By Gift Phiri
US President Donald Trump’s phone call to South Africa President Jacob Zuma highlights neighbouring Zimbabwe’s high political risk and that Washington does not consider President Robert Mugabe a serious factor in Afro-American political and socio-economic relations, opposition and analysts said yesterday.
This comes after Trump spoke with Zuma on Monday this week to discuss ways to expand cooperation and trade between the US and SA.
According to a statement from Zuma’s office, “The two presidents reaffirmed their commitment to strengthening the already strong bilateral relations between the two countries. There are 600 US companies in South Africa and strong trade relations between the two countries.”
In a quintessential rebuff of the 92-year-old Mugabe as tensions escalate over Washington’s February 6, 2017 concerns over “the continuing deterioration of the human rights situation in Zimbabwe”, the White House apparently snubbed Mugabe, with the businessman and television persona turned president maintaining a tougher US line against Zimbabwe.
Presidential spokesperson George Charamba has reacted with indignation to US’ damning criticism of Zimbabwe’s human rights record, telling State Department officials they can “go and hang on a banana tree.”
Charamba told the State media Zimbabwe was waiting for an overture from the Trump administration to see how relations will be between the two countries during the Republican leader’s presidency.
“We are waiting for a cue from a new government,” Charamba said.
But Morgan Tsvangirai’s opposition MDC said the snub highlights the deepening of an already toxic bilateral relationship that matters increasingly less to Washington.
“Put bluntly . . . Mugabe has been nothing but a curse to Zimbabwe’s international relations,” MDC spokesperson Obert Gutu said.
“No one, including even the Chinese, no longer trusts Mugabe. He is not a man of his word. He indicates left and then he suddenly turns right.
“Trump doesn’t consider Mugabe as a serious factor in Afro-American political and socio-economic relations.
“Trump knows that Mugabe is yesterday’s man; he also knows that Mugabe is in the political departure lounge, he is on his way out of power.”
Trump and Zuma, according to a White House summary of their call, reaffirmed an “expressed interest in identifying new, mutually beneficial opportunities for trade” and to “deepen the bilateral relations.”
Analyst Takura Zhangazha said people must not read too far into Trump’s snub as it does not change the structural dynamics in a bilateral relationship that is slowly worsening, and slowly fading in importance.
“Trump chose Zuma because the latter leads the largest economy in the region and is a key trading partner with the US and also in recognition of the fact that South Africa is a regional powerhouse, at least economically.
“This is also the same reason why Trump also called Nigeria’s (President Muhammadu) Buhari.”
Trump also spoke with Buhari to discuss the strong cooperation between the US and Nigeria, including on shared security, economic, and governance priorities.
Analyst Maxwell Saungweme said SA has a larger GDP, larger population than Zimbabwe, and better trade with the US.
The country exported $176 million in agricultural products to the US last year under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) — a US trade agreement designed to help African exporters.
“Zimbabwe is a very small country, with a tiny GDP, dilapidated infrastructure, and facing economic downturn. Zimbabwe also has high political risk on investments.
“So all these factors, including poor governance make us not a favourite choice for stronger bilateral relations with super powers seeking to expand trading relationships.”
Dewa Mavinga, a senior Africa researcher at New York-based Human Rights Watch, said: “President Mugabe’s government needs to know that investors can completely ignore Zimbabwe if there are no urgent steps to restore the rule of law and establish conditions conducive for business that secures the best interest of Zimbabwe and its people.”
Senior consultant at the International Crisis Group Piers Pigou said Trump cannot engage Mugabe because of targeted sanctions aimed to maintain pressure on Zimbabwe by sustaining the costs of its blatant electoral fraud and rights abuses.
“The US cannot legally move on certain areas of engagement with the Zimbabwean government until there have been significant moves on governance, rule of law, human rights issues. This is clear from Zdera (Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act of 2001).
“This (US) law appears to inhibit the kind of shift from the politics of the stick to the politics of the carrot that we have seen employed by the UK and EU, which has had mixed results and generated significant frustration, in turn leading to a growing concern about the Zimbabwean government and ruling party’s commitment to reforms it claims it will implement.
“I suspect the US has watched this and decided at this juncture there is not much to work with in terms of those issues.”
Nevertheless, the US remains a vital contributor to humanitarian support and key service delivery areas to Zimbabwe, in particular the health sector.
“Trump can override Zdera but there has to be clear cause to do so. In their calculations this is not so,” Pigou added.
Dinizulu Macaphulana, former researcher at Institute for Security and Development Policy, said the US is focusing on SA, Nigeria, Botswana and other countries in their scramble for the control of Africa.
“Zimbabwe will be inconsequential except as a problem to be solved. Zimbabwe’s international relations died a long time ago,” Macaphulana said.
Trump, who so far has been mostly focused on his “America First” agenda, has not spoken at much length about his policies concerning Africa. But his controversial travel ban, one of his first major executive orders, has targeted three African countries: Sudan, Libya and Somalia. Daily News