SADC Watch

Zimbabwe – has AU and SADC redemption started?


The AU and SADC have historically been reluctant to act against misbehaving heads of state – recent events in Zimbabwe might signal the start of a turn around.

Over the years, the African Union and the 5-member Southern African Development Community failed to act, however, in the case of Zimbabwe’s long-serving President Robert Mugabe thigs were different, and offered lessons to be learned if its tarnished record is to be to repaired.

Vivid example

The most vivid example of past failings is how former President Thabo Mbeki, on SADC’s behalf, negotiated an unsteady political settlement after Mugabe, with assistance of current interim president Emmerson Mnangagwa, stole the 2008 Zimbabwe election.

With “quite diplomacy,” attempts were made to pacifying Mugabe similar to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s late 1930s appeasement policy towards Nazi Germany. Like Hitler, considering the policy a weakness, prepared for war, Mugabe went to wreck Zimbabwe’s economy, “pauperising” the population and persecuting his opposition.


Since SADC’s endorsement of Mbeki’s approach, most Zimbabweans have been highly critical of the regional body. Following the recent military intervention, Zimbabweans from all levels of society were quick to call on SADC to act responsibly and warned against any intervention to keep Mugabe in power.

They were adamant that SADC should stay on the sidelines while they for the first time had a real opportunity themselves to resolve the Mugabe problem.

A petition with more than 30 000 signatures urged SADC not to intervene – in part stating: ”There is no need at this time for you to do anything ….We speak for many people when we say we hoped and prayed for this day for long and now that it’s here, DON’T mess it up for us.”

Tendai Biti, former Finance Minister in the Government of National Unity, and senior opposition leader, said: “The cynicism and skepticism are that the SADC is an old boys’ club whose business is to ensure the old boys are reproduced.

“The SADC should take a leaf from Ecowas (the Economic Community of West African States) which does not shy away from acting against dictators. Ecowas acted against Charles Taylor in Liberia; Yahya Jammeh in the Gambia and Blaise Compaore in Burkina Faso. The people in West Africa identify with Ecowas but in Southern Africa people want to stone the SADC”.  


It must be said that SADC’s conduct, led by President Zuma as rotating chairman since the unfolding of the Zimbabwe crisis, is interesting and in sharp contrast to AU, who’s chairman, President Alpha Conde of Guinea, immediately fulminated against action he claimed was “clearly soldiers trying to take power by force,” and warned the AU would “never accept a coup d’état in Zimbabwe.”

This not only proved to be just hot air, but clearly from the start there was no way the AU could thwart the popular ousting of President Mugabe. In the end it had no other option but to leave it to SADC to handle the political hot potato.

And, hot potato it was, particularly against the backdrop of Mugabe’s image as the respected “grand old man” of African politics.

Noticeably SADC acted with much tact and circumspection which some ascribed to President Zuma’s role. With the inexperienced new Angolan president, João Lourenço, chairing the important SADC organ on politics, defense, and security – specifically mandated to handle such a crisis – President Zuma and South Africa had no other option but to play a more direct role.

Its own interest as the powerhouse in the region, and as neighbour was directly affected by the Zimbabwean developments.       

President Zuma is not an ally, or friend of Mugabe in the same mold as former President Mbeki, as he proved in 2013 when he appointed his then advisor on international affairs and current Small Enterprises Minister, the abrasive Lindiwe Zulu, as SADC envoy to mediate with the Mugabe regime. 

She irked  Mugabe to a level where he called her ”a street woman” and threatened to resign from the SADC.

The latest delegation Zuma dispatched as envoys to meet with Mugabe, Defense Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula and State Security Minister Bongani Bongo, are also by no means negotiators or diplomats of note.

There is little doubt that at the peak of his power Mugabe would have dismissed them as an insult, and on Zimbabwean social media fears were expressed that they might stiffen Mugabe’s initial resolve to stay on.

There is probably much truth in the assumption that the mediation efforts of elder statesmen Kenneth Kaunda and Thabo Mbeki, and of Catholic priest Father Fidelis Mukonori persuaded Mugabe to accept that his days were over.

SADC’s measured approach was, according to many commentators, influenced by the fact that the earlier unchallenged support for Mugabe has dried up, and that he has become an embarrassment.

The people of Zimbabwe have spoken and the military, previously Mugabe’s dedicated power, demanded that he step down, unequivocally demonstrating to SADC that to disregard this sentiment would only cause tension, even violence.

Peter Fabricius mentioned that there has been considerable media speculation that Mnangagwa and the other generals involved, sought, and were given, a secret green light by certain regional governments before they proceded with their “coup.”

Reuters also reported on what they claim is an intelligence report prepared by the Zimbabwean intelligence service, which states that African leaders were embarrassed by President Mugabe, and encouraging him to step down before the military intervened.

The report also claim that intelligence officials warned Mugabe he would face “fierce resistance from the military” if Mnangagwa was removed and intriguingly mentions that the SADC led by President Zuma was pressuring Mugabe to resign – allegedly offering Mugabe a senior AU role to ease him out, but the consensus in the SADC was that he was too old.

A spokesperson for president Zuma dismissed the Reuters account as “completely untrue and scandalous”.


Mugabe’s resignation saved, some would say fortuitously, the SADC from making a decision that would be impossible to satisfy all parties. It would have been awkward had Mugabe refused to resign, and the generals forced him out of power. The SADC would have been under immense pressure to condemn the military’s action and suspend Zimbabwe’s membership under its prohibition on coups.

The manner and speed at which the events unfolded made it unnecessary for SADC to take any compelling decisions.

However, there is no respite – a similar challenge is lurking in the DRC. Joseph Kabila, according to the Institute of Security Studies’ Stephanie Wolters, has arguably violated DRC’s constitution in ways more egregious than Mugabe has in Zimbabwe. But SADC remains little more than a spectator as the DRC spirals into more violence and political unrest.

The SADC has turned a blind eye for many years on situations pestering the region, particularly misrule. Southern Africa needs a body that upholds human rights, democracy and respect for constitutionalism without fear or favour – the DRC is a good place to start a new chapter, and it can be a fruitful one, as proven in Zimbabwe.

by Garth Cilliers

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