HomeOpinion & AnalysisChanging international views on Zimbabwe

Changing international views on Zimbabwe

By Stephen Chan

THERE is no single view of Zimbabwe internationally. As 2011 begins, the many views fragment or develop internal variations almost as a parallel to the fracturing of the Zimbabwean political landscape.

The fissures within Zanu PF and MDC-Mutambara, the re-advent of Zapu, the lacklustre performance of Morgan Tsvangirai as Prime Minister, and the self-seeking demeanour of elected parliamentarians on all sides, have created an international sense that there is neither predictability nor governmental capacity in the present or near-future Zimbabwe.

Africa has long had its own divided opinions about Zimbabwe and about Robert Mugabe. There is still a surly endorsement among what might be loosely called the “African general public” of Mugabe’s standing up to the West, but this has always been matched by a huge disenchantment with government leadership in all countries. Mugabe may have stood up to the West, but he is as untrustworthy as any African president.

Times have marched on in any case. The power-sharing deal brokered by Thabo Mbeki would not have been possible today –– and perhaps even yesterday –– in West Africa. The somewhat more robust –– even if, at time of writing, rhetorical –– reaction of Ecowas to the crisis in Ivory Coast, compared to that of Sadc to the stolen Zimbabwean election, is the case in point.

But the West has also moved on. In 2010, elections were patently stolen in both Rwanda and Ethiopia. Electoral majorities in the 90% range are just not credible, especially when opposition leaders disappear and are later found dead. But, for the West, stability and the assurance of no immediate wars in Rwanda and Ethiopia, plus the clear sense that the ruling elites are able to deliver discernible developmental benefits, proved stronger emblems of acceptability than democracy.

When ruling elites do not and will not commit themselves seriously to the benefit of citizens, democracy becomes in the second decade of the millennium the scourge with which to whip chosen miscreants. It is selective and Zimbabwe is selected for historical reasons but also because Zanu PF has clearly no interest in fiscal probity, fiscal transparency, developmental equity, financial dissemination or facilities for development except as acts of patronage and, of course, purchasing of votes.

Even so, there are two hugely countervailing forces. The first is the abject performance of the MDC as part of government. The second is that the West is itself in a fiscal crisis. Suddenly, all of Europe needs Zimbabwe as a trading partner, as a business partner, as an investment partner, as a customer and as a purchaser of European goods and services. Europe, as a result, will start doing business with Zanu PF in 2011.

There is much conjecture that the EU will contemplate some form of lifting of sanctions. This will be for the two reasons listed in this paragraph, but also because they have not worked in any way to curtail or reduce the dominating capacity of Zanu PF. The concomitant is that, if isolation and sanctions have not worked, some form of engagement might. The exact form and parameters of that engagement have not yet been agreed.

But this leaves the UK in a difficult position. It has been the most critical –– sometimes histrionically so –– of the Mugabe regime.

The UK cannot be alone in Europe with sanctions in place. That would give every other European country a clear run at reinvestment and trading opportunities. The UK wants to have a part in those opportunities, so finds itself on the horns of a dilemma. The US will certainly not move towards a new regime of relations with Zimbabwe until the UK moves.

For the UK, the diplomatic search goes beyond devising a “form of words” to explain the about-face. The UK seeks a symbolic moment and, at time of writing, Whitehall still has its heart set on a rather grand symbol –– and that is the (phased, if need be) retirement of Mugabe, with full dignities, even if a lifting of the ICC indictment cannot at this stage be specified. As with Sudan’s Al Bashir, the indictment can die a quiet death by way of being forgotten.

But even this grand symbolic moment is a grand climbdown from a position of obdurate opposition to Mugabe and a wish to “bring him to justice”, strip him of his corrupt gains, and end the hegemony of Zanu PF. Basically, it allows Zanu PF to remain in the game –– under new management to be sure, but unpunished; not deconstructed but reconstructed.


The UK would accept, in some ways even welcome, the triumph of the technocratic wing of Zanu PF. The “new” Zanu PF would of course have to fight elections honestly –– but no one in Europe seriously anticipates anything but some form of coalition for years into the Zimbabwean future.

In a way, this scenario seeks to match an aspirational vision of a compromised Zimbabwe –– but a compromise with which “all” can live. Whether events on the ground have far outstripped this vision, with securocrats firmly in control and going nowhere, is an open question. Nevertheless, there has been a modest increase in contacts between British governmental and other actors and senior Zanu PF actors.

Even some figures named on the sanctions list, and normally thereby off-limits, have been included in what are, at this stage, conversations about conversations.

The notion seems to be that Zanu PF has to put some sort of symbol on the table for the conversations to move on. The UK minister for Africa has spoken publicly about the desirability of reinvestment in Zimbabwe.


This is always couched in language of progress and change occurring, but it is clear to his audiences that the extent of this change has shrunk dramatically. The problem at time of writing, in January, is that nothing is specified and that, of course, when conversations about specifics begin, they will get bogged down.

Zanu PF –– for the MDC makes no serious movements in the international arena; its diplomatic outreach is either cursory or ham-fisted or non-existent –– relies upon Europe and, of course, China, to outflank and force the hand of the British and, through them, the Americans. But its own diplomacy is often maladroit in Europe. What is driving the process slowly forward is the need for economic remodelling within Europe itself. This has been a very serious recession. And Zanu PF relies upon China.

Like Britain, China has historical reasons for its actions in Zimbabwe. There really was a version of the “kith and kin” mythology in the British response to the farm invasions that began in 2000.


The eviction of black farmers would simply not have aroused such a response, either in shrillness or extent. The Chinese supported both Zanu and Zanla in the war of liberation. They feel a genuine kinship which stems from that historical moment, but which has also been overladen three decades on by nostalgia and romance.

The Chinese understand that romance is not cost-effective, and that is why –– despite significant liquidity flows –– there has never been, and never will be, a Chinese alternative to all that the West can provide.

The Chinese need the West more than it needs any part or every part of Africa. They are more prepared to rescue the United States, drowning in its toxic debt swamp, than to bail out Zimbabwe.

The Chinese have staved off recession only by playing fiscal brinksmanship with the West over currency rates and balance of trade ratios. The Chinese are prepared to do some “queering of the pitch” in Zimbabwe to make it harder for Western reinvestment to dominate the scene as it did before –– the new scene will have far greater plurality –– but the Chinese will not put themselves out on a financial limb for Zimbabwe.

The reason for this is simple. It didn’t take me long to uncover the figures in Beijing. I was simply surprised that no one in the Zimbabwean Embassy had bothered. Even Zanu PF diplomats, it turns out, are simply amateurs.

The reason is that the Chinese financial intelligence simply rates Zimbabwe as a disaster zone. It is a disaster zone with peripheral opportunities and bridgeheads for future investment, but it is not a zone where serious good money should be thrown into bad situations.

In the Chinese balance sheets, there have to be concrete and immediate returns. Not full returns all at once – the Chinese really are extraordinarily patient – but there has to be a properly costed expectation of phased returns that are reliable.

This analysis is of course now changing. But it is changing at the same moment that European outlooks are also changing. So the Chinese will be an important part of the pack, but only one part of the pack.

What the West would like to see is of course an MDC government. It would like this in the full anticipation that it will be an incompetent government which will become corrupt quite quickly.

The corruption template is established and not difficult to board. What the West could live with, and what the Chinese could easily adjust to – so no conflict of interests here – is another coalition government, preferably fairly elected and, if not fully fairly elected, cleanly elected, ie without violence and naked rigging.

Within that coalition, the preference would be for greater MDC power and influence, but Zanu PF ministers, especially of a technocratic sort, would not be unwelcome. The MDC, after all, still doesn’t have a technocratic front bench. A variation of the coalition theme, one with a Zanu PF domination, would be plausibly acceptable if it were technocratic, if the securocrats were marginalised, if Mugabe were retired or made ceremonial.

To a very real extent, the personality of Mugabe still looms large over how much progress can be made in terms of the international arena and Zimbabwe. Were he to step down – and a richly-endowed immunities formula is pretty much already on the table for both him and the securocrats – there would be a rush to reinvest that would leave everyone breathless. A bit of naked global capitalism would briefly swagger into what has become an isolated, parochial and financially provincial and peripheral town.

But no one fully anticipates he will step down any time very soon, and nature doesn’t seem to be taking its natural course – even if the embassies in Harare all report on every health rumour concerning the president, and how far the president can walk in a straight line, how many steps he can climb up or even down. Mugabe-watching has replaced the old Kremlim-watching for its sense of fascination and mortality.

And, after all, they all thought Brezhnev was embalmed even while he was still (just) alive. In a very real way this trivialises what could once again be a serious country.

But perhaps, at this moment in history, the international view of Zimbabwe is not misplaced. It is a country which has lost its way – whether for good or bad reasons, or a curious mixture of both – it is a country which has all manner of reinvestment possibilities, but all these are contingent on a number of political as well as financial conditions. The political conditions could be ameliorated with a symbol or two.

Perhaps, curiously if not actually tragically, a country’s fate depends on an old man, his vanity, the need of his most oligarchic followers, and an agenda which may not translate well in a new millennium of global toxicity and opportunisms.

Chan is a professor of International Relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies in the University of London. Yale University Press will release Professor Chan’s Southern Africa: Old Treacheries and New Deceits in 2011. A South African edition will be published by Jonathan Ball.

Recent Posts

Stories you will enjoy

Recommended reading