Why South Africa won't try tough love approach with Zimbabwe's Mugabe

South Africa is hoping to avoid further isolating Zimbabwe and repeating the refugee crisis that followed the country's 2008 election.

Elias Asmare/AP
South Africa's President Jacob Zuma, center-right, and Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe, center-left, share a joke at the African Union summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Sunday, May 26, 2013. Critics accuse Mr. Zuma of capitulating to Mr. Mugabe on issues surrounding Zimbabwe's upcoming presidential election.

•A version of this post first appeared on the blog Africa in Transition. The views expressed are the author's own. 

It is no secret that Zimbabwe’s two days of early voting for the country's security forces on July 14-15 did not go well. Lindiwe Zulu, former ambassador to Brazil and current international relations adviser to South Africa president Jacob Zuma, had the temerity to say so.

She commented publicly that the polling in the general election, slated for July 31, would be challenging. In response, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, who previously called Ms. Zulu “an idiotic street woman,” demanded that President Zuma “stop this woman of [his] from speaking on Zimbabwe.” Whereupon President Zuma, through his spokesman, promptly disavowed Zulu, as did South Africa's governing African National Congress. 

Knuckling under to Mugabe recalls the Zuma government’s failure to issue a visa to the Dalai Lama for fear of offending the Chinese in 2011. How do we account for it?

Writing in the South African Daily Maverick, Greg Nicolson provides one credible explanation. Zuma has consistently followed a “soft diplomacy” approach to Mugabe, appeasing him in public while (presumably) talking sternly in private. The thrust of Mr. Nicolson’s piece is that South Africa and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) have failed to reform Zimbabwe politics in the aftermath of the 2008 post-elections bloodbath. Looking toward the upcoming 2013 Zimbabwean elections, if South Africa and SADC want to stay involved, they know they will need to work with Mugabe. So, he writes, “Lindiwe Zulu was sacrificed on the altar of diplomacy.”

South Africa's official political opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA), sent election observers to Zimbabwe for the special polling earlier this month. Unsurprisingly, the observers reported serious irregularities in the polling, including the police and the army campaigning for Mugabe’s ruling ZANU PF party.

In response, the DA argues that Zuma should abandon his diplomatic soft approach: “It is clear that the South African government’s quiet diplomacy has done nothing to curtail poor pre-election preparations and continued aggression towards voters, especially in rural constituencies. It is now time for President Zuma to consider a hard line approach," they wrote. 

What happens in Zimbabwe, of course, has consequences for neighboring South Africa. Not least because, if there is widespread violence following the upcoming elections, there could be a new refugee flow from Zimbabwe to South Africa. That's what happened after the last election, in 2008, helping to trigger a wave of xenophobic attacks across South Africa. 

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