Online Policy Dialogue Forum: South Africa’s policy towards Zimbabwe

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When South Africa became a democracy in 1994 and two years later ratified a new Constitution widely hailed as progressive, there was hope it would use the new nation’s moral standing and economic clout to alter the political landscape of an African continent blighted by poor governance and violation of human rights.

South Africa failed to galvanize the region to act in concert to force Zimbabwe to act in conformity with the strategic objectives of SADC and its member states. Instead, President Thabo Mbeki in his role as a SADC appointed mediator did all he could to further the interests of the Mugabe regime.

Outside the SADC framework, at a bilateral level South Africa had and still has the leverage to influence decision making in Harare. Zimbabwe sources 40% of its imports from South Africa and supplies 75% of its exports to its big southern neighbour. This trade is heavily skewed in favour of South Africa. United Nations figures show that in 2017 South African exports to Zimbabwe were worth US$2 billion with South Africa importing US$388 million worth of goods from its northern neighbour.

So given the economic leverage South Africa has over Zimbabwe and the close historical ties between these two countries why is Pretoria unable or unwilling to put pressure on the regime in Harare to adhere to acceptable norms and standards of democratic governance , respect for human rights and integrity and transparency in the management of the nation’s finances and resources?

Why does South Africa not use its clout and influence to stabilize a country of such importance in SADC? How does one make sense of South Africa’s posture? Is it a case of the tail wagging the dog? Is it indifference, incapacity or harvesting on a neighbour’s economic woes?