By Henning Melber and Roger Southall
In late November 2017 Zimbabwe’s, securocrats replaced the nonagenarian Robert Gabriel Mugabe with his long-time confidante Emmerson Mnangagwa, declaring Zimbabwe “open for business”. Economic diplomacy sought to normalise relations with Brussels, London and Washington.
Correspondingly, there were hopes that the end of Mugabe’s rule would bring about some improvement in human and political rights domestically and greater opportunity for Western investment.
Sadly, our new article, Zimbabwe’s Foreign Policy Under Mnangagwa, demonstrates that hopes for a new era were misplaced.
Despite Mnangagwa being less prone to theatricality than his predecessor, there have been few if any changes in Zimbabwe’s political trajectory.
A deepening economic crisis combined with a brutal crackdown on the government’s domestic opponents has resulted in many disappointments.
While the government likes to claim it is open for business, it is clearly not open for democracy —and even where business is concerned the key question is “open for whom?”.
Alliances between former liberation movements have always shaped Sadc’s regional approach to Zimbabwe.
The Mugabe regime could rely on the solidarity of the member states (except Botswana).
Nonetheless, the more Zimbabwe began to parody a failed state, the more the ageing Mugabe became an embarrassment.
It was this legacy that Mnangagwa initially sought to address by making visits in early 2018 to Angola, Namibia, Mozambique, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), while receiving South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa in Harare.
Mnangagwa was also welcomed in Botswana by former president Ian Khama, a former vocal critic of Mugabe.
His successor Mokgweetsi Masisi visited Zimbabwe shortly thereafter.
Open displays of solidarity emphasised that both the AU and Sadc remained tolerant of Zimbabwe’s domestic politics.
Both organisations had been happy to gloss over the military’s de facto displacement of Mugabe as an unconstitutional change of government; likewise, they endorsed the dubious election results returning Zanu PF to power at the end of July 2018.
The violence, which erupted in response by an electorate which felt cheated was generously overlooked.
Sadc’s annual summit in Dar es Salaam in 2019 demanded an end to Western sanctions.
Ramaphosa had been vocal in this cause at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
But the continued openly repressive nature of the regime did not make loyalty easier.
Although eager for relations to remain cordial, South Africa despatched envoys to Harare in August 2020 to press restraint upon the Mnangagwa government.
The regime was responding to its latest crisis by a massive crackdown on opponents.
An already devastated economy had been plunged into further distress by Covid-19, with up to 800 000 of Zimbabwe’s still-resident population said to be on the verge of starvation.
However, when the South Africans met with Mnangagwa onAugust 9 2020, they were subjected to a presidential harangue and refused permission to meet with the opposition.
A subsequent mission, despatched by the ANC rather than the South African government, was similarly shoddily treated.
However, although South African patience may be wearing thin, Sadc has preferred to officially ignore the crisis by remaining silent.
But while “business as usual” translates into continued inter-regime solidarity, it does not translate into increased economic collaboration.
In response to the abuse of human rights, the US and EU imposed sanctions upon individuals and companies close to the government.
This provided Mugabe’s regime with the opportunity to blame its economic woes upon the West.
This mantra was echoed by Mnangagwa, who decried sanctions as western attempts to bring about “regime change”.
Unimpressed by the rhetoric, the US extended restrictive measures against targeted individuals and companies in August 2018.
In March 2019, US sanctions were renewed under the National Emergencies Act. These apply to 141 individuals, as well as some 56 companies.
In contrast, the EU demonstrated more willingness to re-engage.
In October 2019 the EU announced another aid package, bringing financial support during the year to 67.5 million Euro, totalling 287 million Euro since 2014, this making the EU Zimbabwe’s biggest donor.
As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, the EU added another 14.2 million Euro humanitarian assistance in 2020.
The changes in EU strategy were downplayed by Harare, and Mnangagwa continued to blame the West for sanctions he compared with cancer.
Given its concessions, the EU was not impressed. Responding to criticism at an anti-sanctions day march in October 2019 it declared: “Zimbabwe is not where it is because of the so-called sanctions, but years of mismanagement of the economy and corruption”.
Similarly, the US ambassador dismissed “any responsibility for the catastrophic state of the economy and the government’s abuse of its own citizens”.
Instead, State Security minister Owen Ncube was added to the sanctions list for leading state-sanctioned human rights abuses under the new dispensation.
Thereafter, too, US Senate’s foreign relations committee chair Jim Risch called upon Sadc members to “focus their energies on supporting democracy, not kleptocratic regimes”, which led to Zimbabwean Foreign Minister Moyo threatening to cut diplomatic ties with Washington.
In sum, Mnangagwa’s approach to the sanctions issue has failed to bring any reward. Rather than building on the EU’s concessions and perhaps driving a wedge between the EU and the US, it appears to have reinforced rather than narrowed polarities.
Under Mnangagwa, foreign and economic policy combined around the search for new investments and the ending (or easing) of sanctions by the US and EU.
However, Mnangagwa’s hopes of re-orienting Zimbabwe’s foreign policy have been confounded by his government’s own actions.
Its repressive response to mounting economic and political crisis has increased rather than diminished its chances of overcoming its isolation.
The more that the Mnangagwa government fails to engage democratically with its own citizens, the more it will negate any prospect of re-engagement with the West.
Zimbabwean foreign policy remains locked in the parameters of recent times past: looking to regional solidarity, estranged from the West, and increasingly dependent upon China, its most powerful friend.
Yet China is a country with its own very clearly defined interests, and history may well prove that these do not align with those of the government and people of Zimbabwe.
*Henning Melber is extraordinary professor, department of political sciences, University of Pretoria, senior research associate, The Nordic Africa Institute Uppsala, and senior research fellow, Institute for Commonwealth Studies/Centre for Advanced Study at the University of London.
*Roger Southall is professor emeritus in sociology, University of the Witwatersrand and professorial research associate, School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.