After nearly three months in South Africa, I have found a conversation topic on which nearly everyone here seems to have an opinion: South Africa’s neighbor to the north, Zimbabwe. Unlike domestic, more distinctly “South African” issues, such as AIDS or apartheid, I have little trouble garnering frank, enthusiastic (and sometimes unsolicited) perspectives on what exactly to do about the near-decimated country and its dictator of more than thirty years, Robert Mugabe.
Views on Mugabe vary widely. Nervous South African whites regard his intended confiscation of virtually all white-owned land as dangerously contagious policy. Middle-class black South Africans cast their eyes to the sky, sighing with exasperation over Mugabe’s flagrant economic mishandlings. To many poor, neglected South African communities, however, Mugabe is a well intentioned, though perhaps misled, veteran freedom fighter.
The communal South African fixation on Zimbabwe shouldn’t be surprising. Besides being one of the longest standing, (and arguably the most notorious) sub-Saharan African dictators, Robert Mugabe has transformed South Africa into a receptacle for refugees of Zimbabwe’s broken economy. According to a 2009 MSF Report, 25% of Zimbabwe’s population has fled to neighboring countries, with the vast majority congregating in South Africa. The exact number of Zimbabweans currently in South Africa remains unclear, but some estimates point at more than 1 million. A fierce debate is raging between supporters of deportation and those who say returning illegal migrants to Zimbabwe would only exacerbate the situation there.
Western powers have high expectations” of South Africa. As Zimbabwe’s largest trading partner, South Africa has long been regarded as the country in the best position to exert substantial economic leverage. George W. Bush called Thabo Mbeki, South Africa’s president until 2008, his “point man” on dealings with Mugabe in 2003.
In fiscal terms, South African leaders have been quite unresponsive to Western demands for action against Mugabe. Prominent members of the African National Congress (ANC, South Africa’s major political party) have called for the lifting of “targeted sanctions” imposed on Mugabe by the West. Marius Fransmen, South Africa’ deputy foreign ministers says such sanctions only “deter potential investment in Zimbabwe.” The lifting of these sanctions—most of which serve only to freeze Mugabe’s overseas assets and restrict travel for his party members—would, according to Fransmen, “go a long way to supporting the required economic recovery” in Zimbabwe. How exactly the lifting of such limited sanctions would spur growth in Zimbabwe, the ANC has yet to explain.
Furthermore, current South African President Jacob Zuma has criticized the United States and European countries for halting foreign aid to Zimbabwe’s transitional government, where a 2008 power-sharing agreement between Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangarai is still in place, albeit precariously.
Though the ANC reaction to Western economic policy in Zimbabwe has been uniformly negative, South African political dealings with Mugabe are plagued by contradiction. The question of Zimbabwe has leaked into South African domestic politics, causing a virtual rift in ANC leadership. Former President Mbeki stood firmly by his policy of “quiet diplomacy,” disparaging what he called the “megaphone” style of the United States and Great Britain. Jacob Zuma, on the other hand, criticized Mbeki’s method as apathetic; he in turn approaches Mugabe as an outspoken, hard-line human rights advocate. Zuma, has been forthright about pushing a strong and very public pro-democracy line.
Mbeki’s hesitation to outwardly condemn Mugabe’s alleged human rights violations led to criticism from Western and African diplomats alike. “Where is the concern?” wondered former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2008, after Mbeki claimed that there was no “crisis” in Zimbabwe. Mbeki was also blasted for his handling of the 2008 Zimbabwean elections, which the African Union appointed him to oversee. Ultimately, Zimbabwe’s opposition leader (and Mugabe’s archrival) Morgan Tsvangirai called for Mbeki to step down from his role as mediator.
United States critics attacked Mbeki for his perceived apathy towards Zimbabwean citizens. One editor in The Washington Post called South Africa a “rogue democracy,” saying “South Africa remains an example of freedom — while devaluing and undermining the freedom of others. It is the product of a conscience it does not display.”
Though Zuma’s diplomacy efforts have been lauded by the West (Secretary of State Hilary Clinton spoke of being “very grateful”), he has yet to tap into the potential of economic sanctions of any sort, even policies that would target only the pocketbooks of Mugabe and his henchmen. Zuma must be wary of the domestic effects of any intentional weakening of the Mugabe regime, such as a sharp increase in the number of illegal migrants fleeing Mugabe’s dysfunction. And quite frankly, any number of empty threats from Zuma is hardly expected to leave Mugabe, who flouts with impunity most provisions of the power-sharing deal, quaking in his boots.
There is a clear discrepancy between South Africa’s reputation as a “beacon of democracy” for the continent, and the reluctance of its leaders to take swift, decisive action in Zimbabwe. More subtly, however, the disparity reflects a complex internal political argument within South Africa, as well as a broader philosophical debate.
First, there are the contradictions of ANC politics, in addition to the differences between Jacob Zuma and Thabo Mbeki. Very recently, the very recent dismissal of ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema is blamed partially on the fact that, allegedly, Malema’s calls for South Africa to emulate Mugabe’s land redistribution policies were scaring away foreign investors. He also has supposed monetary ties to Mugabe himself. Malema’s power base consists of the same poor, marginalized population in South Africa that tends to sympathize with Mugabe and his policies. Malema embodies, all in all, some of the confusions of a country who is still struggling, quite profoundly, with its own economic inequalities, and the ways to correct them.
Secondly, a fundamental difference must be acknowledged between African and Western styles of diplomacy. While countries like the United States and Britain rely heavily on bilateral diplomacy to effect change, African nations, especially South Africa, prefer the use of multilateral forums. After the fall of apartheid, South Africa enthusiastically shed its previous political isolation embracing leadership positions in a number of multilateral organizations. South Africa chaired the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and, more recently, was appointed as a member of the United Nations Security Council. South Africa is also the only African G-20 nation. Whereas the old, apartheid-era style of South African diplomacy was characterized by the use of bilateral summits—and occasional force—in international interactions, post-transition diplomacy looks toward public opinion in foreign affairs. Ultimately, South African foreign policy, like the rest of the post-apartheid system, looks to be shaped by “all participating in it.” Though this is certainly relatively more “democratic,” a crucial question remains: will injecting diplomacy efforts with a healthy dose of pluralism bring about change for Zimbabwean neighbors?
Alexis is a Junior at Fordham College, currently studying in South Africa on a Boren Scholarship. She can be reached a firstname.lastname@example.org