After decades of “quiet diplomacy”, “brotherhood” and silence by the ANC-led South African government on alleged human rights abuses in Zimbabwe, the almost unthinkable happened last week – the department of international relations and cooperation issued a series of tweets in which Pretoria for the first time referred to human rights concerns in the neighbouring country, in public.
1/4 The Government of the Republic of South Africa has noted with concern the reports related to human rights violations in the Republic of #Zimbabwe.
— DIRCO South Africa (@DIRCO_ZA) August 6, 2020
This was a complete change from the norm, where the government – a leader in the region – either did not address burning issues in Zimbabwe, or issued statements that never condemned that country’s leaders for alleged abuses.
International Relations and Cooperation Minister Lindiwe Zulu even took to the airways to say there’s a political crisis in Zimbabwe:
South African Minister for Social Development and ANC head of International Relations ,Lindiwe Zulu says there is a Political Crisis In Zimbabwe #ZimbabweanLivesMatter ????????✊???? pic.twitter.com/STgZSSXRLK
— Cde #ZimbabweanLivesMatter (@sithDark4cs) August 11, 2020
The ANC as a party, through secretary-general Ace Magashule, condemned the state-sponsored violence in Zimbabwe and said it was “uncalled for”:
ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule has condemned the state-sponsored violence in #Zimbabwe, saying it’s uncalled for and will have consequences for South Africa. #eNCA Courtesy #DStv403 pic.twitter.com/kzjk05H5ay
— eNCA (@eNCA) August 6, 2020
There has also never been an attempt by the government to bring Zimbabwe’s ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) and opposition parties like the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC)-Alliance to the table for talks on the situation, or find a solution to the long-running crisis.
The government’s silence has been all the more deafening in the face of millions of Zimbabweans having poured over the country’s border with South Africa over years in search of safety against alleged political persecution, or simply an opportunity to earn money on which their families would survive while their own economy has been tanking.
So what brought about the change of heart – was it real empathy with and concern for the people of Zimbabwe?
It appears that efforts by South African opposition parties, led by the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and its leader Julius Malema, with its social media campaign in support of the #Zimbabweanlivesmatter movement, have been the main mover in pushing the ANC and President Cyril Ramaphosa to act. It is also notable that Ramaphosa, in his current position as chairperson of the African Union (AU), has not yet made any pronouncements on the situation in Zimbabwe on behalf of the continental body.
#EFFWomensDayRally Malema: Mnangagwa has become a pig and he is eating his own children in Zimbabwe. He is no different to Ramaphosa. When they came in we had hope for change, but things have become worse.
— Economic Freedom Fighters (@EFFSouthAfrica) August 9, 2020
For far too long, successive ANC governments have stood by as ZANU-PF has trampled civil liberties with impunity & disregard for the rule of law.
— Democratic Alliance (@Our_DA) August 11, 2020
The crunch came last Monday evening when the EFF called for the Zimbabwean Embassy in South Africa to be removed until “they restore the human rights in that country”.
“Failure to do so will result in direct action by EFF to prevent any official from the Zimbabwean government from participating in any gathering in SA until they respect ordinary Zimbabweans,” the party said, receiving praise from both South Africans and Zimbabweans, who commended it for taking a stand.
It seems that this prompted Ramaphosa to appoint Sydney Mufamadi, a member of former presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki’s cabinets, and Baleka Mbete, former deputy president and speaker of the National Assembly, “as his Special Envoys to Zimbabwe, following recent reports of difficulties that the Republic of Zimbabwe is experiencing”, according to a statement from the presidency.
The two envoys arrived in Harare on Sunday, 10 August, and were expected to speak to several stakeholders, including civil society organisations, government, NGOs and political parties. But they only met with Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa at his official residence before returning on Monday, 11 August, with the Zimbabwean status quo seemingly intact.
Zimbabwean opposition party, the MDC Alliance, claims it has been snubbed by President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Special Envoys to that country. Sydney Mufamadi and Baleka Mbete were scheduled to meet party leaders on Sunday but the meeting was cancelled.
— SABC News (@SABCNews) August 11, 2020
The envoys did indicate that they would return to Zimbabwe at a later date to meet with all stakeholders, but there has been no indication when this will happen. Government also didn’t give an action plan on engagements to resolve the Zimbabwean crisis – although the Zimbabwean government denies that there are any problems.
The envoys’ visit could be seen as a response to EFF threats, and not from a desire to call the Zimbabwean government to order.