Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Why the ANC has always supported Zanu-PF: morality and self-interest in SA's foreign policy

The Treasurer General of Zimbabwe’s Movement for Democratic Change, Roy Bennett, asked on Politicsweb on March 25: Why is the ANC still supporting Zanu-PF?

His question was prompted by ANC spokesman Keith Khoza's statement confirming that to be the official position of SA’s ruling party on the forthcoming Zimbabwe elections under its new constitution. Mr Khoza justified this outrageous and undemocratic intervention - before elections had even been called, let alone conducted freely and fairly so that Zimbabweans can decide the matter - by claiming Zanu-PF has ‘government experience’.

Well, no argument on that point at least. By fair means and foul, the party of President Mugabe, age 89, has been Zimbabwe’s government for over thirty years, which explains why many more besides Mr Bennett are not as keen as the ANC to repeat the experience.

But only on the face of it is the ANC's position ‘simply incredible’, as Mr Bennett writes. In his heart, he must know the answer to his question, for it has always been the same. It involves history and geography and, more than either, the age-old story of self-interest.

Remember how the SA press beat up for years on former president Thabo Mbeki over Zimbabwe, how immoral his policy was? They were less vocal about a Human Sciences Research Council report back in 2008 that suggested elements of Zimbabwe's opposition Movement for Democratic Change were undergoing military training. Whether that was fact or ruling Zanu-PF propaganda, no doubt SA's patriotic papers were conscious of a more disturbing problem: that SA's undermanned, sickly and perhaps less than neutral National Defence Force was in no shape to take on a peace-keeping role, let alone a serious outbreak of fighting in our next door neighbour.

Here is a crucial consideration in any balanced view of what is plainly the new South Africa's settled policy towards Zimbabwe - though 'supporting Mugabe' was taken to be and widely condemned as President Mbeki’s personal policy choice back then. It is easy to see why.

The start of Mugabe's farm invasions was a time when President Mbeki automatically got his way. In one SABC interview he dismissively asked how he was expected to stop things that were going on in another country. Zimbabwe, he said, was not SA. The ugly events broadcast on TV night after night created no pressure on Mbeki at home or, at first, from abroad. In those early days of violence, he did not need to claim, as he notoriously did later, that there was no crisis in Zimbabwe.

As Mugabe went from bad to worse and international outrage grew, this bland approach had to be adjusted. But to admit there was a problem would mean having to take action and the visionary leader who preached the African Renaissance was well aware of another stumbling block. Mugabe enjoyed strong support inside the ANC and SADC. Not only was SA’s military backup unreliable: the political will to impose western-style sanctions on a former ally was altogether missing. The presidency had no answer to the insistent calls to do something - except to assure everyone that quietly, behind the scenes, Mbeki was using diplomacy.

This understandable side-step was soon labelled 'quiet diplomacy', two words that would eventually help to destroy Mbeki. Intended only to fend off charges of inaction, they fatefully suggested Mbeki was 'handling' a brother and comrade and could settle everything peaceably. No one pointed out that diplomacy, quiet or otherwise, is not a 'policy' at all, but a method. No one asked what Mbeki was using quiet diplomacy for.

Was it to rein in Mugabe's tyranny or to get him to stand down? Was it to uphold human rights? Was it to ensure fair play for the MDC in elections, even if that brought an untried opposition in another country to power?

It should be obvious that no SA government could have seriously entertained any of these aims, if only because diplomacy unsupported by coercion cannot achieve them. Whatever South Africans thought about it, the Zimbabwe crisis for President Mbeki was about the direction of SA's foreign policy. The prime aim at all times was to preserve SA's security and regional stability. In Mbeki’s terms that meant keeping out the west and avoiding any action that needlessly divided the ANC.

For Mugabe, the matter has always been simpler: Zanu-PF must stay in power at all costs. The Zimbabwean autocrat threatened publicly that the MDC would never govern in Zimbabwe and must have said the same to Mbeki in private. Powerless before naked power and more weakened than strengthened by SA's membership of the divided SADC, Mbeki's only option was to persist in trying to confine the fallout to Zimbabwe. He kept SA's borders closed (at least technically) and never wavered from lending Mugabe's regime full diplomatic support internationally, despite its brutal abuse of its citizens and contempt for all democratic standards.

A common accusation was that Mbeki was Mugabe's lackey or that the two leaders were cut from the same cloth, even shared shady financial interests. But once more these views miss the point.

While Mbeki is a proud son of Africa and dedicated foe of neo-colonialism, he is also every inch a politician. As state and ANC president, and with Mugabe's excesses giving him every justification on moral grounds, Mbeki had the authority to distance himself from the Zanu-PF leader, if only rhetorically. Zuma did so immediately after his election at Polokwane; what stopped Mbeki doing so earlier?

It is not because as SA president and later as SADC mediator Mbeki could not take sides: the MDC regularly complained of his bias against them. Nor can it be explained away as incurable stubbornness: post Polokwane Mbeki changed direction when he knew he had to - on keeping the Scorpions and on bringing Motlanthe into his cabinet. 
With politicians, always look for the political motive. Maintaining the regional status quo brought with it a major domestic benefit for Mbeki. As his problems with Jacob Zuma and his union allies deepened at home, it ended any chance of a post-liberation opposition coming to power on SA’s doorstep, the very last thing Mbeki or his party wanted.

Domestic and foreign affairs are never separable. Jacob Zuma is ANC president now and following tried and trusted policy towards Zimbabwe. Only the names and the form of apologia have changed.