Zimbabwe: South Africa is hardly qualified as a mediator

17 November 2017 - 06:28 By ranjeni munusamy
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Former Zimbabwean vice-President Joice Mujuru attends a news conference in Harare, Zimbabwe, November 16, 2017.
Former Zimbabwean vice-President Joice Mujuru attends a news conference in Harare, Zimbabwe, November 16, 2017.
Image: REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

It is laughable that President Jacob Zuma is the point man on the Zimbabwean crisis when he needs the protection of a police battalion to go outside his house in his own country.

Zuma is seemingly the only person allowed a call with Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe as he sits holed up at State House in Harare, while the country remains under the control of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces.

Zuma has also dispatched two special envoys to Harare, Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula and rookie State Security Minister Bongani Bongo, who would struggle to negotiate a shopping trolley through a supermarket aisle, let alone get army generals to roll back their power grab.

South Africa does not have the best track record when it comes to mediation efforts in Zimbabwe, but will have to take a lead role in negotiating the way forward following this week's incredible events.

Besides being Zimbabwe's nearest and dearest neighbour, South Africa is also the current chairman of the Southern African Development Community.

The military takeover in Zimbabwe and the detention of 93-year-old Mugabe has sent shockwaves through the region. Diplomatic intervention is needed to negotiate a peaceful transition and exit.

But many Zimbabweans would be scornful of South Africa's role - justifiably so - given its contribution to extending the life of Mugabe's regime and allowing subversion of democracy over many years.

It is no secret that Zuma is fighting for his political life and could be ousted himself

Former president Thabo Mbeki's "quiet diplomacy" approach was widely condemned for providing cover to Mugabe and his cohorts as they stole elections, collapsed the economy, clamped down on the opposition, abolished media freedom and turned Zimbabwe into a failed state.

If South Africa had taken a firmer approach, there is no doubt that Mugabe would have been out of power years ago.

In 2008 South Africa played a key role in facilitating the "Global Political Agreement" that led to a fragile power-sharing agreement between Zanu-PF and two factions of the Movement for Democratic Change. The government of national unity stumbled to an awkward end in 2013, with Mugabe still maintaining an iron grip.

He has proven indomitable, seemingly only willing to make way for his wife Grace to take power in next year's elections.

But now Mugabe's 37-year reign appears to be over, and his recently ousted vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa is reportedly preparing to take power.

The transition has to be carefully managed to maintain a semblance of the rule of law, prevent violence and instability in the region, and ensure democratic elections somewhere down the line.

It will be like doing a vasectomy while skydiving. At this point, making the snip is more important than deploying the parachute.

The process will take proficiency and absolute trust in the mediators. This is where South Africa might fall short.

Pretoria does not have the diplomatic clout it once enjoyed internationally under the Mandela and Mbeki presidencies.

Zuma has not shown himself to be someone who cares particularly about the constitution or the rule of law, and has Mugabe-esque tendencies when it comes to turning the cabinet into a personal protection force. They also seem to have similar outlooks about opposition parties and the media.

In recent years Zuma has mimicked Mugabe's rhetoric about imperialist agendas and agents sponsored by Western powers.

It is no secret that Zuma is fighting for his political life and could be ousted himself if his chief rival, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, wins the ANC election race in December.

It might, therefore, be difficult for diplomatic partners to take South Africa seriously as a lead partner in Zimbabwe's delicate transitional process.

Zuma could assign International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane the task of dealing with the Zimbabwean crisis, but she appears to have diminished what was formerly a senior cabinet post.

Declaring on an international television network that she had a hole in her head and being exposed as a "sleepist" in parliament did not help.

Zuma could send his favoured successor, former African Union Commission chairman and foreign minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who could mediate in Zimbabwe. She might decline, however, given that she is in the midst of a high-stakes presidential campaign.

Whoever is chosen, the Zimbabweans are stuck with us to assist their transition - at least until a roadmap is in place for a transitional government and preparations are made for credible elections.

With some hand-holding from the region, Zimbabwe might finally negotiate its way out of the grip of a crooked old despot.

It is still unclear when South Africa will do the same.

WATCH | New dawn for Zimbabwe's economy after dark days:

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