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Contextualising South Africa’s Foreign Policy Towards Zimbabwe

South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma, seems to be tougher on Zimbabwe than former president Thabo Mbeki with his much criticised ‘quiet diplomacy’ approach. What led to this rapid change?

Zuma can be condemned for many controversial decisions he has made in the past, but one has to give him credit for promoting a democratic process in Zimbabwe. As vice-president under Mbeki, Zuma was not particularly outspoken about the Zimbabwe situation. This changed soon after he lost his position as vice-president.

In July 2009, shortly after becoming president of South Africa, Zuma said during Q&A time in parliament that “interventionist measures” will be taken through the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) if there is “any indication that the provisions of democracy are compromised.” This was a stern warning that the Global Political Agreement (GPA) should not be derailed. In South Africa, this statement went largely unnoticed, but two days later prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai met the National Security Council for the first time.

Over the next year South Africa was caught up with the FIFA World Cup and Zimbabwe’s government of national unity (GNU) continued to miss key Global Political Agreement (GPA) deadlines. When the Cup ended in July 2010, Zuma began to turn up the heat.

By March 2011, South Africa secured the Livingstone Consensus at the SADC Troika meeting in Zambia. As facilitator, Zuma condemned the GNU for failing to implement key agreements contained in the GPA and said that “the situation can no longer be tolerated”. He also raised the issue of a roadmap towards free and fair elections, which his team had been discussing with Zimbabwe since January 2011. Since then, SADC has been driven by an almost uniform voice, demanding to see progress in Zimbabwe’s unfinished business. This is despite objections from ZANU-PF that Zuma should no longer be the facilitator.

Clearly, South Africa’s approach changed at a rapid pace. What caused such a radical shift in foreign policy? Broadly speaking, it is due to the personalities of South Africa’s leaders and their relations with other actors.

Mark Gevisser, Mbeki’s biographer, often described him as “disconnected”. This characteristic also defined his lack of interaction with the South African Embassy in Harare: he often flew in and out of Zimbabwe without any real consultation with his chief representatives. He also gave the cold shoulder to the MDC formations. Mbeki much rather preferred to meet with the ZANU-PF elite and to make use of ‘red telephone diplomacy’, which led him to proclaim in 2008 that there was “no crisis” in Zimbabwe.

Mbeki established contact with ZANU during the liberation years when relations between the ANC and ZANU were frosty. The ANC was much closer with ZAPU, as it shared linguistic and cultural affinities, both parties were sponsored by the Soviet Union, and they lived side by side in Lusaka. However, when ZANU won the 1980 election, Mbeki was tasked with bonding with Zimbabwe’s new ruling party. His main contact was Emmerson Mnangagwa, the country’s top securocrat. Mbeki’s diplomatic endeavours in Zimbabwe also brought him closer to president Robert Mugabe who treated him like a son, and to whom Mbeki became greatly indebted.

Zuma’s personality is different from Mbeki’s; he listens and asks for advice from the people who surround him. Zuma’s Deputy Minister of the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO), Ebrahim Ebrahim, who once shared a jail cell with him, came to office promising to promote Pretoria’s human rights agenda. Ebrahim seems to be governed by human rights and democracy rather than pure liberation rhetoric.

Zuma also listens to his facilitation team which engages all stakeholders (including the MDC formations), giving them a more balanced view of the Zimbabwe situation. His international relations advisor and spokesperson for the facilitation team, Lindiwe Zulu, has often been belittled by the ZANU-PF controlled media whenever she expresses frustration with the GNU.

In contrast to the Mbeki years, South African diplomats in Harare are engaged with their president. The country’s ambassador to Harare, Vusi Mavimbela, has spoken out against “lawlessness” and “a culture of impunity that has to be stopped”. Zuma’s policy towards Zimbabwe could therefore be expected to reflect and respond more accurately to the situation.

Back in Pretoria, DIRCO has started to regularly debate South Africa’s position in the region with civil society. There are a number of individuals, including a new generation of diplomats and analysts, who argue that DIRCO should not be afraid to throw its weight around the region, something it shied away from in the past. Mbeki was overly cautious not to be seen as the region’s bully.

Unlike Mbeki, Zuma also listens to concerns raised by the ANC’s alliance partners, who have not only been instrumental in his accession to power, but also vocal about human rights abuses in Zimbabwe. Beyond that, they represent a large domestic constituency that is angry about its economic disenfranchisement and easily blames Zimbabwean expatriates for “stealing” local jobs.

Zuma is also under pressure from a multitude of South African businesses whose interests are threatened. Despite ratification by Zimbabwe of a bilateral investment agreement in May 2010, companies such as Zimplats and Old Mutual continue to be under threat from indigenisation policies, while South African farmers are still being evicted.

Zimbabwe is thus not only seen as a political problem, but is now more clearly defined as an economic threat that also affects South Africa and the region. As Mavimbela recently stated, “the ill health of one [state in SADC] affects the others”. South Africa’s regional integration efforts will be constrained as long as Zimbabwe remains fragile.

While Mugabe and Mbeki had a father-son relationship and an intellectual common ground, Zuma has been perceived by many ZANU-PF elites as the former’s junior. However, Zuma has shown time and again that he can outwit many a politician, and it is said that he is a pragmatist and a negotiator par excellence. He has the ability to simplify highly complex ideas, which is a key skill in any negotiation process. Mbeki can be credited with developing the GPA, but Zuma’s message is that parties have to be realistic about the transition; Zimbabwe should not gun for another election in the absence of key institutional reforms.

In addition to Zuma’s personality differences from his predecessor, it is critical that he succeeded in mobilising several strategic individuals in the region.

Most decisively, Zuma cleverly re-engaged Angola’s president Jose Eduardo dos Santos, head of southern Africa’s second largest economy and leader of the MPLA - the ANC’s traditional liberation ally. Mbeki mockingly referred to the dos Santos’ administration as “urban mulattoes”.

Zuma visited dos Santos first as ANC president in March 2008 and again as head of state in August 2009. The latter occasion marked Zuma’s first state visit and he was joined by 124 business delegates. At the time it was the largest business delegation to accompany a head of state in post-1994 South Africa. Dos Santos oiled this relationship further by visiting South Africa in December 2010.

These exchanges focused predominantly on developing both countries’ economic interests. Beyond business prospects, an entente developed between the two leaders; Zuma recognised the importance of dos Santos’ leadership within SADC, while the Angolan gave more leeway and support to Zuma in his facilitator’s role vis-à-vis Zimbabwe.

It is thus noteworthy that the Livingstone Consensus was once again reiterated in Luanda in August, when, in reference to Zimbabwe, dos Santos as the SADC chair stated, “we have to realise that peace and stability are the backbone of our development.”

We have not yet witnessed any substantial cracks in the Livingstone Consensus. The bottom line is that the space for those who want to destabilise the transitional process in Zimbabwe is becoming smaller by the day. As long as Zuma is South Africa’s president, he will do his best to promote peace and stability for his northern neighbour.

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