John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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President Zuma’s Approach to Mugabe and Zimbabwe’s Elections

by John Campbell
July 24, 2013

South African President Jacob Zuma (L) walks with Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe at Harare International airport, March 16, 2010. (Philimon Bulawayo/Courtesy Reuters)


Zimbabwe’s special elections on July 14-15 for the security forces did not go well. Lindiwe Zulu, former ambassador to Brazil and current international relations adviser to South Africa president Jacob Zuma, had the temerity to say so.

She commented publicly that the July 30-31 polling would be challenging. In response, Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe, who previously called Zulu “an idiotic street woman,” demanded that President Zuma “stop this woman of [his] from speaking on Zimbabwe.” Whereupon President Zuma, through his spokesman, promptly disavowed Zulu, as did the governing African National Congress.

Knuckling under to Mugabe recalls the Zuma government’s failure to issue a visa to the Dalai Lama for fear of offending the Chinese. How to account for it?

Greg Nicolson writing in the South African Daily Maverick provides a credible explanation. Zuma has consistently followed a “soft diplomacy” approach to Mugabe, appeasing him in public while (presumably) talking sternly in private. The thrust of Nicolson’s piece is that South Africa and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) have failed to reform Zimbabwe politics in the aftermath of the 2008 post-elections bloodbath. Looking toward the upcoming 2013 Zimbabwean elections, if South Africa and SADC want to stay involved, they will need to work with Mugabe. So, “Lindiwe Zulu was sacrificed on the altar of diplomacy.”

The South Africa official opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA) sent election observers to Zimbabwe for the special elections. The observers reported serious irregularities in the July 14-15 polling, including the police and the army campaigning for Mugabe’s ruling party. In response, the DA argues that Zuma should abandon his diplomatic soft approach: “It is clear that the South African government’s quiet diplomacy has done nothing to curtail poor pre-election preparations and continued aggression towards voters, especially in rural constituencies. It is now time for President Zuma to consider a hard line approach.”

What happens in Zimbabwe has consequences for South Africa. Not least because, if there is widespread violence following the upcoming elections, there could be refugee flows from Zimbabwe to South Africa, as there was in 2008.

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