By Simukai Tinhu
South Africa’s potential as a serious leader across Africa is immense. It has an economy far more dynamic than any comparable across the region, and a powerful military too.
However, its dismal failure to resolve the ‘political crisis’ across the Limpopo River in Zimbabwe, has left many wondering if it has the capability of being an effective regional leader.
When the Zimbabwe ‘crisis’ broke out in 2000 following the seizure of white owned farms by President Mugabe, the then South African President, Thabo Mbeki reassured the West who were eager to take a direct role, that as an African, and also because of the democratic credentials of his country, he was the only international leader who had the legitimacy and moral authority to restore order, advance democracy and human rights in the neighbouring country.
In his attempt to resolve the ‘crisis’, Mbeki stressed dialogue and a tiny footprint on Zimbabwe’s internal politics, an approach that was dubbed ’quiet diplomacy’. This chary approach not only attracted derision from the West who favoured gun boat diplomacy, but was also discredited by local opposition groups and the civic community who openly expressed frustration with Thabo Mbeki. Most vocal was Zimbabwe’s main opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which accused the South African president of being too weak and also cosying up to Mugabe.
It was within the context of this criticism, and failure of Mbeki’s approach that his successor, President Jacob Zuma opted for a tougher stance against Mugabe. Indeed, when Zuma took over the presidency, South Africa became one of Zimbabwe’s most virulent critics.
Predictably, this new stance drew praise from the opposition and pro – democracy groups in Zimbabwe, and the new South African president was dubbed a saviour. The West echoed similar sentiments. Indeed, when the US President Barack Obama visited South Africa in June this year, he praised Zuma’s efforts for having presented ‘an opportunity…to move into a new phase where perhaps Zimbabwe can finally achieve all its promise.’
It is no wonder that it came as a surprise to a lot of people, when amidst concerns about the irregularities cited during the elections President Zuma congratulated Mugabe for winning the 31st July elections. This was a surprise to the opposition in Zimbabwe who had seen Zuma as a leader who could protect Zimbabweans’ vote, and also the West who were disappointed by what they considered as a premature congratulatory message.
What is it then that made Zuma make such an embarrassing U turn is his dealings with President Mugabe and his political party, ZANU – PF?
ZANU – PF strikes back
The South African president’s tough stance was based on a woeful miscalculation that Mugabe and his party could be pushed around easily.
His approach was interpreted by ZANU – PF as an attempt at creating conditions for a zero – sum situation, in which Zuma wanted Mugabe’s party to ‘lose’ in the negotiations process that he was facilitating on behalf of the regional grouping, Southern African Development Community (SADC).
Zuma’s policy was also not helped by his international relations advisor, Lindiwe Zuma’s unguarded rhetoric which played right into the hands ZANU – PF hardliners.
In order to ‘win’, ZANU – PF hardliners felt compelled to use everything at their disposal against what they saw as biased facilitation by South Africa. Thus, in response, Mugabe’s party hit back very hard by adopting a series of imaginatively nasty strategies.
One of the strategies was to take extreme positions on a number of issues with the aim to undermine any meaningful negotiations. For example, Mugabe’s party was uncompromising on political and electoral reforms demanded by the opposition, arguing that all the sanctions against ZANU-PF elite had to be removed before any progress could be made.
Diplomatic decorum gone to the dogs
Mugabe and ZANU-PF also deliberately disregarded diplomatic decorum as part of their ‘strategy’ to undermine Zuma and his facilitation team. Using state media editorials and unscripted rhetoric, the South African President and his team were treated with the utmost condescending behaviour.
ZANU-PF has a small cabal of hardliners who are skilfully and systematically supported by their party to lash out at foreign dignitaries. One of them, Jonathan Moyo who has just been appointed as Minister of Information in Mugabe’s new cabinet, was unrestrained in his relentless attack of Zuma.
For example, in state owned Sunday Mail newspaper, Moyo labelled the South African president as ‘erratic.’ He added, ‘The problem with Zuma now is that his disconcerting behaviour has become a huge liability, not only to South Africa, but to the rest of the continent.’
Zuma’s international relations advisor, Lindiwe Zulu, was also subjected to these attacks. She was described by Mugabe as ‘stupid and idiotic’ and a ‘street woman’ when she publicly expressed concern with the pace of political and electoral reforms in Zimbabwe.
Readers might recall that this was not the first time that Mugabe had used such language. In 2008, he had likened American diplomat Jendayi Fraser, who was then US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs to a ‘prostitute.’
This ‘strategy’ was not only confined to verbal attacks, but other contemptuous behaviours that were meant to humiliate South Africa. Reportedly, it was de rigueur for the South African facilitation team to receive a chilly reception each time they visited Harare.
At one time, they were even chased out the country following disagreements with ZANU-PF over reforms. On another occasion, a SADC meeting facilitated by South Africa had to be cancelled after Mugabe refused to attend.
When Zuma continued to press for political and electoral reforms, Mugabe finally snapped, and decided to take up the stakes by threatening to tear up the SADC charter. It was only when Zimbabwe’s patriarch threatened to pull his country out of SADC when it became painfully clear to the South African president what he was dealing with.
Political strategists are aware that it is an ultimate fear of any pretending regional leader to be blamed for the weakening or break up of that body. When Mugabe signalled that he was prepared to undermine SADC’s stability, his gamble paid off when the South African president backtracked on his attempts to extract further concessions on reforms from ZANU-PF.
‘Proxy Rhetorical War’
The pillar upon which President Zuma’s policy seemed to rest appeared unable to bear weight. Initially, the South African President was banked on the belief that the opposition had genuine chances of unseating ZANU-PF from power in the July elections.
But when this seemed not possible and when it appeared likely that ZANU-PF would be running Zimbabwe after August 2013, the South African president became risk averse as he did not want to risk a ‘proxy rhetorical war’ against the new ZANU-PF government in the run up to South Africa’s 2014 elections.
President Mugabe’s party had already made overtures that showed that it was capable of inflicting damage on Zuma’s bid to be re-elected by providing ideological, and allegedly financial support to Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters.
Indeed, in September 2011, the South African National Congress (ANC) secretary general accused ZANU-PF of influencing the thinking and actions of Malema, and in 2012, Malema admitted that he gets his inspiration from Mugabe, and added that South Africa should learn from Zimbabwe when it comes to issues such as Land reform.
Politicians, even the most idealistic, ultimately make decisions on the basis of self interests above second order interests such as the spreading of democracy and human rights in other countries.
Though he had genuine interest in pushing for reforms in the neighbouring country, the South African president was forced to cut and run from his tough stance when his personal interests were threatened. Surely, he was not going to risk his re-election bid by fighting a war on behalf of the Zimbabwe opposition.
Home Stretch for Mugabe
In the end, ZANU-PF’s brazen dealings with Zuma turned what one would usually expect to find in international relations; the big power dictates and the smaller power complies. Intransigence, rudeness, blackmailing and bullying, were all part of Mugabe and his party’s well crafted ‘diplomatic strategy’ which they used to effectively outmanoeuvre their South African counterparts.
For all his country’s military might and economic prowess, Zuma could not match Mugabe’s bulldozing diplomatic ‘strategy’. Maximum Africa Journal