/ 13 April 2018

Zimbabwe and the DRC are Ramaphosa’s first foreign policy tests

Ramaphosa’s six-month chairmanship coincides with elections in Zimbabwe in July
Ramaphosa’s six-month chairmanship coincides with elections in Zimbabwe in July


The recent ascendance of President Cyril Ramaphosa to the highest echelons of political power in South Africa has largely been positively received locally and abroad. Ramaphosa also automatically assumed the rotational chairmanship of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) currently held by South Africa ― even though he will relinquish the position to Namibia’s Hage Geingob in August.

Ramaphosa’s six-month chairmanship coincides with elections in Zimbabwe in July, and he must also set the tone in the increasingly restless Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) whose much-delayed plebiscite is scheduled to take place in December (although few observers believe it will actually happen).

Zimbabwe will hold its first elections without perennial rivals Robert Mugabe (who resigned under military pressure last November) and the Movement for Democratic Change’s Morgan Tsvangirai (who succumbed to colon cancer in February). The election is really about legitimacy for new President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who is seeking a clean and substantive electoral mandate. He will square off against the youthful but increasingly popular Nelson Chamisa who took over the reins of the main opposition party amid internal squabbles.

Yet Zimbabwe does not have a record of free, fair and credible elections, and with no electoral reforms enacted in line with the new constitution it would be naïve for anyone to assume all will be rosy this time around. And the stakes are high. The country is reeling under severe economic crises characterised by high unemployment and cash shortages. 

Coincidentally, under former president Mbeki, South Africa was again chair of SADC when he painstakingly played midwife to an inclusive government that stabilised Zimbabwe after a disputed election in 2008. But critics also blame Mbeki’s ‘quiet diplomacy’ for enabling Zimbabwe’s economic collapse, leaving South Africa to deal with an influx of millions of Zimbabweans across the Limpopo River. So Ramaphosa knows exactly what is at stake as he contemplates his next moves.

It would therefore be advisable for him to be proactive and institute a SADC task-team similar to his predecessor’s three-member facilitation team that stabilised Zimbabwe during the SADC and African Union-supported inclusive government between 2009 and 2013. Such a task-team would monitor the election process and ensure a smooth and credible election. A peaceful, free and credible election is in the interests of both Zimbabwe and South Africa.

This is not asking for too much. The European Union that was invited to observe Zimbabwe’s elections (for the first time in 16 years) has already pledged to deploy observers at least 8 weeks before the actual election. South Africa should equally take a leading role.

Besides Zimbabwe, knives have already been drawn in the DRC where the power-intoxicated president Joseph Kabila is reluctant to declare an election date to end his constitutionally mandated two-term tenure that he has already extended by more than a year. Scores of people have already died in the country, while thousands of refugees escape daily to neighbouring Tanzania, Uganda and Burundi. And the situation will only get worse with each day that Kabila hangs on to power.

Over the years South Africa has played a key role in the stabilisation of DRC by facilitating the Sun City Agreements that ended the civil war in 2002, and later led a military intervention that decimated the M23 rebel movement in 2013. A relapse into chaos in DRC will not only destabilise the region but also harm South Africa’s broad economic interests in the mineral rich country, in line with SADC’s regional integration and development thrust.

Ramaphosa is not new to regional politics. Recently he painstakingly helped to stabilise a volatile political crisis Lesotho that culminated in the deployment of a SADC military contingent as part of the peace process. He has since begun a pilgrimage to SADC countries, both as the new president of South Africa and SADC chair, and has described his reception as ‘overwhelming’. It is no coincidence that his tour has so far prioritised countries politically dominated by the liberation movements – Angola, Namibia, Mozambique and Zimbabwe – arguably to assure them that under him they were not only ‘comrades-in-arms’ during the struggle, but are determined to remain ‘comrades-in-power’. As such, a visit to Tanzania is predictably coming soon.

My hope is that when the ordinary men and women in SADC countries cry out for their human rights and dignity to be protected, particularly in the upcoming elections in Zimbabwe and DRC, President Ramaphosa will hear them and act decisively. Because when he invoked the lyrics of the late icon Bra Hugh Masekela’s ‘Thuma mina’ (‘Send me’) during his inaugural State of the Nation address to the South African parliament, he was not speaking to South Africans only.

Webster Zambara is the Senior Project Leader of Peacebuilding Initiatives at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.