Zimbabwe, and Why South Africa Slept

Zimbabwe, and Why South Africa Slept

*Ken Sibanda

When South Africa became a democratic country in 1994 there was promise of a new light destined to shine throughout Africa. This light would be seen in the darkest corners of Africa. A light for democracy. South Africa was supposed to be the center light, the Shamash, the light from which all other lights are refueled. But instead, with the recent events in Zimbabwe where democratic change came about not because of an election but because of a coup the question is what role has South Africa reused to play.

Lack of Foreign Policy Doctrine

South Africa has the rare exception of being the most developed country in Africa. Its gold, and diamonds are legendary, while at the micro economic level, it shows the capacity for sustainable growth and invention. But without a sound foreign policy that addresses refugees these resources will never be used for the benefit of its citizens. This I term: revolutionary idealism.


Mugabe Mistake

With Mugabe, the mistake was to take revolutionary credentials for good governance. For many years the stories coming out of Harare and Matabeleland have told the sad story; that Mugabe is autocratic, megalomaniac, and that his rule is but a admixture of the visages of Napoleon Bonaparte and Idi Amin. An educated form of both. Whereas the late Bokassa of Central Africa crowned himself an Emperor, Mugabe on the other hand merely live liked one. Mugabe’s wealth grew exponentially to the expansion of his imagined Empire – an allusion to the fifteenth century Monomutapa.


The corrupted rule of Mugabe became in later years self-evident: planes were charted every other day for Mugabe to fulfil his “divine” mandate to “rule Africa.”, farms were repossessed from white commercial farmers, diamonds were blundered directly, with the help of the army, and his wife was pampered with designer watches, cars and clothes. And all this South Africa, led in part by Thabo Mbeki turned a blind eye, indifferent to what was evident in the streets of Johannesburg – Zimbabwean refugees.


This mistake I call the Amnesia of Apartheid. How South Africa having suffered for many decades, could not empathize with Zimbabwean citizens who provided testimony and direct evidence of massacres, shallow graves in Matabeleland and Chiedza were summarily dismissed. This will forever be an unfortunate instance in African relations purely on leadership basis.


In addition, Mugabe’s eloquence aside, the writing was on the whole that Zimbabwe was suffering at his expense. Every ordinary citizen of Zimbabwe has been paying for the sanctions cause by Mugabe, while he lives his life like a Persian Empire with an inherited monarchy passed down from father-to-son.

Bad governance in Africa

In addition, South Africa has never tried since 1994 to sanction bad behavior by African dictators by refusing their refugees and any request for asylum. Instead the humanitarian policy of refugees is misread by dictators as allowing them to do whatever they wish and having South Africa carry the weight, much to the anger of ordinary South African citizens. In this regard, the weakened Presidency of South Africa’s Jacob Zuma is to blame.

Ignoring bad governance in Africa is such a serious problem that in recent years it has led to xenophobic attacks on innocent, law abiding Africans, whose only crimes has been fleeing war from an African dictator. This problem I term – brinkmanship.

The late President Kennedy, on his ascension to the White House wrote, rather eloquently – Why England Slept, perhaps we should add to that theme South Africa’s divorced approach to African security matters and term this moment marked by a coup in South Africa’s Northern border: Why South Africa Slept.


Rather than for South Africa to sit it out in its continued moment of brinkmanship, amnesia to Apartheid and revolutionary idealism, it is time for it to acknowledge that the region, and Africa as a whole needs its leadership.

Ken Sibanda is a South African born American Constitutional and Human Rights Lawyer.  He is the President of – Institute for Peace and Justice in New York, and the author of “International Law: Peace Accords.”