Zimbabwe is scheduled to hold elections this year and evidence is mounting that, as in the 2008 run-off, the military will play a major role.
The Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF) have a proven track record of political meddling and at times violent campaigning in favour of President Robert Mugabe and his ruling Zanu-PF. ZDF officials have often pronounced in chillingly undemocratic terms their support for Mugabe, trotting out lines like Major-General Douglas Nyikayaramba's claim that opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai "doesn't pose a political threat in any way, but is a major security threat".
Such threats were manifest when Mugabe faced a real prospect of losing the 2008 presidential run-off. The country exploded in violence at the hands of security forces and military veteran militias.
Once again, the MDC is complaining that the military is being reinforced in support of Mugabe. The opposition claims its rural supporters are being intimidated by army officers. In this context, South Africa's decision to donate Alouette III helicopters to Zimbabwe represents a serious reversal in what has been a tougher and more credible approach from South Africa to its most important neighbour.
Some may defend a cosy relationship between the South African National Defence Force and the ZDF because the countries share a common border and might face similar security threats. But if such a relationship is born of necessity, it definitely should not extend to supplying equipment that could be abused for partisan political ends.
Make no mistake, Zimbabwe's military is not a professional army in service of its wider public. It is a tool of political thuggery.
In the first years of independence, between 1982 and 1987, for example, a brutal military campaign in Matabeleland claimed the lives of 20 000 people. Zimbabwe's dubious involvement in the second Congo war, between 1998 and 2003, decimated state coffers, and ultimately only senior military and political players benefited. Later, the military had a hand in Operation Murambatsvina in which 700 000 people lost their homes in a campaign to clear "slum" areas. The Zimbabwean army was accused of using helicopter gunships to attack artisanal miners who were working the Marange diamond fields in 2008. Subsequently, diamond rights there were awarded to companies with alleged links to senior military leaders.
South Africa should help to enable truly free and fair elections by insisting on mechanisms to prevent violence and poll-rigging. A gifting of high-impact military equipment will likely have the opposite effect. It should be stopped.