from Africa in Transition

Why Did South Africa’s Jacob Zuma Cave to Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe?

September 26, 2013

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Simukai Tinhu in Think Africa Press provides a credible answer as to why South African President Jacob Zuma seemingly abandoned his democratic principles and his African leadership role in the face of Zimbabwean strongman Robert Mugabe’s intransigence during his country’s July elections process.

The bottom line, Tinhu argues, is that Mugabe had more, and better, cards than Zuma.

Before July’s elections, Zuma had worked with the regional organization, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), to secure Mugabe’s promise for a package of reforms. If actually implemented, they might have resulted in credible elections, with a good chance the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party would have won. But Mugabe reneged on those promises. He made it clear that he was prepared to withdraw from SADC if the organization insisted on his compliance. Tinhu argues that Zuma, mindful of his African leadership role, did not want to be responsible for the breakup of a major regional organization.

Throughout the pre-election period, Mugabe was intransigent, insisting that Western sanctions be lifted from him and his ZANU-PF allies before he would institute any of the SADC-mandated reforms. Zuma, of course, did not have the power to do this.

Tinhu claims that Mugabe “deliberately disregarded diplomatic decorum” to undermine Zuma personally. Not only did Mugabe’s surrogates attack Zuma, Mugabe himself called Zuma’s respected point person on Zimbabwe, Amb. Lindiwe Zulu, a “street woman.”

Finally, Tinhu argues that Zuma came to be convinced that under these circumstances, the opposition in Zimbabwe had no chance of unseating Mugabe. That meant Zuma had to consider his post-elections relationship with Mugabe.

Tinhu then turns to South Africa’s own 2014 elections. He suggests that Mugabe could damage Zuma’s own chances at re-election by openly supporting the radical alternate to the African National Congress (ANC) on the left posed by Julius Malema and his Economic Freedom Fighters. Tinhu argues that “the upcoming election has forced Zuma to put his self-preservation above second-order interests such as the spreading of democracy and protection of human rights in other countries.”

I find it hard to believe that Malema constitutes a realistic threat to Zuma’s re-election. But, with township protests over poor service deliveries, the massacre by the police at Marikana still resonating, and growing criticism of the ANC by its former stalwarts, Zuma may have concluded that Malema, potentially supported by Mugabe, could become a more serious threat.

Nevertheless, if Tinhu’s analysis is correct, the implications are discouraging for the growth of democracy and rule of law in southern Africa.