How Mugabe ‘played’ Zuma and SADC

South Africa’s potential as a serious leader across Africa is immense. It has an economy far more dynamic than any comparable in the region, and a powerful military too. However, its dismal failure to resolve the ‘political crisis’ in Zimbabwe has left many wondering if it has the capability to be an effective regional leader.

South African President Jacob Zuma and President Mugabe in happier times.
South African President Jacob Zuma and President Mugabe in happier times.

When the ‘crisis’ broke out in 2000 following the violent seizure of white-owned farms by President Mugabe that left hundreds of black farm workers dead and thousands injured, the then South African President, Thabo Mbeki, reassured the West that as an African, and also because of the democratic credentials of his country, he was the only international leader who had the legitimacy and moral authority to restore order, advance democracy and human rights in the neighbouring country.

In his attempt to resolve the ‘crisis’, Mbeki stressed dialogue – an approach that was dubbed ’quiet diplomacy’. This chary approach not only attracted derision from the West, who favoured gun boat diplomacy, but was also discredited by local opposition groups and the civic community who openly expressed frustration. Most vocal was Zimbabwe’s main opposition party, the MDC, which accused Mbeki of being weak and cosying up to Mugabe.

It was within the context of this failure of Mbeki’s approach that his successor Jacob Zuma opted for a tougher stance against Mugabe. Indeed, when Zuma took over the presidency, South Africa became one of Zimbabwe’s most virulent critics.

This new stance drew praise from the opposition, pro–democracy groups and the West. It is no wonder that it came as a surprise to a lot of people, when amid huge concerns about irregularities during the elections, Zuma congratulated Mugabe for winning the 31 July poll.

What made him make such an embarrassing U turn?

Zanu (PF)strikes back

Zuma’s tough stance was based on a woeful miscalculation that Mugabe and his party could be pushed around. His policy was also not helped by his international relations advisor Lindiwe Zulu’s unguarded rhetoric, which played right into the hands Zanu (PF) hardliners.

In order to ‘win’, these hardliners felt compelled to use everything at their disposal against what they saw as biased facilitation by South Africa. They hit back very hard by adopting a series of imaginatively nasty strategies.

One of these was to take extreme positions on a number of issues with the aim of undermining any meaningful negotiations. For example, Mugabe’s party was uncompromising on political and electoral reforms demanded by the opposition, arguing that all the so-called “sanctions” against the party elite had to be removed before any progress could be made.

Diplomacy gone to the dogs

They also deliberately disregarded diplomatic decorum as part of their ‘strategy’ to undermine Zuma and his facilitation team. Using state media editorials and unscripted rhetoric, they were treated with the utmost condescending behaviour. Zanu (PF)has a small cabal of hardliners who are skilfully and systematically supported by their party to lash out at foreign dignitaries. Jonathan Moyo win particular was unrestrained in his relentless attack on Zuma. In the state owned Sunday Mail newspaper, he said ‘The problem with Zuma now is that his disconcerting behaviour has become a huge liability, not only to South Africa, but to the rest of the continent.’

Zulu was described by Mugabe as ‘stupid and idiotic’ and a ‘street woman’ when she publicly expressed concern with the pace of political and electoral reforms in Zimbabwe.

Readers might recall that this was not the first time that Mugabe had used such language. In 2008, he had likened American diplomat Jendayi Fraser, who was then US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs to a ‘prostitute.’

This ‘strategy’ was not only confined to verbal attacks, but other contemptuous behaviour. One one occasion the South African facilitation team was chased out the country following disagreements over reforms. On another occasion, a SADC meeting facilitated by South Africa had to be cancelled after Mugabe refused to attend.


When Zuma continued to press for political and electoral reforms, Mugabe upped the stakes by threatening to tear up the SADC charter and pull his country out of the regional grouping. Political strategists are aware that it is an ultimate fear of any regional leader to be blamed for the weakening or break up of that body. When Mugabe signalled that he was prepared to undermine SADC’s stability, his gamble paid off – and Zuma backtracked on his attempts to extract further concessions or reforms.

The pillar upon which Zuma’s policy seemed to rest appeared unable to bear weight. He was banking on the belief that the MDC had a genuine chance of unseating Zanu (PF) in the July elections. But when it appeared likely that Zanu (PF)would still be running Zimbabwe after August 2013, the South African president became risk averse as he did not want to risk a ‘proxy rhetorical war’ in the run-up to South Africa’s 2014 elections.

Mugabe’s party had already made overtures that showed that it was capable of inflicting damage on Zuma’s bid to be re-elected by providing ideological, and allegedly financial support to Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters. Indeed, in September 2011, the South African National Congress secretary general accused Zanu (PF)of influencing the thinking and actions of Malema, and in 2012, Malema admitted that he gets his inspiration from Mugabe.

Politicians, even the most idealistic, ultimately make decisions on the basis of self-interest above the spreading of democracy and human rights in other countries. Though he had genuine interest in pushing for reforms in the neighbouring country, Zuma was forced to cut and run from his tough stance when his personal interests were threatened. Surely, he was not going to risk his re-election bid by fighting a war on behalf of the MDC.

Post published in: Africa News
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