This week we focus on former Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s visit to South Africa.
Mugabe was the first African Head of State to visit Pretoria following the watershed 1994 general elections.
Then President Nelson Mandela hailed the August 16, 1994 state visit as testament to the good relations between the people of Zimbabwe and South Africa.
The countries were united by the liberation struggle.
At the time of Mugabe’s visit – Zimbabwe had gained independence from Britain 14 years earlier, while South Africa had just broken free from the shackles of oppression by minority rule.
His visit came a day after the Organisation of African Unity’s Coordinating Committee for the Liberation of Africa was dissolved.
The committee had been instrumental in galvanising international support and providing financial assistance to liberation movements whose members were based in Tanzania, Mozambique, Lesotho and Angola, among other countries.
Watch video on the history of the Organisation of African Unity now known as the African Union:
Speaking at a State Banquet for Mugabe, President Mandela thanked Zimbabweans and their leader in particular for their contribution to the liberation struggle and committed South Africa to work together with Zimbabwe, especially in the tourism sector, to make Southern Africa a premier tourist destination.
Head Researcher at Milpark Business School Dr Sam Koma says 25 years on, the dream remains elusive due to various reasons.
While South Africa and Zimbabwean trade ties are historic, the advent of democracy marked a new beginning in the relationship, casting away old constraints. Mandela believed the new era meant both countries could now negotiate terms as equal partners with the same hope for the continent.
”Today, at last, we can co-operate as free nations, pursuing the true interests of our people. Zimbabwe and South Africa not only share borders, we have strong cultural and historical connections as well. It is now the time, Mr President, to give substance to our relationship and to strengthen and expand the social and historical links which form the bond between our two countries,” said Mandela.
Koma says the trade relations remain strong, precisely due to the historic relationship between Zimbabwe and South Africa’s governing parties, the African National Congress (ANC) and Zanu-PF.
However, he says, the lack of trust is hampering intra-trade growth among African countries.
“You still have some SADC countries, including Zimbabwe, that prefer doing business with European countries and the Chinese,” Koma adds.
Other areas of cooperation
The Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Commission worked with Eskom in integrating the electricity supply grids in the region.
Zimbabwe also helped train South African police officers who were to be integrated into the South African National Defence Force (SANDF).
Read more about the transformation of the South African Police Forces:
Relations between the two countries have largely remained cordial over the years.
However, signs of strain emerged when Mandela tried to broker peace in the war between the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda and Uganda in 1998.
Zimbabwe was involved in the war, supporting then DRC President Joseph Kabila’s troops.
Mugabe slammed the global struggle icon for his attempt to intervene, saying South Africa was acting like a neo-colonial power within the Southern African Development Community (SADC) regional bloc.
Madiba then withdrew his efforts and then began South Africa’s quiet diplomacy.
Former President Thabo Mbeki endured protracted criticism during his tenure for democratic South Africa’s posture on Zimbabwe’s political crisis.
Some interpreted his administration’s stance as a slap in the face for ordinary Zimbabweans who bore the brunt of Mugabe’s tyrannical rule.
Mbeki admitted in 2004 that South Africa’s quiet diplomacy in Harare had failed, while Mandela only spoke out in 2008 against Mugabe’s regime.
He attributed Zimbabwe’s declining political and economic state to a failure in leadership.
Watch Mbeki addressing the Zimbabwean political impasse:
Mugabe only returned on a state visit to South Africa in 2015 during Jacob Zuma’s term as President of the country, 20 years after his first visit.
He defended his country’s controversial land reform, saying it meant to right the wrongs of the British government.
Mugabe lashed out at former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, accusing him of backtracking on an agreement his government clinched with Margaret Thatcher’s administration – that there shall be a land reform programme and land should be taken from farmers and be given to Zimbabweans.
Watch related video:
In 2017 Mugabe raised the ire of then ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe when he slammed Mandela as having cherished his personal freedom over the economic freedom of his people.
Mantashe hit back at Mugabe, urging Zanu-PF to rein in the elderly statesman.
Watch related video:
Zim’s economic woes
Some researchers believe Zimbabwe’s economic turmoil began when the country intervened in the second Congo war in 1998.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank suspended their aid to Harare in protest of the move. Inflation rates soon skyrocketed climbing to almost 60%.
The invasion and seizure of white-owned commercial farms in 2000 was the final nail in the coffin, leading to Western governments slapping the country with sanctions.
Now the country is battling frequent blackouts, high unemployment, petrol and food prices as well as currency shortages.
Hundreds of Zimbabweans have also flocked to South Africa in search of a better life and economic opportunities.
Mugabe was booted out of office in 2017.
His former ally Emmerson Mnangagwa took over as interim President and was formally elected into office in the July 30, 2018 parliamentary and presidential elections.
While the poll was largely hailed as free and fair – soldiers shot dead at least six opposition protesters in Harare in a post-election demonstration.
Protesters were upset over alleged vote rigging.
Watch related videos:
And it seems like South Africa’s quiet diplomacy continues.
President Cyril Ramaphosa expressed concern over the post-election violence and called for calm without rebuking Zimbabwean soldiers for their heavy handed response against protesters.
Milpark Business School’s Dr Sam Koma blames this on a failure of African leaders to put the public’s interest above that of political parties.
“That is the problem with liberation movements. They are unable to publicly take an unpopular political stance against their ally and neighbour,” he says.
Watch related video looking at Zim-SA relations: