THE South African government and the governing ANC under President Cyril Ramaphosa are engaged in new secret talks with Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s freshly-minted administration to resolve their neighbouring country’s protracted and simmering problems destabilising the region.
Zimbabwe’s problems are also fuelling social discontent south of the Limpopo River, in South Africa, and across the region.
This comes in the aftermath of Zimbabwe’s recent sham elections rejected by the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) and some influential international election observers.
The latest charade of flawed elections has become a new catalyst for engagement in Zimbabwe. Ramaphosa was in Harare for Mnangagwa’s inauguration. ANC secretary-general Fikile Mbalula also came for engagement with Zanu PF and he met his counterpart Obert Mpofu and other officials, spending a number of days in the capital talking.
“Ramaphosa and Mbalula were in Harare mainly for talks with Mnangagwa and Zanu PF to fix the Zimbabwe situation in the aftermath of yet another disputed elections,” a source told The NewsHawks.
“Even if they support Zanu PF publicly, privately they are saying the Zimbabwe situation can’t be allowed to continue like this. It is not affecting Zimbabweans, but the whole region. Sadc leaders are clear on that, but they want to get a handle on the situation.”
Further, renewed engagement on Zimbabwe led by South Africa comes ahead of the country’s 2024 elections that are a do-or-die for Ramaphosa and the ANC who are now fast-losing popular support amid social unrest due to governance, social and economic problems at home.
The South African situation is worsened by the damaging ripple effect of the intractable crisis north of Limpopo River.
Various sources have told The NewsHawks that South Africa and Ramaphosa are now under renewed pressure from growing internal problems and a tireless international diplomatic lobby to decisively tackle the Zimbabwe situation.
“The South Africans are aware that Zimbabwe and the region can’t afford another disputed election; going round in circles. The crisis has gone on for far too long without a solution. So they want Mnangagwa and Zanu PF to engage to deal with the situation and break the cycle of disputed polls which prolongs the crisis,” a source said.
“By publicly supporting Zanu PF and its leaders, the ANC and its leaders are hoping that it will build confidence, trust and cooperation to deal with the situation decisively. It’s a strategy and a means to and end.”
Further information emerged this week when confusion broke out over Zimbabwean academic Professor Ibbo Mandaza’s planned public lecture at the ANC-affiliated OR Tambo School of Leadership. Mandaza was scheduled to deliver the timely address under the topic: The State of Democracy in the Sadc Region: A Reflection of the National Elections in Zimbabwe, to a wide regional audience.
The invite said Mandaza would deliver the lecture on Thursday.
However, a letter apparently written by Mbalula to the Principal of OR Tambo School of Leadership David Masondo emerged saying the lecture has been postponed as the ANC leadership is locked in “delicate engagements regarding the situation in Zimbabwe”.
The letter said if the address went ahead now on an ANC platform, which OR Tambo School of Leadership is, that would “complicate these initiatives”. To avoid that, the address must be delayed, it said.
But a statement issued by the OR Tambo School of Leadership after the letter was leaked said the lecture was going ahead. Eventually it was postponed after an ANC intervention behind the scenes, saying it would undermine its engagement with Zanu PF and Zimbabwe.
Mandaza is a proponent of a transitional authority in Zimbabwe to break the deadlock.
The development reveals a tussle on the issue within the ANC political axis.
Yet the cat is now out of the bag: Ramaphosa and Mbalula, who were in Harare on Monday for Mnangagwa’s inauguration, are privately pressuring Zanu PF for a new deal in Zimbabwe to fix the country’s problems and stop a spillover into their own struggling economy, especially ahead of their own elections.
The deal involves an inclusive governance framework taking into account various political and civil society formations, especially the main opposition CCC led by Nelson Chamisa.
Both Zanu PF and CCC, which are battered by the gruelling election battle, want to talk. Zanu PF hardliners do not want to, fearing being sidelined from the patronage feeding trough, but they are in the minority.
The CCC is eager, even though not happy with how Ramaphosa and Mbalula have been handling the Zimbabwe situation, especially labelling them “puppets of the West”.
Yet in a bid to prove good faith and restore some confidence to engage Mnangagwa and Zanu PF, Ramaphosa and the ANC have gone to the extreme in defending the Harare regime which is under siege for failing to resolve Zimbabwe’s crisis following the 2017 coup that ousted the late former president Robert Mugabe.
Ramaphosa and Mbalula have of late been aggressively fighting in Mnangagwa and Zanu PF’s corner to maintain contact between Pretoria and Harare, while attempting to be an “honest broker” — a contradiction in terms.
The ANC said as a freedom struggle ally of Zimbabwe’s liberation movement, initially represented by Zapu and now Zanu PF, it is firmly on the side of Harare’s ruling party.
This gives it access to Zanu PF, but makes it impossible for it to be seen as an honest broker by the CCC. The ANC wants to play that role previously played by former president Thabo Mbeki before Zimbabwe’s Government of National Unity in 2009 at the height of political and economic meltdown amid hyperinflation.
The CCC now thinks the ANC is engaging in bad faith, but the South Africans say that is a means to an end, not to be whined about too much.
There is a new clamour for Zimbabwe to form a similar arrangement in the aftermath of another disputed election. The calls for that reverberate in Zimbabwe and the region, as far as Kenya.
Professor Patrick Loch Otieno Lumumba has delivered an impassioned speech on the issue. The disputed polls have left Zimbabweans, the region and international community more divided, necessitating a new intervention.
“To the Sadc leadership, we urge you to move in and do that which is good and right. This is the time to give meaning to the biblical story of the Good Samaritan,” Lumumba said.
“Zimbabwe is suffering. Let us be the Good Samaritans. Let us be our brothers and sisters’ keepers. This is the time for the African Union to rise up from her slumber and do what which Kwame Nkrumah said: To be a body that mediates and midwives peace. This is the time for Sadc and the AU to send in a fact-finding mission. This is the time.”
Ramaphosa and Mbalula’s approach has angered many sections of Zimbabwean society that feel they are not helping the situation, but complicating things by aiding and abetting Mnangagwa and Zanu PF misrule, particularly because people do not know what is happening now.
Even those who feel South Africa has a genuine case to broker a deal and complain about immigrants now say by supporting and subsidising Zanu PF mismanagement for some nebulous diplomatic initiative that is ineffective, Pretoria is now part of the problem — not the solution — and should not complain when immigrants flood its country in new rising waves that are sure to come in months ahead.
In fact, some Zimbabweans say immigrants must now flood South Africa more to make Ramaphosa and Mbalula appreciate the gravity of the problem and act holistically; a cynical approach.
This also increases and justifies Zimbabwean immigrants’ sense of entitlement on being in South Africa, which angers poor and marginalised South Africans, the impoverished subaltern that stoke xenophobic fires. That will almost certainly fuel renewed xenophobic conflict.
Ironically, the ANC has moved to the right on the immigration issue to be anti-immigrants ahead of elections for votes, joining reactionary parties like Gayton Mckenzie’s Patriotic Alliance and Herman Mashaba’s ActionSA while inflaming the situation through an equally vocal and state-sponsored Operation Dudula.
In the South African diplomatic chessboard, Pretoria thinks the only way to handle Zimbabwe is to keep Zanu PF and its leaders on the leash through measured secret engagements behind the scenes, with gratuitous public appeasement to ensure private rapprochement.
Although South Africa has huge leverage on Zimbabwe given its economic and military muscle, its capabilities are however not deliverable on this due to its internal lack of capacity and liberation struggle fraternal brotherhood now under challenge from Zambia and other subtle shifts on the balance of forces in this dramatic state of flux.
South Africa’s vast economic interests loom large in the whole matrix as the country remains Zimbabwe’s biggest trading partner. Ramaphosa is using Mbeki’s controversial quiet diplomacy template in that regard to further Pretoria’s economic interests.
A Sadc diplomat based in Gaborone, Botswana, said: “South Africa has huge economic interests in Zimbabwe, so it is worried that if this situation is allowed to deteriorate and be further prolonged things may end up becoming difficult to fix and its national interest will suffer.
“Diplomacy is a universally accepted means for securing national interests. It is through diplomacy that the foreign policy of a nation travels to other nations. It seeks to secure the goals of national interests.
“Those attacking Ramaphosa are failing to understand this basic reality. National interest is a key concept in international relations. All the nations are always engaged in the process of fulfilling or securing the goals of their national interests. The foreign policy of each nation is formulated on the basis of its national interest and it is always the framework of engagement. It is a universally accepted right of each state to secure its national interests. A state always tries to justify its actions on the basis of its national interest. The behaviour of a state is always conditioned and governed by its national interests. Hence it is essential for us to understand why South Africa is behaving the way it does towards Zimbabwe. South Africa wants this Zimbabwe crisis to come to an end. Zimbabwe is now practically a domestic policy issue for South Africa. It can even partly influence next year’s elections in South Africa. That is why Ramaphosa wants a solution in Zimbabwe before South African elections.”
The renewed talks between Zimbabwe and South Africa are guided by Pretoria’s economic interests, particularly interests of the elites which Ramaphosa represents.
“At the core of Ramaphosa’s fresh diplomacy on Zimbabwe are his country’s political, commercial and security interests,” the diplomat said. “Because of elections coming in South Africa, the Zimbabwe issue has become more urgent for Ramaphosa.
If Zimbabwe’s crisis is allowed to fester and deteriorate further, it will hurt South Africa more and Ramaphosa’s re-election prospects next year.”
Mbeki allowed Mugabe to steal the 2008 presidential election after he had been defeated in the first round of polling by the late main opposition MDC-T leader Morgan Tsvangirai.
He even defended Mugabe when he withheld first round results for six weeks, infamously saying there was no crisis in Zimbabwe. After that, Mbeki emerged presenting himself as an “honest broker” and forced Tsvangirai to sign a skewed deal, badly mismanaged by the opposition itself later to give Zanu PF a new lease of life in 2013.
With Israeli security company Nikuv rigging the elections for millions paid by the government, Zanu PF cruised to a landslide.
Pretoria has been consistent on that. This continued under the brief Kgalema Motlanthe reign and later the Jacob Zuma administration. Hence, Zuma did not condemn the coup against Mugabe and helped Mnangagwa secure regional and international acceptance and legitimacy.
Picking from that, Ramaphosa started his own engagement in 2020, sending two missions to Harare, one led by former ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule and the other by Sydney Mufamadi, which were thwarted by Mnangagwa and his hardliners. This followed the 31 July 2020 protests and the subsequent crackdown.
Ramaphosa walked away and let Mnangagwa dig more while sinking in a hole until he was grounded there.
When Mnangagwa became isolated, Ramaphosa came back with a lifeline, making loud pronouncements on sanctions on Zimbabwe. The recent election rejected by the Sadc Election Observer Mission, with the support of Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema and many others behind the scenes, gave Ramaphosa new leverage.
Hichilema is also chair of the Sadc troika of the Organ on Politics, Defence and Security Cooperation, a key regional instrument of intervention currently unleashed on Zimbabwe. South African ally Angola is the Sadc chair, making things easier.
Zambia is also close to South Africa from a historical perspective despite the new shift under Hichilema.
The current contradictions in Sadc provide a new golden opportunity for regional leaders to tackle the Zimbabwe crisis, but only if there is decisive leadership and statesmanship which clearly Ramaphosa has not offered yet. Having secured re-election through a sham election and fraud, with many Sadc leaders except three snubbing his much-hyped inauguration, Mnangagwa is vulnerable now and wants to talk.
Ramaphosa knows that and has moved in, but his strategy is questionable. However, Ramaphosa, a former trade unionist who knows how to bargain, is an experienced negotiator with impressive credentials in that area, having led far much more complex negotiations for a new South Africa and other missions abroad.
Yet Zimbabwe is the biggest test of his presidency in that regard, made all the more difficult by problems back home, with power outages being emblematic of that challenge now back on the regional and international diplomatic radar.