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Can South Africa solve Zimbabwe's crisis?

The Covid-19 induced lockdown which was not unique to Zimbabwe saw the country plunging into a deep economic and socio-political crisis as the government of took advantage of the lockdown to crackdown on opposition political activists, human rights defender and civil society members. During the same period, a Twitter campaign #ZimbabweanLivesMatter trended globally, with celebrities calling for support and intervention of other countries, regional and international bodies. In South Africa, the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters and civil society organisations engaged the South African government and ANC to find a way to resolve the crisis. A similar call was made to the regional body SADC to make the Zimbabwean crisis part of its agenda. Given the different responses that South Africa and SADC gave to the Zimbabwean crisis, this paper will look at the prospects or lack of either South Africa or SADC being able to mediate and resolve the Zimbabwean crisis.

In response to the calls for South Africa to intervene in the Zimbabwean crisis, president Ramaphosa dispatched an envoy to Harare, this initiative a move which was welcomed by many with criticism from some sections pointing at the composition of the delegation and their relationship to ZANU PF. The hope that had been awakened soon died down when the delegation went back after having only met president Mnangagwa without engaging either the opposition or civil society. At a later date, the ANC dispatched a team to Harare but the ANC team only had meetings with ZANU PF. In the same, Obert Mpofu the ruling party’s Secretary for Administration insinuated that they had been engaging each other (with ANC) on issues of “mutual interest.” Again the ANC delegation did not have the opportunity to meet with the opposition political parties as well as the civil society organisations. The big question that then remained answer is to what extent is South Africa in a position to mediate and solve the Zimbabwean crisis?

In 2008, South Africa at the instruction of SADC successfully mediated and resolved a crisis that almost brought Zimbabwe to its knees following a disputed run-off election in which Robert Mugabe was a sole candidate after Morgan Tsvangirai who was the leader of the opposition withdrew his candidature citing an unlevel political field. South Africa's then-leader Thabo Mbeki led the mediation which saw the signing of a Global Power-Sharing Agreement amongst the two political parties.

South Africa, being Africa's most developed economy, Zimbabwe's neighbour, could easily use her position to influence political developments in the country. It has to be noted that political instability in Zimbabwe could hurt South Africa and pose a regional humanitarian crisis if left unresolved. Due to the persistent economic woes faced by Zimbabwe which have resulted in high levels of unemployment, there was and still the movement of people to South Africa in search of employment. A large proportion of Zimbabwe's population, therefore, is resident in South Africa.

Another factor that makes it South Africa the ideal candidate to mediate in the Zimbabwean crisis is the naked reality that it is Zimbabwe’s largest trading partner.

Despite current challenges that have rocked the ANC especially linked to corruption the ANC has had good standing and influence amongst fellow liberation movements and countries in SADC to push for mediation in Zimbabwe.

Despite all the factors that point to South Africa as the right candidate for spearheading the mediation to resolve the Zimbabwean crisis, South Africa’s mediation is complicated by two internal issues that are, firstly, MDC Alliance presidential candidate Nelson Chamisa’s refusal to acknowledge Mnangagwa as the legitimate president of Zimbabwe and secondly ZANU PF blatant refusal to accept that Zimbabwe is in a crisis. When ANC made comments about the Zimbabwean crisis ZANU PF responded saying that “It is unprecedented in the history of our relations as revolutionary parties for ANC to seek to verify our submissions through puppet movements”. This response while refusing to acknowledge the crisis was also intimidating and accused ANC of listening to the opposition political parties regarded as a puppet of the western world.

The mediation by South Africa could also be compromised because of the brotherhood solidarity between ANC and ZANU (PF). Despite differences and arguments ANC and ZANU PF remain to abound together by the conviction that they are the embodiments of the logic of history ( R. Southall, 2020). As a result, they will do what it takes to remain in power including remaining silent when there are critical issues that the other could resolve and address.

The other challenge that South Africa might face is that after the military coup that deposed Mugabe in November 2017, the government in Zimbabwe has become increasingly militarized with Mnangagwa’s government being virtually controlled by the military. The military government might not readily welcome mediation as it will result in them losing their power and influence in the politics and economics of the country. The military government has also been at the forefront of cracking down of opposition members and activists through arbitrary arrests, assault and even murder. South Africa might shy away from mediating in a country with such a situation.

Above all, South Africa was not – and is not – willing to act unilaterally in African affairs. It will always hide behind sovereignty, where interventions will be seen as an interference with a country’s independence and sovereignty. It is also unfortunate that South Africa’s President Ramaphosa currently has his own challenges at home especially following the Covid19 pandemic which exposed his government for corruption. He might be too busy to commit himself to work towards ending the Zimbabwean crisis.


For sustainable democracy to emerge it is clear that major transformations need to take place within the Zimbabwean political, security and economic sectors. Successful transformation is always initiated by the people, however, the Zimbabwean government is determined to make sure that it silences all aspects of dissent. Another option that Zimbabwe could take is the putting in place of a transitional government which will include all opposition political parties and the civil society. Key to transformation or mediation in Zimbabwe is the demilitarisation of government and state institutions, the military should stick to their mandate of defending the country against foreign threats and not be part of the day to day running of government business. Finally, there should be a united effort of SADC and Zimbabwe's neighbouring countries to resolve the Zimbabwean crisis. The regional body SADC should take a leading role in the mediation..

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