The Zimbabwean debacle is a challenge to South Africa

Zimbabwe's President Emmerson Mnangagwa addresses mourners gathered to pay their last respects to musician Oliver Mtukudzi at his family home in Harare

It has been reported in the media (The Star 24 January 2019) that ‘South Africa to do what it can to help Zim neighbours’. In the same newspaper it is reported that both Lindiwe Sisulu, Minister of International Relations and Co-operation (Foreign Affairs), and President Cyril Ramaphosa, speaking from the World Economic Forum in Davos, have called for the lifting of economic sanctions to assist our beleaguered and troubled ‘sister country’ of Zimbabwe.

 Although sanctions to a very limited extent may have contributed to the dire economic and political situation, they most certainly are not a major contributing factor, they constitute the metaphorical red herring. Their lifting will not therefore in any meaningful way resolve the profound existing economic and political malaise that is apparently spiralling out of control in Zimbabwe with catastrophic consequences not only for that country, but will of necessity have serious consequences for South Africa and all the neighbouring SADC countries. The dire nature of the crisis in Zimbabwe should in no way be underestimated. South Africa’s political leadership will neglect to act constructively and effectively at our country’s peril as a nation.

The present crisis was precipitated by President Mnangagwa’s staggering increase in the cost of fuel by 150%, making it the most expensive in the world! This in turn prompted the Zimbabwean Congress of Trade Unions and civil society organisations, such as the Crisis Coalition, to call for an immanent three day strike.

The reaction was immediate and violent and not unsurprising considering the circumstances were indeed fertile for a large scale and very aggressive reaction on behalf of the population, particularly in the urban areas. This state of affairs was facilitated by acute shortages of basic foodstuffs causing long queues resulting in intense frustration, anger and hunger among people. The intermittent supply of both water and electricity exacerbated the already potentially explosive situation at a time when most unfortunately Mnangagwa was out of the country visiting Russia, apparently, inter alia, to acquire military equipment for the army, and leaving Zimbabwe in the hands of the brutal armed forces.  

As a result, several days of violent protest ensued. Without the restraining influence of the President, the military establishment responded predictably with a very heavy hand and it has been reported (The Mercury 23 January 2019 ‘Crisis-ridden Zimbabwe at the crossroads) that at least 12 persons have been killed by the ferocious conduct of the military forces, thousands injured and about six hundred detained. Belatedly on his return to Harare, Mnagagwa declared that ‘[v]iolence or misconduct by out security forces is unacceptable and a betrayal of the new Zimbabwe’. He subsequently intimated that ‘[m]isconduct will be investigated. If required heads will roll’ and in addition he called a ‘national dialogue’ involving, inter alia, the churches, civil society and the political opposition.

In truth Zimbabwe appears to be dangerously teetering on the brink of a bloody civil insurrection of that could result in the loss of thousands of lives and constitute a humanitarian disaster and crisis with very large numbers of refugees fleeing across international borders into neighbouring states, most of whom would cross the Limpopo River in their droves into South Africa. The political crisis in Zimbabwe has dire potential consequences for all the Southern African countries bordering on the beleaguered state, and in particularly for South Africa.

To arrest the present untenable and potentially explosive situation, it is cogently submitted, that the Mnangagwe administration and its armed forces must immediately desist from the horrendous and virtually unrestrained assault on the civilian population of the country. In this regard South Africa and its political leadership must become pro-actively involved by facilitating and if necessary coercing high level talks between the Zimbabwean government and the MCD–Alliance that could as Tapiwa Chagonda (The Mercury 23 January 2019) has suggested bring about a Government of National Unity (GNU). The situation cannot afford political pussy footing but requires vigorous and constructive influence of a diplomatic nature to establish a GNU. Mere Thabo Mbeki like ‘quiet diplomacy’ will most certainly not suffice, something far more potent is required, but also involving political finesse and a constructive strategy.

There is a precedent for this, as Chagonda, referred to above, explains, in that such a GNU proved to be successful after it was formed in the aftermath of the of the violent elections in 2008 which rescued the country from descending into the abyss of chaos and self-destruction at that time. He submits correctly the 2009-13 GNU assisted in stabilizing the economy and ‘brought the country back from the brink’. A powerful and strategically wise diplomatic intervention is urgently required which would also have to engage the MDC-Alliance also coerce them from continuing with ‘fomenting acts of violence that has become the party’s hallmark since its former leader Morgan Tsangirai’s death in February last year’. The co-operation of both the Zimbabwean Government and the MDC-Alliance is imperative for a peaceful and satisfactory resolution of the political and economic crisis in Zimbabwe.

This situation presents South Africa’s political leadership with an inordinate challenge. Both President Ramaphosa and Minister Sisula must rise to the occasion. This to be brutally frank this must of necessity require financial assistance to Zimbabwe of a not inconsiderable amount of money, at a time when our own fiscus is already subject to unprecedented strain.  However such expenditure, demanding as it will be, would it is submitted, be the lesser of two evils. A complete political meltdown and a bloodbath involving thousands of lives could result in an untold humanitarian and political disaster to South Africa, Zimbabwe and as well as dire consequence for the other neighbouring states and indeed the entire SACD region. There is indeed no time to waste, and the South African political leadership, involving both Ramaphosa and Sisulu act immediately, for the safety and future prosperity of the SACD region as a whole.     

George Devenish is an emeritus professor at UKZN and one of the scholars who assisted in drafting the Interim Constitution in 1993.