Zimbabwe: is the power in the hands of South Africa?

Article published on Feb. 14, 2005
community published
Article published on Feb. 14, 2005

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Faced with increasing political violence in Zimbabwe, South Africa opts for talks. But the European Union and the United States prefer to impose sanctions

After controversial results in the parliamentary elections in 2000, Zimbabwe has entered a dangerous period of political violence. Its president, Robert Mugabe, has lost popularity since his proposed Constitution was voted down in 2000 and he won by only a slight majority in the last presidential elections in 2002. In response, and to regain popularity, Mugabe has systematically suppressed all opposition, violated human rights, the judicial system and foreign NGOs. Furthermore, he has implemented agricultural reform (taken straight from the rejected constitution) allowing for the expropriation of land from white farmers. So the popularity of Mugabe has increased, partly because his agricultural reform feeds a dream for the change of the current state of affairs which was inherited from the colonial era. Meanwhile inflation in 2003 was 431%, GDP decreased by 13%, unemployment exceeded 80%, 70% of the population live below the poverty line and more than 3500 people die every week from HIV-related illnesses.

The “white Commonwealth” versus the “black Commonwealth”

On an international level, there have been essentially been two types of response to Mugabe’s regime. On the one hand, the “white Commonwealth” (Great Britain, New Zealand and Australia), the USA and the EU have opted to isolate Zimbabwe. On the other, the African states of the Commonwealth and South Africa have opted for dialogue. The US and the EU imposed financial sanctions and prevented President Mugabe and 72 government officials from travelling after international observers deemed the 2002 elections neither free nor fair. In 2004, the EU updated their initial sanctions to bring in more “appropriate measures”, in line with the EU “Human Rights Clause”. The sanctions, which include an arms embargo, now restrict the head of the electoral commission who was held responsible for electoral fraud, and the head of the media commission who is accused of intimidating journalists and was responsible for the shutdown of the only private daily newspaper Daily News.

In response to critics who ask for a hardening of the sanctions, the EU ministers think that any action would just harm the population: the target is the political elite, not the economy. However, the critics want specific sanctions for the businesses and families of Harare officials unless Mugabe starts to cooperate with the opposition MDC and the international community. In any case, international isolation has been in place since the removal of Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth on 12 December 2003, after they were expelled from the committee of Foreign Affairs Ministers in 2002. A few days later the International Monetary Fund started to consider its exclusion for non-payment and the accumulation of more than 273 million dollars in debts. With a conflicting strategy, Zimbabwe’s main neighbouring country, South Africa, uses “silent diplomacy”. The SADC (South African Development Community) tried to use talks to avert the crisis. This has caused the main Zimbabwean opposition party, the MDC, to accuse the South African government of collaborating with Mugabe, criticising for example the supply of petrol to Harare. Inversely, the Zimbabwean government criticises European countries like Great Britain, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland for collaborating with the MDC.

How can the political violence be stopped?

Some observers understand that the South African strategy is more effective than some sanctions which are ignored by Mugabe. Today, South Africa, the only state on close terms with Harare, is the only link between Zimbabwe and the International Community. South Africa has a great interest in stabilising a country with whom they share a border and who’s opposition party is neither a sufficient nor a viable alternative. To understand this attitude, you have to consider the historic similarities between Zimbabwe and South Africa: both countries have growing competition for land, poverty is extensive and the current government was, until fairly recently, a freedom movement.

The central role of South Africa however can’t succeed without the international isolation of Harare. The victims of the regime recall that the National African Congress of South Africa fought against the lasting apartheid and it wasn’t exactly with a “silent diplomacy”. The situation in Zimbabwe could change significantly with greater pressure from Pretoria, although at the moment it doesn’t seem like the violence or the political persecution is going to stop soon.