SA needs more diplomatic muscle to crack Zimbabwe’s defiant govt

Mnangagwa and Ramaphosa

Amid a spiralling economic and political crisis, Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa addressed the people of his country on August 4. His speech, though sudden — four days after his government’s violent clampdown on the July 31 citizen protests — was highly anticipated. There may have been a desperate hope among some sections of the bruised citizenry that the president would, perhaps in the remotest of ways, acknowledge their suffering and hint at atoning for the state’s brutality.

However, the “crocodile” neither acknowledged the legitimacy of their widespread grievances against his leadership nor took any responsibility for bringing the country to this precipice. Instead, Mnangagwa argued that his administration “has been undermined by the divisive politics of the opposition, sanctions, cyclones, droughts and now Covid-19”, and blamed widespread protests on “a few rogue Zimbabweans acting in league with foreign detractors”. The president’s speech exposed a tone-deaf and intransigent government at war with its long-suffering citizens.

For the past two decades Zimbabwean citizens have engaged in diverse, valiant efforts to use every legally available avenue to expedite democratic reform. Many Zimbabwean citizens have made heroic efforts to shed light on the gross corruption and mismanagement that has characterised Zanu-PF’s rule and created a staggering man-made disaster. They are now caught between a regime willing to go to any lengths to crackdown on dissent, the need to navigate the day-to-day difficulties of securing precarious livelihoods, and the fear of contracting Covid-19.

In the face of an unrelenting regime, and rising from the crushed hopes of July 31 2020 protests, Zimbabwean citizens have grafted the #ZimbabweanLivesMatter campaign onto the energy and anger of the global outcry of  #BlackLivesMatter.

Can the SA government, whose president has taken  an, unequivocal stance on #BlackLivesMatter, continue with an indeterminate posture on the plight of its neighbour’s black lives?

Their economic and political fate, as aptly observed by SA Institute of International Affairs CEO Elizabeth Sidiropoulos, is intertwined with its own and that of the region. SA is ideally placed to push for change in Zimbabwe, with the two countries sharing many social, political and economic ties. SA remains Zimbabwe’s most important trading partner. Zimbabwe imports 40% of its total imports from, and exports 75% of its total exports to, SA. However, despite the countries’ growing stake in each other’s fates, SA’s response to the deepening crisis across the Limpopo leaves much to be desired.

Zimbabwe is now considered one of the four most food-insecure countries in the world, alongside Yemen, Somalia and South Sudan. More than 60% of Zimbabwe’s 15.6-million people are considered food insecure. About one in three children under five suffer from stunted growth as a result of chronic malnutrition. The country has an inflation rate above 800%, and the IMF projects an economic contraction of 10.4% in 2020, after a 12.8% contraction in 2019. The health-care system has collapsed, and every day Zimbabwean citizens face persistent fuel shortages and rolling blackouts.

The number of Zimbabweans using illegal entry points to SA along the Limpopo River to access medical services and basic commodities has dramatically increased in recent weeks, heightening the chances of cross-border transmission of Covid-19 in both directions. As many desperate Zimbabweans make the dangerous journey south, the SA government is poorly prepared to deal with an escalating migrant crisis. The country is wrestling with its own record unemployment levels.

Increasingly, regional integration and the flow of people, commodities, knowledge and information means insecurity anywhere is a threat to security everywhere, challenging the principle of non-interference that has guided foreign relations between Southern African states and become institutionalised in the Southern African Development Community (Sadc). Decades of  non-interference, liberation politics and “quiet diplomacy” on the part of the ANC has simply allowed a political and military elite in Zimbabwe to plunder the country’s resources, undermine democracy and create an economic crisis with implications for the wider Southern African region. A more urgent and concrete stance is imperative.

It is therefore befitting that after what had seemed like another bout of silence, the SA government, through the department of international relations & co-operation, “noted with concern the reports related to human rights violations in the Republic of Zimbabwe”. However, from the Mbeki to Zuma administrations this political gesturing is well-worn.

Building on #ZimbabweanLivesMatter, a campaign that has attracted resounding regional and international intervention calls from ordinary citizens, celebrities, politicians, diplomats and multilateral institutions alike, it is now easier for SA and Sadc to begin a meaningful engagement with all stakeholders. But will they?

SA in particular has an opportunity as a strategic arbiter to harness all these voices across multiple platforms that can begin the work of persuading stakeholders to come to the negotiating table. It is time for the SA government to boldly break out of the “liberation war pact” cocoon and stand with the citizens of Zimbabwe.

SA’s emphasis on government-to-government engagement, reported to have been initiated through a telephonic call between international relations minister Naledi Pandor and her Zimbabwean counterpart, Sibusiso Moyo, seems to thwart any hopes for including citizen voices. Pandor’s non-committal reference to “SA’s readiness to assist if requested” does not inspire confidence of a radical departure from previous administrations.

Mnangagwa’s August 4 speech and government spokesperson Nick Mangwana’s press release two days later declaring reports of human rights violations as “false” are hardly a request for assistance. SA  now needs to build the diplomatic muscle required to crack Harare’s hardball defence.

Through the #ZimbabweanLivesMatter campaign citizens’ request for assistance has been unambiguously echoed and clearly endorsed regionally and globally. As well noted by Good Governance Africa executive director Chris Maroleng, it is incumbent on especially government in SA “to stand up and basically call on the government of Zimbabwe to cease and desist from such antidemocratic behaviour”. SA has a unique opportunity to get it right this time. Many are ready to assist.

• Mashingaidze is senior researcher at Good Governance Africa.