As Zimbabwe's economic and political situation is on the verge of chaos, SA takes a disjointed approach. By Ringisai Chikohomero for ISS TODAY.
First published by ISS Today
It is in South Africa's interest to see a prosperous and stable Zimbabwe. A collapse of his neighbor's economy would likely see a flow of legal and illegal migrants to South Africa – a situation that could fuel xenophobia and further disrupt service delivery.
However, there has been a bewildering contrast between South Africa's messages of solidarity and its inaction where it matters. On the one hand, the government of President Cyril Ramaphosa maintained his support to the administration of President Emmerson Mnangagwa. South Africa was the first to congratulate him on his election victory in August 2018. This was followed by strong calls for the unconditional lifting of sanctions and restrictive measures in Zimbabwe almost two decades ago.
On the other hand, South Africa is far from providing what Mnangagwa needs urgently: a bailout. The recently concluded session of the National Bi-National Commission for Zimbabwe and South Africa – the third since the inaugural session in 2016 – could have paid off the many rumors that South Africa would provide Zimbabwe with much needed cash injection. Instead, it ended with a joint communiqué that looks more like a political statement of solidarity with little in terms of relief for its cashless neighbor.
Established during the term of office of former presidents Robert Mugabe and Jacob Zuma, the commission has been little more than an annual symbolic gesture of friendship between the two. Ramaphosa's team sent the Binational Commission a robust meeting with key actors in the public and private sectors, presumably to try to establish how South Africa could help its besieged neighbor.
While the decision not to rescue Zimbabwe is likely to be based on practical economic calculations, anti-sanctions rhetoric is a different matter. A cursory view of the anti-sanctions appeal could lead to the conclusion that the lifting of sanctions would grant Zimbabwe access to international credit lines and thus ease its currency crisis.
However, the considerations for South Africa are both political and economic. The sanctions imposed on Zimbabwe by Western countries are linked to the flagrant abuses of the Mugabe regime's human rights. South Africa's anti-sanctions position could also be interpreted as a general position – shared by the Southern African Development Corporation (SADC) region – against sanctions in general.
The mantra "sanctions should fall" should be seen as a distraction from the economic mismanagement of the last three decades. Even Mnangagwa said the ZANU-PF government should not use the sanctions as an excuse for the country's economic problems.
So why did South Africa adopt the mantra of "sanctions should fall" while remaining silent about human rights abuses, the killing of demonstrators and heavy repression of civic space during the January protests by increased fuel consumption ?
South Africa is afraid to be perceived as aligned with the West, especially the United States. The US government has been vocal and forthright against the Mnangagwa regime's use of force against demonstrators, to the point of renewing sanctions for another year.
Offering unrestricted support to the Zimbabwean government becomes an opportunity for South Africa to demonstrate its independence from international foreign policy and to support the neo-colonial "invasive" tendencies of the West.
At the same time, well aware of the depth of Zimbabwe's economic and currency crises, South Africa knows that giving bilateral aid of $ 1.2 billion would not necessarily stabilize its neighbor's economy. Without addressing the long-lasting exchange rate crisis, any rescue would be sucked into an economic black hole only for Zimbabwe to demand more. The scarcity of hard currency only generates more scarcity.
The Zimbabwean government needs foreign currency for consumer goods, including the purchase of fuel and wheat, as well as to pay off debts, which the finance minister estimates at around $ 16 billion.
The recently introduced interbank foreign exchange trading system has so far been unable to solve the shortage of foreign currency. The real-time gross settlement dollar (RTGS) continues with a constant depreciation against the US dollar, from 1: 2.5 in its introduction to 1: 3 in six weeks.
Worse, the fluctuation of the RTGS dollar did not generate confidence in the monetary system. In the black market, the RTGS dollar continues to fall weekly and inflation is on the rise. Commodity commodity prices, such as bread, have risen sharply. There is still no guarantee against arbitration and cornered government somersault policy.
In addition, a rescue would put South Africa in an envious position. South Africa itself is in the midst of economic stagnation, due to the slow growth of 0.8% in 2018. The country's unemployment rate is currently hovering above 25% – one of the highest in the world.
The recent recrudescence of power cuts only acts in an already volatile domestic situation. Any talk about Zimbabwe's rescue would likely provoke a negative reaction from the population already prone to xenophobic tendencies toward the citizens of neighboring states. The African National Congress can not afford to antagonize citizens more in an election year.
Strong parallels can be traced to the situation in South America, where South Africa has supported the government of Nicolás Maduro Moros in Venezuela against the machinations of the US government, Donald Trump.
Although the question that forms the basis of the Zimbabwe crisis is different from Venezuela, the geopolitical road map works the same way. South Africa is choosing the path of solidarity with the "besieged".
As Zimbabwe's economic and political situation remains on the verge of chaos, its southern neighbor seems to be considering a crisis approach. The dilemma for South Africa is that without an injection of money, the economic crisis will worsen, and a worsening economic situation will likely result in more civil unrest and riots. The Mnangagwa government has already been very eager to approach the protest with force and brutality.
This pushes South Africa further into an unenviable choice between principles as enshrined in its Constitution and the realities of geopolitics. It remains to be seen how long South Africa will give Zimbabwe a palliative response before the wheels are released. DM
Ringisai Chikohomero is a researcher, Peace Operations and Peacebuilding Program, Pretoria
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