to haunt us. It’s something that South Africa has got to confront, no question. Whoever has been the cause of it, we might lament it. The point is that it’s at South Africa’s door. We are the strongest power in the region. It’s our obligation, if you like, to address it and I don’t believe we have it. That’s the second tragedy. The first is what the Europeans forced on Zimbabwe. The second is what the South Africans are refusing to do.

Dr. Adam Habib of the Centre for Civil Society ending that edition of Wide Angle.