SOUTH AFRICA’S RESPONSE TO THE ZIMBABWEAN HUMAN RIGHTS CRISIS: REGIONAL HEGEMONY, AFRICAN UNION RELEVANCE AND HUMAN RIGHTS PROTECTION – YANGA MALOTANA

Image: Peter Kvetny (Unsplash)

On 6 August 2020, President Cyril Ramaphosa made the decision of sending out special envoys: Sydney Mufamadi and Baleka Mbete to engage in talks with the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANUPF) and other relevant stakeholders to find possible ways in which South Africa (SA) can be of help to Zimbabwe. This decision evoked different responses:

  • many believed that Ramaphosa was merely reacting to the mounting pressure from the international and local front, thus making the decision rushed and not well thought out,
  • others believe that the ZANUPF welcomed the decision with hesitation following the remarks made by Ace Magashule condemning the actions of the ZANUPF government, 
  • Zimbabwean president, Emmerson Mnangagwa barred the envoys from having conversation with him and considered this matter to be better discussed “government to government.”

Ramaphosa finds himself in a taut position in light of the current economic and political crisis in Zimbabwe. Similar to his predecessors- Presidents: Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma- Ramaphosa finds himself having to live up to particular expectations birthed from the position in which South Africa finds herself within the continental and regional realms. SA is seen as the supposed regional hegemon of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), moreover Ramaphosa is the current chair of the African Union (AU) and a leader of a liberal-democratic nation-state. There has been immense pressure on Ramaphosa to take action against the chaos that engulfs Zimbabwe. There have been multiple debates from analysts calling for Ramaphosa to act swiftly, to make use of SA’s regional hegemonic power and for him to use his position in the AU to intervene and bring about peace in Zimbabwe. There have been reservations that Ramaphosa has been using the strategy of his predecessors of ‘quiet’ diplomacy which has done very little for the Zimbabwean people. Whether or not something fruitful will come of Ramaphosa’s acknowledgement of the crisis in Zimbabwe, is something that we will have to wait and see about. We can, however, question the viability of possible approaches that SA can employ in order to bring about peace in Zimbabwe. Based on SA’s historical engagement with Zimbabwe since 2008, we can classify these approaches into regional hegemonic influence, AU Chairmanship and human rights protection.

SA has been perceived as Africa’s exceptionalism nation-state, the leader for conflict management, facilitator and model of African security and economic development. Doubt does, however, exist on the country’s ability to provide effective leadership in these areas. Intellectually, it very tempting to suggest that Ramaphosa can use SA’s supposed regional hegemon to bring about peace to the Zimbabwean crisis. By using this suggestion, one would have to assess if SA has somewhat achieved the ability to serve her own interests and also have the ability to institutionalise the interests of SADC- as a regional hegemon should. James Hamill provides an assertion that SA does not even have the mindset of being a hegemon and secondly, there has been a level of resentment and opposition towards Africa by other African states. Thirdly, there has been little attempt by SA to institutionalise SADC’s ideals. Miriam Prys-Hansen provides an observation which argues that states categorised as regional hegemons often do not act according to what is generally expected of them and one should instead call for the reconceptualisation of the term ‘regional hegemon.’ Should Ramaphosa enter into talks with Zimbabwe under the basis of regional hegemonic influence? It is likely not going to be in his favour. The lack of credibility in SA’s claim of regional hegemon does not make this option viable. 

SA can also approach the crisis through the position it holds within the AU. With Ramaphosa as the current chair, one would expect SA to approach Zimbabwe with the AU objective of achieving “an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa. This would not be the first time that SA employs this strategy. Back in 2008, Mbeki was adamant on the promotion of the African renaissance and advocation for Pan-Africanism. This was not limited to the state of Zimbabwe when it was going through its 2008 political and economic crisis. Mbeki made use of his position in the AU and practiced ‘quiet diplomacy.’ Despite the international pressure on SA to also sanction Zimbabwe, Mbeki decided rather to make certain AU objectives priority, particularly the defense of “sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of its member states.” Mbeki’s mediation role in the 2008 crisis with Zimbabwe seemed a bit unclear but something of value must have come out it because; in March earlier this year he was called as mediator to President Mnangagwa and Nelson Chamisa. The meeting itself was mysterious and not much emerged from the meeting. We can make note of the fact that Mbeki made use of his former position in the AU to build a relationship with Zimbabwe which has led to the expectation for Ramaphosa to act accordingly as well. Ramaphosa has however, faced backlash that he has not used his chairmanship of the AU to intervene in Zimbabwe. Roger Southhall criticized Ramaphosa and claimed his decision to send out envoys revealed that the president prioritised the ANC’s (African National Congress) ‘liberalisation movement solidarity’ with fellow liberation party ZANUPF, over prioritising human security issues occurring in Zimbabwe. Despite their differences, ZANUPF and the ANC have a common history and are convicted by that history. This compromises the option of using the AU influence to mediate successfully. 

If SA’s position regionally or continentally will not work, perhaps her advocacy for the protection of human rights as expressed in the constitution should work? Not quite. Events such as; the Marikana Massacre in 2012, the protection of Sundanese President Omar al-Bashir at the 2015 AU-Summit despite him being wanted for genocide and war crimes, the increase in xenophobic attacks and the country’s high gender-based violence rates- all point to the tainting of SA’s human-rights-protector reputation. Adam Habib adequately claims that SA suffers from major structural flaws, not just in her economy but also on the social front. The claim here is that on paper the protection of rights is communicated, however, it is not reflected on the social front. The challenge here, is how can we expect a country that does not even efficiently practice the protection of human rights with its own people have credibility in advocating for human rights in its neighbouring country? 

So, what should Ramaphosa do? There are no straightforward answers to this question. The SA-Zimbabwe relationship is extremely complex and the advisory team for Ramaphosa on this issue certainly have a difficult task ahead of them. This article however, wanted to highlight flaws in the ‘traditional’ approaches that SA would be expected to follow in approaching this crisis. Bringing into question, what a true regional hegemon looks like, questioning the objectives of the AU and questioning what the protection of human rights looks like, can help SA identify if she is biting off more than she can chew. 

Yanga is a third year BPolSci (Political Studies) student at the University of Pretoria where she is also a tutor in their department of Political Science. She is part of the university’s debating union and a marketing and social media officer. Yanga is also an Allan Gray candidate fellow.


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