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ANC’s anti-West Mbalula openly backs ruling party in Zimbabwe election

By Audrey Simango, Farai Shawn Matiashe

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Posted on August 3, 2023 13:06

African National Congress secretary-general Fikile Mbalula (Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko)
African National Congress secretary-general Fikile Mbalula (Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko)

Zimbabwe makes it difficult for its diaspora to vote. Did the ANC just make it even less appealing by endorsing President Emmerson Mnangagwa?

Pini Muguyo, one of hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans who have emigrated to South Africa, was planning to drive across the border to vote in this month’s presidential election.

But the diaspora ward coordinator for the opposition Citizens’ Coalition for Change (CCC) has had a change of heart after hearing South Africa’s ruling party slam CCC chief Nelson Chamisa as “an American puppet”.

Voting would be “unhelpful” now that the African National Congress (ANC) “openly backs” Zimbabwe’s ruling ZANU-PF party, Muguyo tells The Africa Report at a Johannesburg fruit market on a chilly winter afternoon.

Who is pulling the strings?

That South Africa supports President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s reelection was cemented last month when ANC secretary-general Fikile Mbalula tore into Chamisa at a ruling party conference in Cape Town. Even after Mnangagwa overthrew Robert Mugabe in 2017, Mbalula said, Western powers, especially the United States, remained insatiable.

“[Until] they get their puppet in power, they will never be satisfied,” he said.

“Mnangagwa brought some reforms, but they did not want those reforms because they want a man called Chamisa. They want him to be the leader of a new Zimbabwe.”

The American modus operandi is simple, Mbalula said: apply trade sanctions on Zimbabwe, cause hunger and joblessness until the country’s citizens revolt and vote out Zanu-PF.

Mbalula has yet to release any evidence that Chamisa is being funded by or taking instructions from the Joe Biden administration in the US.

Ties that bind

The relationship between the ANC and ZANU-PF dates back to South Africa’s struggle against apartheid. The liberation parties of both countries continued their relationship by supporting each other to stay in power.

Electoral observer missions from the South Africa-led Southern Africa Development Community have rubber-stamped Zimbabwe’s elections since 2000 despite crude displays of intimidation, underscoring the two parties’ collaboration.

South Africa is the reason Zimbabwe still breathes today as an economy

Former South African president Thabo Mbeki’s lack of concern during Zimbabwe’s bloody 2008 elections helps explain why Zimbabweans do not trust the ANC or the SADC, says Washington Mazorodze, a lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe in the department of peace, security and society.

The following year, South Africa helped broker a power-sharing agreement between Mugabe’s ZANU-PF and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change led by Morgan Tsvangirai.

“Mbeki said that there is no crisis in Zimbabwe when there was a political and economic disaster,” Mazorodze tells The Africa Report.

But times have changed, says Gideon Chitanga, a research associate at the African Centre for the Study of the United States at Wits University. “The ANC and the SADC have little influence or leverage over the Zimbabwean parties, whether the opposition or the ruling party,” he tells The Africa Report.

Others argue that the economic ties between the two countries still carry a lot of weight. South Africa is Zimbabwe’s biggest trading partner, with Zimbabwe sourcing $3bn in imports from South Africa while sending back $1.9bn in exports in 2021.

Freedom fighter nostalgia

South Africa powers Zimbabwe,” says Denis Juru, chair of the Southern Africa International Cross Border Traders Association. “Whether with electricity, mining machinery, sheltering immigrants, food or hospital drugs, South Africa is the reason Zimbabwe still breathes today as an economy. That can’t be overstated.”

Africa diplomacy expert Stephen Chan digs into a romanticised past to explain the ANC’s continued dalliance with ZANU-PF.

“There is still a sense of solidarity among liberation parties. But despite the mystique of struggle for the people, in every Southern African country – except for Namibia – liberation governments have created huge economic divides and sustained poverty among the people,” says Chan, a professor at the University of London.

Although there are strong ties, the solidarity is not what it once was, adds Chitanga. “We have passed that historical moment,” he says.

Voting obstacles

While estimates of the number of Zimbabweans living in South Africa range from 700,000 to more than two million, their home country does not allow for diaspora voting except for a small group of people who work at embassies.

Others can only vote if they come home to cast their ballot in person.

Analysts say that as long as the size of the diaspora vote remains limited, foreigners can have their opinions but will not have much impact.

Rarely have foreign public figures played much of a role in the outcome of Zimbabwe’s elections, but Mbalula’s support may validate ZANU-PF in the eyes of some people, says David Makwerere, a lecturer in peace and governance.

“I do not think it will change the voting patterns,” Makwerere tells The Africa Report. “But it will give ZANU-PF some legitimacy to say that we are defending the national interest, we are defending the country from Western colonial machinations, and magnifying this.”

Eye on South Africa

The 1,065km between Pretoria and Harare did not discourage Chamisa from campaigning in South Africa in June, where he tried to motivate people to return home to vote on 23 August.

Ironically, the same Zimbabwean officials who deny airtime for the opposition on state television and radio stations are appearing in South African media to entice voters.

Information minister Monica Mutsvangwa appeared on SABC, South Africa’s state broadcaster, to defend the government’s efforts to tackle corruption.

And Mnangagwa’s other main potential rival, Saviour Kasukuwere, who lives in exile in South Africa, relied on his host country’s media to launch his campaign for president. Kasukuwere has gone to the constitutional court to appeal after Zimbabwe’s supreme court ruled he was ineligible to stand because he lives abroad.

Foolish turn

While the ANC denounces the CCC as a stooge of the West, perhaps the party’s real fear is closer to home.

“Who knows what could happen in South Africa in its own elections next year?” says Mazorodze.

Some point out the irony in the ANC’s support for ZANU-PF, which has caused countless Zimbabweans to flee to South Africa, where they’ve become scapegoats for local citizens who view the immigrants as job snatchers.

“Here’s the message,” says Muguyo, the CCC diaspora coordinator. “If the ANC continues to support ZANU-PF, millions of us Zimbabwe immigrants will continue to stay in South Africa – whether the ANC likes it or not.”

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