Just what did SA know about Zimbabwe's coup?

Some believe the South African government knew in advance about Zimbabwe's coup d'etat (Phillimon Bulawayo/Reuters)

Some believe the South African government knew in advance about Zimbabwe's coup d'etat (Phillimon Bulawayo/Reuters)

In July 2013, when South African diplomats struggled to persuade Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe to delay an election that would terminate five years of a fractious unity government, they sought a number of assurances. A smoothly run election was a primary concern but South Africa also wanted a guarantee that the Zimbabwean army and police would end their open support of Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party.

These concerns were born of experiences in previous elections.

On the eve of presidential elections in 2002 and 2008, Zimbabwean generals said they would not salute a leader who had not fought in the battle for independence.

It was a direct attack on Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the largest opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change-Tsvangirai, who had not fought in the liberation struggle. Tsvangirai and others in the Zimbabwean opposition have long accused the military commanders of working to ensure that Zanu-PF remains in power.

Now, four years after South Africa sought those assurances, the army has intervened directly in the Zanu-PF battle to succeed Mugabe, coming out in support of ousted deputy president Emmerson Mnangagwa.

President Jacob Zuma has sent Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula and Minister of State Security Bongani Bongo to Zimbabwe to meet Mugabe and the Zimbabwean Defence Force.

In a statement released on Wednesday, Zuma reiterated a call for calm and restraint and for the defence force to ensure that peace and stability are not undermined. The statement further noted that Zuma had spoken to Mugabe, who indicated that he was confined to his home.

Sithembile Mbete, an international relations lecturer at the University of Pretoria, said, because of the large movement of Zimbabweans between the two countries and the two governments’ close relationship as liberation movements, South Africa has an interest in ensuring peace and stability in Zimbabwe.

“This is something that has been planned and thought out. I don’t think it could be done without the knowledge of the South African government,” Mbete said of this week’s events.

She said Mnangagwa was allowed to enter South Africa after he was fired and was then allowed to return to Zimbabwe after the military made its move on Tuesday, suggesting that South Africa had some knowledge of the developments.

Although the South African government has often been criticised for its apparent strategy to maintain the status quo in Zimbabwe, Mbete said the Southern African Development Community (SADC) would not have been happy to have Mugabe’s wife, Grace, succeed him.

“It’s unlikely that SADC leaders are behind the Grace faction [in Zanu-PF] more than any other Zanu-PF faction,” she said.

Meanwhile, the chairperson of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, urged everyone involved to deal with the situation in accordance with the Constitution of Zimbabwe and the instruments of the AU.

The head of the AU, Alpha Condé, said in an interview with French journalists in Paris: “We demand respect for the Constitution, a return to the constitutional order and we will never accept the military coup d’etat.

“We know there are internal problems. They need to be resolved politically by the Zanu-PF party and not with an intervention by the army,” added Condé, who is also Guinea’s president.

Speaking in the House of Lords on Wednesday, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson suggested that the fall of the Mugabe regime may open the door for Zimbabwe to rejoin the Commonwealth. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see Zimbabwe become part of the Commonwealth again? It would be an absolutely wonderful thing and that’s what we should work for.”

But he insisted it would be up to Zimbabweans themselves to determine their fate.

“All Britain has ever wanted for Zimbabweans is to be able to decide their own future in free and fair elections,” he said.

The United States embassy in Harare has also called on Zimbabweans to resolve their differences through peaceful means.

“The US government does not take sides in matters of internal Zimbabwean politics and calls for an expedient transition to democratic, civilian order,” a public statement said.

The situation is still confused and misinformation is rife. The only thing that is clear is that there is considerably more political turmoil to come.


Editorial: Bye bye Bob, but hello uncertainty

This is the end of an era.

For Zimbabwe, the enforced departure of Robert Mugabe from State House is an event as momentous, in its own way, as the country’s liberation from colonial rule.

Mugabe’s decades-long tenure as president shaped every facet of Zimbabwean society. He created an entire country in his own dysfunctional image. Just as we now divide Zimbabwe’s recent history into pre- and post-independence, we will also speak of before and after the fall of Mugabe as distinct epochs.

And just as it is difficult to imagine a Zimbabwe without Mugabe in charge, it is difficult to imagine an Africa without him on the continental stage.

He was the most charismatic and influential of that ever-diminishing band of old-school liberation leaders-turned-autocrats who once dominated the continent’s corridors of power.

To understand Mugabe the leader, one must temper one’s view of him through the lens of a complex human who had the opportunity to lead on the right side of history but somehow could not.

We should not fall into the temptation of focusing solely on what he did in later, turbulent years. His contributions to the people of Zimbabwe — and the rest of Africa — cannot be discounted.

To many of us, Mugabe stood as a testament to following through on post-colonial promises of decolonisation and standing up against predatory Western governments and white minority rule. He did great things, but was eminently fallible.

With him gone, we can dare to dream that dictators and presidents-for-life are mere relics of Africa’s past, and not its future. But as much as we may celebrate Mugabe’s fall from grace, we must be equally concerned with how that fall was achieved.

This is not a revolution. It is a not an Arab Spring-style people’s rebellion, even if few Zimbabweans will truly mourn Mugabe’s exit.

It is a military coup.

The architects of that coup dispute that description, but their actions speak louder than words: in seizing the state broadcaster and placing the head of state under house arrest, they implemented an almost textbook example of the form.

The military are unlikely guardians of Zimbabwe’s democracy. For decades, the top brass enabled the worst excesses of Mugabe’s regime. In some cases — such as at the Marange diamond fields — they have actively profited from their connections to the ruling elite.

It is telling that their intervention came not in support of the Zimbabwean people, who have long suffered under Mugabe’s misrule, but instead in response to the firing last week of vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa.

They intervened not for the greater good of Zimbabwe, but to save one of their own— and, undoubtedly, to safeguard their own interests in the process. In the process, for better or worse, they have toppled Zimbabwe’s constitutional order.

They have also set a dangerous precedent for the future. Part of the reason the African Union takes such a strong rhetorical line against military coups is that it is easy for one military coup to lead to another. If the army becomes accustomed to overthrowing heads of states it does not like, then what democracy can be safe?

In forcing Mugabe out — presuming that he does, ultimately, vacate the presidency — the generals involved have removed one major threat to Zimbabwe’s future.

But in doing so, they have created another one. As tempting as it must be, Zimbabweans cannot let down their guard just yet.

Ra'eesa Pather

Ra'eesa Pather

Ra’eesa Pather is a general news journalist with the Mail & Guardian’s online team. She cut her teeth at The Daily Vox in Cape Town before moving to Johannesburg and joining the M&G. She's written about memory, race and gender in columns and features, and has dabbled in photography.
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