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Ramaphosa’s Zimbabwe headache


President Cyril Ramaphosa this week dispatched special envoys to Harare, in South Africa’s latest efforts to assist in resolving the frustratingly long-running crisis in Zimbabwe.

The special envoys’ mission had little success because they were reportedly prevented by Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa from meeting with members of the opposition and civil society. 

This means the special envoys returned to Pretoria with a one-sided story: that of Mnangagwa and the ruling party, Zanu PF, which is essentially that there is no crisis which warrants intervention.

Ramaphosa’s efforts will fail, just like his three predecessors’ efforts, unless he changes tact to the crisis in Zimbabwe and takes a bolder approach, which identifies the true nature of the political problem.

In this article, I consider the challenges that Ramaphosa faces in his mission and offer suggestions on what might be done to assist in the situation.

The snubbing of his envoys was a first show of the level of resistance that he will face from the Harare regime, but there are more factors, the handling of which will determine success or failure of his efforts. 

Some observers frame the relationship between South Africa and Zimbabwe as that of “big brother”.

But this is something that Zimbabwe vehemently detests.

If anything, Zimbabwe sees itself as the big brother by dint of having won independence first between the two countries.

Indeed, Zanu PF does not see itself as a junior to the ANC.

Rather it sees itself as an equal, and probably with an even better claim to revolutionary credentials by virtue of the sustained armed struggle for independence and more recently, its land revolution, which remains a major issue in South Africa. 

A close reading of acting Zanu PF spokesperson Patrick Chinamasa’s statement in response to comments made by ANC secretary-general last week is a clear assertion of this resistance to being regarded as junior in the relationship. 

For its part, South Africa does not see itself as having this big brother role, contrary to expectations by external actors.

While some would like to see it asserting a leadership role on the continent, South Africa bristles at the idea of having this supervisory role. Reverend Frank Chikane, who was the director-general in the South African presidency between 1999 and 2009 captured the philosophy that guided former president Thabo Mbeki’s approach during his tenure.

“The power relations between Africa and the rest of the world, especially those countries that have interests in the African continent, had to change to give Africans the sovereign rights to determine their own destinies”, writes Chikane in his 2013 book, The Things That Could Not Be Said.

Later, he adds explaining Mbeki’s policy of Quiet Diplomacy, “The approach respected the sovereign right of Zimbabweans to independently make their own decisions about the future of their country, rather than be dictated to by outsiders”.

This approach did not change after Mbeki.

The statements encapsulate South Africa’s reluctance to play the big brother role in the region as other external actors might have expected of it.  

If South Africa is going to make headway in Zimbabwe it will not be through a bilateral avenue between itself and Zimbabwe.

The Harare regime was quick to remind its neighbour of the multilateral avenue when it issued a statement through Monica Mutsvangwa, its minister of Information and Publicity.

She wrote, “It is common knowledge that there is no Zimbabwean issue before the Sadc Organ on Politics, Defence and Security.

“Neither is there one such issue before the Sadc summit.

“Definitely, there is no such issue before the continental body, the African Union”. 

It was a subtle reminder that South Africa has no business intervening on its own, without the mandate of the regional bodies.

South Africa is likely to recoil in light of this pushback.

Ramaphosa has to go back to the drawing board and ensure that he has a mandate from either the African Union (AU) or Sadc.

Ramaphosa has the present advantage of being the current chairperson of the (AU). 

However, by the principle of subsidiarity, in terms of which the continental body usually defers to regional bodies, the African Union will probably exercise deference to Sadc.

When South Africa intervened as facilitator in 2007, a process which eventually led to the Global Political Agreement in Zimbabwe in 2008, South Africa was exercising a mandate from Sadc.

It will be remembered, however, that Mbeki had already been involved in previous efforts.

But he was on more solid ground with the backing and mandate of the AU and Sadc.

Whether South Africa takes a leading role will depend on how it defines and frames the challenges in Zimbabwe.

There is a good reason why Zimbabwe has resisted the framing that there is a crisis in Zimbabwe.

It’s not just stubbornness or habitual denialism, although these are factors. It’s also because Mnangagwa and Zanu PF understand the significance of the framing which characterises Zimbabwe as a country in crisis. Crisis is a sine qua non for external intervention.

It provides justification for intervention.

The Harare regime does not want external intervention.

This would mean they would be conceding failure but more importantly they would be risking their exclusive hold on power. Zanu PF does not like the idea of sharing power.

We have, however, observed a progressive change in attitude in South Africa.

The position now is markedly different from 12 years ago, when Mbeki infamously retorted that there was no crisis in Zimbabwe.

It was an incredible moment of presidential detachment from reality, which gave the impression of aloofness.

In recent months we have seen more acceptance in the South African government and ANC circles that there is a crisis in Zimbabwe. 

Just this week Lindiwe Zulu, the ANC’s head of international relations, who is also a government minister very candidly stated that “there is a political crisis” in Zimbabwe urging that they had to be “frank and honest” about it.

International Relations Naledi Pandor chimed in with the statement that there is an “undeniable political problem” in Zimbabwe and said South Africa was “ready to assist” in finding a solution.

Late last year she made it clear that Zimbabwe’s economic challenges could not be resolved without fixing the political challenges. 

Ace Magashule also indicated that there were human rights violations in Zimbabwe, which drew a furious reaction from Chinamasa.

While Ramaphosa has not directly stated that there is a crisis, his deployment of special envoys is indicative of this growing acceptance in the South African ruling establishment.

The contagion from Zimbabwe, which observers have always warned of, is now all too evident with economic refugees flooding into South Africa and piling pressure on the country’s public services. ]

This puts the ANC and the South African government at odds with its Zimbabwean counterparts who argue that there is no crisis.

In a scripted statement read by Mutsvangwa, the Zimbabwean government’s message was meant for South Africa more than the Zimbabwean audience.

The statement was a clear denial of the existence of a crisis. 

“It is important that we refute press claims of a crisis in Zimbabwe” said Mutsvangwa. 

“Crisis in diplomacy has specific and defined circumstances that go beyond day to day banter … there is no crisis in Zimbabwe which needs external intervention under established international treaties and conventions”. 

This is a fundamental pushback by the Zimbabwean regime, which makes an appeal to international diplomacy and legalities.

The notion of a crisis is relegated to “day to day banter”.

This means the Zimbabwean regime sees state-sponsored human rights violations, arrests and detention of journalists and political opponents and the torture of citizens as “banter”.

l This is an abridged version of Alex Magaisa’s latest Big Saturday Read posting

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