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South Africa/Ramaphosa's Zim headache...?

SOUTH Africa president Cyril Ramaphosa has in the last three months send two delegations to try to unlock Zimbabwe’s political and economic logjam. The interventions have unruffled feathers in both countries for different reasons, in my view, I argue that South Africa has no other option but to intervene, especially in the face of Covid-19 economic contraction in the region.

Looking back, South Africa has a symbiotic relationship with Zimbabwe since the 1910 formation of the Union of South Africa. Zimbabwe then was known as Southern Rhodesia after its colonisation in 1890 by a British-sponsored private company – British South Africa Company (BSAC). BSAC majority shareholder was the imperialist Cecil John Rhodes – a man who had the dream of building the Cape to Cairo railway that ran from the south to north of Africa.

Zimbabwe was operated as a company between 1890 to 1923 and was given an option to be the fifth state of the Union of South Africa or become a self-governing British colony. It is still debatable if this opportunity came during Rhodes’ time (he died in 1902 and was buried at Matopos) whether he would have pushed for the joining of the Union. Rhodes was prime minister of the Cape and had become a wealthy man with diamond mines and large estates of land.

The ties between the two countries have been as long as the existence of the two nation-states. At an economic level, South Africa has been developed at the back of migrant labour. Thousands of Zimbabweans, Zambians, Mozambicans and Malawians have made great treks to the south to eke a living from mining in the belly of the mineral-rich rand region. The trend has not slowed down even after independence from colonial, citizens of countries in the north still flock down south as economic or political migrants, but mostly the former.

It still has to be mentioned that around the 1960s, relations between Zimbabwe and South Africa reached a new level as both countries were under United Nations endorsed economic sanctions. The countries had a trade agreement that has over the years made them the biggest trading partners in the region. Many South African companies have set up shop in the north and these ranch from agriculture (Tongaat Hullet), banking (Standard Bank) and retail (Pick and Pay, Edgars and Ackermans).

Zimbabwe and South Africa also had an agreement that the former could have an overdraft facility with the South Africa Reserve Bank. This arrangement further cemented the economic and political ties between the two neighbours. In development terms – the countries are what development economist Andrea Gunder Frank espouses in his metropole and satellite theory.

The aforementioned history is meant to shed light into the current political/economic intervention into Zimbabwe by South Africa. As the regional economic powerhouse and its strong ties, South Africa cannot afford the collapse of Zimbabwe either economically or politically without suffering the consequences. If things get harder in Zimbabwe, it is common cause that there would be a glut of refugees to South Africa further straining the country’s capacity to deliver social services to its citizens.

President Cyril Ramaphosa, like Thabo Mbeki in 2007, has no option but to intervene in Zimbabwe's deteriorating political and economic situation. The intervention comes with its own challenges, particularly in the face of the novel Covid-19 pandemic. All countries across the globe have suffered economic contraction due to forced lockdowns. They also had to provide economic stimulus packages for business and improve on social safety nets for their poor and vulnerable citizens. It is in this context that Ramaphosa has to stop Zimbabwe from sliding into another 2008.

Contextualising 2008

Zimbabwe since the turn of the century in 2000 had started experiencing political and economic turmoil. These twin challenges were largely a result of embarking on land reforms that saw former commercial white farmers pushed off the land and, in most instances, violently. The land reform were taking place at a time Zimbabwe's economy was contracting at a faster rate than a country at war. Inflation spiralled and many companies closed. For those that remained in operation, the Zimbabwe dollar became worthless that many started trading in the South African Rand or United States dollar to hedge against inflation.

The economic situation influenced the creation and growth of strong labour-backed opposition. The ruling party was losing political grip, especially in urban and peri-urban areas. In a panic, the ruling Zanu PF party resorted to using violence to coerce voters. Many opposition activists were killed or maimed in the violence. However, despite the violence, the opposition MDC won parliament and led in the first round of presidential elections. Zanu PF was on the ropes and staring into becoming an opposition party – 28 years after it had won the first post-independence polls in 1980.

Mbeki had to act and he did act. He brokered power-sharing negotiations between the beleaguered Zanu PF and the buoyant MDC that culminated in the signing of a Global Political Agreement that ushered a Government of National Unity (GNU) that gave the country some breathing space between 2009 and 2013.

The temporary stability of the unity government, unfortunately, failed to bring long-lasting economic and political reforms. The country's main parties – Zanu PF and MDC – remained in a combative mood. There are in mortal combat.

2017: The end of the façade

Zimbabwe’s military in November 2017 staged a coup as it directly intervened in the Zanu PF succession battles on behalf of a faction. The military tried to cover its tracks by installing a civilian leader in the form of President Emmerson Mnangagwa. The coup was a daring act, the first in Zimbabwe and clearly meant the political terrain had changed. Zimbabwe held a disputed general election on July 30, 2018.

The military violently quashed any demonstrations in the capital, Harare, leaving six unarmed and defenceless civilians dead on August 1. That was the first time, the military had been deployed internally to assist police in maintenance of peace. The subsequent appointment of the Mothlante Commission to look into the killings and its findings have largely remained an academic exercise. No military officer has been hauled before any hearing for the offence, yet the commander of the unit has – Brigadier Anselum Sanyatwe – has been promoted to an be an ambassador.

Ramaphosa intervention

Ramaphosa, unlike Mbeki, is dealing with a military regime. Twice, his envoys have been told bluntly they cannot discuss with anyone about the crisis in Zimbabwe except Zanu PF. This could be related to Ramaphosas’s tactical errors. He initially sent a special envoy and in diplomatic speak envoys cannot do more than delivering a message and getting a response to deliver to their sender. When he tried to amend the first error, Ramaphosa made a second mistake – dispatching an ANC delegation which was told as soon as it landed that it could only speak to Zanu PF as sister revolutionary parties.

Ramaphosa failed to do a Mbeki who clothed his intervention in regional robes. Mbeki intervention was a SADC intervention and carried more weight. The intervention had further support from countries like the United Kingdom and the United States. Ramaphosa has failed to build such a coalition despite being the current chairman of the African Union.

Opposition weak bargaining position

The opposition lost MDC dismally the 2018 parliamentary election. It mustered slightly below a third of the august House seats. In 2008, the MDC had a parliamentary majority and Robert Mugabe had become a lame-duck president. The ruling by decree would be too brazen to a man of his sophistication. Mugabe had to negotiate. He put his experience to good use and got himself a good deal where he retained power under the façade of a unity government. His government exclusively maintained the power to control the pace of political and economic reforms.

In the current scenario, the MDC is both weak and fragmented to apply any meaningful pressure on the regime. The opposition despite its posturing has failed to have the Zimbabwe crisis on the agenda of either Sadc summit or Africa Union meetings. In other words, both Ramaphosa and the MDC have failed to internationalise the Zimbabwean crisis.

Covid-19 challenge

Ramaphosa is battling for his own survival in the fractious ANC and at the same time to steady the economic ship post-Covid-19. He has little room to be involved in foreign affairs except if it is Lesotho, a country that has power over the existence of Johannesburg because it supplies it with potable water.

Covid-19 has caused companies to close further heaping pressure on unemployment. Unemployment is a source of social instability in a country with millions of economic immigrants. South Africa is on the verge of another Afrophobia attacks and the Ramaphosa administration has to be on the lookout.


While a government of national unity in Zimbabwe may be desirable, there is no wind in the sails for such a ship. The opposition is weak and fragmented while the mediator has blundered and is overwhelmed by developments in his own country and the threat that he could be a one-term president. Even if Mnangagwa was to be magnanimous, the MDC can only be a junior partner in the resultant inclusive government without any leverage to force reforms. Ramaphosa, in this instance, the main goal is to try to manage the Zimbabwe situation that it does not implode.


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