Katzenellenbogen: Zimbabwe’s electoral quagmire and South Africa’s tight corner

South Africa faces a critical juncture as Zimbabwe’s ruling party, ZANU-PF, is implicated in election fraud, marking a departure from past endorsements by AU and SADC observers. With growing international pressure against recognising the election’s validity, Pretoria grapples with its response. The ANC’s historic support for ZANU-PF is challenged by the influx of Zimbabwean refugees and mounting domestic concerns. As SADC’s handling of the crisis and global concerns over instability intersect, South Africa navigates a complex path to mitigate the region’s potential turmoil.

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Zimbabwe: SA’s tight corner

By Jonathan Katzenellenbogen*

South Africa is in a tight corner after last week’s election fraud by Zimbabwe’s ruling party, ZANU-PF.

For the first time ever, election observer missions from the Africa Union, AU, and the Southern African Development Community, SADC, have declared the Zimbabwean election a sham. This is a sea change, as in the past these missions have always endorsed the polls despite evidence of wrong-doing.

Pretoria hates the prospect of what the consequences of these reports could mean for a fellow liberation movement.

Adding to the growing political pressure not to recognise the election as free or fair, the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has pointed to the “the arrest of observers, reports of voter intimidation, threats of violence, harassment and coercion.”

According to the official body which oversees elections in the country, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC)the incumbent President Emmerson Mnangagwa won with nearly 53 percent of vote against 44 percent for Nelson Chamisa, leader of the main opposition party, the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC).

Yesterday the CCC demanded fresh elections and that the ZEC be disbanded. The party wants the AU and SADC to arrange and guarantee fresh flections as soon as possible. This places matters in SADC’s and the AU’s hands. If these two bodies stand by their election reports they will have an obligation to see to it that there are fresh elections.

The declarations of a fraudulent election by the AU and SADC missions were not the outcome that the ANC was expecting, and this now means Pretoria will have to give hard thought as to its options. If the SADC observers, who are from the region and cannot be accused of being colonial lackeys, say in their final report that the election was a fraud, then Mnangagwa cannot be recognised.

Read more: Zimbabwe opposition demands election rerun after international scrutiny

Prospect of non-recognition

South Africa and other regional leaders who might not want that will have to contort themselves to avoid the prospect of non-recognition. This might mean regional sanctions and a call for a re-run of the polls.

Might SADC member states aligned to Zimbabwe try to change the SADC final report on the polls?

That might not make much difference, as the world would notice if there was gross political interference with the report of the election observer mission. And besides, there is ample evidence of rigging before and on election day, as well as intimidation. With so many election observer teams pointing to widespread intimidation, official restrictions on the holding of rallies, a captured judiciary, the gerrymandering of constituencies, the late opening of polls in urban areas where the opposition has strength, and the shortage of ballot papers at these stations, there is enough evidence to suggest serious wrongdoing.

Then there was the gross disinformation that was part of this election. A flyer with the photo of Nelson Chamisa, the leader of the main opposition party, the Citizens Coalition for Change, calling for an election boycott was widely distributed in Harare and other urban areas. Chamisa has never called for a boycott.

The SADC report accused the Zimbabwean authorities of restricting access to the voters’ roll, the use of “intimidation” by what the reports calls a “quasi-security intelligence organisation”, called Forever Associates Zimbabwe, FAZ., and of  severely restricting the freedom of expression. The report of the polls says these did not comply with Zimbabwe’s Constitution, the country’s Electoral Act, or the SADC guidelines on democratic elections.

While it is a preliminary report, the SADC report is pretty comprehensive and probably hard to refute. And it is bolstered by similar assessments by other observer missions.

Read more: Zimbabwe’s election tightrope: Katzenellenbogen on the alarming realities

Personal grudge

ZANU-PF was quick to dismiss the SADC report as a reflection of a personal grudge by the observer teams, but that lacks credibility as most of the other missions said the same.

That means the region is now under pressure to act, and not recognise the results of the elections.

South Africa as the power broker may not want an election re-run. The deepest fear of the ANC is that an electoral loss by ZANU-PF will lead to its own loss of power. After all, big political changes often come in waves that are unstoppable. The exit of ZANU-PF  might create a precedent that opens new possibilities in the minds of voters here.

The ANC would be loath to use pressure such as sanctions against ZANU-PF. For years, in the face of questionable elections, Pretoria has maintained a policy of “quiet diplomacy”.

That is probably why out of hope that has turned into embarrassment, the ANC Secretary General, Fikile Mbalula, rushed to celebrate with ZANU-PF, over a supposed victory with a “viva President Emmerson Mnangagwa” on X, formerly Twitter. But then with most of the election observer teams in Zimbabwe saying the election was a sham, Mbalula backtracked and said what he meant was just “viva” and not congratulations.

Pretoria is now following a holding action on what to do about the Zimbabwe elections. Earlier this week the Presidency congratulated the Zimbabwe government on holding the elections, but took note of the criticisms of the observer missions.

One approach would be for SADC heads of state to urge ZANU-PF to form a coalition government. But these have not worked well in the past. The power-sharing arrangement in 2008 between the main opposition party at the time, the Movement for Democratic Change, and ZANU-PF was a means for the ruling party to stay in power and satisfy the region rather than a fair arrangement. ZANU-PF ran circles around the MDC.

Read more: Decoding BRICS: Unity, rivalry, and South Africa’s diplomatic gambit – Katzenellenbogen

A new urgency

With the election fraud and the continuing serious deterioration of the economy, there is now a new urgency over the Zimbabwe debacle. Countries in the region are worried about the prospects of instability and the fact that ZANU-PF is continuing to run the country into the ground, causing an increasing number of Zimbabweans to flee the country.

Despite its support of ZANU-PF, the ANC could find itself in a dilemma, says Mso Ndlovu, the spokesperson for the Zimbabwe African People’s Union, an opposition party.

The large influx of fleeing Zimbabweans into South Africa is placing mounting pressure on South Africa’s public services and fueling xenophobia, all of which could take away votes from the ANC. The only way to address the root cause of this is a turnaround of Zimbabwean economy, which is not about to happen under ZANU-PF.

The process of challenging the elections in court and SADC’s management of the Zimbabwe crisis could take time. The problem is that SADC heads could be more out to save ZANU-PF than the country.

Strong pressure from the US and Europe on SADC can also be expected. Much of the world is worried that if the election issue is not quickly resolved, Zimbabwe and the region could lurch toward instability with bad consequences. There is rising global concern, at least in the West, about the Wagner group’s widespread presence on the continent, and the insurgencies along the coast of East Africa.

One crisis tends to feed into others. Not dealing with this crisis with speed and resolve could ratchet up the costs for the region.

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*Jonathan Katzenellenbogen is a Johannesburg-based freelance financial journalist

This article was first published by Daily Friend and is republished with permission