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SADC Panel of Elders’ visit to Zimbabwe raises faint hope for reform

Southern African Development Community Panel of Elders and Mediation Reference Group, top row from left: Ambassador Lucy Mungoma, former permanent secretary in the ministry responsible for foreign affairs in Botswana Charles Tibone, Ambassador Molosiwa Selepeng, mediation expert Hellen Lwegasira, Ambassador Andrew Mtetwa, Zanu-PF Secretary for Finance and Economic Affairs Patrick Chinamasa. Bottom row from left: Former president of Tanzania Jakaya Kikwete (withdrew from group), Ambassador Joseph Nourrice, President of Botswana Mokgweetsi Masisi and former vice-president of Mauritius Paramasivum Pillay Vyapoory. (Photo: Supplied)
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SADC could take a lead in pushing for political reforms in Zimbabwe, but South Africa’s response hasn’t helped. A visit to Zimbabwe by regional body SADC’s Panel of Elders has raised a faint glimmer of hope that President Emmerson Mnangagwa and his Zanu-PF could be pushed to make reforms after their official, but contested victory in last week’s controversial elections.

But South Africa’s response to the election results could have undercut the panel’s chances of success.

The Panel of Elders of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) was due to arrive in Zimbabwe on 28 August and to leave on Friday, 1 September, according to a note sent from the SADC secretariat to the Zimbabwean government.

They arrived in the country and met several stakeholders involved in last week’s elections, including the opposition Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC), sources told Daily Maverick.

According to the note, the panel was to have been headed by former Tanzanian president Jakaya Kikwete. He was to have been accompanied by another panel member, former Botswana labour and home affairs minister Charles Tibone and Lesotho’s ambassador to Zimbabwe, Mpeo Mahase-Moiloa, a member of SADC’s Mediation Reference Group.

However, the state-owned Herald newspaper reported this week that Kikwete had pulled out of the mission, which Tibone now headed. The Panel of Elders and the Mediation Reference Group were recently created by SADC to mediate conflict prevention, management and resolution.

The note said the panel was responding to an invitation from the Zimbabwean government to visit the country in connection with the 23 and 24 August presidential elections.

SADC’s election observer mission, headed by former Zambian vice-president Nevers Mumba, pleased the CCC but annoyed Zanu-PF by delivering a sharply critical assessment of the elections, concluding that “some aspects of the Harmonised Elections fell short of the requirements of the Constitution of Zimbabwe, the Electoral Act, and the SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections (2021)”.

The interim report’s criticism included that Zimbabwe authorities had restricted opposition access to the voters’ roll, that the recent “Patriot Act” had restricted freedom of expression and that the state media had favoured Zanu-PF in their election coverage.

Other election observer missions, from the European Union, the US’s Carter Center, the Commonwealth and, to a lesser extent, the African Union, were also critical of the elections.

But it was the unexpectedly sharp rebuke from the normally reticent SADC, of which Zimbabwe is a member, that made Harare and others sit up and take notice.

Possible reforms

Brian Raftopoulos, a veteran Zimbabwe analyst and political scientist at the University of Cape Town, told Daily Maverick that the “SADC report is very important, the first since 2008 that has been critical of elections in Zimbabwe.

“As you know, the SADC intervention in 2008 led by Mbeki resulted in the GNU [Government of National Unity] of 2009-2013. How things go from here will depend on whether the countries represented in the Panel of Elders are prepared to take a lead in pushing for political reforms and willing to build a national, regional and international consensus on such political reforms.

“Given that the EU, US, Commonwealth and the UN have largely endorsed the SADC report, there could be a good basis for such a consensus to push the Mnangagwa regime.

“The discussion on debt arrears with the ADB could also provide another platform for pressure,” he added, referring to the ongoing negotiations with the Zimbabwe government convened by the African Development Bank president, Akinwumi Adesina, and facilitated by former Mozambican president Joaquim Chissano.

The aim is to find a way to erase Zimbabwe’s arrears to international financial institutions so it can resume borrowing. This would probably require political reforms by Mnangagwa.

But Raftopoulos said he doubted there was enough unity in SADC to push Mnangagwa to make any concession.

SA ‘disappointing’

“Most disappointing is the position of the SA government. Between the outpourings of [Fikile] Mbalula replicating the narratives of Zanu-PF and the timid response of [President Cyril] Ramaphosa, it is clear that because the ANC is going through its own existential crisis, it is unable to take a lead on democratic issues in Zimbabwe.

“This challenge could make it easier for the Mnangagwa regime to lessen the impact of the SADC report and draw the elders into yet another endorsement of another disputed election.”

Raftopoulos was referring in part to recent remarks by ANC Secretary-General Fikile Mbalula that opposition CCC leader Nelson Chamisa was an “American puppet” and tweeting “Viva President Mnangwangwa” (sic)  after the Zimbabwean president declared victory last Sunday.

Ramaphosa issued a statement saying South Africa congratulated the government and people of Zimbabwe on the holding of the elections. He also took note of the preliminary election reports by SADC, the African Union and others and called on all the Zimbabwean parties to work in unison to sustain peace. DM