Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Fifth Report

South Africa and Zimbabwe


76. The deteriorating human rights situation in Zimbabwe has been well-reported elsewhere.[88] As time has gone by, President Robert Mugabe's regime has shown an even greater, and more ruthless, determination to remain in power, regardless of the cost to the Zimbabwean people. Latest reports indicate that inflation there is running at almost 700% and the unofficial exchange rate is now around 5,500 Zimbabwean dollars to the US dollar.[89] The World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that almost 40% of the population are malnourished and it is providing food for around four million people (out of a total population of around 12½ million).[90] The crackdown on the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party and all voices critical of Mr Mugabe's government—including the last independent newspaper, The Daily News—also appears to be continuing unabated.[91]

77. This Committee has been involved in an ongoing inquiry into Zimbabwe since 2001, and we have produced three Reports on the country in recent years.[92] In our latest Report, produced in May 2003, we devoted a section to the issue of 'Zimbabwe in its region.' We concluded that:

if Zimbabwe's neighbours were fully to assume their responsibilities—for example, by imposing targeted non-trade sanctions similar to those already imposed by the EU, by some Commonwealth countries and by the United States—Mugabe's regime would be further isolated, his opponents would be encouraged and his days would be numbered. We further conclude that the Government would be entirely right to accept such a step, if it is taken, as evidence of the intention of the countries concerned to adhere to the principles to which they have committed themselves under NePAD and other international agreements, qualifying them to receive the benefits of those programmes. We recommend that Ministers take every opportunity to make this point clear to their counterparts in southern Africa.[93]

78. In its reply, the Government simply stated that:

The Government fully agrees. We make this point in our regular dialogue with Zimbabwe's neighbours and other African states.[94]

United Kingdom policy towards Zimbabwe

79. The policy of the United Kingdom Government towards Zimbabwe continues to be, "to maintain pressure on the Zimbabwe government to bring about a return to respect for human rights and the rule of law in the country."[95] The British Government has sought to achieve this through a variety of peaceful means. As we have noted in a previous Report, the United Kingdom's status as the former colonial power in Zimbabwe makes any attempt to influence the situation in the country on a purely bilateral basis very difficult.[96] President Mugabe has become adept at using any British criticism of his regime as an excuse for a tirade against the United Kingdom. Recently, for example, he even accused Britain and the USA, of maliciously using the internet to undermine his country's independence and "to foment instability".[97]

80. The British Government has, therefore, increasingly tended to attempt to apply pressure on President Mugabe's Government through various international fora, a policy for which we have expressed our support.[98] Most notably it has sought to garner international support for its position in the Commonwealth—from the Councils of which Zimbabwe was suspended in 2002—and the EU. In February this year, the latter organisation agreed to renew its sanctions regime against Zimbabwe and extend their scope, raising the number of senior members of President Mugabe's regime subjected to a travel ban and asset freeze from 79 to 95.[99]

South African policy towards Zimbabwe

81. South Africa has taken a very different attitude from the United Kingdom towards the deteriorating situation in Zimbabwe. Since the crisis began to unfold in its northern neighbour, the South African Government has pursued a policy of 'quiet diplomacy' to achieve the same desired ends as the British Government—a return to democracy and respect for human rights. This it contrasts unfavourably with what it perceives to be the 'megaphone diplomacy' of the United Kingdom and the EU. South Africa, and President Mbeki in particular, have consistently refused to criticise the policies of Robert Mugabe's that are steadily bringing his country to its knees.

82. Much of the evidence we have received for this inquiry has been highly critical of what commentators see as South Africa's "kid glove handling" of President Mugabe, who is clearly damaging not only Zimbabwe but the whole region.[100] There have been significant refugee flows out of Zimbabwe to most of its neighbours. It is estimated that there are approximately 2-3 million in South Africa alone, and that the country's steady collapse has already cost the South African taxpayer over £1 billion.[101] There is also the damage being done to the region's, and indeed the continent's, reputation amongst overseas government and investors.[102] As we discuss below, Zimbabwe has also soured relations within the Commonwealth and the UN.[103]

83. In the light of these considerations, it is even more surprising, therefore, that South Africa has almost gone out of its way to support President Mugabe's regime in recent years. The country has repeatedly defended it at various international gatherings and meetings, and resisted all pressure to apply further pressure on the country. Most recently it did this at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Abuja late last year, which was dominated by the issue.[104] He expressed his anger at the organisation's unwillingness to agree to this request in a strongly-worded public letter, in which he blamed the United Kingdom and its protection of its white "kith and kin" for the situation in Zimbabwe. [105] He also stated that the land issue was central to the crisis, even going so far as to say that: "With everything having failed to restore the land to its original owners in a peaceful manner, a forcible process of land redistribution perhaps became inevitable."[106]

Reasons underlying South Africa's policy

84. A number of those who have provided evidence to this inquiry, and to whom we spoke while in South Africa, attempted to explain why South Africa had failed to take a tougher line with Zimbabwe. Some of the reasons given included:

  • regional solidarity—President Mbeki's pride in being an African and his strong belief in 'African solutions to African problems,' makes him unwilling to be seen as bending to the demands of the West over an African issue (being the "West's poodle" as one memorandum observed).[107] As noted above, South Africa is also constrained by its fears of being seen as a regional superpower, dictating to its smaller neighbours.[108]
  • shared history—the West has arguably failed to recognise the impact of the two nations' shared struggle for freedom. ACTSA highlighted the fact that up to 80,000 Zimbabweans died during the country's independence struggle, and it also provided much-needed aid to those fighting for freedom in South Africa and Namibia.[109]
  • land reform—this is still an extremely contentious issue in both countries, with a great deal of resentment over the past unequal distribution of land and resources.[110]
  • the West's 'double standards'—there is anger that the West appears to be so active on the issue of Zimbabwe, while apparently ignoring issues of, arguably, far more pressing importance for Southern African nations, such as the adverse impact of globalisation.[111]
  • popularity of Mugabe—surprisingly, the ZANU-PF Government and Robert Mugabe, in particular, remain very popular among large sections of South Africans. In some quarters he is even viewed as the only African leader to have really stood up to the West and to have actively reversed the legacy of colonialism.[112]

85. The domestic implications for the ANC Government of criticising President Mugabe and the dangers of regional destabilisation following any change of government in Zimbabwe were similarly raised as possible considerations.[113] While in South Africa we were also told that, while publicly South African ministers refused to criticise Mugabe, meetings were frequently held in secret between representatives of the two governments at which far more frank exchanges of views took place.

86. It is difficult to assess which of these reasons, if any, are the most compelling for the South African Government. The evidence we heard during our inquiry suggested that it was the first of the suggestions given above—the strength of African solidarity—that was the most important factor in President Mbeki's stance on Zimbabwe. Professor Barber described an unwritten law, whereby "African states do not turn on each other in international fora, but close ranks when attacks are made against one of them."[114] Professor Gerrit Olivier, of the University of Pretoria, went further in a recent article, stating that the South African Government, "meticulously respects the sovereignty of African countries, viewing judgement on their human rights records, however odious and harmful, as unwarranted interference in their domestic affairs."[115]

87. Alternatively, though, it was suggested to us while in South Africa, that the Government's view was strongly shaped by the country's own experiences of national reconciliation and rebirth from 1987 to 1994. During that period two almost implacably opposed groups—the ANC and the ruling National Party—had sat down together in private talks (initially in completely secret negotiations) and slowly thrashed out the agreement which eventually brought apartheid to an end. The current ANC Government, it is suggested, sees similar private talks between the two main parties in Zimbabwe—ZANU-PF and the MDC—allowing them to resolve the situation gradually and in their own time, as the only real way to make progress.

88. Our visit to South Africa also showed us, at first hand, the strength of feeling that exists over the third point identified above: land reform. Many of the interlocutors to whom we spoke, clearly believed sincerely that what was happening in Zimbabwe primarily centred on the issue of righting colonial wrongs and restoring land to those from whom it had been taken seventy-odd years previously. In addition, many argued strongly that the United Kingdom, instead of concentrating on criticising Mugabe, should be looking to pay its fair share for land reform.

89. Parenthetically, it is worth noting that we investigated the issue of land reform in Zimbabwe thoroughly in our previous reports on Zimbabwe and identified clearly that the United Kingdom had been keen to fund equitable land re-distribution, but was unwilling simply to pour money into the pockets of Mugabe's henchmen.[116] It is clear, however, that this conclusion has not been accepted by many in South Africa, nor on the continent more widely.

Signs of change

90. There are indications that while President Mugabe remains popular among many South Africans, domestic concern is growing over the damage he is doing to his own country and the region. Most of Southern Africa's churches have spoken out against South Africa's support for Mugabe, for example. Archbishop Desmond Tutu recently made a veiled criticism of the Government for ignoring the human rights violations in Zimbabwe.[117]

91. Some of South Africa's fellow African states also appear to be losing patience with Robert Mugabe. Relations between Zimbabwe and Botswana, in particular, have steadily declined in the past few months and the Botswanan Government is currently building a security fence along its 500 km border with Zimbabwe, which will have the effect of impeding the flow of refugees.[118] The Nigerian President, President Olusegun Obasanjo, made clear to President Mugabe that he would not be welcome at the recent CHOGM in Abuja.[119]

The way forward?

92. At present, it is difficult to see how South Africa's handling of Zimbabwe will develop in the future. On the one hand, the majority of our evidence suggests that if any outside force has influence on the thinking and actions of Robert Mugabe's Government, it is South Africa. It has been argued that, were it willing, South Africa could use a number of levers on President Mugabe's regime, not least through its supply of the vast majority of Zimbabwe's power:

They do not even have to turn off the lights, just remind them that all their electricity comes from South Africa by turning them off for an hour in the evening from time to time. There are a 1,001 ways: they could tighten the border, they could put patrols on the border to pick up Zimbabweans coming across. There are 1,001 ways in which neighbouring countries, where one is very big and powerful, can send messages very simply.[120]

93. On the other hand, many South Africans we spoke to argued that the United Kingdom, and the West generally, was over-estimating the influence they had over Zimbabwe; if they spoke out too strongly, they would simply be ignored. They also felt that there was a lack of understanding for their situation as a neighbour. Their position has been summed up by one commentator thus:

A tightening economic squeeze, which only South Africa had the capacity to impose, would have hastened the political and economic implosion of Zimbabwe, might have rebounded on Pretoria to disastrous effect via a mass influx of refugees, disrupted trade links and caused generalised chaos on the borders.[121]

Also, given what we have already said about the constraints on South Africa's freedom of action owing to its history and political outlook, such radical options as turning off the lights would appear to be ruled out in practice.

94. As to how the United Kingdom should act on this very difficult issue, our witnesses were generally clear:

one of the mistakes we could make would be believing that British pressure on South Africa to put pressure on Zimbabwe would be a positive thing ... South African quiet diplomacy should be more balanced, much clearer condemnation of human rights abuses in Zimbabwe for example. But South Africa being seen to act in response to a United Kingdom demand for it to do so is likely to be extremely counter-productive. ... Every time the megaphones come out in the UK, it tends to have an unfortunate result, whatever the intention.[122]

We also received this impression during our visit to South Africa from those to whom we spoke.

95. In his oral evidence to us, Mr Mullin made clear the United Kingdom's doubts about South Africa's policy of 'quiet diplomacy:

I cannot, at the moment, point to any seriously positive outcome and previous predictions that there would be a positive outcome have not so far born fruit, but I do not necessarily put that down to any lack of effort on President Mbeki's part but to a particular stubbornness on the part of Mr Mugabe[123]

He stated explicitly, though, that he did not believe that South Africa was neglecting its responsibility toward Zimbabwe:

if anybody has influence over Mr Mugabe then President Mbeki would be the one, but Mr Mugabe is a very stubborn man and he has brought his country to the edge of ruin. There is cause to doubt whether he would listen to anyone: his former comrades in South Africa, let alone advice that comes freely from Western Europe or America or somewhere else. ...

It is certainly not our position ... that the South Africans are doing nothing to help in Zimbabwe; they are.[124]

96. We conclude that:

a)  South Africa and the United Kingdom unquestionably share the same objective for Zimbabwe—the return to a fully-functioning and economically vibrant democracy that respects the human rights of its citizens;

b)  South Africa is acting in the manner it sincerely believes to be the most effective and the most likely to bring about the desired goal identified above;

c)  the situation of the Zimbabwean people will continue to deteriorate unless effective pressure is brought to bear on the Government of Robert Mugabe to change its disastrous and self-seeking policies, and South Africa is the best placed external force to stimulate that change; and

d)  South Africa, and the region more generally, will continue to suffer from Zimbabwe's plight until such a change takes place, not least by deterring much-needed foreign direct investment.

97. We recommend that the British Government:

a)  continue to maintain the strongest possible pressure on the Zimbabwean Government to respect the human rights of its citizens and to call free and fair elections, especially through multilateral means;

b)  recognise the importance of South Africa in achieving a long-term solution to the severe crisis affecting Zimbabwe;

c)  seek the closest possible co-operation with South Africa on achieving the mutually desired outcome of a peaceful and democratic Zimbabwe; and

d)  seek to promote a greater understanding of its genuine concerns about Zimbabwe in South Africa, and elsewhere on the continent, and the facts about the land reform issue.

88   See, for example: Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Human Rights Annual Report 2003, Cm 5967, September 2003, pp 49-52. Back

89   "How Zimbabwe defies economic collapse", Financial Times, 10 March 2004 Back

90   See WFP website: Back

91   See, for example: "Zimbabwe paper off the streets", BBC News, 6 February, 2004; "Mugabe's foes 'face constant attacks': MPs tell of threats and violence from ruling party support", The Guardian, 9 March 2004; and "Mugabe suspends last of independent judges", The Times, 1 March 2004. Back

92   Foreign Affairs Committee, Fourth Report of Session 2001-02, Zimbabwe, HC 456; Tenth Report of Session 2001-02, Zimbabwe, HC 813; and Eight Report of Session 2002-03, Zimbabwe, HC 339 Back

93   Foreign Affairs Committee, Eight Report of Session 2002-03, Zimbabwe, HC 339, para 48 Back

94   Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Eighth Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, Zimbabwe, Session 2002-03: Response of the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Cm 5869, July 2003, p 5 Back

95   Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Human Rights Annual Report 2003, Cm 5967, September 2003, p 52 Back

96   Tenth Report of Session 2001-02, Zimbabwe, HC 813, para 43 Back

97   Speech delivered by President Mugabe at the World Summit on the Information Society, Geneva, Switzerland, 10 December, 2003, ("Internet a tool of British imperialism, says Mugabe", The Daily Telegraph, 11 December 2003.) Back

98   See, for example: Foreign Affairs Committee, Tenth Report of Session 2001-02, Zimbabwe, HC 813, para 48. Back

99   "Zimbabwe sanctions extended by EU", BBC News, 23 February 2004 Back

100   Ev 110 [Cilliers]. See also: Ev 6 [Simon] and Ev 106 [Somerville]. Back

101   Gerrit Olivier, "Is Thabo Mbeki Africa's saviour?", International Affairs 79, 4 (2003), p823 Back

102   Ev 109 [Cilliers]. See also: Ev 44 [Kibble] and Q157 [Paterson]. Back

103   See paras 111-2, 115 Back

104   Ev 44 [Kibble] Back

105   President Thabo Mbeki, "We will resist the upside-down view of Africa", ANC Today, volume 3, no. 49 (12-18 December) Back

106   IbidBack

107   Ev 44 [Kibble], Ev 3 [Barber] and Q 19 [Barber] Back

108   Ev 21, para 4.8 [ACTSA] Back

109   See, for example: Ev 21 [ACTSA] and Q 96 [Dowden]. Back

110   See, for example: Ev 44 [Kibble], Ev 17 [ACTSA] and Q 96 [ Dowden]. Back

111   See, for example: Ev 44 [Kibble] and Q 15 [Hamilton]. Back

112   See, for example: Ev 1 [Barber] and Q 15 [Barber]. Back

113   See, for example: Ev 44 [Kibble], Ev 1 [Barber], Q 96 [Dowden] and Q 102 [Kibble]. Back

114   Ev 5 [Barber] Back

115   Gerrit Olivier, "Is Thabo Mbeki Africa's saviour?", International Affairs 79/4 (2003), p 817 Back

116   Foreign Affairs Committee, Tenth Report of Session 2001-02, Zimbabwe, HC 813, para 7 ff. Back

117   "Tutu hits out at Mugabe's African supporter", Daily Telegraph, 16 December 2003 Back

118   See also: SA 6 [Somerville] and Ev 112 [Lemon]. Back

119   Ev 44 [Kibble] Back

120   Q 107 [Dowden] Back

121   James Hamill, "South Africa and Zimbabwe", Contemporary Review, July 2002, vol 281 (1638), p36 Back

122   Q 71 [Fraser] Back

123   Q 202 Back

124   QQ 201 and 204 Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2004
Prepared 18 May 2004