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Things Fall A-SADC: Hichilema, Ramaphosa and Zimbabwe’s Disputed 2023 Elections.

“The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Despondency and anger were palpable in the streets and homes of Zimbabwean citizens as the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) announced Emmerson Mnangagwa as the winner of the 2023 Presidential Elections. ZANU PF has perfected the art of ‘electoralism’ which has relegated the national plebiscite in Zimbabwe to a staged play prepared over five years, acted out between the Zambezi and Limpopo. However, the main opposition, the Citizen Coalition for Change (CCC) decided to go off script and is demanding fresh elections conducted by the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) and the African Union (AU) and the international Community by extension. The key questions that arise is does SADC hold such powers and more pertinently, what role will the key protagonist in SADC, South Africa, play.

Nevers Mumba, Zambia’s former Vice President stood in front of journalists half-expecting him to tow the SADC electoral line which was well trodden when it came to Zimbabwean elections: ‘Say less, bless the elections, thank the government for their hospitality.’ However, with a powerful voice, he tersely concluded his scathing report much to the ire of the ruling ZANU PF party preparing to walk the red electoral victory carpet that, “the Mission noted that some aspects of the Harmonised Elections, fell short of the requirements of the Constitution of Zimbabwe, the Electoral Act, and the SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections (2021).” The shortcomings that he spoke of have been well reported and documented during this electoral cycle and have included voter intimidation, voter suppression, biased state media, etc.

SADC’s Mumba led report opened the veil onto the evolving regional politics in Southern Africa. The current chair of the SADC Troika is the Zambian President, Haikande Hichilema which gave him powers to appoint the head of the SADC Electoral Observer Mission to Zimbabwe. The critical report must not come as a surprise to onlookers since Mnangagwa actively supported Edgar Lungu’s failed bid to stay in power in 2021, eventually losing to the incumbent Hichilema. Hichilema comes from the emerging crop of Progressive Democrats that includes him, Nelson Chamisa from Zimbabwe, Bobi Wine from Uganda. This can be defined as the Democrat axis which aims to wrestle powers from Big Men and Parties that have held onto power for 20+ years.

These Big Men and Parties in Southern Africa are colloquially as the Liberation Parties and formally as the Former Liberation Movements of Southern Africa (FLMSA). These include the ANC from South Africa, SWAPO from Namibia, FRELIMO from Mozambique and Chama Cha Mapinduzi from Tanzania and their Zimbabwean brethren, ZANU-PF. These parties hold regular annual meetings watering and nurturing their relationships that are in some cases fifty years strong. Hence why, the other two members of the current SADC Troika, Namibia and Tanzania immediately came out discrediting Mumba’s report and pledging their support for ZANU-PF’s disputed victory.

There is a clear demarcation between the Democrat Axis and the Liberation Parties and Zimbabwe’s election has become the first battleground since Zambia’s 2021 election. CCC’s strategic decision to throw Zimbabwe’s disputed election onto SADC’s lap was not in any way a mistake. Understanding that if they took their grievances to the Constitutional Court as they did in 2018 they would most likely lose, roping in SADC has historical and moral weight to it but it might lack legal and enough political credence to be successful.

Contrary to the dominant nationalist rhetoric, countries in Southern Africa relied heavily on each other to achieve their independence in one way or the other. Zambia was the exile’s home, Zimbabwe’s 1980s foreign policy was dedicated to supporting the end of Apartheid, and South Africa ending of Apartheid led to Namibia’s independence in 1990. This history should inform the current progressive movement that regional networks are not an afterthought but rather requisite to achieving desired change in their respective states, especially Zimbabwe which is economically and by extension politically reliant on South Africa.

Legally, CCC’s decision requesting SADC to effectively take over from the discredited Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) and manage elections seems to be on shaky legal grounds. SADC’s powers and responsibilities are outlined in the SADC treaty (1992), SADC Electoral guidelines, and the Organ on Politics, Defense and Security. The statist nature of governance, lack of resources, and inadequate conflict resolution mechanisms leave SADC as a body being a weak agent for CCC’s cause. For example, the Protocol for the Organ on Politics, Defense and Security states that,

“The Organ may seek to resolve any ‘significant intra-state conflict’ which can include large scale violence between the state and its population, a military coup, condition of civil war, a conflict threatening the peace and security within a region or in the territory of another state party.”

Zimbabwe’s current conditions do not seem to satisfy the stated requirements for intervention within a country. A military coup that did occur in 2017 was silently ignored by SADC, conflicts that threatened peace and security SADC has usually taken the mediation route as it did with Mbeki in Zimbabwe in 2007 and Madagascar in 2009. To further weaken CCC’s strategy in seeking SADC intervention, SADC limits itself to observing elections and has never supervised or more to the point, conducted elections in any of its states. Such an action would require a resolution from Member States agreeing which is very unlikely due to SAC being dominated by the Liberation Party Axis. The extinction of the SADC Tribunal or a regional parliament with actual legislative powers further weakens the SADC strategy. Article 33 of the SADC Treaty empowers Member States to sanction another member state but that too is very unlikely.

Any successful action at the SADC level for CCC would most likely require a significant change in South Africa’s policy to Zimbabwe. As the behemoth in the community, South Africa’s policy stance on several matters becomes the regional norm. Currently, ANC has refused to change tack regarding the Zimbabwe question. However, if ANC could be pressured to change its stance, SADC’s Protocol on Politics, Defence and Security Co-operation provides South Africa a legal route to use. Article 11 (2)(b)(iv) notes that The Organ can resolve a significant intra-state conflict “which threatens peace and security in the region or in the Territory of another State Party.” South Africa’s immigration crisis fueled by Zimbabwean migrants and recurring xenophobia could be grounds upon which South Africa demands SADC-led action which could be mediation leading to re-elections that CCC requires.

Zimbabwe’s 2023 election has brought to the fore the political fault lines in SADC. Zambia led by Hichilema is ushering in a new democratic wave while the liberation parties of ANC, ZANU-PF, SWAPO, CCM and FRELIMO are holding onto power with a vice grip. CCC’s SADC strategy although novel seems to be lacking concrete political support from the region, especially South Africa which as the de facto leader of the region will make or break the course that Zimbabwe’s opposition party has taken. If successful it will set a precedent in the region, indeed the world. If not, millions of Zimbabweans will continue to complain through gritted teeth, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

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