There will be three great foreign policy issues facing a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe — its relations with the West, especially economic relations; its relationship with the Chinese; and its relationship with South Africa.
South Africa had placed great hopes on the region. Five key economic players — South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and Zambia — would have been enough critical economic mass to make the Lagos Plan of Action more than a dream and enough to give the region more economic muscle against the West.
But the meltdown in Zimbabwe ruined that dream and, instead, caused great embarrassment to the region. The New Partnership for Africa’s Development, on which South African President Thabo Mbeki has staked much, has risked falling into disrepute as a result.
Any new Zimbabwean government will be indebted to South Africa, which will in turn lay down certain conditions to prevent a repeat of the problems in its northern neighbour.
Chinese foreign policy must distinguish between China as an official partner, with bilateral economic interests, and the private Chinese businessmen who see opportunities in Africa and who are often not fully educated about racial sensitivities and racial equality.
Encouragement of the former, and conditions placed on the latter, will require diplomatic skill. There are not many Chinese speakers in Zimbabwe, and very few places where Chinese can be learnt. This gap would need to be plugged in the foreign policies of any African state. Sympathetic and profitable links with China will be beneficial, but the last thing Africa needs is a new superpower which assumes it can dominate a “bloc” it has purchased.
However, the West is still far more powerful than China, militarily, economically and politically. Mugabe’s assumption that the country could defy the West because it does not need it is wrong. The Chinese themselves court the West very assiduously. And China could trade much of its expansion into Africa for greater point of entry and cooperation with the European Union.
Zimbabwe has been in isolation the past few years, absorbed with its own problems. World views on what is right, wrong and just have changed dramatically from when Mugabe took power in 1980. Today we have a host of international judicial bodies, such as the International Criminal Court, which have introduced new ideas on what constitutes human rights and fair and transparent governance. Much of this has been ignored and missed by Zimbabwe in the past few years.
The arrogance that has come to be associated with the last years of Mugabe must be replaced by a new sense of humility. The country will be dependent on South Africa, the West and China for aid, among other things.
Rebuilding links with the West, severed or damaged by Mugabe, will take time and patience. Relearning diplomatic techniques and protocols, for instance, are among the many practical issues Zimbabwean ambassadors to the West will have to deal with.
Stephen Chan is professor of international relations in the University of London and dean of law and social sciences at the school of oriental and African studies. He is the author of Robert Mugabe: A Life of Power and Violence and Grasping Africa: A Tale of Tragedy and Achievement