South Africa and Zimbabwe

By Hamill, James | Contemporary Review, July 2002 | Go to article overview

South Africa and Zimbabwe


Hamill, James, Contemporary Review


THE fallout from a Zimbabwean presidential election blighted by state orchestrated repression and riddled with malpractices will be most keenly felt within the Southern African region itself, not least by South Africa, the regional hegemon (see last month's Contemporary Review). How are we to explain the South African response to the election outcome and what are the implications of that response for Pretoria's own international reputation and for the future political trajectory of South Africa itself?

The Predictable Mr Mugabe

The Zimbabwean presidential election of 9-10 March 2002 represented the latest milestone in that country's long descent into outright despotism. The official 'victory' of Robert Mugabe was so tarnished by the state sponsored violence unleashed in advance of the poll, and by the rampant fraud accompanying it, that it effectively signalled the demise of elections in Zimbabwe as credible tests of popular opinion. However, as Robin Renwick, the former British ambassador to South Africa in the 1980s, has recognised, it also demonstrated Mugabe's willingness to destroy the country before he would consider relinquishing control of it. That said, reprehensible though it was, Mugabes behaviour was hardly unexpected. The pre-election period had witnessed the passage of emergency legislation designed to stifle independent media coverage, the imposition of tight restrictions on election monitors (both local and international), the routine use of violence against opposition supporters and activists, and the denial of oppo sition access to a state controlled media which behaved throughout as a mouthpiece for the ruling party, ZANU-PF. Finally, came Mugabe's coup de grace: the decision to place the Zimbabwean armed forces--which are now effectively acting as the military wing of ZANU-PF as constitutional order collapses--formally in charge of the election. The military responded by announcing that they would not accept any result that went 'against the revolution'. All of this demonstrated very cleanly that the Mugabe regime was simply not prepared to allow the election to become a vehicle through which real democratic change could be secured.

Perhaps more discouraging for those committed to a democratic Zimbabwe, however, was the complacent response of South Africa, the regional superpower. In its public reaction accepting, indeed welcoming, the official outcome, South Africa provided a tacit endorsement of Mugabe's violent excesses, a response which--unless it is radically revised in the months ahead--threatens to deal a lethal blow to Pretoria's international standing and to the country's post-1994 aspiration to be an evangelist for the expansion of democratic government on the African continent.

Constructive Engagement and Beyond

The South African approach to Zimbabwe's escalating crisis has been to take the route of quiet diplomacy, a policy designed to encourage Mugabe to change course from the lawlessness, violent coercion and racial scapegoating which he has actively encouraged since losing the constitutional referendum of February 2000. That policy had recorded few, if any, tangible achievements by the end of 2001 as Zimbabwe plunged further into state sponsored anarchy and repression but the acid test of Pretoria's policy was always going to be its ability to ensure that the presidential election of March 2002 was conducted according to strict democratic ground-rules. That it was not is now a matter of record as a cluster of observer missions quickly confirmed. The Norwegian mission reported that the poll lacked 'integrity' and 'failed to meet the key broadly accepted criteria for elections'. The parliamentary mission of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) reported that the electoral process 'could not be said to a dequately comply with the norms and standards for elections in the SADC region' and the report of the Commonwealth observer mission stated bluntly that the conditions in Zimbabwe 'did not adequately allow for a free expression of the will by the electors'. …

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