SA can’t afford a Zimbabwe meltdown

A MAN holds up a placard during a protest outside the Zimbabwean embassy in Pretoria yesterday. Protesters called for South Africa to intervene in the crisis. Reuters African News Agency (ANA)

Zimbabwe’s economic crisis has reached catastrophic proportions. With the government raising the cost of fuel from R19 to R41 a litre, fuel became more expensive in Zimbabwe than anywhere else in the world. The economic meltdown of our northern neighbour poses a serious threat to our national interest. If Zimbabweans are unable to survive, it is to South Africa that they will turn, and how will we absorb thousands of new economic migrants with our current levels of unemployment, and already overstretched social services?

According to our National Police Commissioner Sitole Khehla, 11 million migrants visited South Africa and never returned home, a figure which Police Spokesperson Vish Naidoo said was based on data from the Department of Home Affairs. While the actual number of illegal migrants in South Africa is disputed, we are already home to the highest number of asylum seekers in the world.

It is right that we do not turn away Zimbabweans from our hospitals, but our system is unlikely to cope with a new influx of Zimbabwean refugees. Assisting Zimbabwe to right its economic ship and resolve its political challenges is arguably our most important foreign policy priority right now.

On Boxing Day our Director General of the Treasury and Governor of the Reserve Bank met with their Zimbabwean counterparts and agreed to work together to assist the Zimbabwean economy. Finance Minister Tito Mboweni has come out saying that Zimbabwe needs a new currency, and he would like to see an end to economic sanctions on Zimbabwe. There is no question that our policy makers are concerned. The currency is a major issue that needs to be attended to, and a week ago Zimbabwe’s Finance Minister announced that Zimbabwe intends on introducing a new currency within the next year – it may be that the timeframe needs to be drastically brought forward.

The Zimbabwean government had abandoned the Zim dollar in 2009 after inflation reached 500 billion percent the year before. Rands and dollars were then supplied, but by 2016 the government had started issuing bond notes that were pegged at three bond notes to US$1. The system of the government borrowing via treasury bills was always problematic as a government should never create money without the backing of gold or currency reserves.

The government’s latest panacea to its economic woes was to implement a 150 percent fuel hike, but for Zimbabweans struggling under poverty and rampant unemployment, that was medicine too bitter to swallow, and for many the final straw. As is the case with many grassroots uprisings, price hikes that are outrageously unaffordable to the masses is the catalyst which brings people out onto the streets in revolt.

Zimbabwe could have taken a leaf out of Sudanese President Omar al Bashir’s nightmare as his government’s price hikes in December started an uprising which is gathering momentum by the week, and may ultimately bring down the government. What started as spontaneous protests against the price and lack of fuel and basic necessities in Sudan, has morphed into a nationwide revolt. This could be replicated in Zimbabwe if the currently crisis is not quickly and effectively addressed.

What is even more concerning is the reaction of Zimbabwe’s security forces to the civilian protests this week, very reminiscent of the scenes across Sudan of the security forces beating up young people, and throwing them in detention cells. Last week I reported that over 1,000 protestors had been detained in Sudan in the space of three weeks. Just this week Zimbabwe’s security forces detained over 200 civilians, mostly youths, in the most draconian crackdown the country has seen since independence in 1980. Even the popular Zimbabwean Pastor Evan Mawarire is being detained in a dirty leaking underground cell in Harare’s central police station.

Human rights organisations have condemned the gross illegal human rights abuses in Zimbabwe this week, which have included the police and army conducting brutal door to door operations. The recorded scenes were so shocking that even the EFF condemned the fact that the Zimbabwean military was being used against protestors. We know that Zimbabwe is highly militarised, but to see soldiers deployed on the streets of Harare and Bulawayo this week was nevertheless a shock for a SADC country. This time the heavy hand of the state seemed to go beyond what was even seen under President Mugabe, when the internet was blocked, the directive having come from the President’s office.

While the chaos in Zimbabwe continues, President Emmerson Mnangagwa has been in Russia trying to court investment and loans, and in one of his recent tweets he announced that Alrosa, the world’s largest diamond company will launch operations in Zimbabwe. He also intends on participating in the World Economic Forum in Davos on the same mission of drumming up investor confidence. But this will be a tall order given the violent reality on the ground.  

Shannon Ebrahim is the Foreign Editor for Voices360.