Why does Zuma continue to supp

Why does Zuma continue to support the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe?

African leaders’ “club of silence” – the refusal to criticise each other or intervene in times of crisis – has kept Robert Mugabe in power up to now. But how has South African president Jacob Zuma gained from support of Mugabe in the face of consistent criticism?

Why does Zuma continue to supp
Jacob Zuma and Robert Mugabe

To outside observers, South Africa’s support for Comrade Robert Gabriel Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe can be as perplexing as it is alarming.

‘Cui bono?’ – who benefits from this policy – in the South African political landscape is seldom easy to tell, at least from a distance.

How is it that the leaders of a regional superpower like South Africa, a (still mostly) respected voice in international relations, continue to bolster the Mugabe machine? Conventional wisdom would have Mugabe’s international isolation render him a liability, to be borne only in return for some great geopolitical prize.

But South Africa forgives Zimbabwe’s debt, pays its bills, welcomes its refugees (between two and three million in 2013, according to the Mail & Guardian) and has seen its export markets in the country dwindle as a generation’s paper wealth was wiped out by hyperinflation. The country’s return on this more than 20-year investment is nil. However, the return for Presidents Zuma and Mbeki has been more generous.

Former President Mbeki was caricatured as aloof and cerebral, and Zuma, whom we were sold as an affable consensus politician, could not be more opposed in their managerial style, their philosophy for South Africa’s role in Africa, and Africa’s role in the world (the ‘African Renaissance for the former versus, for the latter, radio silence). Yet both have supported Robert Mugabe with varying degrees of public enthusiasm – coupled by an unwavering practical commitment behind the scenes. It is widely agreed that the Mugabe regime survives at South Africa’s pleasure. Were Pretoria to call in loans, or demand that bills for petrol and electricity be honoured, Zimbabwe would be immediately and gravely destabilised and its leader plunged into precarity.

During the years of ‘Quiet Diplomacy’, a small cottage industry grew up in South African political life to supply a plausible reason for Mbeki’s ostensibly ruinous support for Zanu-PF. Did Mbeki, whom many in the ANC saw as far from the common man, need the blessing of the grand old man of Harare? Was there a sense that pan-Africanism and liberation fraternity required silence?

The views of the Zimbabwean opposition and in the diaspora tend to converge on the idea that Mbeki and Zuma have behaved in Zimbabwe in ways that serve the ANC’s realpolitik above South Africa’s immediate interests. Writing at NewZimbabwean.com, Dr Alex T Magaisa said in 2009 that “there is a selfish basis for SA’s approach, which is apparent in its oft-repeated line that the Zimbabwe’s problems are best solved by Zimbabweans themselves and do not require outsiders. SA appears to be suggesting the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of Zimbabwe.

But what is the difference between Zimbabwe and Ivory Coast, Lesotho, Burundi and even Haiti where SA appears to have taken a bolder approach in the past? The difference is that the South African leadership is keen to intervene more “loudly” where its self-interest is not at stake. Unlike others where it has intervened boldly, the Zimbabwe issue presents a sensitive challenge to its own interests and designs. There is in this, an unspoken message to the rest of the world, that South Africa would prefer non-intervention should issues similar to those in Zimbabwe arise within its own confines”.

Zimbabwe opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai has been the target of constant intimidation, as well as assault
Zimbabwe opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai has been the target of constant intimidation, as well as assault

According to Magaisa, “The SA leadership is aware of the great challenges it faces [in the area of land reform], particularly given that the needs and expectations of the people are beginning to escalate into demands. Yet it faces a dilemma, knowing that any sudden change Zimbabwe-style is likely to affect the stability of its economic base but also that any further prevarication is likely to draw the ire of those whose expectations have not been fulfilled, 13 years into independence. Hard as it might appear to believe, President Mugabe still retains some admirers among considerable numbers of Africans who choose to view his actions through the prism of anti-imperialism.”

Magaisa’s analysis certainly seems to corroborate reports this month in the Zimbabwean press that Mugabe’s 2013 mandate would be used to transform the economy through indigenisation and economic empowerment via what Harare calls a ‘unique model of wealth transfer’. Zimbabwe’s benchmark stock index fell 11 percent at this news, the biggest fall since 2009.

Is Zuma’s treatment of Mugabe really about establishing the principle of non-intervention in the affairs of sovereign states, in hopes that South Africa will one day have the option of undertaking a wrenching, fundamental and fast-tracked mass reallocation of land and resources to the previously disadvantaged without fear of meddling by vastly weaker neighbouring states?

Julius Malema’s latest pronouncement, reported in the UK Telegraph, would suggest that this is only half the answer. Malema, whose radical agenda – and the support that it musters among the youth – have been a continuing worry for ANC elders, alleged that Zuma “hates” Mugabe, and that the South African president would routinely denigrate his Zimbabwean counterpart in ANC meetings. This tack by Malema is a clue to the size of the support base – largely among the youth, whose vote the ANC is struggling to retain in 2014 – for a more radical approach to economic transformation. While the lack of real transfer of wealth in South Africa and the resultant inequality continues to dominate all political discourse, Zuma cannot afford to alienate Mugabe totally and risk losing the radical left.

Julius Malema's EFF party represents the extreme end of anti-imperialist discourse, in which Robert Mugabe is at the forefront of economic liberation
Julius Malema’s EFF party represents the extreme end of anti-imperialist discourse, in which Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe is at the forefront of economic liberation

In all this, Cosatu’s position on Zimbabwe gives hope. The labour union has consistently opposed Mugabe’s regime, and, by extension, economic transformation through state-sponsored violence. Indeed, Zuma’s ascendancy in 2008 prompted respected commentators to predict the end of Mugabe. Analyst Nic Borain told Bloomberg in that year that South Africans could “expect a significantly different relationship” with Zimbabwe, adding that “Cosatu and the people who back Zuma have taken a different line on Zimbabwe to Mbeki”. Veteran journalist Allister Sparks said that â€œVerbal criticism of Mugabe would help, because as long as Mbeki has been silent, [Mugabe] has been able to get away with deceiving his people [into the belief that] only the West is critical of his rule”, adding “It would weaken him.”

The only thing no one predicted in 2008 was that, five long years later, nothing would have changed. The massive political and financial capital invested by the MDC and opposition groups in securing and contesting an election has, thus far, come to nought as the outside country that matters most, South Africa, has endorsed what is widely considered to be a sham election. None of this stopped Thabo Mbeki from endorsing the new election result in a video, speaking of “a sustained campaign before the elections to discredit them before they happen”.

In the final analysis, it appears that Jacob Zuma has been willing to pay a steep political price for Robert Mugabe’s friendship. Zuma has strained his relationship with Cosatu, a key alliance partner, and has embarrassingly silenced a top aide, Lindiwe Zulu, after she spoke out against the Zimbabwe polls. Speaking in Parliament in 2000, Zuma defended himself saying that it was “not in [his] nature to correct, run and monitor presidents of other countries. It is not the duty of this country to do so. If South Africa were to comment on every other president in the world, I am sure we would be a mad country.”

For the South African opposition parties, however, this is all about normalising the use of state resources for ruling party ends. Ian Davidson, DA Shadow Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, accused Zuma of failing Zimbabwe by legitimising a stolen election.

Voter queues in Zimbabwe
Voter queues in Zimbabwe

For the estimated quarter of adult Zimbabweans now in exile or in the diaspora, the frustration at what should have been a watershed election for a new, democratic Zimbabwe is palpable. Speaking for many in expatriate forums, Geoff Hill, a Zimbabwean writer and Washington Times correspondent based in South Africa, described the relationship between African leaders – in SADC and the African Union – as “a club governed by silence”. Hill noted that the ANC and Zanu-PF have a 30-year history of not criticising each other; Lindiwe Zulu broke that silence, and was muzzled. For the sake of all Zimbabweans – and all South Africans as well – it would seem that more like Zulu are urgently needed at every level of government.

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