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How South Africa can nudge Zimbabwe towards stability

Three years after a coup ended Robert Mugabe’s rule, the situation in Zimbabwe has gone from bad to worse, as political tensions mount, the economy falls apart and the population faces hunger and Covid-19.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa holds a bilateral meeting with President Emmerson Mnangagwa of the Republic of Zimbabwe on the sidelines of the 10th BRICS Summit taking place at the Sandton International Convention Centre, Johannesburg 26/7/2018 Kopano Tlape GCIS
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa holds a bilateral meeting with President Emmerson Mnangagwa of the Republic of Zimbabwe on the sidelines of the 10th BRICS Summit taking place at the Sandton International Convention Centre, Johannesburg 26/7/2018 Kopano Tlape GCIS

Having signalled a desire to stabilise the economy and ease repression, President Emmerson Mnangagwa has disappointed.

The state is arresting opponents who protest government corruption and incompetence.

Meanwhile, government-allied businessmen are tightening their grip on what is left of the economy, while citizens cope with austerity measures and soaring inflation.

Violence and lawlessness are on the rise.

Fearing major unrest or even another coup sparked by ruling-party divisions, Zimbabwe’s most important neighbour, South Africa, is ditching its tolerant posture toward Harare.

It should go further, pushing Mnangagwa to roll back repression and begin dialogue with the opposition on economic reform.

Pretoria could meanwhile work out reform benchmarks with Western governments, which would be guideposts for when to support the lifting of sanctions and extend debt relief for Zimbabwe.

South Africa has been a key mediator in Zimbabwe’s political crises for years.

In 2008, it brokered a national unity government in the country following international outrage at violence that followed Mugabe’s refusal to accept his first-round election defeat by Morgan Tsvangirai, then the opposition leader.

The deal, midwifed by former South African president Thabo Mbeki, was celebrated by South African officials at the time as vindication of Pretoria’s “quiet diplomacy” with Mugabe, whom South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) still viewed as a liberation icon.

But it infuriated many Zimbabweans, who saw the policy as appeasing a repressive strongman.

Moreover, despite its economic and diplomatic clout with Zimbabwe, and its role as a guarantor of the 2008 agreement, South Africa failed to hold Mugabe to his promises when Zimbabwe’s ruling Zanu PF flouted the unity accord, allowing Mugabe to consolidate power and win re-election in 2013.

He proceeded to rule unchallenged until the November 2017 coup.

Three years after Mugabe’s ouster, Zanu PF clings to power under Mnangagwa.

Following the 2018 election, contested as fraudulent by the Movement for Democratic Change-Alliance (MDC-A) opposition party, Zimbabwe’s government has stepped up repression amid an economic freefall and mounting social problems in a way that could propel the country toward renewed conflict.

Beyond arresting its opponents, it accuses them of promoting a violent regime change agenda at the behest of foreign interests.

Moreover, despite Mnangagwa’s promise of sweeping economic reforms, Zanu PF elites and some of their military allies have cornered much of the economy, profiting handsomely while ordinary Zimbabweans face public spending cuts, skyrocketing prices and the Covid-19 pandemic.

As socio-economic tensions rise, so, too, has violent crime, with street gangs increasingly prevalent, some of them co-opted by rival Zanu PF factions at a time when ruling-party unity is itself coming under strain.

Under Cyril Ramaphosa’s presidency, which began in 2018, the South African government has begun to take more active steps to address the risk that continual cycles of repression and economic failure could deliver a destabilising crisis on its doorstep.

In the last 18 months, Pretoria has become noticeably more critical of Zanu PF’s mishandling of Zimbabwe’s governance, calling out systemic corruption and capture of state assets by ruling elites in Harare.

But while Pretoria has appointed envoys to travel to Harare to encourage dialogue between Zanu PF and MDC-A, as well as with other political and civil society actors, its efforts have yielded no fruit, in part because authorities in Zimbabwe blocked the emissaries’ attempts to meet opposition leaders.

Without a political compact between Zanu PF and MDC-A, the chances of meaningful reform that could open up the economy, ease political tensions and lead to a roadmap for clean elections down the road will dwindle.

Pretoria should not give up.

Ramaphosa’s government should use its influence as Zimbabwe’s most important neighbour and trading partner to keep pressing Harare to dial back repression and to demonstrate commitment to real dialogue with the opposition.

Pretoria must insist that Harare give its envoys space to engage with MDC-A and other opposition and civil society figures so that it can bring them to the table for talks.

It should then push Zanu PF and MDC-A to enter negotiations about how to strengthen the auditing of government finances and tackle high-level corruption, as a first step toward stopping the plunder of state assets by unaccountable elites and resetting economic governance.

Meanwhile, Pretoria should reach out to the United States, European Union and UK and work with them to develop a credible roadmap for reform in Zimbabwe, which could be linked to decisions about lifting sanctions and encouraging international financial institutions to reschedule debt or extend new lines of credit to resuscitate Zimbabwe’s moribund economy.

By arming Pretoria with incentives to motivate Harare, donors can help position it to nudge its neighbour down a long-elusive path toward political and economic reform. The Standard