Getting fed-up with an unruly neighbour

Ace Magashule, ANC secretary-general.
Ace Magashule, ANC secretary-general.

The economic hardships in Zimbabwe are stoking domestic problems. Zanu-PF might have crossed a line with Pretoria.

Zimbabwe is deeply dependent on South Africa, perhaps more so than is commonly realised. About 41% of Zimbabwe’s imports come from SA, 60% of its exports are to SA and 80% of its exports go through SA, as Bulawayo business executive Busisa Moyo, who also chairs the Zimbabwe Investment and Development Agency (Zida), told a Chatham House webinar on 8 September. And he said SA had also recently overtaken the UK as the largest investor in Zimbabwe.

So, there was a lot SA could do to help fix the Zimbabwean economy, Moyo thought. The high trade and investment interdependence – coupled with the large amounts of remittances from the many Zimbabweans in SA – meant that the Zimbabwean economy was already deeply integrated into SA’s. It would thus make sense for Zimbabwe to make much greater use of the rand, and less of the US dollar or the succession of local currencies it has recently been experimenting with – now back to the Zimbabwe dollar – all of them prone to precipitous depreciation.

But when SA proposed to Zimbabwe a few years ago that it would make sense to join the rand system, the ruling Zanu-PF flatly rejected the idea, largely out of jealous pride in its own worthless money.

Yet, the same sort of statistics which Moyo quoted also give the ANC government in Pretoria tremendous economic leverage over the Zanu-PF government in Harare on this and other issues – if it chose to use it. Until now Pretoria has been opposed to applying any sort of economic pressure against its neighbour.

Politically, that would be diametrically opposed to the ANC’s ideological posture that anything that whiffs of sanctions supports a Western “regime change” agenda. And so, the ANC regularly condemns the few remaining Western sanctions against Zimbabwe. It did so again on 9 September this year when a senior ANC delegation went to Harare, met the Zanu-PF Politburo and Central Committee and issued a joint communique which stated, among other things, that sanctions were the “albatross” around the neck of the Zimbabwean economy.

Such statements have now become part of the public liturgy of ANC-Zanu-PF relations.

Privately, though, the ANC is growing increasingly weary of this excuse for Zimbabwe’s woes since it knows the remaining sanctions have little impact on the economy.

In December last year the minister of international relations and cooperation, Naledi Pandor, gave a hint of this impatience at an Institute for Global Dialogue seminar when she agreed sanctions should be lifted but added that “political dynamics are inextricably linked to the economy and thus should be confronted simultaneously”. She suggested “initiating an inclusive political dialogue” in the country. 

Then in February, SA’s ambassador to Harare, Mphakama Mbete, publicly proposed a social contract involving politicians of all sides, businesspeople and citizens as the way to revive the economy. They were both saying, in essence, that the root of Zimbabwe’s economic crisis is its chaotic politics.

Since then Zimbabwe’s economy has crumbled, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, the Zanu-PF government has clamped down further on its opposition and Zimbabwean refugees have continued to flow across the Limpopo, now in defiance of coronavirus lockdown regulations. The influx had added to the increased burden which the millions of Zimbabweans already in SA have placed on social services and the competition for scarce work.

Last month MDC-Alliance vice president Tendai Biti – the finance minister in the 2009-2013 unity government – told a Brenthurst Foundation webinar he had heard that on average 20% of the beds in Soweto’s Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital were being occupied by Zimbabweans. All of this is stoking xenophobia, as social development minister Lindiwe Zulu noted on 10 September.

The crackdown by Zanu-PF on the nationwide anti-Zanu-PF protests on 31 July seems to have acted as a catalyst, crystallising Pretoria’s growing impatience with Zanu-PF into a decision that it was time to act – again – to try to resolve the growing crisis across the Limpopo River.

Before the events of September, on 10 August, President Cyril Ramaphosa sent special envoys – former cabinet ministers Sydney Mufamadi and Ngoako Ramatlhodi, and former deputy president and parliamentary speaker Baleka Mbete, plus deputy director-general for Africa Ndumiso Ntshinga – to Harare to meet President Emmerson Mnangagwa and a delegation from Zanu-PF. The idea was that they would then go on to meet both formations of the MDC and civil society.

But after they had met with Mnangagwa, he blocked them from meeting with anyone else. The envoys went home, mission incomplete. Not for the first time and not the last, SA had been humiliated by its little neighbour.

Then, on 9 September, the ANC as a party sent a senior delegation headed by secretary-general Ace Magashule and including two cabinet ministers – also on the ANC’s national executive committee – to meet Zanu-PF. In-between the two visits, Ramaphosa had made it clear the ANC mission should meet a wide range of stakeholders to get the broadest possible picture of the nature and causes of the crisis in Zimbabwe.

Yet, once again, he was thwarted. The delegation only met Zanu-PF. Afterwards, Magashule insisted that there had simply been no time to meet others and that the ANC would return later to meet other stakeholders.

Veteran Zimbabwe analyst Ibbo Mandaza was sympathetic to Zulu’s view, believing that the ANC mission had been a success because Magashule’s team had at last engaged with Zanu-PF about the crisis – despite Zanu-PF having vehemently denied that there was a crisis – and also because, he said, the ANC had got Zanu-PF to agree that the ANC could meet with the political opposition and other stakeholders. As the International Crisis Group’s Zimbabwe expert Piers Pigou noted, it would be a first for a fellow liberation movement to formally meet Zanu-PF’s political opponents.

Zanu-PF’s recalcitrance has gradually begun to shift the thinking in the SA government about the use of economic pressure to leverage the kind of behaviour it believes Zanu-PF should be exhibiting in order to stabilise Zimbabwe’s politics and therefore also its economy. This, the ANC realises, is the only way to persuade the US and others to lift the sanctions.

Officials say Zimbabwe has recently asked for assistance from SA. This was to buy supplies and equipment to fight the Covid-19 pandemic, get a big private international loan to help balance the budget, and to deliver the emergency grain supplies which SA has already given them to fend off growing hunger.

But at least some Pretoria officials are saying: “But wait a minute. You are refusing to let our envoys meet the opposition and that is sabotaging our efforts to help you resolve your crisis – and it’s that crisis which is now forcing you to ask for our help.”

It is not yet clear if that will be the approach which prevails. One can only hope so. And, who knows, if turning the screws just a little bit produced results, maybe, just maybe, the ANC government might acquire a taste for it and put some real economic pressure on Zanu-PF to get its unruly house in order. If only.

Read more
This article originally appeared in the 24 September edition of finweek. You can buy and download the magazine here.

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