It’s economic interests, stupid! Why SA will always stand with Zim

By Ranga Mberi

AS PRESIDENT Robert Mugabe celebrated his victory in the 2002 presidential election, the very first visitor to arrive at State House to toast the victory was Jacob Zuma.

According to his office at the time, Zuma, who was then South Africa’s deputy president, “congratulated Mugabe on his re-election”. It was a bit of a daring step for Zuma. The “international community” was at the time up in arms over the result, despite the poll having been declared free and fair by African observers, including those from South Africa.

The message from Zuma was clear: it was all business, and South Africa can never disentangle itself from its neighbour, however, complicated the relationship sometimes gets.

When, in 2007, Zuma was elevated to President of the ANC, replacing Thabo Mbeki, there was some excitement among critics of the Zimbabwe government. Zuma had made remarks some took as critical of President Mbeki’s involvement in Zimbabwe, and so they were hopeful.

They scoured through his previous comments for “evidence” to back their belief he would take a “hard stance” on Zimbabwe – incidentally, a stance those who campaign for it never have the brass to explain.

A 2007 article in the UK Telegraph declared Zuma would take strong measures against Zimbabwe “because his supporters have links with the Zimbabwean opposition”.

They had more such “evidence”. In 2006, he had told the Sunday Telegraph that the ANC had checks and balances in place to prevent leaders becoming “monsters”. Of course, the paper did not miss the opportunity to report Zuma had “called Mugabe a monster”. This was, of course, denied by Zuma’s office.

Needless to say, none of that has happened. If anything, President Zuma has taken a hands-off approach on Zimbabwe, a hardly surprising stance given how full his plate is working to deliver in his own country.

And then, last week, Zuma made another visit to Zimbabwe. Those voices from 2007, expecting Zuma to take a hard-line stance on Mugabe, have been replaced by new commentary. At a time Zuma is facing pressure at home, meeting President Mugabe “was not a good look for him at all”, one journalist tweeted. Bad optics, said another.

It makes one think. In our obsession with politics, we easily forget that economics trump everything.

Leaders hardly ever work on the basis of “optics” any more.

More and more, foreign policy is determined by economic interests of countries. It is a lesson that even Zimbabwe itself is yet to learn.

For Zuma and South Africa, the “leadership role” the country has taken on in Africa has to be handled with steady hands, not ones determined by “optics” or PR opportunities.

South Africa is already seen across many parts of Africa as a bully.

South Africa likes to define itself as set apart from Africa, and it is not uncommon to hear South Africans say they are “going to Africa” when they travel anywhere up north on the continent.

You would think they are explorers from the Livingstone era, marching into “darkest” Africa to civilise uncivilised natives.

There is a telling extract from Liesl Louw-Vaudran’s book, ‘South Africa in Africa: Superpower or Neocolonialist’: “One of the worst descriptions of South Africa I have ever heard was from a consultant working in Nigeria, who said some South Africans are apparently referred to as ‘pigeons’. They fly in, crap on people for not doing things right and then fly out again.”

In its “Vision 2030 policy, South Africa’s National Planning Commission agreed: “South Africa is perceived as a bully [and] self-interested hegemon that acts in bad faith among neighbouring countries”.

South Africa, the document says, had “a weak grasp of African geopolitics” and its officials often only “muddle through” negotiations with African counterparts.

The costs of “arrogance” to South Africa are evident. MTN has had to pay over R24 billion in fines to Nigeria after breaking laws on customer registration. South African shops in the DRC have been attacked for stifling local, smaller competitors. Diplomatic rows have emerged with Nigeria over visa issues.

These are the matters that Zuma and his International Cooperation department will have to deal with while sharpening their foreign affairs policy in Africa.

As Liesl Louw-Vaudran put it, “Despite many lofty speeches and policy documents, there is no clear indication of where South Africa is headed in terms of its foreign policy in Africa.”

In the end, how South Africa chooses to deal with “the rest of Africa”, as many in South Africa put it, will be determined by the country’s economic interests. In Zimbabwe alone, there are over 120 South African companies in various sectors – mines, banks, property, retailers and many more.

South Africa benefits nothing from pushing Zimbabwe towards a worse crisis.

“South Africa will not benefit from a weak Zimbabwe economically,” Zimbabwe’s Foreign Affairs Permanent Secretary Joey Bimha was quoted as saying.

South Africa is heavily invested across Africa. The SA government’s own Public Investment Corporation (PIC) allocates up to 10 percent of its assets on African investments.

When it first started out, the PIC, to its credit, admitted it did not “understand the African market [or risks] very well”.

It had to take it slow, building relationships across Africa; making friends, to make money.

That is how it works. It’s not about “optics”, but diplomacy aimed at securing countries’ economic interests.

We have to get over ourselves fast if we think foreign affairs is just about PR and optics.

Zuma, and South Africa, are not about to run through the continent wielding a bloody hatchet, even if that provides us with entertainment.

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