Former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Walter Kansteiner reflects on his dealing with former South African President Thabo Mbeki in formulating U.S. policy toward Zimbabwe from 2001 to 2003.
by Michelle Gavin
Welcome to Reflections, a bimonthly series of conversations that invites former senior U.S.-Africa policymakers to discuss difficult issues that they confronted in their careers with the benefit of hindsight.
The first conversation in the series features Walter Kansteiner, who served as assistant secretary of state for African Affairs in the George W. Bush administration from June 2001 to November 2003.
MG: Thank you so much for taking time to do this. I’ve been interested in talking to people who’ve been involved in U.S.-Africa policy at a very senior level about what they reflect on years later, about issues they find themselves considering, with the benefit of hindsight, and wondering how things might have gone differently if they had known then what they know now. And as you and I have discussed, you often reflect on the attempt—very, very serious and sustained attempts, but ultimately unsuccessful attempts—to change the calculus of Robert Mugabe, former President of Zimbabwe, and the ZANU–PF elites around him as they became more and more repressive in the early 2000s, driving the economy and the state of basic freedoms in Zimbabwe further toward a downward trajectory.
MG: So just as a place to start, I just want to reflect on the fact that when President George W. Bush took office and, and you came on board as the assistant secretary, things had already started to go south in Zimbabwe.
WK: Yeah. Because I think it was the 2000 parliamentary election, which would have just happened before the Bush administration came in. The 2000 election was really the first election that Mugabe clearly stole and fixed and quickly revealed that he was capable of manipulating democratic outcomes and certainly willing to do it.
MG: Right. Because there’s been the defeat of his preferred constitutional referendum, right, as I recall, earlier in 2000?
WK: Yeah, and that was a shocker. And then he essentially ignored it and proceeded to the next set of elections, which he then clearly stole.
MG: So things were already sort of a problem in the inbox straight away.
WK: They were. And we all kind of knew—we all being State Department and senior foreign policy folks in the U.S. government that cared about Africa and were interested in Zimbabwe—pretty much everyone realized this was not a good trajectory.
MG: Absolutely. And it wasn’t too long into your tenure when you had Congress passing the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act. That was signed into law at the end of 2001. So the U.S. strategy involved some pressure that came from the Hill. We were already in a posture of trying to change the calculus in Zimbabwe by making it unattractive to continue on this path. But also in that bill, and in some of the statements that you made to Congress and elsewhere, there were clear efforts to signal that the U.S. was interested in supporting a Zimbabwe that wanted to turn things around, bolster the rule of law, respect civil and political rights.
WK: Definitely. And at the time I think there was pretty good synchronization and agreement between the Hill and the administration that we needed to bolster the independent civil society in Zimbabwe so, in fact, the government couldn’t run amok there.
WK: I mean, I think both sides of the aisle were pretty aware that this could really break bad. Who sponsored that bill?
MG: It was a Frist-Feingold bill.
WK: Was it Frist-Feingold?
MG: It was.
WK: That’s great. So, see, I don’t speak with forked tongue, I’m right.
MG: Yeah, it was tremendously bipartisan. Michael Miller on the Frist staff did a great deal of work on it, and I think you’re right, there was a lot of shared concern, kind of a shared diagnosis, of what was going wrong and worry about the potential effects, not just for Zimbabweans, but for the region as a whole.
WK: Yeah, exactly. And then when was the next Zim election? Was it ’02?
MG: It was ’02, it was the March 2002 presidential election.
WK: Yeah, and he absolutely stole that one. And all the intimidation that took place before and after—but a lot before—it was just a general plan of intimidation. I mean, it was a demonstration that we’re going to run this thing.
MG: Right. And it turned out to be incredibly costly, in terms of human lives, and, it turned out, the entire economy.
WK: Tragic. The whole thing was just tragic.
MG: I remember talking to journalists who’d been beaten up and activists who essentially were in hiding. There was a great deal of violence and fear.
WK: Independent judges —because Zimbabwe had a pretty authentic, independent judiciary—the independent judges that were not part of this at all, they would all of a sudden find themselves in automobile wrecks and things like that. It was pretty nasty.
MG: It was harrowing. So maybe just describe a little bit about the kind of strategy, then, that the administration was working on to address it.
WK: So I have to get my tick-tock right, but pre-election, pre-March of 2002, we were trying to make sure that the political and humanitarian situation didn’t completely spin out of control, and part of that was, number one, to send signals to Mugabe that we’re all watching, and two, we would bolster parts of the civil society that were under duress, like the independent press and the church. I remember that the Catholic church in particular was a strong voice. We were going to help civil society in their battle to keep this thing on the democratic rails. But at the same time, definitely sending signals to the Mugabe regime that violations will produce consequences.
MG: Right. It’s not a cost-free proposition to be that repressive. And then they rolled into that election, which did have that incredibly violent run-up and was so deeply flawed as to lack real legitimacy.
WK: And, this is just kind of a sidelight, but it’s interesting sidelight. At one point, we had pretty good reports that said ZANU–PF clearly lost the election, there’s no two ways about that, but interestingly Mugabe was willing to accept the loss and was trying to cut a deal with the opposition parties, and his generals at a critical late evening at the presidential palace said, ‘No way, stand tall. Don’t go.’ And kind of bucked him back up and he, then he never looked back. And I don’t know. Mugabe was a wily old man. Was that a test of his generals? Was he testing his generals to see that he still had the military behind him? Or did he authentically realize that he had lost and was willing to play it straight, but they wouldn’t let him play it straight? We’ll never know. We never knew.
MG: Right. What a tantalizing possibility, though.
WK: Yes. To the point where we even—I remember agonizing over, well, how do we do a back channel to Mugabe to give him the confidence to do the right thing and step down and still save face somehow? It never amounted to anything. I still to this day, don’t know if that was just his test to his generals, or if, in fact, the generals did buck him up, but then he was kind of solidified and bolstered and kept marching forward and never—and never looked back until then when he finally went, what, twenty years later?
MG: No, I don’t think any of us anticipated how long he was going to hang on there. But that is interesting, just that little flicker, right? I can think of a number of instances where the U.S. government has agonized over how to signal to a very repressive leader with blood on their hands, who might be willing to peacefully step aside. How to signal that there could be a way to do that without landing in prison. The trade-offs to try to make horrible violence end, it’s actually a really hard business, because both you don’t know how sincere, how real that is, and it’s also just a difficult message to deliver. It’s difficult to get everybody on the same page within the USG and wrestle with the issues with accountability.
WK: In any case, the Mugabe flicker of hope turned out to be just a flicker. And then we pretty well realized that he would stop at nothing both politically and militarily—and certainly economically. He was willing to destroy his own country to stay in power.
MG: Once that was clear and the flickers of hope were gone, the plan was to try and make it just kind of untenable?
WK: And to get those around him to realize that this was not going to end well for any of them. Financially, personally—any way. And so hence the whole sanctions regime. What do we do to really get them to feel the pain? There were some pretty aggressive economic and financial sanctions levied on the list of Zimbabwe “who’s who”: ZANU–PF officials as well as ZANU–PF-aligned businesspeople. Because we wanted that entire ZANU–PF elite to feel the pain—that their actions have repercussions for them. And that’s of course when we quickly realized we need to do this together with other allies, and London was our first stop, the EU was willing as well to some extent. And we pulled together a whole coalition of the willing that that would be game to be part and parcel of this pressuring the ZANU–PF elite.
MG: I think so often U.S. officials have to grapple with the reality that our influence does have limits. And particularly when we find ourselves isolated, sanctions regimes are rarely very effective. So you were working to build, I presume, as broad a multilateral coalition as possible.
WK: Exactly, exactly. And I can’t remember all of the countries we enlisted, but it was a pretty nice list. It was pretty comprehensive. Certainly among the north Atlantic, it was complete.
MG: Right. And Zimbabwe was expelled from the Commonwealth and you were trying to bring the most important, most relevant African players on board as well.
WK: Exactly. And that’s when we really turned our attention to the big neighbor: South Africa.
MG: Of course, South Africa makes sense as an absolutely critical player in any attempt to influence events in Zimbabwe. And the Bush administration had more broadly decided on a strategy of both bolstering and working closely where interests align with what were being called “anchor states”—and South Africa was one of them.
WK: Yes, and in Zimbabwe’s case, clearly the most important of the anchor states. Although Nigeria and Kenya could be useful and helpful, it’s South Africa that’s actually physically and geographically and politically going to be able to bring the most force to bear against Mugabe.
MG: Absolutely. The moral authority of South Africa, particularly when dealing with an individual who had liberation hero credentials, and the implications for the South Africans themselves of the massive flow of migrants from Zimbabwe fleeing both persecution and economic collapse—it makes all the sense in the world. And this was a strategy that was pursued at the very highest levels, right? President Bush personally got involved in discussing these issues with then-South African President Mbeki.
WK: Exactly. And the key meeting was in Pretoria, July 2003. By this point our sanctions had probably really been rolled out in early 2003—and so now we really need their help to make them bite. And so President Bush and President Mbeki had their meeting and there were lots of issues on the table. Remember, HIV/AIDS was raging through Africa, and we in the Bush administration were trying to roll out a lot on that front and getting some resistance from Mbeki’s administration.
MG: Right, and he was embracing these HIV denialists.
WK: And certainly his minister of health was too. And we had lots of issues to work over with them, but this was right at the top. I mean, HIV and Zimbabwe were the two big issues that we were going to want to make sure we spent some time on. Both a little bit sensitive, right? I mean, we were going to be critical of Mbeki on HIV, and yet we needed his help on Zimbabwe. So we were diplomatic and careful and balanced, but when it came to Zimbabwe, he right at the top of the agenda gave us complete assurances that he was with us in our objectives and our goals—that is, that Zimbabwe had to be brought to a democratic, new beginning. And part of that is that Mugabe is going to have to find a different role to play. Now, we never said he’s got to actually depart, but the implication was, yes, he can no longer be head of state. We’ll find another role, we’ll kick him upstairs and let him be chairman of the board kind of thing. But Thabo completely understood that Mugabe had to go, and his response and guarantee was “leave it in my good hands and I will take care of this issue, and within six months we’ll have a completely different political dynamic in Zimbabwe.”
MG: It must’ve been kind of a great moment to hear him say that. You don’t have to convince him that this is a problem—he’s right there with you and he’s got a strategy he’s going to pursue.
WK: Yep, it was great. And the timing of it was ideal, the world had seen what Mugabe had been up to for a year now, since the election, and the economy was really tanking. Remember, we had hyper-hyperinflation. And it was spilling over into South Africa. Immigrants and refugees were flooding across the Limpopo. And so Mugabe had caused Thabo grief, had caused him trouble, at home. So we were ready to believe—and readily did believe—that Thabo truly understood the issue, was experiencing some of the repercussions himself in his own country, and hence would, in fact, do what he said he would do. So yes, you’re exactly right. There was relief—like, whew, got that one right.
MG: I try to put myself in your shoes and think how delighted I would be. Both because I would feel that on this really important policy issue of Zimbabwe we’re moving in the right direction and the coalition is broader and does include this important African power. I would also, I think, probably—and I think I probably would be misreading it—but I would think, well, perhaps this bodes well for other areas where this bilateral relationship can deepen and grow. We’re going to be able to work on a range of things together.
WK: Including the HIV issue—this is, “we’re really seeing eye-to-eye here.”
MG: Right. Building trust and we’ve got this big overlap of shared concern about pushing back on violent authoritarianism, which is something that I think we always want to think about South Africa – that because of their history and their amazing constitution, that we’re on the same page about the importance of pushing back against political repression.
WK: I mean, we see South Africa as this city on the hill for democracy in sub-Saharan Africa. Because they went through what they went through and came out with Nelson Mandela and a true democratic process with deep democratic institutions and, as you say, a constitution to back it up—so that’s your natural ally. That’s your beacon of the democratic rule of law against authoritarianism; that’s your neighborhood champion. And so, we thought “all makes sense” that he sees it so clearly, like we see it.
MG: Right, and so I recall that—I know this from going back and rereading some news clips—after that bilateral meeting, President Bush made some public remarks where he said, ‘I have no intention of second-guessing his tactics,’ referring to President Mbeki and the Zimbabwe crisis. So, he is publicly all in, now our president’s credibility is sort of lashed to this idea.
WK: Because we’ve been told that we are not only aligned—South Africa and the U.S. aligned—but the South Africans are now in the lead and have got it covered. And last thing President Bush wanted to do was, like you said, second-guess him—I mean, you’re not going to second-guess him, he’s given his word that he’s going to take care of this problem.
MG: Of course. Here you have African leadership, aligned with our goals. Why would you not want to do everything you can to say, “I delight in this”? So it makes sense to me that it happened, it just looms large now, of course, because Mbeki didn’t follow through. And so, at what point did it become clear to you that he was not actually pursuing a strategy aimed at finding an exit for Mugabe and a more democratic dispensation for Zimbabwe?
WK: This is going to sound self-serving, but when he said it, I was maybe the only one in the room that really wondered if he was telling the truth. I was a little suspicious from the get-go. Not so much “oh, he’s just flat out, boldface lying to us.” It was more, “I don’t know how tactically he does this.” How is he going to get Mugabe to step down as president of Zimbabwe? And I’ve decided, well, wow, this is a heavy load he’s taken on, wonder if he can really do it. So, I was already a little questioning how, not so much the motivation. And it was only a few months later that I think I realized not only does Mbeki not have the tactical capability of doing it, he also doesn’t really have the will to do it.
MG: Do you recall what led you to that conclusion? Because you’re right, the tactics did seem challenging. I mean, particularly in a society where seniority is still valued so much. I remember people endlessly parsing the notion that Mbeki’s father was more Mugabe’s contemporary and therefore President Mbeki would need to be very respectful and it would be very hard for him to be assertive, just on a personal level, because of the generational dynamics and the history.
WK: That’s true, and I think there was that. And Lindiwe Sisulu, who was kind of tasked to be my contact and point person to work on the “Zimbabwe issue” was in the same boat. She was a Sisulu. They’re a freedom-fighting family that respects other freedom fighters. So, for her to go up to Harare and suggest that Mugabe needs to move on is highly unlikely, culturally.
MG: So you have a contextual awareness that this is going to be a lot tougher than maybe it seems at face value, but then it becomes clear to you that this isn’t a genuine effort anyway.
WK: I was reviewing some analysis about the hopes and fears and objectives of ANC elites. And what was the most interesting part of that was the fear. Who did they perceive as the number one enemy in the world? What was the number-one threat to their very existence? And that number-one threat, from their perspective, was the United States of America. So that was quite revealing analysis, that reinforced my realization that this wasn’t going to really happen.
MG: And do you think that when you look at it through that lens—through how the ANC actually felt, maybe still feel, about the United States of America—do you wonder if they felt that we weren’t being honest about what concerned us in Zimbabwe? Do you think they suspected our motives?
WK: I think they suspected that our motives were steeped in old and incorrect perceptions that centered on concerns for the white farming community. The South Africans thought our concerns were about farms being occupied and expropriated and white Zimbabweans being kicked off the land. So their cultural misperceptions and our cultural lack of understanding got us to the point where we thought we were actually tied at the hip and great allies—and we weren’t.
MG: It’s really interesting, because every U.S. administration keeps trying to reapproach the South Africans and seek a strong, close relationship.
WK: And we’re still trying.
MG: We’re still trying. As you reflect on the whole thing, do you think that the U.S. both misreads South Africa’s appetite for a close relationship, but also misreads their influence in the region? Do you think that if, if they wanted to, they could do more?
WK: Great question. And I think we definitely misread their motivations, because we want to believe that they believe what we want them to believe, you know what I mean?
MG: I do.
WK: We want to cast them in this rainbow-nation, pro-democracy limelight, which is not really where they—well, that’s not fair. They have been there, and they occasionally go there, but there are other issues that make up their political culture, too. So, I think we misread it. As far as their capabilities go, I think we assign way higher likelihood of success, so to speak, to their abilities than we ought to. And I think in these last five to ten years, that really has become the case. And now I’m stepping into your territory because you know the last five or ten years better than I do, but you look at the SANDF and the whole military capability of the South Africans—they can’t project power like they used to in terms of just military assets. They no longer have that. Their economic might is still real and big and significant and powerful, so they still have that, but post-Zuma—or Zuma and post-Zuma—from the high-road, ethical perspective, he’s brought them way down. And so they don’t really have the bully pulpit among other Africans that they used to.
MG: Yeah, moral authority is a hard thing to sustain. I’m curious, when you reflect on that personal commitment that turned out not to be sincere, do you ever ask yourself: if you had known then what you know now, what you would have done differently?
WK: I think it goes back to—and maybe it wouldn’t have changed anything to be totally realistic, it might not have changed a thing—but we wouldn’t have spent as much time and effort and hope on relying on the big neighbor. And maybe, just maybe, it would have taken a slightly different tactic. Maybe we would have tried more at the AU, for instance—where I don’t think we would’ve gotten very far—but maybe we actually would have tried to enlist Obasanjo and the Nigerians, or maybe we would adjust to work harder at getting truly international. Pull in the Japanese and Chinese. The Chinese would have been really a clever move because that’s, remember, who came to save Mugabe during the hyperinflation. So probably unlikely, but maybe. I spent very little time, quite frankly, working the Chinese angle on pressuring Harare, because I thought South Africa would be easier and better—closer. But maybe we should have, in 20-20 hindsight. South Africa didn’t hurt Zimbabwe—they certainly didn’t throw up any sanctions of their own, kept all the borders open, kept loaning them money—but they didn’t really bail them out like the Chinese did. So maybe that would have been the better diplomatic angle. Cut them off at the pass with the Chinese. But the South Africans were the logical choice.
MG: My question is not to suggest there was some other obvious approach —that’s not what I’m getting at—but I’m sure we all think about, if I had known then maybe I could have tried this or that. But I suppose once, so publicly, it was clear that Mbeki was going to be in the lead, then it might’ve been very difficult to ask anyone else to get involved. Because it goes straight to “what are the South Africans doing?” No one would want to unnecessarily irritate them or get crosswise with them and wade into difficult waters. So, in some ways, the diplomatic success of getting the South Africans to say, “we’ve got this, we have a strategy where we’re going to work on it,” then foreclosed other options.
WK: That’s right. And again, I think that exact comment was very truthful and multilayered. I’m not going to second-guess Thabo Mbeki when he tells me he’s got the situation under control. I’m not going to second-guess him because I trust him as a head of state and he has given me these assurances. And I also am not going to second-guess him because he knows the situation better than I did, and I don’t want to undermine him.
WK: And you’re right, once those assurances have been publicly given and publicly made, to send the assistant secretary off to Beijing to try to hotbox the Chinese to cut off the loan to Harare would have been really peculiar.
Although probably should have done it.
MG: Try everything, right? But there’s also just the very real limits of U.S. influence.
WK: Yeah, and in the meantime, the Congo War is heating up. You’ve been there, there’s a lot of stuff you end up juggling. It’s a big continent.
MG: It is a big continent. We’ve got a lot of different concerns and priorities and interests. And you can’t sacrifice all of them to any one thing. But it’s a tremendously interesting thing to think about because it does raise these issues of trust and credibility—of the way the U.S. sees itself and the way other countries see us, and the way we don’t ever seem to learn that lesson.
WK: And what I guess I would ask myself, when I ask you the question, is this: is it significantly changed in 2021? So, we’re kind of looking back, it’s in the early 2000s. But twenty-one years or nineteen years on, whatever it’s been, is Cyril Ramaphosa’s leadership actually genuinely different? And this is where I’m just a glutton for punishment. I want to believe it is. That actually, our engagement with South Africa really is one of the anchors of policy and we really should be doing it. I’m like, “God, Walter, you haven’t learned anything?” But I want to believe a different, more productive partnership is possible, and that Cyril can overcome the divisions within the ANC that often muddy South Africa’s objectives and intentions. But I mean, do you think that’s just false hope? Should we just learn our lesson and get on with it?
MG: Well, I had a chance to ask Naledi Pandor in September “What is South Africa going to do about the fact that things have gotten more repressive in Zimbabwe and eSwatini?” Essentially casting that same line into the waters, hoping for a kind of robust defense of democratic values in southern Africa and South Africa’s role. But her response was very much in keeping with where they have been—in this sense, we must make them crazy, because they don’t really attempt to mislead us on this. It was “well, if they were to ask for our help on governance issues, then of course we would be eager to help, but we can’t impose this on them.”
WK: Actually, that’s very honest.
MG: Oh it’s very honest. A little deflating, but very honest.
WK: Well, I think I’ve answered my own question: we don’t learn.
MG: Hope springs eternal. Which also is something about Americans, right? Both the way we imagine others to see us in the best possible light, because that’s the way we like to see ourselves, and our kind of unflagging optimism that maybe this time things will be better. Which are actually things I like about our national character, but we do probably need to reckon with a clear head.
WK: Exactly. Just my rhetorical question to you: I want to believe that our relationship with South Africa can be different; actually that’s like “wow, way too optimistic, dial it back.” But that’s where I still am. As the rest of Africa, in fact, does develop into the twenty-first century both economically and politically, I suppose you would have to assume that South Africa’s leadership pole position does diminish. We’ve already mentioned it on the military side, but even on the economic side, as others grow and become stronger and larger economic players, then perhaps South Africa doesn’t loom quite so large. But that’s not entirely true, either. I mean, Mozambique is going to grow largely because of South African finance, for instance. South African banks—and they’re going to make good money doing it—they’re going to provide real development capital for Mozambique for them to develop, too. I think we’ll be wrestling with this question about South Africa for a long time.
MG: I think you’re right. I think there’s just no positive trajectory for southern Africa—economic, political, or otherwise—without a really robust South African role. There just isn’t.
WK: I agree.
MG: But I am so grateful to you for your time and your reflections. Thank you so much.
Source: Council on Foreign Relations