South Africa – Zimbabwe: ANC signals strong support for Mnangagwa

By Farai Shawn Matiashe
Posted on Thursday, 29 December 2022 18:08

South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa meets with his Zimbabwean counterpart Emerson Mnangagwa during his visit in Harare, Zimbabwe on March 17, 2018. (John Cassim / Anadolu Agency/AFP)

In mid-December, Fikile Mbalula, the newly elected African National Congress (ANC) secretary-general, says the ruling party does not support regime change in troubled neighbouring Zimbabwe.

“We do not subscribe to the idea of regime change in Zimbabwe,” Mbalula told journalists in Johannesburg in a briefing in his capacity as secretary-general before repeating the sanctions mantra of the ruling Zanu PF.

ANC is biased toward Zanu PF

Expectations were high that the ANC government would push for a free and fair general poll in 2023 as Zimbabwe’s economic crisis worsens amid massive corruption and mismanagement by President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government. South Africa has also been paying the price for that mismanagement as more Zimbabweans seek economic refuge in one of Africa’s biggest economy.

Instead of the ANC playing a big brother role and calling their counterparts in the Zanu PF, they have opted to push the latter’s propaganda that sanctions are behind the southern African nation’s economic deterioration.

They reflect a lazy ‘solidarity’ posture that reinforces perceptions of the ANC’s bias towards Zanu PF.

ANC officials and President Cyril Ramaphosa have been doing public relation stunts on sanctions for Mnangagwa, despite the United States and the United Kingdom maintaining that sanctions are targeted.

Piers Pigou, a southern Africa consultant at the International Crisis Group, says Mbalula’s comments on regime change and sanctions in Zimbabwe illustrate a thinking somewhat trapped in a time warp.

“They reflect a lazy ‘solidarity’ posture that reinforces perceptions of the ANC’s bias towards Zanu PF,” he tells The Africa Report.

ANC and Zanu PF clashing over migrants

The relationship between ANC and Zanu PF dates back to the liberation struggle when both revolutionary parties assisted each other to attain independence from the white minority rule.

In the past half a decade, it appears as if the relationship between ANC and Zanu PF was deteriorating.

In 2019, South Africa’s International Relations minister Naledi Pandor said, Zimbabwe’s economic solution must go hand-in-hand with a political solution and be primarily resolved by Zimbabweans.

The ANC sent a delegation led by its then-secretary general Ace Magashule and party head of International Relations Lindiwe Zulu in September 2020 to meet top Zanu PF officials and opposition party leaders and civil society leaders.

This was after dozens of activists, opposition politicians, and journalists in Zimbabwe were abducted or arrested as the Zanu PF government used the military and state security agencies to silence dissent under the guise of enforcing lockdown measures.

The two ruling parties have also clashed several times over the issue of migrants from Zimbabwe in South Africa which was a major issue in the November 2021 municipal elections and is likely to be vital in the 2024 general elections.

Rashweat Mukundu, a political analyst, says Mbalula’s perceptions of Zimbabwe do not necessarily represent that of the ANC.

“This is just politicking by Mbalula. I do not necessarily subscribe to the thinking that his view represents the thinking within the ANC because we know that in the past few years, the ANC at a political level has tried to intervene in Zimbabwe.”

Pigou says a more constructive approach is certainly possible, but it appears Zimbabwe remains a relatively low priority for the ANC, who are only likely to give more attention to issues of governance and human rights deficits if there is a significant deterioration in conditions.

He says notwithstanding a history of public solidarity and embedded perceptions of bias, relations are not excellent between Zanu PF and the ANC.

“The migrant issue is certainly a political football, but it is one Zanu PF would prefer to sidestep as it knows its policies have generated huge challenges for its southern neighbour,” Pigou says.

He adds: “The issue of migrants and related xenophobia has become weaponised by political elements in South Africa. This has given some in Zimbabwe a stick with which to beat the ANC. Yet, at the same time, they take no responsibility for the mess that remains very much in the play.”

Stephen Chan, a professor of World Politics in the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, says the ANC and Zanu PF remain in solidarity because of the longtime relationship between Zimbabwe and SA.

“Both shared similarities in colonial history and both achieved majority rule long after the rest of Africa and had to do so by liberation struggle[s],” he says.

‘A constitutional regime change is possible in Zimbabwe’

Next year Mnangagwa will battle it out with a young and charismatic leader of the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) leader Nelson Chamisa whom he narrowly beat in a disputed 2018 general election.

Mnangagwa’s victory was confirmed by another questionable Constitutional Court judgment delivered by President’s ally Chief Justice Luke Malaba.

The road to 2023 has already been marred by violence against opposition party supporters and leaders and journalists by Zanu PF.

It still remains in doubt if key institutions such as the electoral body, judiciary and the police will facilitate a free and fair next year.

There has been no move towards a much-needed SADC Election Advisory Council assessment of conditions,  which would help to move beyond the current binary postures around conditions and contested reforms. Instead, South Africa appears to have accepted a continued position of kicking the can down the road.

Calls by the opposition party leaders for the Southern African Development Community (SADC), African Union (AU) and neighbours such as South Africa to intervene have not been successful.

Pigou says South Africa is content to tuck in behind SADC’s ‘non-posture’ on this issue.

“There has been no move towards a much-needed SADC Election Advisory Council assessment of conditions,  which would help to move beyond the current binary postures around conditions and contested reforms. Instead, South Africa appears to have accepted a continued position of kicking the can down the road,” he says.

Chan says South Africa’s concern is that there should be no violent regime change, especially if sponsored by non-Southern African powers.

“The statement does not preclude electoral change but is against unconstitutional overthrow. SA seeks stability on its borders and so the economic meltdown in Zimbabwe has a direct spillover effect into SA, especially in the form of migrants from Zimbabwe,” he says.

“The belief is that the lifting of sanctions would aid the Zimbabwean economy – despite the fact that, with or without sanctions, that economy has been severely mismanaged.”

Mukundu says it is not within the right of the ANC to determine the electoral outcome in Zimbabwe but the citizens.

“It is possible for regime change to happen within the constitutional limits and the legalities that provide for that. It is not for the ANC to tell the people of Zimbabwe who to keep in power. If Zimbabweans want to change the regime through elections then it is within their rights,” he says.

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