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South African President Cyril Ramaphosa. REUTERS/Maja Smiejkowska


Cyril Ramaphosa and the tragedy of ostrichism diplomacy





SINCE April 1994, South African leaders and their governments have always taken a leading role in mediating and resolving the political crises within the African continent. Under the leadership of Nelson Mandela, protection of and support for  human rights were the hallmarks of South African foreign policy.

Thabo Mbeki`s presidency was characterised by an aspirational foreign policy through the doctrine of African Renaissance whereby a Pan-Africanist  approach of “African solutions for African problems” towards conflict resolution was the guiding principle. However, President Jacob Zuma was associated with a more indigenous concept of ubuntu towards his foreign policy approach to conflict management in Africa.

Nonetheless, the current South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has not been able to demonstrate much diplomatic acuity in terms of conflict resolution and mediating in some of Africa’s conflict hotspots, particularly Zimbabwe.

This opinion piece attempts to scrutinise the ostrich foreign policy approach of President Ramaphosa. I shall  argue that unlike his predecessors, President Ramaphosa has adopted an arms length diplomatic approach towards the crisis in Zimbabwe and this approach is the antithesis of the hands-on approach and interventionist diplomatic approaches of the other former South African presidents. Therefore, I shall first look at the South African diplomatic strategies from Mandela to Zuma and then analyse the current diplomatic approach of President Ramaphosa.

From Mandela to Zuma

South Africa became the last African country to attain multi-racial democracy and political pluralism. That is, South Africa became an independent state  led by President Nelson Mandela on 10 May 1994. However, despite being a fledgling independent and democratic state on the global stage, nonetheless South Africa was immediately thrust on the frontline of conflict resolution and conflict management on the African continent.

Hardly two months into his presidency as head of state, Nelson Mandela in 1994 found himself taking a front-row seat in mediating in the 19-year-old Angolan civil war. President Mandela hosted President Eduardo Dos Santos of Angola and the then Zairean President Mobutu Sese Seko in Pretoria in an effort to find a lasting solution to the Angolan civil war. President Sese Seko was there as an ally and supporter of the rebel leader Jonas Savimbi. Savimbi was able to later meet President Mandela in Pretoria on 18 May 1995.

Moreover, during his presidency Mandela took his interventionist diplomacy to Burundi. Thus Mandela was able to get international support for the mediation process in Burundi. He managed to raise financial resources that allowed for the hosting of the Burundi Peace Summit in Arusha, Tanzania, in February 2000.

Through the diplomatic and political influence of Mandela, the warring parties to the Burundi conflict were able to sign both the 2000 Arusha Agreement in August 2000 as well as the Pretoria Agreement in 2001, that ultimately paved the way for the transitional authority in Burundi. Crucially, the diplomatic acumen and political dexterity of President Mandela also resulted in having a Lusaka Ceasefire Agreement in August  1999, that involved six countries who were involved in the conflict and war in  the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The 1998 DRC war was dubbed “Africa’s first world war”, because it involved Angola, Namibia, Chad, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda.

When Mandela vacated the political scene by the turn of the millennium, President Thabo Mbeki emerged as his political and diplomatic successor both on the local, regional and continental sphere. Therefore, President Mbeki immediately took over from where Mandela had left in terms of mediating in regional and continental conflicts.Accordingly, President Mbeki managed to mediate and broker the Pretoria Agreement between Rwanda and the DRC. This led to the withdrawal of Rwandan troops from the DRC. As a result, Mbeki was credited  with playing an important role in bringing to an end Africa’s first world war.

However, the pinnacle of Mbeki`s diplomatic acumen and conflict resolution skills and competence is associated with the role he played in Zimbabwe from 2002 up to 2009. Mbeki initially got involved in the Zimbabwean conflict in 2002.  In 2002 the Commonwealth troika of Nigeria, Australia and South Africa was involved in trying to resolve the political crisis in Zimbabwe in an effort to prevent a violent and contested 2002 presidential outcome.

Consequently, Mbeki in 2002 preferred a power sharing agreement regardless of the outcome of the March 2002 presidential elections. He advocated a political arrangement where Zany PF and Robert Mugabe will emerge as the senior partners in a power sharing agreement involving the opposition MDC and Morgan Tsvangirai as the junior partners. However, Mbeki’s political prescription to the 2002 Zimbabwean elecrion did not materialise as no coalition government was able to be formed after the 2002 disputed presidential elections.

However, it was not until 2008 that Thabo Mbeki became deeply involved in trying to resolve and manage the political and economic conflict in Zimbabwe. Accordingly, in March 2008, Zimbabwe held another round of harmonised elections. The elections resulted in opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and the MDC-T winning 47% of the vote and Robert Mugabe and Zanu PF winning 43%. Therefore, it led to a presidential runoff  between Morgan Tsvangirai and Robert Mugabe, since none of them had managed to surpass the 50+1% threshold.

Nonetheless, the June 2008 presidential runoff was characterised by egregious state-sanctioned violence perpetrated by Zanu PF supporters and the elements of the security forces against the MDC-T and Tsvangirai supporters. As a result, more than 250 of Tsvangirai’s supporters were murdered and hundreds more internally displaced and injured during the presidential runoff period. Consequently, Tsvangirai was forced to withdraw in order to protect his supporters. Subsequently, Mugabe went on to contest a one-man election, which resulted in him infamously declared the winner.

Mugabe’s June 2008 one-man electoral charade spawned a tsunami of legitimacy deficit and political and economic crisis. Therefore, President Mbeki has to come into consideration with his much reviled quiet diplomacy approach to the Zimbabwe crisis. President Mbeki had undergone severe criticism over his handling of the Zimbabwe crisis.

Mbeki had been viewed as showing strong bias towards the politics of solidarity of former sister liberation movements in southern Africa. In this particular circumstances Mbeki had demonstrated strong bias towards protecting and preserving Robert Mugabe and Zanu PF at the expense of democratic accountability and respect for human rights and the free will of the Zimbabwean people. Coupled with the fact that President Mbeki had downplayed the magnitude and severity of the political crisis in Zimbabwe, when he infamously declared there was no crisis in Zimbabwe, this bias towards Zanu PF and Mugabe led to a level of great mistrust between Tsvangirai and Mbeki.

However, despite reservations against Mbeki’s quiet diplomacy approach towards the Zimbabwean crisis, nonetheless he managed to eventually produce a power-sharing agreement between Robert Mugabe of Zanu PF, Morgan Tsvangirai of the MDCT and Professor Authur Mutambara who led a smaller faction of the MDC.This subsequently led to an inclusive government that lasted between 2009 and 2013.

When President Jacob Zuma assumed the leadership of both the ANC and South Africa in 2009, he continued with the diplomatic intervention initiatives of his predecessor Thabo Mbeki. At the 2013 Extraordinary Summit of Sadc Heads of State and Government which was held in Maputo Mozambique, President Zuma supported and pressed for electoral and security reforms to be implemented in Zimbabwe before the elections could be conducted in 2013. Electoral and security reforms were part of the most essential tasks to be undertaken by the Zimbabwean inclusive government between 2009 and 2013. Therefore, the opposition, particularly the MDCT and Morgan Tsvangirai, had found an important voice and ally in President Zuma , who had even advised them not to participate in an election until reforms are fully implemented.

Ostrichism policy and approach

Zimbabwe recently held its harmonised elections and the elections were widely condemned as illegitimate, shambolic and fraudulent by most regional and international election observer missions  and groups. These included the Sadc Election Observer Mission (SEOM), the African Union observer mission, the Carter foundation and the Commonwealth observer mission  and they all cited that the elections failed to satisfy the international and regional guidelines as well as the Zimbabwean electoral and constitutional guidelines in terms of being free, fair and credible. Consequently, these inconclusive elections immediately spawned a legitimacy, political and economic crisis in Zimbabwe, that also has far-reaching consequences within the Sadc region, particularly South Africa.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and his ANC government became the centre of attraction over their conduct and handling of these widely condemned Zimbabwean elections. Most Zimbabweans were looking up to what kind of diplomatic and political leadership President Ramaphosa and the ANC government were going to provide and demonstrate  in light of these damning  election reports, especially from the Sadc EOSM.

This was because of the historical role South Africa has played in mediating and resolving the political and electoral crisis in Zimbabwe since 2002. Coupled with the fact that Zimbabwe’s socio-economic and political crisis has become a de facto domestic policy for South Africa, due to the reasons that South Africa is home to more than 1.5 million zimbabwean political and economic migrants.

However, a publication titled: “Ramaphosa and a New Dawn for South African Foreign Policy”,one of Ramaphosa`s  diplomatic centrepieces is progressive internationalism. Which he defines as “an approach to global relations anchored in the pursuit of global solidarity, social justice, common development and human security”. Therefore, there was a huge disappointment among Zimbabweans when President Ramaphosa quickly congratulated President Emmerson Mnangagwa on his controversial and disputed win of the 23 and 24 August 2023 presidential elections. Thus is coupled with the fact that President Ramaphosa was one of only three heads of state in the Sadc region who attended the inauguration ceremony of President Mnangagwa.

These partisan actions from President Ramaphosa extinguished any hopes that he was going to employ balanced and fair diplomatic strategies in order to find a lasting solution to this political and electoral crisis. Therefore, it is important to note that whenever there is political and socio-economic crisis in Zimbabwe, President Ramaphosa has often adopted a laissez faire and ostrichism diplomacy of see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil, rather than adopt a hands-on approach and interventionist diplomatic strategies of his predecessors like Mandela and Mbeki.

For instance, when Zimbabwe was rocked by protests against increases in the price of fuel and the cost of living in January 2019. The protests resulted in violent crackdown by the Zanu PF government which resulted in 12 deaths and violations of human rights of innocent civilians. However, many expected President Ramaphosa to speak strongly against this, but he instead found a convenient scapegoat and called for the United States government to lift sanctions against the Zanu PF government. 

Therefore, it  was not surprising that during the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York Cyril Ramaphosa invoked the sanctions issue during his address to the summit.

Moreover, during the sidelines of the UNGA during an interview with a South African Broadcasting Corporation journalist, when pressed about the controversial and fraudulent elections in Zimbabwe, Ramaphosa resorted to whataboutism and spin doctoring in an effort to sanitise the widely condemned elections.

Consequently, there was a lack of demonstrable political will or diplomatic signal from Ramaphosa on how he will attempt to help in resolving the political and electoral crisis in Zimbabwe.

This was in direct contrast with the position laid out by Mbeki who was also in New York and was interviewed by the same journalist. Accordingly, Mbeki  laid out a political strategy on what should be done and how previously he had managed to mediate and found a solution to the Zimbabwean crisis in 2008.

Needless to say, Ramaphosa and the ANC through their commissions and omissions have demonstrated that they will remain indifferent to the current political and socio-economic crisis in Zimbabwe. Thus, they will continue with their business-as-usual approach and adopt a wait-and-see attitude.

As a result, President Ramaphosa will not likely adopt a hands-on approach and mediate in the Zimbabwean crisis in the similar way Mbeki did. The possibility of Ramaphosa or the ANC government acting as an impartial and neutral mediator and interlocutor to this crisis has been made untenable by the moral delinquency of ANC  secretary-general Fikile Mbalula. Mbalula has openly supported and endorsed the Zanu PF government and President Mnangagwa.

Mbalula, through his social media posts, has behaved and acted like a de facto Zanu PF political commissar. Furthermore, he has shown clear disdain for the opposition Citizens’ Coalition for Change and its leader Nelson Chamisa. Consequently, President Ramaphosa is likely to continue with his fence sitting approach with little diplomatic manoeuvres towards resolving the crisis in Zimbabwe

About the writer: Taona Blessing Denhere is a human rights and international development lawyer.