South Africa can, and must, act to prevent a disaster in Zimbabwe

Simon Allison

HARARE – Activists and opposition groups in Zimbabwe are rightly proud of their recent efforts to resist the repressive regime led by President Robert Mugabe. It’s not every day in Harare that thousands of ordinary citizens gather in defiance outside the city’s Magistrate’s Court, forcing a usually-pliant magistrate to uphold the law through the sheer force of their collective will. They deserve to celebrate Pastor Evan Mawarire’s release, and the huge publicity generated by the #ThisFlag campaign.

But they are also the first to admit that this unprecedented public action against the government is driven foremost by a factor completely out of their control: the economy. To cut a long and convoluted story short, Zimbabwe’s money is running out – and fast. On Friday, the government once again broke the first rule of any good dictatorship worth its salt, and failed to pay the military on time. There is simply not enough cash in government coffers to do so. What was there has been stolen or squandered.

It’s not just the government that is affected. As the biggest employer in the country, unpaid salaries ripple with devastating speed through the economy. To compound matters, banks don’t have enough reserves, forcing them to restrict withdrawals, and stringent forex controls are making it harder and harder to import anything. Exports, meanwhile, are stalling because the government insists on making partial payment in ‘bond notes’, a pseudo-currency that no one wants to accept.

To make things even worse, the El Nino weather phenomenon has caused crops to fail for two years in a row, decimating what’s left of Zimbabwe’s agricultural sector and leaving 4 million people, a full third of the population, in need of food aid.

More than anything else, it’s the economic crisis which is pushing Zimbabwe’s political unrest – in particular the fear of what happens when the money runs out completely. As one economist put it to the Daily Maverick:

“What does the collapse of an already-collapsed economy look like?”

Zimbabweans shouldn’t have to find out. There’s still time to find a solution, and South Africa can play a crucial role in making that happen.

Of course, economic crises are not unique to Zimbabwe, and the international community has plenty of practice in dealing with them. Usually, some combination of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and western donor governments steps in to provide the necessary loans and financial assistance that can bridge the funding gap.

But this is not really an option in Zimbabwe. Over the years, President Robert Mugabe has burned so many bridges that no one is willing to extend his regime any further credit. IMF spokesperson Gerry Rice was unequivocal on Thursday: “There's no financing program under discussion with Zimbabwe at this point,” he said.

Rice added that no further finance would be extended to Zimbabwe until it had paid off the $1.8 billion it already owes the fund, and implemented immediate economic reforms. Under Mugabe, neither of those conditions are likely to be met.

But diplomats from several western embassies told the Daily Maverick that the economic picture could look remarkably different if Mugabe was no longer in the picture. The United States, United Kingdom and European Union countries are on standby to deploy emergency funding in the event of Mugabe’s removal from office and the installation of a transitional government. And as much as Zimbabwe may be loath to accept western money, it is perhaps the only thing that stands between it and another economic catastrophe.

It’s here that South Africa has a key role to play. The current political unrest presents a unique opportunity to force Mugabe’s hand. At no point in the Zimbabwean president’s 36-year reign has he been weaker. As well as facing an energized opposition, he can no longer rely on key lieutenants within the ruling Zanu-PF. Nor can he keep paying his security services.

In Harare, opposition groups, including Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change, are already planning for a post-Mugabe future, drawing up blueprints for an inclusive transitional authority in advance of new elections. They believe that this is the end game.

In the past, South Africa’s interventions in Zimbabwe have backfired. Thabo Mbeki’s quiet diplomacy failed, as has Jacob Zuma’s more hands-off approach. Whether intentionally or not, South Africa’s Zimbabwe policy has only served to strengthen and legitimise Mugabe’s grip on power.

For Zimbabwe’s sake, this must now change. Instead of trying to shore up Mugabe’s weaknesses, South Africa must use its substantial influence to push for lasting reforms – including the removal of Mugabe from office.

The Zimbabwe situation is not new for South Africa. We have been here before and therefore should seek to do things differently,” said Dimpho Motsamai, senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies.

Piers Pigou, southern Africa senior consultant for the International Crisis Group, commented: “South Africa, in concert with international creditors should support Zimbabwe, but on condition of a genuine and inclusive reform process. There is little evidence of this at present, raising serious concerns that support will be manipulated to enable Zanu-PF longevity as a priority over a genuine re-engagement and national recovery programme. This would also have acute long term negative repercussions for South Africa's economy which is already vulnerable to the vicissitudes of Zimbabwe's financial delinquency.”

Pigou raises an important point. An economic meltdown will mean more bad news for South Africa’s economy, and political trouble as more Zimbabweans inevitably cross the border. In other words: supporting peaceful change is in South Africa’s best interests too.

After years of getting Zimbabwe wrong, South African diplomats must remember that 92-year-old Mugabe simply cannot be this country’s future. By throwing South Africa’s weight behind credible plans for a peaceful transition, they now have a opportunity to redeem themselves. With the futures of millions of people in the balance, this opportunity must be taken.


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Denis Gwenzi
United Kingdom
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