‘South Africa and the Zimbabwe crisis’

The seminar was held at NAI on 21 November 2007. The following reflections are written by NAI researcher Amanda Hammar.

Brian Raftopoulos. Photo by Susanne Linderos.

Brian Raftopoulos, well known Zimbabwean scholar, political commentator and activist, recently presented a seminar at the Nordic Africa Institute, which was co-hosted by the Church of Sweden. The seminar concentrated firstly on the relationship of South Africa to Zimbabwe particularly since the late 1990s when the current political and economic crisis in Zimbabwe began in earnest, and secondly on the current South Africa-mediated negotiations between Zimbabwe’s ruling Zanu (PF) party (Zimbabwe African National Union (Patriotic Front) and the split opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

South Africa’s shifting approach to Zimbabwe
Regarding South Africa and Zimbabwe, Raftopoulos located President Mbeki’s somewhat infamous ‘quiet diplomacy’ towards the Mugabe regime in relation to several dynamics both within domestic South African politics and in relation to a wider anti-imperialist, trans-African politics. On the African and international stage, Mugabe has been highly skilled at using an anti-imperialist rhetoric to simultaneously legitimise, and mask the realities of, both his radical land reform and the brutal silencing of internal opposition to his rule. This has translated in part into an effective ideological policing of other African states and leaders – including South Africa – making it hard for them to dissent against his discourse or actions. At the same time, the new post-liberation South African state has chosen a clear path of trans-continental multilateralism within a wider African solidarity politics, and has not wanted to be seen as the regional bully.

Raftopoulos outlined several phases that signalled changes in the attitudes and approach of the South African government to Zimbabwe as the crisis across the border evolved. Initially, for example, during 1999 and early 2000, the South African government did not take the newly formed opposition MDC party seriously and rebuffed its approaches to hold discussions. However, between 2000 and 2002, the MDC showed itself to be a substantive force within Zimbabwe politics. Nonetheless, the ANC-dominated government in South Africa still had misgivings, for example in terms of how an MDC government would control the army if it came to power, or its ability to run the country and keep the state intact. At this point, South Africa tended to favour a reformed Zanu (PF) to rule Zimbabwe if possible, although as the crisis deepened, including growing battles within Zanu (PF) itself, a second option was to move towards a government of national unity.  

South Africa’s ambivalences concerning suitable solutions to Zimbabwe’s crisis continued in the period from 2002 and until early 2007. Differences and tensions arose within its own ruling alliance of the African National Congress (ANC), COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions) and South African Communist Party (SACP) over approaches to Zimbabwe. COSATU was highly critical of the Zimbabwe government’s treatment of labour and expressed overt solidarity with the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU). Similarly, the SACP criticised the human rights abuses in Zimbabwe and the political decline of the liberation movement.

A new phase of the South Africa-Zimbabwe relationship began following 11 March 2007 when many of the opposition in Zimbabwe, including MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai, were publicly beaten, arrested and/or tortured. The international response to this unashamed expression of political violence was enormous, and a critical African response could no longer be avoided. The Southern African regional grouping, SADC, met to discuss the issue and consequently mandated Thabo Mbeki to facilitate productive dialogue between Zanu (PF) and the opposition.

South African mediated talks between Zimbabwe’s political opponents
What was it that compelled each of the main Zimbabwean players to agree to enter into serious and sustained negotiations at this point, especially Zanu (PF) which had consistently refused to enter into, or had sabotaged, previous talks?

According to Raftopoulos, one of the key reasons for Zanu (PF) going into the talks was that “it has no reply to Zimbabwe’s economic decline”. The economy is in extreme crisis. The work force, both skilled and unskilled, has fled out of the country. The accumulation strategies of the economic elite and gains generated through patronage politics in these times of crisis, have not been used to invest in production but have rather fuelled hyper-inflation The land reform programme has been disastrous both in terms of its economic outcomes and its political distortions, each with its own devastating long-term implications. In addition, the party is embroiled in its own internal crisis around an intense succession battle. All this points to grave problems for both the party and the state – as well as the new elite – to reproduce themselves. The mediation talks offer a possible bridge towards ‘normalising’ the situation. Re-engagement with the international community more broadly may be another.

For the two different factions of the MDC, the talks represent the only viable avenue for either of them to engage in dialogue with Zanu (PF), as well as each other, and also with the broader regional and international communities. Both factions are in weakened positions in relation to political change, and at present there appear to be no feasible alternatives to pursue. However, this has not prevented threats being made by the Tsvangirai faction of the MDC to withdraw from the talks.

For SADC the talks represent a positive opportunity to promote African solutions to African problems. This in itself is a crucial factor in persuading President Mugabe to agree to engage in the process at all.

The focus of the mediation talks is necessarily fairly restricted at this stage to ensure that some basic agreement can be reached. Were the issues too many and too broad it’s unlikely that any progress could be made, although this means that a range of crucial constitutional, human rights and broader political and judicial issues have not been tabled or addressed. For the moment, the focus is on ensuring that an acceptable election can and does take place in 2008. This is critical for legitimising not only the Zimbabwe state in itself but also any renewed dialogue with the (Western) international community.

In addition to some of the limitations of the agenda, there has also been negative ‘fallout’ from the mediation talks in terms of the relationship between the MDC factions and the civic movement. Actors within the latter have felt left out of and marginalised by the mediation process, which has been largely secretive and narrow both in the composition of those involved and the topics being addressed. This has reinforced ongoing problems within the opposition itself in relation to questions of internal accountability, transparency and strategy. For the MDC, resolving these problems and consolidating itself as a party (or now two parties) has been made much harder and more complicated by having to operate in conditions of constant threat and sabotage by the Zimbabwe state and/or ruling party.

In spite of all this, there has been surprising progress in the talks. Yet even while progress is made, the Zimbabwe state and ruling party continue to display heavy authoritarianism and violence towards perceived or actual opposition members. And even if formal agreements are reached between the various parties, the real and urgent challenge in the short term remains the implementation of such agreements which falls largely in the hands of Zanu (PF), as well as monitoring such implementation for which responsibility remains unclear.

Raftopoulos remains hopeful about the talks in general, but acknowledges that the political culture in Zimbabwe more generally has been profoundly damaged and will take a long time to recover. The longer-term challenge, besides that of regenerating an inclusively democratic political and economic practice, remains a broader one of rebuilding a state with capacity not only to deliver services to its citizens, but also to be trusted by them again. The present distrust, and loss of hope more generally, are amongst Zanu (PF)’s worst legacies.

Zimbabwe, the EU–Africa summit and ongoing international engagement
In the meantime, there is the looming question of how the forthcoming EU-Africa summit in Lisbon in December 2007 will be affected by the issue of Zimbabwe and in particular President Mugabe’s ongoing intransigence in relation to internationally accepted standards of democracy and human rights.

Raftopoulos’s position in relation to this was that the EU invitation to President Mugabe should definitely stand, especially given the level of support Mugabe enjoys (primarily for his anti-imperialist position) amongst his African peers. The debate over Zimbabwe should be an active, open and continuous one within international fora, rather than be closed-off or sabotaged by the absolutist moral positioning of any single nation. He pointed out how the uncompromising stance adopted by Britain has made things more rather than less difficult in terms of finding solutions to the crisis and helping to move things forward. A more productive approach amongst those in the international community interested in positive change in Zimbabwe, including Sweden, would be to support the current SADC-initiated South Africa-mediated talks, and to keep encouraging and where relevant participating in positive dialogue on many fronts.

At the same time, donors such as Sweden should remain alert to the enormous humanitarian crisis generated by the ongoing political and economic crises, and find appropriate and expanded ways of supporting those suffering under such conditions of sustained displacement and deepening impoverishment. Such humanitarian assistance should be accompanied by support that builds up people’s capacity to go and vote in elections. This includes finding ways to support the opening up of the media, creating (decentralised) space for public debate about political alternatives, and generating the confidence in citizens to be able to vote independently without intimidation.

Questions of current and future legitimacy
A number of interesting issues were raised by those attending the seminar, many of which touched in some way on questions of legitimacy on various levels.
What Zanu (PF) and Mugabe have played on – and monopolised – is their claim to counter (single-handedly) the colonial past and imperialist present. However, while the colonial past and the war of liberation are important to understanding Zimbabwe as it is today, there is far more to Zimbabwe’s current crisis than the role of Empire in the country’s relentless decline. Independent nation-states have to take equal responsibility for themselves, while acknowledging that they are part of a wider international community of states. Thus Zimbabwe’s Zanu (PF) party-state cannot assume that it is entitled to act without some level of international accountability. Zimbabwe is signatory to a range of international conventions that it is obliged to respect and follow, as well as being a member of bodies such as the United Nations which work according to universally agreed principles.

Zanu (PF) still has some social-political base in Zimbabwe, however, the extent of this is impossible to quantify in present circumstances. Not only is it difficult to physically conduct independent research on this question given levels of political violence. In addition, any kind of political ‘support’ that is based on extreme levels of direct and indirect intimidation by the ruling party, including the use of food as a political weapon, and the almost total lack of access by the majority of Zimbabweans to independent information about alternatives to Zanu (PF), is impossible to gauge.

At the same time, the growing militarisation of the state, and excessive role of the army and police in conducting and/or controlling ‘civil’ affairs including their involvement in policy decisions on multiple fronts, raises further doubts about the nature of both contemporary and future politics and state rule.

This is a period in which former liberation-movements-turned-political-
parties in the region are facing challenges to the old terms of their legitimacy which was based on the nationalist anti-colonial struggles that led to independence. This is no longer sufficient and if the existing nationalist political parties in the region are to survive politically, they will have to create new legitimacies that offer hope in the foreseeable future for improved life conditions and democratic participation to the majority of their citizens.

Amanda Hammar
Nordic Africa Institute
26 November 2007

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